Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Women's Earth Alliance: Co-Directors Melinda Kramer and Amira Diamond

"To us, it's really about collaboration. It simply doesn't work to stay in your silo, and to grab hold of your mission statement and work alone. There is something really exciting about looking at every juncture for how we can work together, and pool our knowledge and our ability to open doors. We are in the business of door opening, and it's really exciting." - Melinda Kramer


"One of the things that's most important to us is doing development in a new way, is doing this work in a way that's not typical. So many of the communities where we work, and the women who we work with have had horrible experiences with organizations who have come into their communities promising them solutions and support, and then have disappeared, or somehow the technologies didn't work, or they weren't able to be maintained."
- Amira Diamond

Women's Earth Alliance (WEA), unites women on the front lines of environmental justice causes by coordinating training, technology, and financial support for thriving communities and the Earth. When I sat down to talk with the co-Directors, Melinda Kramer and Amira Diamond, in early March, they had literally just returned from the West African Woman and Water Training in Ghana. They shared stories from their experience there, and talked about how they are trying to do development and social change work differently.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation for the Big Vision Podcast which you can listen to online, or download from iTunes.

What is Women's Earth Alliance, and what problem you're trying to solve?

Melinda Kramer: Women's Earth Alliance is a global organization and we work around the world uniting women who are on the front lines of environmental causes. We do that by coordinating training, technology, and advocacy support. The problem that we are addressing is a great one. If you look around the world at some of the most pressing environmental challenges, you see women on the front lines of those challenges. 1.2 billion people are without clean water. More than half of those people are women and girls. Women are walking hours each day to access clean water; therefore, they're not getting access to education, and an opportunity to create a livelihood for themselves.

If you look around the world at who's producing food, women produce more than half of the world's food, and 7 out of 10 of the world's hungry are women and girls. Over 90 percent of U.S. refineries are on Native American Land. Women are disproportionately affected by environmental toxins. Women hold these toxins in their body, and this is what they have to pass on to their children.

When we look at environmental challenges, we can't avoid the question of women's role within designing the solutions. There is not a shortage of resources. The greatest challenge we face is the challenge of access. There are solutions. There are resources, information, training, and funding available in plenty.

There are women environmental leaders who are standing up for their communities, around the world, who do not have access to those key resources and information. If they did, they would be guiding their community into a clean, healthy, sustainable, and thriving future. So that's the challenge that we face, and that we address, at Women's Earth Alliance.

You have three programs that work in three different areas. How do they help to address some of the challenges and problems that you just spoke about?

Amira Diamond: Women's Earth Alliance's programs emerged from an explicit call from our women colleagues on the ground. What we heard was that our colleagues in Africa really needed support around water. Women's Earth Alliance launched a Women and Water Initiative. Currently, that work is through a partnership called the Global Women's Water Initiative, which is Women's Earth Alliance, an organization called Crabgrass, and another organization called A Single Drop. In Africa, we're running capacity-building trainings, and supporting women in launching sustainable businesses, and viable projects, to bring clean water to their communities.

The next area, where Women's Earth Alliance works, is in India, where we learned from our colleagues on the ground that support around creating sustainable agriculture would be the best thing we could do to help. And so, there, Women's Earth Alliance is looking at how to support women in launching sustainable projects that will allow them to bring clean and healthy food to their communities.

Finally, Women's Earth Alliance works in North America with indigenous communities, where our colleague, Caitlin Sislin, an attorney who is on the Women's Earth Alliance team, launched something called the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network which provides pro bono legal and policy support to women and indigenous leaders who are working on environmental challenges throughout North America.

You both just came back from the 2010 West African Women and Water Training in Ghana. What was that? What kind of training did the women who participated receive? What were some of the highlights?

MK: So, we just returned from Ghana in West Africa where we convened the 2010 West African Women and Water Training. This was a collaboration among several organizations, A Single Drop, Crabgrass, ProNet Accra, and Women's Earth Alliance. We had 15 teams from throughout West Africa coming to learn appropriate water technologies from West African women trainers, who are experts in these types of skills. They also learned business development skills.

It's one thing to have access to a technology that can bring clean water to your community, but it's another to create a sustainable, viable project that can live on and support your success as a woman. Our teams also learned leadership development skills and action planning so that they could be really clear on their own power, and ability to create change, and their action plan for success.

This training was tremendous. We didn't just dig holes, and build eco-sand composting toilets, and rainwater harvesting systems in schools, and BioSand water filters. We sang, we danced, and we celebrated what it means to have access to a resource that is so much more than just a resource.

For these women, who are on the front lines of the water crisis, having access to clean water is about health. It is about human rights. It is about joy. It is about a future that is possible for their children, and for future generations. The level of joy and celebration was unforgettable because of what we were making happen, and the history we were making each day that we were there.

Was there any individual vignette, or story, or person, or something that happened, that really touched you?

AD: You know, for a lot of the women that came to the training, this was the first time they'd met women who lived in neighboring communities. While many of the women had traveled the world, many of them had also devoted their lives to local solutions. To watch these women come together, and get to meet their sisters, and colleagues, was so dynamic. Literally, relationships were formed that will last a lifetime.

One of the women that stands out is actually someone who participated in our 2008 training, which took place in Kenya. Her name is Solame. Solame was just an absolute, silent and powerful woman leader who, as it turned out, had been involved in fighting for freedom in her home country, Uganda, and was one of two women that was present for the rewriting of the Ugandan constitution.

Well, she came to the Women and Water Training, and when she returned to her community, she absolutely lit the place up. She went back to work with the grandmothers, who lived in a village outside the city where she is from, and these grandmothers are living, many of them, with anywhere from seven to 13 children in their homes because their children have actually died from HIV and AIDS. Solome is an example of someone who was able to take this training and really transform entire communities.

MK: One of the highlights for me was the Global Peers program. We had eight women from different parts of the world who also participated in this training to augment the training, skills, and tools that were offered with their outside knowledge and expertise. We had women who had expertise in community organizing, micro-finance, facilitation and leadership development. Each of these women partnered with two of the teams, and they worked with those teams throughout the week. These women are going to be partnering with the teams who are going back into their communities with seed grants to launch their projects. They're going to work with these teams over the course of the year. The relationships that were built were on a foundation of such mutual respect because, as these women looked at each other from such different lives, they saw the offerings they had for each other and their leadership as women.

This component was really important for us because we really believe that this work is about dynamic exchange, reciprocity, that this is not a transfer of information. It is a dynamic exchange where everyone has something to learn from each other. By coming together and pooling our knowledge, as women who are standing on behalf of the Earth, so much more can happen in our communities when we return.

The Global Peers will be reporting out on the successes of the women in communities throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Those women will have access to the networks, information, and the resources that these women have access to. So, that was something that was really exciting for us to see happen.

What are some of the challenges that you face? You're doing amazing work. You're going all over the globe. You're not a gigantic staff, and you're not a super-old organization. What are your growing pains, and how are you working to deal with those challenges?

AD: One of the things that's most important to us is doing development in a new way, is doing this work in a way that's not typical. So many of the communities where we work, and the women who we work with have had horrible experiences with organizations who have come into their communities promising them solutions and support, and then have disappeared, or somehow the technologies didn't work, or they weren't able to be maintained. Additionally, there's just been this longstanding sentiment that development is about an us-them thing: "We're going over there to help them, and we're here. We have so much. They don't have anything."

These kinds of concepts are so not real, and so not what Women's Earth Alliance is about. We are looking to model the solutions at every level of the work. For us, that means everything from the events that we do at home, where we have completely green events, to how we live our own lives, the things that we buy, the way that we run our office -- all of these things, to us, are important as we move forward and truly model what it means to create a world that we want to live in.

For us, that also means that much of the work that we do is in partnership. While that takes a lot of effort and a lot of time for us to negotiate the different alliances that we're working with, we really believe that creating micro-networks and creating alliances and relationships across borders is the most important thing we can do to build the fabric of an Alliance that's truly interconnected. The work can be slow at times, but it's something that's important to us.

As we move more into receiving funding from some incredible foundations and from some amazing donors, we're constantly up against the challenge of wanting to keep the integrity of the work that we do, and also be continuing to serve the needs and the values that we see that are traditionally funded. We've been successful at that, but it's definitely taken a lot of rigor and thinking.

What's the path that brought each of you to this work? Melinda, I interviewed you a couple years ago, when Women's Earth Alliance was in a different kind of form. You've done amazing stuff, Amira, in your social justice past. What's the path that brought you guys here, and together? You seem to work really well together.

MK: I had an experience with organizations similar to what Amira was talking about. I had worked for a large development organization in East Africa that really influenced my path. I saw a program that was well-intentioned, certainly well-funded, that was going to fail, in a community that was facing just tremendous poverty and challenge, environmental challenges, health issues. It deeply affected me to see a project of this sort, that I knew was happening all over the world in other types of development schemes, that wasn't working. I saw the potential, at the grassroots level, of the local leaders, many of whom were women who were running various campaigns and health programs and educational programs that didn't have a chance to have their voices heard, and to design their future.

From that point, my path shifted. The work I did from that point on was really about looking at the grassroots, and how can we, around the world, support local leadership and grassroots-led movements for change.

My work brought me around the world. I worked from the Russian Far East to China to the Bering Sea region to here in the United States, meeting everyday citizens who were standing up for their communities, who had a vision and, with the proper access to resources, support, and visibility, were redesigning the future as we know it.

I saw women at the forefront. I knew that there needed to be something, a forum that would exist to support this type of leadership, and to connect leaders to each other so that they knew that they were not alone. I can't tell you how many times I heard people tell me that they were alone doing this work, when I knew it wasn't the case.

For me, that's really what this work was about was really just deeply listening to what was off, and what was working, and to follow the path and support and open up opportunities for the world's greatest leaders to lead, to guide us towards the kind of world we want to live in.

How about you, Amira?

AD: I definitely have had very similar experiences to Melinda in terms of my professional history. I think what I want to say now is, really, that this work, albeit very sophisticated and strategic, there's just something about humanity and the world that we live in that I have always, since I was a little kid. . . . I remember being seven years old and learning about the Vietnam War and writing a letter to the President of the United States. Just from such an early age, I was really aware of the fact that there was something called justice, and that it wasn't everywhere that I looked.

My whole life has just been about moving towards how can what I do uplift the lives of the people around me, and nature itself. I've been really blessed to have incredible influences in my own family, from my aunt, who lives in Washington and gave me so many opportunities, and my uncle, who's a performance artist, and my mother, who's a musician. All these influences, really, have just nurtured me and pushed me towards devoting my life to making the world a place that I'm proud to live.

When I found Melinda and Women's Earth Alliance, I saw that there was something unique about this in that we really are looking to do business in a whole new way, and that inspired me. It's just been an incredible joy to work alongside Melinda, and our team over the last three years, I think it's been now. I'm looking forward to so much ahead.

You both know I have a blog called Have Fun Do Good. You're sitting here, beaming and smiling, like the happiest people doing international development work I've ever seen.

What's the secret? It looks like you're both having fun and doing good. How are you doing that and keeping your hopes up, in what sometimes could seem sort of like a hopeless situation?

AD: I really think that this work is like the best-kept secret. It's just, once you're engaged in this totally dynamic, communal effort, I just have been uplifted by the joy of the women that we work with. Specifically, the amount of singing that we get to do lights me up. Every time we've met with our partners, every other minute there's a new song. One that they sang this time that was just so great goes [sings]:

Come and join us on the morning train.
Come and join us on the morning train.

For the evening train may be too late.
Come and join us on the morning train.

And I'm just on it.

How about you, Melinda? How are you having fun and doing good?

MK: I learn a lot from the elders who are a part of the Women's Earth Alliance. There's a whole generation of women leaders who we work with who have been around the block. These are seasoned activists, designers, changemakers. The thing that I notice when I look at these women is that there is a layer of stress that has just gone. The problems haven't lessened, but there is a lightness. There is a levity to them that I think just comes with time and knowing that you can work every day, and you can either be stressed and concerned, or you can remember to laugh and be grateful for what you have. I learn that so much from the elders who we get to work with, who remind us to wake up each day and do this work joyfully, and do it with everything we have, and remember to sing and dance as much as possible.

So, for folks who are listening, how can they get involved with WEA's work?

AD: At Women's Earth Alliance, we're really committed to having this work go full-circle, which for us is called Weaving the Worlds. We host an event series each season at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California. We will be hosting our second-annual fundraising gala, called Weaving the Worlds, in the Presidio of San Francisco on May 26th. We also have some upcoming advocacy delegations, which are a part of our Sacred Earth Advocacy Network. They will be happening in May, July, and September, and will be about defending sacred places in the Southwest, protecting water and traditional culture in California, and promoting energy justice on the Navajo Nation.

Finally, we just have an amazing website and a blog, and we have a Facebook group, and a Cause, and we're on Twitter. We really encourage folks to check out www.womensearthalliance.org to find out more about everything that I've just mentioned.

Is there anything else that you guys didn't get to talk about that you want to add?

AD: The final thing I want to say is just to really acknowledge everyone who is alongside us in this work. Women's Earth Alliance is doing this work, but we have so many allies, and so many colleagues who are doing this work with the very same spirit. In fact, we stand on the shoulders of those who've gone before us, who have fought for us to be where we are right now. This really is a rich network of people. This is a tradition. This is a lineage. This is a history in the making. It's really an honor to have the opportunity to learn from everyone that's around us, and all the voices that have informed what we're doing here today.

MK: We really feel that this is a moment where the nonprofit, the NGO movement is changing very rapidly, and we like to think that we are a part of a new generation of how we do social-change work. To us, it's really about collaboration. It simply doesn't work to stay in your silo, and to grab hold of your mission statement and work alone. There is something really exciting about looking at every juncture for how we can work together, and pool our knowledge and our ability to open doors. We are in the business of door opening, and it's really exciting.

Related blogs and blog posts:

Full disclosure: I have worked as a social media consultant for Women's Earth Alliance.

Photos of Melinda Kramer & Amira Diamond, Solome Mukisa, and the West African Woman and Water Training participants' celebrating the construction of a rainwater harvesting tank are used with permission from Women's Earth Alliance.

Cross-posted from BlogHer.com




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