Q&A with Alan Lightman
Working to help young women access higher education in Cambodia gave American social entrepreneur Alan Lightman insight to some of the struggles women face around the world, and the role that men can play in bringing change.
“Progress in the empowerment of women will be limited until men change their attitudes about women.”
Alan Lightman founded the Harpswell Foundation in 2004 to nourish the leadership potential of young women in Cambodia. While Lightman, an American physicist and writer, believed he was embarking on a journey to contribute to development in Cambodia (which he was), he also found himself becoming an accidental women’s empowerment advocate, and later a very intentional women’s empowerment advocate. Recently, realizing that women’s efforts are only half of the equation, he has broadened his attention to include men and boys.
What led you to create the Harpswell Foundation?
I met a woman on my first trip to Cambodia in 2003 who was then about 30-years old. Her name was Veasna Chea, and she told me a life-changing story. When she was going to university in the mid-1990s, she and other female students had to live underneath the university building because there was no housing for women. Universities in Cambodia do not build dormitories; the male students can live in the Buddhist pagodas but the female students do not have that option. Vaesna and a handful of other female students lived in the six-foot crawl space between the bottom of the building and the mud. They lived there on wooden planks for four years. I was totally blown away by that story and by the courage of those young women and their determination to get an education with tremendous personal sacrifice.
A few months later Veasna Chea and I came up with the idea to build dormitories for women who were attending university. Most of the universities in Cambodia are in Phnom Penh but the majority of the population lives outside of the capital city. So I came back to the US and raised the money to build the first facility, which was the first dormitory for women in Cambodia.
We knew that we would have this valuable resource in these bright young women, and we should give them more than just free room and board. So I developed an in-house academic program that the students take in the evenings and on the weekends when they’re not attending regular university classes at one of 20 different universities in Phnom Penh. Our program consists of leadership training, critical thinking skills, English classes, Southeast Asian geography and politics, and comparative genocide studies, and we also provide computers connected to the Internet. After our first two years of operation, our Harpswell students were first in their class at the major universities in Phnom Penh. We’ve now had around 65 graduates, who are beginning to move into law firms and NGOS; there are a couple of journalists, a couple of them work for the Cambodian government.
You’ve broadened your thinking to acknowledge the need to work with men as well as women. What prompted that shift?
It was when a Harpswell graduate confided in me in an email that she had just been abandoned by her husband. In Cambodian culture, as in many cultures, such a woman is stigmatized and has a difficult time remarrying. Our former student felt confusion, shame, and guilt. She felt worthless. Despite four years of empowerment in our Center, her male-dominated society made her feel that her life was a failure. “I have lost everything now,” read her last line. And I came to a vivid understanding that even with all of the training and support that Harpswell and other organizations give girls and women about their rightful position in the world, progress in the empowerment of women will be limited until men change their attitudes about women. Boys and men must be part of the process.
What is needed for this change in attitude to take place?
It’s a very, very big change that’s required. I believe that the attitudes of men towards women originate in the attitudes of men about themselves; in other words, the male self-identity. Of course the male self-identity takes place within a surrounding culture. For thousands of years, and in many cultures, one huge factor in the male self-identity has been the domination of women. This isn’t just in Cambodia. Anybody who’s awake can tell you we have a ways to go here in the US as well. I think that there has to be a lot of discussion both at the national levels and at the local levels about what a male is and what is required to be a male. This is a deep psychological and social question that needs to be analyzed and understood, criticized, and eventually changed.
Have you yourself faced obstacles to embracing a different view of masculinity?
There is a stigma that exists today in the United States. I think it exists in all countries, but we’ll talk about the US. It’s a very subtle stigma regarding men working on “women’s issues” or being associated with women’s issues. I remember when the book The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen came out. Oprah Winfrey selected it as one of her Oprah’s Book Club books. Mr. Franzen declined the offer, and I heard him imply on NPR that his concern was that Oprah’s selections are “women’s books.” This is one example of the mentality I am talking about. I admit myself that when I first started the Harpswell Foundation, I initially placed most of the emphasis on helping Cambodia develop. At a subtle level, I myself was resisting the idea of working for women’s empowerment. I was both a victim and a culprit of this mentality. It took me a couple of years to get comfortable with the fact that the empowerment of women was, in fact, a central thrust of what I was doing.
I’ve always believed that women are equal to men, but I still had to erase this attitude in myself that was resisting the idea of aligning myself with women’s empowerment. I am a case study in the problem. But of course now I fully embrace this role.
Who has inspired you?
In one of the Harpswell Foundation’s two facilities in Phnom Penh, there is a large conference room on the top floor that we call our Hall of Great Women. All around the walls we have poster-sized photographs of 30 great women leaders from the last century with biographies below them in both Khmer and English. We tell all our students that someday we would like them to be on that wall. My heroes are all of the great women who have overcome the many obstacles that women face and have gone on to be successful scientists, artists, politicians, social entrepreneurs.
I have done a lot of different things in my life. I was a research physicist for 20 years; I am a writer; I have been on the faculties of Harvard and MIT. The work that I have done with the Harpswell Foundation has been the most rewarding work of my life. If my life will mean anything, it will be because of this work.