Musings on women's empowerment, international development, and the power of giving

Jenny WECO
Posted May 18, 2018 from United States
Morning musings
Morning musings

It isn’t always easy for me to describe what we do succinctly, because - as it turns out - when you create something it becomes a living piece of yourself, and that can be challenging to form concise words around it. It is constantly on my brain, but somehow I still stutter when talking about it. Here goes: as a registered 501c3, we work to find charitable organizations around the world with programs for women and girls, and then we dream with them. We ask them what would you do if we found some extra money? How would you grow your operations? And if we can brainstorm a viable project to collaborate on, then we then do it. We appeal to private investors, donors, friends, and family. We recruit volunteers to fundraise with us, and in return we take them on a three week journey to work on a leg of the project and to experience a new culture. It’s about 50/50 project work and adventure travel. It’s something that for us came about for both personal and political reasons. 

As women in many ways it’s easy for us to identify with the underdog (collectively, we are it). Depending on your personal shade of privilege, this identification comes in different shapes, sizes, and colors. There is much for me to be thankful for, as a mostly white woman. There is also much to work for, in terms of gender equality, for myself and for others. As an organization, how we hope to do our part is by bridging the resource gap for women and girls in lower-income countries. We have two partners in Cambodia that provide services for women and girls who experience issues from abuse, lack of education or support services, and systemic disempowerment. This past January we took a team of volunteers to work on part of the construction project we fundraised for ($20,000 for a child care center) in Siem Reap. As part of our time there, we were able to participate on some of our partner organization’s critical outreach programs. We interviewed several community members and also sat down with the staff to learn more about their perspectives. To us, this is all an important model of global women’s empowerment. We want to learn from other women who work hard towards gender equality in their communities, and we want to support their work in whatever ways we can. 

The staff told us the reason they all (unanimously) expressed as why they do community work: because they wanted to empower families, and create more equal spaces for women and girls. Each woman told us how they came from similar situations to those of their beneficiaries, and had experienced the same problems in their own pasts: the effects of alcoholism, domestic violence and abuse, lack of access to education, poverty, and unequal division of household labor and/or child care (always unpaid and under-appreciated). We talked about how they work to change those things in their communities, through education, through creating a safe and friendly place for women to express their need, and to receive support to empower their own lives. One of the co-founders shared with us her vision for women’s empowerment in Cambodia as ultimately the power to choose, to decide things that are relevant to her life, her health, and her dreams. The practical next steps to achieving this (I believe globally) will be working with men in communities, increasing women’s access to education and jobs, and giving women more power through information, support, and positions of leadership. 

International development can be a tricky field to work in at times. There are so many good intentions, organizations, models, volunteer agencies - and there are also many a**holes who are similar to those working in other fields. The intentions we carry with us drive our work, along with activism, joy, commitment, and an unswerving desire to make a difference. Often this desire to uplift translates positively, but it’s also common that it doesn’t. Our goal in working with underserved women is to listen and respond to their words about their needs, and to work with organizations that really seek to empower people through the process as opposed to a one-time result (as an aside, this is one major reason quantitative data often has me shaking my head and rolling my eyes, although I do understand the ease with which it presents a story of the work an organization does). I understand benchmarks are helpful ways to weed through the forest of storytelling and need - especially if decisions must be made to distribute resources. This is something that will likely always drive me crazy, but that I will accept as a part of how we navigate need. I also think a hyper-focus on numbers threatens to dissolve the very heart of philanthropy, which isn’t logical; it’s emotional. It’s growing a legacy of our shared humanity.

To me, the real power of what we do comes from capturing a piece of what grassroots organizations are doing in their communities, and sharing it with others, so that they can feel at least a part of the transformative power that comes from spreading opportunities to others (opportunities we often take for granted). We also want to be mindful about where people are here, in the US. We want to create levels of connection for participating so that people can unfold their own process of discovering the power of giving. Generosity is a strong indicator of happiness, of feeling connected to the world beyond the self, and part of our passion is in encouraging people to look outside of “me” and into “us.” Audre Lorde and MLK say it best, but I’ll paraphrase: I also believe none of us are free while others are enslaved. Part of life is struggle, and we all have our own battles; but to me, the best way to combat one's own pain is to reach out, listen to, struggle with others, and work with people in ways that build community, connection, and social change. We all have (varying degrees of) privilege and we can leverage ours for those who lack it. Doing so will open you up to remarkable lessons and constantly emerging avenues of self-growth. 

Comments 14

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jlanghus
May 19
May 19

Hi Jenny. Thanks for sharing your post and letting us know more about your NGO, what it does, and what your focus/mission/goals are. I agree with you that focusing on men in communities, increasing women's access to education and jobs, and more empowerment is definitely key to an equal, balanced, peaceful and joyful future for everyone. How do you decide which NGOs to work with? Do you have any application form? Are there key components/criteria for the organizations that you are looking for? I'm curious, because there are so many women and worthy organizations on WP alone looking for funding and I'm always looking for ways to help them. I would totally agree that no one is free while others are enslaved in the world. Well said, or paraphrased:)

Jenny WECO
May 19
May 19

Jill, thank you so much for reading, and for (all of your) replies. I see you take your role as mentor and encourager quite seriously, and do so with grace and zeal. I'm sure you've made many women feel at home in this space (myself included), and it's very appreciated. I've done my best to answer your questions with concision and brevity - but please let me know if you have any others, and I look forward to being in touch with you through WP and beyond! xx

To your questions: we have an extensive (mostly on our end) vetting process that involves research and an eventual meeting with different organizations. Because we have limited resources as a smaller organization, we have to be somewhat choosey as we build our portfolio of projects. We're hoping to, at some point, find sustainable/consistent project funding so that we can expand our operations - with current partner organizations, and then to reaching new partner organizations. As it stands, we don't have an application form - just our contact form on our website. We typically do the initial reaching out, but are always open to hear from people about their orgs and their work. It's difficult to say we have specific criteria, because we want to be as open and flexible as possible to the needs of the communities we work with. I would say we look for organizations that have at least some kind of reporting (financial, annual, and/or impact reports), so that we can use that as a springboard for developing further questions for them. We always meet with - in person - partner orgs before agreeing to collaborate on a project. We do this so we can assure donors and volunteers back home that the projects we raise funds for are secure and vetted to the best of our ability. In essence, we're looking for orgs that are established enough in their communities and have operated for some time so we can see a history - but, they haven't developed enough to have a regular stream of funding for expanding their programs. They are (mostly at least) under the radar of larger foundations/sources of development aid - or "grassroots." What we do is decide with an organization if they're ready for a project of that sort, and how we can work together to achieve it. Our overall criteria (beyond this) is relatively simple: Does the organization have programs that benefit women and girls, and can we structure a project around a portion of their programming together? The biggest obstacle we have is designing a sufficient volunteer program around these needs-based projects, as that's our primary way of fundraising for the projects we collaborate on: crowdfunding through volunteers, and a few private donors. Ways in which we'd love to improve is honing the actual volunteer program to include more educational components (perhaps workshops, more extensive orientations pre and post, etc), but since we are grassroots ourselves, this will likely take us a bit of time.

jlanghus
May 20
May 20

Hi there:) You're welcome! Yes, I do... I don't do anything half way:-) Ha. Thanks for the amazing compliment. I appreciate it. Me, too!

Okay. Great. Thanks for the clarification and information. So, are you actively looking now for an organization to start a project/collaboration with or are you still in the process of defining your systems and not at a point yet where you are looking for an organization, two, or three?

Jenny WECO
May 20
May 20

We are currently looking for partner organizations in Latin America - specifically Guatemala or Peru. If you know of any we should know of, please share!

jlanghus
May 21
May 21

Hi Jenny:) I think Mercedes is still desperately looking for funding for her project. This is her profile: https://www.worldpulse.com/en/community/users/mercedes. I will let her know so that she can reach out to you and so you can connect. Also, I would suggest two things: 1) Do the search by filtering members on the "Community" page, if you haven't already: https://www.worldpulse.com/en/my-pulse/community, and 2) posting on the "Resources" page that you have an offer for those particular areas and what your criteria is here: https://www.worldpulse.com/en/my-pulse/resources. Thanks again for the work you do and your big heart:-)

J Brenda Lanyero
May 20
May 20

Jenny, thank you for sharing your story and thank you for the work you do. I understand it is not easy but thank you for being the strong woman that you are.

Kindly asking, have you reached out in East Africa already and how does one or a group qualify to be helped by your NGO, do they have to fill forms, write proposals or you just choose who to help? I got a group of women who need more support.

Jenny WECO
May 20
May 20

J Brenda, thank you for the kind words :)

We are not yet looking into working with organizations in Africa - but we will one day. If you would like to share more information about the work your organization does, please do so here: https://wecoalition.org/contact-us/

J Brenda Lanyero
May 22
May 22

Thank you so much Jenny. I will surely do that.

J Brenda Lanyero
May 22
May 22

Hi Jenny. My contact can't be registered on WECO, it keeps saying a problem occurred and it is with my phone contact. I put it in the format required but still it is rejected. I think they are not taking contacts from Uganda yet. Thank you.

Jenny WECO
May 22
May 22

Hm - ok. I did a test run and it worked, but maybe you're right; it could be because it's coming from Uganda (but it shouldn't! I'll have to dig to figure it out). In the meantime, you can reach me at jenny@wecoalition.org!

J Brenda Lanyero
May 22
May 22

Thank you so much Jenny. Let me get to you.

J Brenda Lanyero
May 28
May 28

Hi Jenny, I sent you an email about two days ago just as you requested. Not sure as you saw it. Stay blessed :)

Olutosin
May 21
May 21

Hello, I just want to thank you for choosing to work with women and girls. You all are amazing kind- hearted human beings. May you remain blessed. Hugs.

Jenny WECO
May 20
May 20

Thank you Olutosin - for your words and for your work as well :)