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.