First Lady

Here’s the scene: 90 degrees in Ouagadougou, unrelenting sun, dust so thick I shook it from my hair last night.   This morning I scouted my suitcase for an outfit that, after three days of bouncing over potholed roads and visiting distant villages, would show the least amount of dust and sweat—by this time all our party were pretty travel worn, and, well, fragrant…  But today we aren’t shooing goats and stubborn donkeys from the main road to Bobo, today we’re headed to the palace of Burkina Faso’s First Lady.

Four days ago I flew to Burkina to visit Aminata Diallo, an Ashoka Fellow and HOW Fund grantee who built Maia, an extraordinary organization that runs mentorship, leadership, and training programs for girls and women. Like other Ashoka Fellows I’ve met from Kampala to Sao Paolo, Aminata’s Maia holds the promise of big impact. I’m proud to have supported her and now, at the end of my three-year grant, I had been invited to meet Aminata face to face and see her work in the villages, all arranged by Ashoka’s headquarters in the DC area and by Ashoka’s dynamic West Africa region director, Coumba Toure.

Today’s meeting was a triumph for Ashoka.  Coumba had secured an audience with the First Lady and Ministers of Youth and Employment, and Women’s Affairs to present the work of their Burkina fellows, especially Aminata and Baghomboe Bakiono.  Baghomboe founded and runs a network of youth working on issues of employment and health. The meeting was to make the First Lady and her ministers aware of the outstanding programs that are already being carried out by strong Burkinabe leaders who, with her backing, would be able to expand their work exponentially. Coumba’s goals for the meeting? To get the government to open doors for Ashoka Fellows in order to diminish the barriers to access and to engage the private sector with regards to youth employment by providing jobs and money. In addition, I had been invited by Coumba to speak as an international funder about the stellar reputation of Ashoka Fellows.

At the hotel this morning Coumba, Aminata, and I climbed into the car that would take us to the palace and I was acutely aware of the beauty of Coumba’s African dress and of Aminata’s colorful, exquisitely-made dress that girls in her program had sewn for her. I felt like a dull bird in my sensible travel skirt and blouse.  Rolling through dusty streets we reviewed our roles as the density of Ouagadougou thinned as and we headed out of the city and finally up a long arrow-straight avenue toward a marble and glass one story building shimmering in the heat and dust.

As we approached the grand portico all I could think of was the contrast between the First Lady’s palace and the abject poverty we had just driven through. In a country so dry dirt blows like puffs of baby powder, the palace was surrounded by lush grounds and decorative fountains awash with voluminous amounts of water. I know by now that such contrast of riches and poverty are de rigeur in developing countries.

As we pulled up to the grand entrance doors a phalanx of press representatives sitting in a long line flanking the doors looked alert but continued to sit quietly. Was this a dream? I has a flash of my journey since I started my HOW Fund, and of the amazing places it had taken me around the world.

We made our way up the stairs of the marble building and through the sliding supermarket type glass doors, greeted by a blast of over-air conditioned air. I thought irreverently that the First Lady and I, two women in mid-life, must something in common!

Then there she was, resplendent in a bright aqua and gold floor length dress with perfectly matched head wrap, earrings and shoes. She greeted each of us warmly and guided us to a reception room with twelve gilded chairs arranged in a U.   Coumba was seated next to the first lady and even though Coumba is petite she looked regal, maybe even a little kick butt. The conversation begins in French so I have time to take in my surroundings.  Ok, even I know you’re not supposed to gawk in a palace, so I try to look like I’ve done this before.

The stuffed leopards!  The crystal chandeliers!  The gilded…well, everything! I sat perched on the edge of my seat for fear of wrinkling the delicate green and gold silk fabric.  As I sat with my ankles nicely crossed and my hands folded in my lap a solitary fly that had made it past security and managed to survive the icy temperature decided to make me the object of its affection. First it landed on my arm. Then it made its way into my ear and I took a deep breath.  But when it landed on my nose, my eye, my forehead I tried to act as Queen Elizabeth might have—a regal swish of the hand– while containing my overwhelming desire to catch the bugger and administer a slow death.

After a few minutes Coumba asked me to speak. The First Lady declined a translator; she understands English. I felt confident speaking about the prestige of Ashoka Fellows, including Aminata, and of the powerful grass roots work they are engaged in. Coumba,  Aminata, and Baghomboe then made their cases, all in French.  I remember how intelligent, interested, and alert the First Lady was.  After an hour it was over.

We were escorted past the statuary and to the great doors.  Then pandemonium broke loose—on the other side was the press corps, eager with their pads and cameras.

The audience at the palace was a triumph; the First Lady and her ministers had “gotten it.” She would travel to Aminata’s villages to see her work; she would use her influence to open doors; she would help harness the private sector to support both Aminata and Baghomboe.  Coumba was dignified but jubilant. The TV cameras rolled.  By the time we were back at the hotel restaurant the calls had started coming in—“You’re famous!”  “We saw you on TV!”  “What a great day!” Aminata glowed, her success palpable.  We wished some of her students could have seen her on TV wearing the dress they lovingly made for her.

I was exhausted, excited, and grateful.  To support inspiring and talented people like Aminata, to travel the world, to meet the people whose lives I have the privilege to touch—both grantees and the women and girls whose lives will be different as the result of the work—is more reward that I could possibly have asked for three years ago when I started the HOW Fund.  What I saw today was one outcome many philanthropists never see:  the process by which a successful grantee has the opportunity to have her program supported by government at the highest levels, the prospect of creating real change in a nation and a culture.




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What Looks Right

I’ve been home from Burkina for a week.  The red dust is still in the fabric of my sneakers; the images of village women leading us through dusty millet fields to their wonderful new grain mill still fresh.

We had gone to Burkina Faso, a West African nation that appears annually on the list of three poorest countries on earth, to visit a HOW Fund grantee. For three years I had been supporting Aminata Diallo, an Ashoka Fellow working with teenage girls around issues of sexuality, family planning, and empowerment.  Aminata is a fine boned, delicate, ladylike high school philosophy teacher with a fierce loyalty and unyielding commitment to keeping young girls in school.  Tired of watching teenaged girls year after year become pregnant, then marginalized,  Aminata took action.  She founded her organization, Maia, and started her work by creating “Listening Posts” where girls could have confidential conversations around issues of sexuality and family planning.

While this may sound like a simplistic innovation, a domino effect soon took hold and the listening posts turned into mother’s clubs, vocational training combined with family planning for girls no longer attending school, a replicable model of training for teachers and counselors in local schools to identify and reach out to vulnerable girls, creation of preschools, fostering the establishment of a rural women’s initiative, and the list goes on.  You get the picture: one small action leading to another and another, emerging organically from the needs of the community.  From Aminata’s simple idea has come big, life-changing impact.

Little did I know I’d ever get to Burkina to meet Aminata and see Maia in action.  When Kaitlyn Brown, from Ashoka’s US office, and Coumba Toure, Director of Ashoka’s West Africa operations called and invited me to visit Aminata and observe the Ashoka fellow selection process taking place the week of the proposed visit, I hesitated.  Then I jumped.  This is important work, and I had to see it.  Aminata is an innovator I believe in and I had to meet her face to face.

I’m so glad I did.  This was an “aha!”, “open my eyes” trip.  The day we spent with Aminata and the women of Yirwal, a small village near Bama, was the day I discovered Grassroots development done right.  That day, and the discussions and reflections that followed, have reshaped my thinking about what works.

Many donors begin their work with set criteria that a grantee must satisfy.  Does the project have impact? Will the innovation to go to scale (whatever that means)?  Will beneficiaries’ behavior change last?  Has there been systemic change?  I have been developing an uneasy relationship to these concepts, and wondering about my own criteria are for funding—how much is head, how much intuition, how much heart?  I haven’t come to terms with what all these jargony rubrics really mean.  The “Thou Shalt Go to Scale” command in the social innovation world sometimes sounds as inflexible and prescriptive as a parent shaking a finger at a balky eight year old to “Eat Your Vegetables.”  I get the idea.  I question the imperative.

For three years I have been checking grantees for healthy financials and then using my gut instinct about the grantee and the work, basically flying by the seat of my pants. So far this has worked for me.   But after my “aha” moment that dusty day in Yirwal my intuition now has a road map to get me to where things feel “right.” Any other donor could easily quantify what I saw, but I actually had a strong feeling of justifiable “rightness” about Aminata’s bottom up grassroots approach.

Let me illuminate why I view Aminata’s work as impactful, scaleable, and systems changing by talking about just one of the many initiatives Aminata’s organization has fostered: the building of a girls dormitory.  At a middle school in a remote village near Yirwal an unprecedented thirty unmarried girls became pregnant during a single school year.  Subsequently, most of the girls were pulled out of school by their parents, their education terminated forever, because of the stigma attached to being an unwed mother.

The head master of the school came to Aminata for help.  Aminata could have tackled the problem conventionally, by going into the school and lecturing on the evils of teen pregnancy.  Instead she garnered community support and built a girl’s dormitory. Why a dormitory?  Because Aminata saw that the girls from the surrounding villages had to travel nearly four miles each way to get to school, which left them vulnerable.  In order to decrease travel time, many girls stayed in the homes of relatives, friends or acquaintances in closer proximity to the school.  Without parental supervision and a lack of even a rudimentary knowledge of sex, the girls were often preyed upon by men and boys in their host homes or by teachers or staff at school.  The girls who chose to make the long walk every day might be interrupted by someone along the path or stopped by someone in a neighboring village where they were casually coerced into sex or raped.

Aminata has already aligned with the community over the desire to keep girls safe and in school.  She had developed a curriculum focused on sexuality and family planning for the middle school.  But the dormitory was the real game changer.  Five days a week, 18 girls live in a small cement structure surrounded by fence with a metal gate.  There are two rooms with colorful straw mats on the floor where the girls sleep, study, and are safe to act like adolescent girls. Isa and Awa are the dorm parents and their job is to care for the girls.

Isa spoke to me passionately of his desire for his baby daughter to grow up and acquire a university education.  His wife Awa was clearly proud of her position as the head teacher of the new village preschool.  Awa had learned what an important advantage going to preschool is for the health and future of children and embraced the responsibility.  A mother’s group grew out of the communal desire to support the girls’ efforts to stay in school.  Soon each mother took her turn cooking and carrying pots of food the four miles to the dormitory.   All original eighteen girls have now graduated and are planning to advance on to high school, an extraordinary statistic in the village.   Ironically, there is now community pressure on parents to support their girls efforts at advancement–no one wants to be the parent who thwarts their child’s ambitions by pulling them out of school in order to help at home or to be married off.   So as a result of Aminata’s “simple” innovation, not only do girls have newly acquired status in the community, so do the parents!

As of this writing Maia has launched a campaign to gain funding for a larger dormitory on a nearby piece of land purchased with funds from the community and Maia.

This is just one of the brilliantly simple  initiatives that have organically grown out of Aminata’s work.  The key to her success, though, has been her ability to build an alliance with stakeholders based on trust and cooperation, an alliance that addresses a community problem with a community based initiative.  The impact of Aminata’s work is far reaching: ultimately the alliance she has created will open the way for development village after village.

When I dreamt of becoming a donor who partners with social innovators to create change, this is what I hoped for.

Aminata Diallo, Founder, Maia; and Sasha Rabsey, Founder, HOW Fund

Aminata Diallo, Founder, Maia; and Sasha Rabsey, Founder, HOW Fund





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The Elephant Has Left the Room

A few weeks ago I attended a conference with two grantees, both African women engaged in grassroots work for adolescent girls.  I was excited to be able to introduce them to potential funders and collaborators—after all they’re doing superb work on a critical issue.  Yes, their financials checked out, their impact assessments looked good, their stories were compelling.  But for me it was about the work they were doing. Both women are deeply thoughtful and respectful of the community they serve, critical qualities of successful leaders,  so I was looking forward to validating their efforts.  That is exactly what did not happen.

For most of the conference I was on an emotional roller coaster as I watched both women come up against the subtle but unmistakable signs of white power and privilege in the world of donors and grantees.  I felt terrible as one said to me  “I don’t know why I came, I would have learned more doing my work at home” and started to wonder if I’m as guilty as any other donor.  Aren’t I in a position of power and privilege in regards to my grantees?

I don’t believe the intention of any donor at the conference was to hurt or run roughshod, but there was evidence of a paternalistic attitude discouragingly easy for donors to adopt when dealing with grantees.  It starts when we say “what can I do for you.”   Asking this question implies a power imbalance between donor and grantee.  When I started this work I considered the question  to be polite and respectful;  I’ve come to understand, though, that the question elicits a sense of “other.”

How do we shift the conversation, right the imbalance?  As donors we need to have the humility and honesty to be clear about our contextual and cultural lens, the “default assumptions” we use when we interact with grantees. This is an uncomfortable exercise because it forces us to face our whiteness, our privilege, and all the less than pristine laundry that comes with these labels.  I want to have an open conversation with grantees that allows me to be who I am and use my power and privilege to support others but to carry this out in a way that knocks down the hierarchy and promotes  teamwork,

Why do I do this work?  Let me be frank.  It’s because it makes me feel good. But I can’t feel good if I am behaving in a way that;s anything but collaborative.  Yes, I want my grantees to make me look good by doing stellar work but I can’t tell them how to do that so my half of the partnership is to be supportive.  To me that means providing funds but also establishing a relationship that assumes I will listen, learn and do my damndest to not make a fool of myself.  For all of us to be the best we can be is to look deeply at ourselves and where we come from.  I started my journey as a white woman of privilege. I am still a white woman of privilege.  What I know now is that to create a true partnership with those two powerful African women means that we walk the journey together.  The right question is not “What can I do for you.”  It is “What can I do with you.”


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Motivation and Driving Forces

People always ask me “why have you chosen to support women and girls” which immediately follows with “why don’t you help girls here in the USA?” 

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I went camping with a friend in Northern Vermont. We ended up pitching our tents in the front yard of her sister’s home which was situated in the midst of the most beautiful countryside I had ever seen.  My friend’s sister lived miles from anywhere in a small cabin with three children, no running water or electricity, and a husband suffering from PTSD after serving in the Vietnam War.  There was a large vegetable garden, a cow, a goat and some pigs.  At the time I thought all food came from the supermarket and this was the first time I had ever seen subsistence living.  All on her own, this young woman took care of all the work that kept her family up and running on a daily basis.  She received WIC assistance  (food assistance from the state for Women Infants and Children) as they had very little income. Even silly little teenage me could see that the food in the box was mediocre at best.  Some people would welcome this lifestyle as idyllic but that was not what I saw.  I saw a woman (barely older than myself) worn out from her daily work, too far from anyone to have friends or anything akin to a social life, stressed from the random and often violent behavior exhibited by her husband and the care of her children.  After seeing the life this woman endured I knew that at some point in my life, I didn’t know how or when, I wanted to do something that would help women and children.

Years later, in walks Nicholas Kristof.  I started reading his Op Ed columns in the New York Times and many of them referred to the life and struggles of women in the Third World.  I was hooked by his stories and was inspired to start doing something, anything to make a contribution in some way.  When I was finally able to meet him at a conference it was pathetically like a young girl meeting a rock star.  What I didn’t realize until I read Half the Sky was that his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, was a correspondent and author and as a couple they won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.  She has become my new rock star.  I am posting her TED Talk because she is incredibly passionate, articulate and authenticate when expressing how imperative it is to include women and girls in any dialogue regarding poverty alleviation.

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