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Clinton Global Initiative: Interesting Conversations

This week I have been hanging around the Clinton Global Initiative here in New York, having many interesting conversations with people working to help women.  A few have told me of new ideas and perspectives. I thought I would share.

For instance, on Monday, I sat next to Duane Silverstein at dinner.  Silverstein is Executive Director of Seacology, a group that focuses on preserving island environments all over the world. Islands represent rich caches of biodiversity, but changes in practices can endanger the thousands of species that may exist in such an environment.  As a result, extinction happens with greater frequency and wider effect than in other geographies.

Seacology works to protect species in island environments all over the world.

Seacology works with island communities to preserve local species.  Silverstein says that, over time, he noticed two things about women on islands.  The first is that the women were always the poorest people (as happens other places, as well). The second is that whenever he needed to get anything done, he ended up working through the women (this, too, is the received widsom among many community organizers). Wanting to be of assistance to the women he relies on, Silverstein has begun to try to help them sell handicrafts. However, as often happens in developing world communities, especially the remote ones, the local market doesn’t present opportunity for growth.  So, he tries to help them get access to larger markets.  And that is how he came to be at the dinner, sitting next to an Oxford professor who works on women’s entrepreneurship and access to markets.

The next morning, I met two African women, Obebe Ojeifo and Donna St. Hill, for coffee at the Sheraton Towers. They were keen to talk about their plans to offer a Women’s Economic Forum for Africa just prior to the World Economic Forum for Africa, scheduled for next May. They had heard good things about Power Shift and so wanted see if we might be able to help them put their forum together.  It was interesting to listen to their reasoning. They are fed up that every time somebody talks about helping women in Africa, it is all about health and education and never about getting money, owning property, and so on.  They feel this attitude is, at base, patronizing and exclusionary.  And they are right, of course.  Unfortunately, there are still many people out there in the development community who think it is somehow wrong for women to seek better economic conditions for themselves, believing that, instead, they should be limited to “nobler pursuits,” such as health and education.  This old-fashioned, falsely dichotomous thinking overlooks the brute fact that women must be able to support themselves if they are going to have any independence to exercise their rights, seek education, get health care when they need it, and so forth. Ironically, this attitude that money is too dirty for women plays directly into the hands of those who would exclude them from the economy and keep them poor.

Here is an example of a ketubah from Betsy Teutsch's website, Gallery Judaica. There are many gorgeous designs to choose from.

Yesterday morning, I had a wonderful breakfast with Betsy Teutsch, who has become a friend through this blog.  She is quite an interesting person, having built her own business providing beautiful ketubahs for Jewish weddings.  She has been successful enough (and fortunate to have inherited a little money) that she has spent the past few years pondering the question of what one should do with money once you’re in enough comfort to be grappling with a surplus.  It’s a moral and spiritual question, isn’t it? Betsy began a blog about this issue called “Money Changes,” in which she detailed some of her experiments investing in worthy causes.  But her newest passion is a book she is developing called 100 for $100:  The Women’s Global Toolkit, for which there is a really cool Pinterest page here. The concept is to collect 100 small ideas with big impact for women in developing nations and put them out there in a book that can be used by real women.

Along the way, Betsy also tried something that was more “Southern Junior League” than East Coast intellectual, but was nevertheless popular, impactful, and satisfying.  I had never heard of Dining for Women before, even though it certainly fits my background (“those are my people,” I told Betsy).  What happens with Dining for Women is that a circle of women forms and agrees to hold dinners, say, once a month or something.  They do it as a potluck and everybody donates the money that would have gone to a restaurant. Then, the group gives the money to a worthy organization helping women. Dining for Women raises a lot of cash and they are very sharp about what efforts they support. Betsy started a chapter in her neighborhood in Philadelphia and, in no time, it was oversubscribed and two other chapters had to open up.  Online, you can see that Dining for Women does some incredible work and actually puts together a substantial chunk of change, with this “one dinner at a time” strategy.  Here is a video explaining the concept (I especially love the logo, with the woman sign formed by a plate and cutlery).

This morning, I was lucky enough to spend an hour one-on-one with Melanne Verveer. As Ambassador for Women under Hillary Clinton, her view of the women’s situation is, at once, very “macro” and very practical, down-to-earth.  She is keen to keep a focus on economic empowerment because she sees economic exclusion as a glaring oversight in past policy on behalf of women–and well as a frustrating blind spot in our overall approach to economics.  Melanne and I traded stories of the shock, outrage, and frustration we experienced on the road to facilitate empowerment.  I have been a bit out of sorts lately because, though Oxford has been mostly very supportive of this work, there are still times when I am harshly reminded that I work for an institution that was, for hundreds of years, one of the most exclusive patriarchies in the world.  Melanne encouraged me to persevere and reminded me, through the stories shared, that we all have these moments, even the women at the very top of world government. On a happier note, we also shared impressions of the Oxford Analytica conference last week (see our video here).  I was pleased to be able to say that I had already received emails indicating that OA was working on some follow-up stuff about the economic impact of women.  Though it was a serious conversation, I had a lot of fun talking to Melanne.  She is very approachable and funny and candid. And she sticks to her guns, that’s for sure.

Tomorrow, I have back-to-back meetings with another array of interesting people.  It’s quite a week.


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