When Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book Half The Sky came out last September, I bought the first copy at my bookstore The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, New York. After reading it, I decided that their seminal book is to the international women's movement what An Inconvenient Truth was to global warming. Since then I have given away a dozen copies and required all my students to read it.
The book's stories about the brutal oppression and the breathtaking courage of women in the Global South were not new to me. At 16 I was a student in Paraguay with the American Field Service; I served in the Peace Corps in West Africa; and for the past three decades, as co-founder of the Empowerment Institute, I had worked to empower women all over the world, at times in some of the most challenging places -- Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Darfur. As a woman of the Global North, I knew that my sisters in the South need financial resources, technology, education, and health care. But what struck me the most, after reading Half the Sky, was my conviction that we women of the North need the women of the South just as much as they need us.
I have drawn enormous strength and inspiration from my work with women in the developing world, who have overcome unthinkable violence, humiliation, loss, and trauma. Their resilience haunts me and compels me to ask, what am I made of and what is asked of me? How would I respond if I lived through such brutality -- repeated gang rape, the butchery of my parents before my eyes, or solitary confinement and torture because I refused to admit to a crime that I had not committed? Would I still be capable of contagious laughter, wearing audacious red lipstick, writing luminous poems, or committing my life to helping other women who had suffered similar atrocities?
I don't know the answers, but I do know that these remarkable women have changed me, shaken me to the core. They have shattered my simple notions of good and evil. Their startling examples of strength demand that I stay alert to the shadows of complacency and moral laziness that lurk in the corners of my privileged life. Listening deeply to their stories, my compassion has matured into a sober realization that nothing can ever fix or take away their unthinkable suffering. Yet the chance to tell their stories is an intrinsic part of their healing and hearing them is an essential part of my awakening. By the sheer magnitude of their presence these women have enlarged me and challenged me to question my priorities and how I am using my life.
North and South, developed and developing, need each other equally. This global mutuality became especially clear recently when the Empowerment Institute partnered with World Pulse to provide the mentoring program for Voices of the Future Training. Founded by the visionary Jensine Larsen, World Pulse is a media enterprise covering global issues through the eyes of women. Dedicated to listening to and broadcasting the unheard voices and innovative solutions of women worldwide, World Pulse was mentioned in Half the Sky as one of the top sources of support for women globally. At the Institute we created a mentorship program in which thirty Empowerment mentors whom we had trained were matched with thirty Voices of the Future (VOF) correspondents who were going through World Pulse's rigorous training in citizen journalism. Primarily from the Global South, the correspondents came from twenty-one countries, many of which were in dangerous conflict zones. Hailing from the Global North, our mentors were ethnically diverse women ranging in age from 30 to 75, all leaders in their fields -- business, education, social activism, psychology, and the arts. It was an ideal opportunity to observe the mutual exchange between women in the developed and developing worlds.
Mentoring was conducted through email, phone, and Skype. Very quickly we learned that many VOF correspondents lived daily with the possibility of violence, bombings, illness, and families being torn apart. Pervasive fear, being silenced, and living without their basic human rights were the constants most of these women knew. For some, the very act of writing their stories -- about female genital mutilation or the missing members of their families -- put them in real danger. Then there were the technical challenges of poor access to the Internet and unreliable electricity. In addition, women living in oppressive government regimes were often forbidden to use computers altogether.
In spite of these daunting obstacles, most of the correspondents found ways to keep writing articles and broadcasting their news from some of the most forgotten regions of the world, including Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, and Bolivia. Over and over they said that they would rather be imprisoned than to be silenced any longer. They told their mentors their own harrowing life stories, often for the first time. Listening deeply, the mentors provided a safe space where their correspondents could sustain their courage and confidence in speaking out and writing about the important issues of their countries. Fulfilling the role of confidante and frequently that of a mother figure, mentors empowered their correspondents to stay strong inside so that they could be strong outside in the world. Leaders in their own communities, many of the VOF women were accustomed to giving support. Now they found themselves on the receiving end of wise counsel and this made a real contribution to their personal lives as well as their leadership.
Meanwhile, the mentors in the North were being transformed by their sisters in the South. Although offering technical and financial support continued to be crucial, many mentors were looking for more intimate mutual relationships with women in other corners of the world. And soon enough these currents of mutuality were circling the globe. As the mentors witnessed the bravery and tenacity of their correspondents, they became more fearless themselves -- by electing to leave dead-end marriages or jobs, by taking on larger social causes, or by speaking out in ways they had never before imagined. As they encouraged their sisters to live their highest aspirations, the mentors themselves took stock of their own dreams and what important priorities they might have put aside. Fathoming the high stakes of their correspondents' courage, mentors asked, what am I willing to give my life for? Understanding that their sisters of the Global South lived in an almost constant state of disequilibrium, the women of the North had to examine their own willingness to leave their comfort zones.
As the six-month Voices of the Future Training came to an end, over 100 articles have been published and dozens of lifelong friendships formed. Plans to build safe houses, empowerment centers, schools, women's Internet cafés, and joint publishing ventures are underway. One of the thirty graduating VOF correspondents, Busayo Obisakin, was chosen to attend the Empowerment Institute this January. Born to illiterate parents in Nigeria, Busayo overcame poverty and violence to fulfill her dream of getting a good education. Now a counselor who advises victims of rape, assault, and sexual-harassment, Busayo says that each case strengthens her resolve to pursue her passion of building a Nigeria safe for women and girls.
Busayo's participation in the Empowerment Institute, intended to give her the necessary skills to create her Women's Inspiration Center, would not have come to pass without her mentor Amy Lombardo's love and ingenuity. One of our most gifted Empowerment Life Coaches, Amy found a way to procure Busayo's visa when we had all but given up, and she remained at Busayo's side during her two weeks in New York City, accompanying her to multiple World Pulse receptions, meetings, and interviews. Amy realized very early on that her relationship with Busayo was as essential to her as it was to Busayo; each helped the other to become the woman she aspired to be. Each contributed her own pieces of the puzzle, resources, experiences, and wisdom to the partnership. Returning to Nigeria, the unstoppable Busayo Obisakin has a bulging tool kit of empowerment skills, a business plan, funding to start her NGO, and her weekly appointments with her mentor Amy. And no training, book, or course on foreign relations could replace the lessons that Amy has learned from working with Busayo. Once the Women's Inspiration Center is further along, Amy plans to join Busayo in Nigeria.
Seeing the tall ebony skinned Busayo with the tiny fair skinned Amy, you could not imagine a portrait in greater physical contrasts. In some ways their backgrounds and their daily lives could not be more different. But look deeper. You will see two passionate women, one from the Global South and one from the Global North, each dedicated to making the world a safer and saner place, each stretching to fulfill her wildest aspirations, and each feeling blessed and changed forever by the other's friendship.
Other mentors hope to travel to Africa, Asia, and South America to meet their correspondents and to work alongside their sisters in realizing their dreams. Dr. Edonna Alexandria, a VOF correspondent and community leader from Uganda said it best, "Now you transfer your light back to me, and the circle continues, as we each learn to love, share, and encourage each other." This is my vision of global mutuality: side by side, North and South coming together to make each other whole, two halves of the sky.
Gail Straub, a pioneer in the field of empowerment, co-founded Empowerment Training Programs in 1981 and has offered her work to tens of thousands of people throughout America, Europe, Russia, China, Asia, and Africa. Her passion for women's empowerment led to her work in Russia where she trained activists in the empowerment methodology, helping them build a visionary leadership model for social change. She has done similar work in China where the Chinese Women's Federation adopted the empowerment framework. Currently she leads the International Women's Empowerment Initiative to help women in Afghanistan, Darfur, Nigeria, and South Africa heal from violence and build strong empowered lives. She has consulted to many organizations committed to women's empowerment including the Women's Leadership Center at Omega, World Pulse, and Feminist.com.