womanhood.

“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” – Maya Angelou

                               

“You can’t play with us. You’re a girl.”

Girl. It spits harshly off his tongue as though my gender is a direct, detestable offense to his playground territory. Tears brimmed my delicate eyelids and I walked away, sensitive to the idea that inherently, I was an outcast. Undeterred, I secretly brought my Aurora soccer club jersey to school the following day. I slipped the mesh green “28” jersey with “Heather” on my back with pride during our lunch break. Come hell or high water, I was going to play – with the boys.

When recess commenced, like a first class ticket, the jersey bought me leverage and I was suddenly allowed to join the match. Insecure, it was the first time I ever muttered the word, “shit” – largely to fit in with the other 3rd grade posse kicking the ball around with me. Girl, or not, I just wanted to play.

                               

The complexity of humanness strikes me when I watch a homeless man hold a cardboard box sign that reads “needing food.” I’m in the back-seat of my dad’s car, as he drives us home after a long day of school and sports practice. We’re eating the snacks he’s allowed us to purchase at 7-Eleven. Lance even has a freshly-printed pack of Pokémon cards, so you can be sure he was some kind of happy camper. I glance at this man, outside my window, probably even a few years older than my dad, and I ask myself, “who is he?” He’s not just a man. He’s a person, who happens to be hungry.

Yet, for some reason, I, a young girl, got to be in a warm car, with food, on the way home. I realize then that whatever – or whomever – I was wasn’t the full story. We aren’t the sum of our gender, of our incomes, of our jobs, of our status, of our families, of anything. We move between boundaries, definitions, and experiences, recognizing that our lives give expression to whom we become. I think about these things as a young girl because it seems to be the only way I can make sense of the world. What else am I supposed to think, when I see a hungry person on the side of the road?

                               

I hid boxes of Kleenex under my bed. My best friend since the 4th grade was developing fast, already adorning large bras at the age of 12. To keep pace, I stuffed tissue into the small trainer bras that I was able to wear. I was preoccupied with my body and fixated on the fact that I didn’t have the slim, full-breasted look like my friends. Or in the magazines I saw at the grocery store. I was a flat-chested girl, with glasses, and face sprinkled with acne. I thought I was an ugly girl.

                               

Sometime around the age of 16, I heard a sermon about submission. Not through the lens of Christ, but to men, specifically and most emphatically, men. My obedience, to a man, was equated to my reputability as a woman. It didn’t make sense to me. But, the Bible said something like it – so it had to be right, right? The legalistic nature of this, and many other morality clauses of the sacred texts would haunt me for years.

Eventually, the gospel broke through. Eventually, I saw the beauty, strength, and possibility of womanhood because of the message Jesus came to share. Before this, though, I experienced the real dangers that moral extremes bring to the expression of womanhood. Women are not meant to be controlled – but we are. Women are not meant to be sidelined – but we are.

A mentor of mine recently told me that at 83, and over 60 years of marriage, “there is no way in hell that I could have sacrificed my own inner strength for the sake of my husband.” She went on to say, “Our submission and partnership is built on a mutually exclusive commitment. I follow God – not my husband. I honor him. I listen to him. But, our relationship is give-and-take. God did not make me to be quiet. He gave me things to say. And dammit, I’m going to say them.” Her words brought healing. Her words brought permission to give life to the voice inside.

                               

My life changed when I went to Mississippi and Alabama for the first time as a freshman in college. On our trip, to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, I spoke with two women that deeply informed my understanding of growing up and becoming. The first woman provided her testimony of survival at a rural church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Her church had been burnt by the KKK in the 1960’s and she had then spent her life building reconciliation and forgiveness throughout the community – for people of all colors. The second woman was named Roslyn. I met her in Birmingham. I don’t remember much about the conversation other than that she appreciated a warm sandwich more than anyone I had met in a long time. She was in between jobs, trying to make ends meet, and she wasn’t going to give up.

One night, I stayed up late at the church that was hosting our stay. The sanctuary lights remained lit and I entered the sacred space. I stared at a portrait of Jesus for 30 minutes. I questioned everything I had ever been told. Womanhood, I realized, was much like the way God has formed our lives. With clay, He works like a potter, molding us, forming us, building us up. My life was also shaped by my own fingerprints. What did I want my life to say? Who would I become?

I didn’t become a Christian that night – I already was one. I became an independent thinker.

                               

New Orleans, Louisiana is crowded, noisy, and bursting at the seams with fruity hurricanes, mojitos, and Jack Daniels, most noticeably during the long, lazy week of Spring Break. With two car-loads of my college girlfriends, we had made the trip down to the Bayou from Arkansas so I could work on my senior thesis. And, you know, do everything else that comes with Spring Break shenanigans. One night, we enjoyed a drink or two (and perhaps more) and were singing “Tik Tok” by KeSha on a random karaoke stage. I was energized and happy. With some of my favorite people, we were soaking up the last few months of our college experience.

Our show-stopping tune of karaoke finished just after 1:00am and so as I exited the stage, I noticed the drunken stupor of the crowd had risen. A particularly inebriated man, probably in his mid-40’s approached me hastily. He squeezed my butt and smiled. I didn’t say anything. He slurred ,”hi” and then wasted no time to proposition me – not before acknowledging that he had a wife and young baby at home.

I flipped out. Crying, distressed, and visibly upset, I walked back to the open air of Bourbon Street. I was mad he grabbed me. I was disrespected, as was his family, and it left an incredibly foul taste in my mouth. I was infuriated that he presumed he could do whatever he wanted.

                               

I was new to the village, only having had moved to Ruramira the day before as my community’s first ever Peace Corps Volunteer. Successfully, I made it through my first night, and decided to introduce myself to the local government authorities. The office was a mile walk from my blue-green home. Putting one foot in front of the other, I absorbed the rolling mountains, the ubiquity of bananas, trees, and the songs of chirping birds. I lived in a beautiful, breath-taking community in the Eastern Province.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man, Mugabire, joined me abrasively on the side of the road. I would learn later that Mugabire was Ugandan (and thus the reason behind his perfect English) and was often in trouble for causing issues with other individuals, especially women. I was new then, though, and I didn’t know this. Aggressively, he spoke and followed me on the long stretch of rural road.

“Hello, which country are you coming from?”

“Hi – I’m from America. The United States of America.”

“You’re in Rwanda. Why?”

“I’ve come here to learn about Rwanda, to make friends, to support this community, and to teach English at the local secondary school.”

It of course, all sounded quite rehearsed, but like I mentioned, I was a newcomer.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Please. I want to sleep with you. I will marry you.”

Slightly alarmed, I pause, don’t say anything, and begin to look upon the horizon for people who might be nearby. I curse myself; it’s 11:00am and nearly everyone is working their fields, away from their homes. He presses further.

“Give me sex. I want your pussy – “

I interrupt this time and speak with every drop of boldness I have in my voice, “Please. Go. Leave me alone.”

It’s escalating and he calls me a bitch.

I start to run.

When I reach the local officials’ office, I’m crying hysterically. When I tell them this man was Mugabire, the shake their heads. “Oh Mugabire…Oh Mugabire…”

                               

With 30 bright, young women singing self-made songs of hope and autonomy, my body feels out of balance, like I am flying. I’ve taught this girls’ group (GLOW – Girls Leading Our World) about periods, sex, confidence, relationships, public speaking, domestic violence, and identity. I’ve been teaching them for months, and I realize that in the process, I’ve been just as much of a student of them as they have been students for me. As they have worked to establish their voices at home and at school, they have released me of my own assumptions about men, about women, and about the unity of people together.

This group of women has brought together unique forces in our ecosystem of our community (the headmaster, local authorities, fathers, mothers, and brothers) to celebrate their successes as a recognized organization at our school. Their mission is to show that shared leadership is the only way forward in a society.

I close my eyes as the traditional Rwandan beat catches my ears. My soul dances, and I thank God that I was born who I was.

                               

On a date arranged through online networking, I’m propositioned for sex in less than 10 minutes. I’m also asked when I last “put out” for someone else. This excuse of a person asks me three times to sleep with him as I sit across the table. Casually, he admits that he lied about certain parts of his online profile, and quickly, my instincts tell me that I could be sitting adjacent to a rapist.

I firmly respond with a hard “no.” In a flurry of goodbyes he attempts to punch my face. He calls me a “f****** bitch c***.” I run. Around the parking lot, I hide behind several cars that glisten under the night lamps. When I reach my car, I lock the door, and I shake without any possibility of stopping. The harassment continues via text message and I cannot feel safe. I am exposed, as if my dignity is torn apart. I am a woman. A mighty, gritty woman. Yet still, in a matter of minutes, someone else has been given license to threaten every piece that is holding me together.

                               

Recently released from rehabilitation, I’m tasked with spending time with my brother for three days straight. He is getting clean, and to do so, he needs extra support to make sure he gets there. I’m recently returned from Rwanda (read: jobless) and my parents are all responding to their own working commitments and so, voila! Lance and I spend extra time together –more than we had spent together in the previous five years.

We start by doing what we do best: eating. Slowly though, like strangers getting to know each other for the first time, we go on long walks and dig through old notebooks and journals we wrote when we were younger. We laugh hysterically. We also cry together. We discuss hard things. Emotional things.

In the middle of a green belt, on the edge of Denver, I share parts of myself that at the time, I hadn’t yet revealed to other people in my family. My brother asks questions, gently, ever so kindly and hugs me after we finish our walk.

I won’t soon forget the way he looked at me. With the corners of his own pain so fresh on his heart, I could have understood if my own pain would be too much of a burden. But for him, it wasn’t. He listened, acknowledged it, and assured me that I was going to be okay.

Womanhood, in its optimal place, is a kind of freedom to be liberated; to be honest; to be open. My brother taught me that. A man. A gentle, kind, brilliant, passionate, man. That’s the beauty of this earth you know, that we all get to learn together like that. Everyone is a teacher.

                               

It’s 2016, and I’m learning each and every day about what womanhood is all about.

For me, it’s never been dainty or distant. It’s not a journey of perfection or working far too much. Womanhood is releasing the notion that we have to save the world all by ourselves. Becoming a woman calls for incredible grace, a damn good sense of humor, and an ability to listen, see, and celebrate people. Tolerance – of anyone, male or female – is a sad expectation. Celebrate. Exploring my own feminism builds a trust in the communities we become a part of. It empowers men, recognizing that men are equally wonderful, interesting, and capable. Men do not hate women – and vice versa. And so, we must work together, to remove seeds of misunderstanding, hatred, and contempt. We have to call out discrimination, inequality, maltreatment, and hatred when we see it – male or female. And in a world, where women (and men) are harassed, we must do everything we can to stop it. We must be willing to acknowledge the dignity and value of others, even if that scares the hell out of you.

Being a woman propels me forward in this pursuit. For myself, for my future children – for all of us. It’s a worthy, worthy fight, my friends.

                               

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou

empowered, to empower.

Friends since 2007, Rachel and I together have ventured through the intensity and magic of Disney World, the coast-lines of Ghana, and questionable neighborhoods in New Orleans.

This last weekend, however, we had one of my most favorite adventures to date.

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Montgomery, Alabama.

On Sunday, we sat in the pews of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. A center point for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to exhort the African-American community in non-violence and agape love, I couldn’t believe we were hearing the Gospel in such a rich, history-soaked place. Bah. 

On my birthday, the day before, we trekked 50 miles to Selma, Alabama where the famous Selma-Montgomery march took place in 1965. Nonviolent demonstrators, led by King and a band of other strong, resilient, and visionaries, walked for four days to the State Capitol of Alabama to increase efforts for registration of all voters. To say this was my favorite birthday ever would not be an exaggeration; I have spent years reading about the Civil Rights Movement and yet, here I was! 12469445_10154569586913902_2271018059112534330_o.jpg

The thing is, I’m reminded, is that truthfully, the struggle is real and the struggle continues. Not only for groups in our country, but for people around the world. People don’t have choice; people don’t have a voice in their own lives.

Just in the last week, as I’ve heard about failing school systems in the Deep South, I’ve also been re-connected with friends in Rwanda who are unable to feed their families. I’ve read statistics telling me that only 2% of land in the world is owned by women; and I’ve perused reports of violence and emigration coming from the Middle East. We live in a broken world. Then – and now.

I thought about these places, these movements, these efforts as I sipped coffee this morning. Researching empowerment methodologies, I couldn’t let go of the hot-button question in development work:

 how do you literally empower another human?

The Civil Rights Movement would never had traction without the empowered individuals – and thus an empowered community – to stand up for what was right.

Nor can we live our lives un-empowered.

If we do, how can we expect to make the right choices for ourselves? How can we instill unity in our communities? How can we nurture our families? How can we know things like grace and forgiveness – essential components to the human experience?

Where we recognize injustice, we must do something.

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It could be in our own lives, within our very own communities, or an issue that is happening a million miles away. That problem in Burundi? It’s our problem too. That issue in Syria? Yep, it matters in our lives. And obviously, the gun-violence down the street or even the tensions of racial misunderstanding – they affect us also. We are only unaffected if we choose to be. If we really believe in micro and macro-scale empowerment, these things, they must matter.

That’s what I think we have to do. It’s more than designing a project to fit projections, grant requirements, or assumptions perfectly. Instead, real empowerment is enabling a person to realize the capacity, value, and how to act upon it in their life. And goodness, it’s hard. It’s a lot more complex than handing out a worksheet and saying, “you mean something.” Instead, I think we have to start on a more fundamental level. You have to engage in a relationship with someone, learn about them – and their culture – and empower livelihood from a point of awareness and then to a point of action.

I love thinking about these things.

While researching this morning for The Women’s Bakery, I spent time learning about Acumen, a non-profit that invests in scale-able global projects. Acumen emphasizes the need for dignity of others as they make patient, wise, and practical investments in the skills of individuals around the world. On their website, they have their manifesto posted, and it’s a beautiful piece, highlighting the power behind doing what is right, and the humility to realize that though we might make mistakes, we still must try. The power of us even having the choice to help, well, that’s the beauty of empowerment – we can be empowered to empower. Boom.

A Manifesto. 

It starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices
unheard, and recognizing potential where others see
despair.

It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go
where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes
capital work for us, not control us.

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world
as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be.
It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to
admit failure, and the courage to start again.

It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a
hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency,
breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption.
Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.

Acumen: it’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical
world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and
building a world based on dignity.

6 girls, 6 degrees: 2020.

It started with Divine & Yazina; two young women that impacted my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2011-2013.

In finishing my service late 2013, I was determined to continue to be an advocate for girls’ education. Of the many issues of the world that can pull heartstrings, this was the one for me, and teaching in Ruramira revealed that over and over again. It was the girls who had educated me on life, cooking, new conceptions of woman-hood, family, and rural living in Rwanda. Their lives exuded both joy – even in the midst of hardship. Without them, I am confident my service as a teacher would have been greatly, greatly different. I know, without a doubt, God placed these group of women in my life for a reason – I see that more as the years go by. IMG_2716

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More than teaching, they simply demonstrated what it means to live simply and to do so with both great humility and strength.

Yazina has gone on to study physics & chemistry at a “school of excellence” in the northeastern corner of the country (upon visiting I was amazed at the plethora of labs with microscopes!) and Divine is studying history while pursuing her religious interest with peers at school. I’ve visited both, and I’ve been pleased to see that their school environments are significantly more positive than what is offered at our home, in the village.

As supporters came, so did the ability to grow this cause. Because of my own continued professional opportunities in Rwanda, I have had the unique chance to stay in touch with not only Divine and Yazina, but also Eugenie, Maisara, Zahara, and Donatha, Divine’s sister. 

Eugenie and her deep love for reading.

Eugenie and her deep love for reading.

Each girl is from Eastern Rwanda and each girl has visions for their future. With increased funds, I felt led to expand the offering to the girls listed above. Maisara is studying in a school tucked away out West (studying math & chemistry); Zahara is in training to be a nursery school teacher; and Donatha is new to the Secondary School scene – having started this year.

These girls became my friends 4 years ago; now they are like sisters. I’m happy to share this donation opportunity again. For those that have helped been a part of this dream – I, and the girls, are forever thankful and full of gratitude. They have shed tears in thinking of the generosity they have seen. They tell me, “this is the great blessing in their life.”

See the link below for further opportunities to contribute – the last $800 that I am fundraising for will cover the finishing expenses to get these girls all completed in secondary by 2020. Amazing. Praise God and that this may glorify His good work in this country – and in them.

Educate “The Girls”

women’s day revisited

my GLOW girls at camp last summer.

my GLOW girls at camp last summer.

Last weekend was International Women’s Day.

It’s a cool day because it’s a celebration, a call to action, a recognition, and honestly, a pretty big party all over the globe. People call out great women who have done incredible things – and many women also gather together to discuss what can be done further into the future.

Here’s one of my favorite videos of a girl who’s out there doing a wonderful thing on her own accord: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NT_O5xtEhsw

If nothing else, it’s a day for personal reflection, thinking about what it means to be a woman, and being proud of that.

Last year, right around this time, my girls were working closely with GirlHub Rwanda, a program sponsored by the Nike Foundation, to complete “consultations”. Their representatives came to our school, ran some activities, and interviewed the girls about their experiences and stories.

To celebrate Women’s Day last year, the Nike representatives had come for the first time, and filmed me teaching the girls lyrics to Alicia Key’s “Superwoman” song. You can be sure that for the rest of the school year, our club meetings were full of adolescent girls screaming “teacher! I am a superwoman!” I’m not kidding.

The Girl Hub team would came later and interview them about having a safe space at school for our GLOW club.

They would come again and ask them to declare what needed to be done to help girls’ in poverty. They wanted their ideas to put them on the agenda for the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. I couldn’t stress it enough to the girls: y’all are a BIG deal!

And yet again, they would come another time and film them for the video they created to present to representatives of the United Nations.

In making decisions for my “next step” I try to close my eyes and imagine those girls in the room around me. It’s important for me to do that because I think it helps me stay anchored in finding exactly what I’ll be doing with my life. I imagine they are there, singing, sharing their ideas like they always did – and I ask myself, what continues to be their most pressing need?

If I’m guided by that question, then I am confident in any kind of decision I will make.

My women’s day celebration was quiet this year – work, running, dinner – but those girls, and many others, were on my mind. I keep them close in my heart and am proud of the work they have done – and will continue to do. International Women’s Day, like I noted, is certainly a time to appreciate the accomplishments of women. However, it’s an important time to also consider what’s left to be done and the many things that not only should be addressed but need to be addressed.

I’m still in constant contact with several of my girls and they are doing quite well. I really believe that a lot of our discussions in GLOW shifted their worldview just enough to see their own possibilities. And that’s amazing.

But perhaps what has been most difficult in coming back is knowing the reach of GLOW and our discussions, and yet realizing that ultimately, a lot of my girls are still “stuck” in an economically stagnant situation. That’s why I have been an avid supporter and advocate for their education. I believe it’s their chance – their access – to a life where all of their basic needs are met. I’m not looking to be their savior or be the one that rescues them. I’m really not. But, if I’m able to link them with opportunities – where it will be them having to make a case for themselves – then I’m happy to be that door.

Take Divine. Last we spoke, she was ranked #2 in her class, was chosen to represent her school when the bishop came to visit, and has started to take part in the school’s debate club. She’s pulling her weight, and she’s getting results.

Poverty is cruel and unfair and wrong. And unfortunately, women tend to take a huge brunt of that problem. I’ve been doing a lot of reading however, and there is reason to hope. In the world of microfinance, women are huge targets when it comes to finding reliable and strong borrowers; when you give a woman a loan she uses it well. She invests in her family, in food, and in outcomes that can provide sustainability to her family in the long run. Women tend to use their money to benefit a wide-range of people in the world of small-scale loans – and I think that’s where you can find a lot of hope and promise in consideration of many attempts to alleviate poverty. No answer is perfect, but some are better than others.

Below are a couple links related to Women’s Day; the first is a video that was released last year regarding the global development goals for women which Divine appears in, the second is how this video was made in which a lot of my girls show up in, and the last link is the findings report after the entire process of gathering girls’ ideas from more than 14 different countries and 500 different girls.

The Girl Declaration

Launching the Girl Declaration

Insights Report from the Girl Declaration

Nike Girl Hub Consultation

Nike Girl Hub Consultation

Nike Girl Hub Consultation

Nike Girl Hub Consultation