when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

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That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

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stand by me

Ben E. King authored (brilliantly) “Stand by Me” in 1960. It’s one of my favorite songs – ever. Always has been. At least since I started listening to music as a young girl. The lyrics are hauntingly stunning and poetic. So simple – and yet they say so much.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

I stumbled across the Tracy Chapman cover this week and it’s been on replay for the last few days. I love her humble renditions; something about her voice brings me to tears frequently.

Always, it seems, I hold tightly to “Stand by Me” when big change and transition presents itself in life.

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Three years ago, I remember sitting underneath the expansive, starry, deep blue sky at Maisara’s home in our village. I still had 6 months left in my Peace Corps service, but we were talking about the pending change – and what would come after.

“We don’t always know what is ahead of us, Maisara,” I began, “but, you can be sure that no matter the distance between us, I will always stand by you. I will support you, love you, and encourage you – no matter where I go. I want to hold onto these times forever, but don’t worry, even better is going to come. Just you wait and see.”

She chuckled, almost in disbelief, “Yego sha! Turi kumwe.” (Yes my dear, we are together).

I didn’t have to say anything. I knew I would remain true to my word. In turn, I knew she – and her sister – would continue to impact my life in unimaginable ways. They have. They do. They will.

They, along with 4 other girls, are a part of a group of women that have already changed their country. They hail from deep village pockets; from places many Rwandans have never heard of. They went to a tired, resource-lacking public school. Be it sickness, death, poverty, divorce, or hunger, they struggle.

Still. That is only one side of their story. They are writing the next part. They write with their excellent marks; with their leadership positions; with their shifting attitudes; and with their dreams. Always, with their dreams.

We talk monthly, and though they don’t realize it, those conversations are often what propel me to keep going too, to keep my head up and remain open to all that life has for us.  They inspired me when we lived together so many years ago – and even now they have the ability to do so. It’s incredible. They’ve taught me so much about life. They are the great storytellers in my life.

Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school this year.
Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school next year.

When I left Rwanda, that was my dream. That our lives would remain connected; forging together with gusto; and helping pave the way for greater access to education. It’s happening – and we’re almost there. If you want to help the girls finish the sprint to the finish you can contribute to the fund here

I set out to raise $4,000 to make this happen about two years ago, and now, with only a couple terms to go, we’re only in need of $625! Let’s do this. Murakoze cyane. Thank you very much.

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Pumping Iron – Intentionally.

“You should plan to be here 3 days a week. Well, more like 4 or 5.”

“I can definitely commit to 3. 4 or 5 times on a good, not-so-stressful kind of week, ya know?”

“Well, yes. But 4, 5 gym sessions will get you back to 120 pounds in no time. It will be easy for you, actually.”

My lips curl in dismay as my eyebrows raise to new heights that I didn’t know was possible – was this really happening? 

Since joining a new gym three weeks ago, I was now taking my “free fit assessment.” I didn’t realize this would include being told that I could stand to get rid of 15 pounds. Not exactly the thing a woman wants to hear in the wee hours on a Monday morning. Perhaps it wasn’t the weight that so much bothered me – it was the intent of why I would be working out in the first place.

The trainer showed me a few strength training exercises and then let me loose to do what I had really come to do: lift some weights. De-stress. Get strong.

I turned on my favorite playlist from Spotify – HellaWella Strong Women Playlist – and began squat repetitions. These used to be hell, you know, back when I was training in college for field hockey. Somewhere along the way, they became fun. Yeah, adult life is weird like that.

“Working out” is too often associated with only weight loss and less with overall mental and physical nourishment. To me, that’s kind of dangerous. I’m sure 95% of women that walk through the gym doors would like to shed some pounds. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, lifting weights reminds me a bit of what it’s like to have faith.

If you go to church, expecting that all of your problems are going away, you are doing the same thing as walking through the doors with hopes of only looking better. What about the process of prayer? Of having a spiritual relationship? What about gaining confidence in your ability to pick up a 20lb dumbbell? Or perhaps, that euphoric victory of spending 10 extra minutes on the elliptical? Or moreover, creating a healthier lifestyle for yourself?

You see, intention matters. With everything. Not just with things like our spiritual lives, or our relationships, or our tasks at work. I think intention – even at the gym – is important. Legalistic attitudes create unhealthy patterns which culminate in a greater sense of discontent. If I am going to be spending 3,4, or 5 days a week at the gym, I am not going to enslave myself to the idea that I had to lose weight to look good.

Instead, I have made a resolute commitment to work out for the sake of the process. Because it creates strength, confidence, and an outlet for me. Because it’s literally, good for my body and maintains healthy levels in blood pressure, endorphins, and with muscle activity. Because I like to do it.

We have to fight for this. Especially as women. We have to fight for pumping iron because it’s a healthy thing to do – not simply because it will allow us to look thin. And if you don’t like lifting a hunk of weight, try kettle bells. Give rowing a go. Take a walk outside. Ultimately, healthy living is for you to decide. Don’t let someone take that away from you.

Oh, and because it’s awesome, here’s some great tunes you can ad to your workout playlist if you are needing an extra boost. These are the gems I have been jamming to. They are awesome. Lift on, friends, lift on!

  • Independent Women, Destiny’s Child
  • Shake it Out, Florence + The Machine
  • Equestrian, US Royalty
  • Runaway, Ziggy Alberts
  • Family Affair, Mary J. Blige
  • Wannabe, Spice Girls
  • Fancy, Iggy Azalea
  • Stay, Kygo
  • Wild Things, Alessia Cara
  • Sorry, Justin Bieber
  • Spirits, The Strumbellas

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Dear All of Us.

Dear All of Us,

I’m not the first woman to write this, nor will I be the last. 

Foot to pavement, I gallop clumsily along Downing Street, passing the greasy, tantalizing taco truck and the curbs and corners of Denver’s Historic Five Points. Once a shotty part of town, sprinkles of gentrification are in the air, and the rumors are true: Five Points “has arrived.”  Hipsters drink chem-exed coffee for $5.00 on wood-brimmed porches while stark shadows of government-housed families live along the purple-flower-adorned paths across the street. We live in a weird, strange world.

With hints of spring enveloping my spirit (I’m literally obsessed with 75-degree weather), I skip onto my coffee date. I’m meeting an urban farmer to chat about bread and the universal potency it has for social change at Purple Door Coffee. Ahem, talk about hipster. (Takes one to know one..?)

The hum of passing vehicles drowns the stillness of the day’s clarity, but fails to be loud enough to drown the cat-call of whistling and hooting from the left side of the road.

“I like that…come over here baby…I’ll smack that ass…”

Whistles and laughs continue from this particular man and his pals, as their ford truck drives off abruptly. I look up, but forward. I’m annoyed because this is the fourth time this has happened this week. And, y’all, it’s Tuesday.

Flashes of those looks, those calls, those words, those whistles rush back uncontrollably into my mind. I don’t want to be angry. I really, really don’t. But, it’s hard not to feel bothered when other people have the power to not only speak at you a certain way – but look at you a certain way. It’s been happening since….well. Forever.

Last month, on a lone, run-down street in Montgomery, Alabama, a man in a beat-up white Taurus cut-off part of the road so that he could speak directly at me as he veered to the side. He slurred, “hey BAE…give me your number. I need to show you a good time…”

First things first. What the heck is BAE? In that moment, I knew that I’d either been living under a rock or worse yet, I’m getting old. Then, in reference to his demand, I was terrified to say “no.” Here I was – the privileged, strong, empowered woman that I am and I couldn’t stand up to this man boldly. I was afraid. I feared that perhaps he had something in his car. Worse yet, I was afraid he would get out of his car if I didn’t oblige. These unsaid, unspoken experiences of voicelessness are the roots of so many barriers for women around the world. Race, socioeconomic situation, and geography don’t necessarily make the voicelessness of women go away. It can happen to any of us.

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of holding high expectations of men, and too often being disappointed. I’m tired of watching women that I care about – all over the world – remain subjugated and without opportunity because “that’s what we do.”

The moment my world changed – perhaps the moment I became a “feminist” if you so wish to use that word – was when in one week I was made aware of a sexually abusive situation for a female student and two other female students being harassed by their father at home and yet another female student dropping out of school because the family’s son needed the allocated money for education – not her.

I’ve also had dear friends open up about rape; I’ve born witness to stories of disenfranchisement; an older family member recently discussed the oppression she felt when she was barred from having a job to support her family; and I’ve watched subservient expectations for women affect the leadership roles afforded to them. These might be extreme examples – but they aren’t uncommon. Voicelessness is an issue we face each day. We just might not name it because we’ve accepted this as normal.

This isn’t only a man/woman issue. It’s an human issue. As in – you. As in – me. All of us. There are far too many good men in the world for this to remain. Voicelessness requires the empowerment of women, certainly, but the support and advocacy of men too. It asks us to take a step back, to reflect on our own assumptions, and understand how our behaviors are affected.

God did create men and guess what? He created women too. Before that though, he created the context for humanity. The context for us to live together. If Jesus can value the least of these – why can’t we understand that all of his teachings point to loving God, loving others? Men, women – all of us. We are all uniquely created, designed to do inherently different things, but we do not have to place unequal value on this. We don’t have to let biological diversity create boundaries for social, political, and personal rights. We should all be able to speak. We should all be respected.

I’m not asking you to wave a flag of girl power. I’m asking for you to not say nasty things to me when I’m walking outside. I’m asking for you to see my heart – not only my sex. I’m asking for a recognition of the beautiful capabilities of both men and women.

Call me a feminist, call me a hippie, I don’t really care. But as I keep walking these streets I remain undeterred in my faith and in my hopes. It can be better than this.

It definitely can.

Love,

Me.

Flavia | Woman of the Week

Note – This story can also be viewed – with more information on The Women’s Bakery! – using the link below. 

The Women’s Bakery Blog

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Nestled tightly on a Kigali-bound bus from Kayonza, I grasped my bananas as multiple passengers passed by. The scorching heat was undeniable and unsurprising; even as evening draws near, the Rwandan sun is often relentless. Thank goodness for sunscreen.

I watched as a woman with a purple dress entered and sat in a seat a few rows ahead. Instantly, I realize there was something calming, interesting, and warm about her. I look at my brown paper bag of bananas. At this point, there are just about five other passengers on the bus and so I think, “oh what the heck, let’s share these things.”

I offer each person a banana and they gladly and warmly receive it. Bananas are much like gold here, after all, and so there isn’t a time or place where bananas are not welcome.

This same woman turns towards me and we begin a light conversation in Kinyarwanda. However, as she learned more about me and in turn, The Women’s Bakery, her enthusiasm steadily increased. She explained that she was Flavia, the leader of Kayonza’s co-operative group for women. Raised in Kayonza, her heart beats for the area and for the women around. “Life is hard,” she remarks, “and so I seek to help them to build their livelihoods. Even if it’s a small difference.”

Thrilled, we exchange contact information. I wasn’t sure what the connection would lead to – but I had a sense that I had not seen the last of this woman.

*

Faithful to her word, Flavia called a few days later and arranged a follow-up meeting in Kigali. She was serious; she wanted more information about The Women’s Bakery. On her own volition and arrangement, Flavia traveled the 2-hour bus ride into Kigali to learn more about our model, our training, and our belief in business as a way to empower, ignite, and transform lives of women. We gulped tea together, and she nodded along as I explained the nature of our phased-program, the training fee cost, the hope for bakery start-ups, and our vision as an organization to have a presence throughout Rwanda (and beyond). “Yes…yes…” she repeated again, and again.

Her particular group in Kayonza includes 30 women who already have some experience in bag-making with banana leaves, but are looking to grow in their vocational capacity. Flavia, too, is a believer in business; this is what drew her in to learn more about our education offerings in the first place. And so, in our discussions, we tried to understand how our program could match with her group and what ‘next steps’ we would need to take.

*

Just two weeks later, I and Meg, our East African Programs Officer, found ourselves back in Kayonza. This time, however, we were in a red, stuffy room at a children’s educational development center that Flavia had helped initiate and get off the ground. This, in addition, to the other roles she has played as a leader in the Kayonza community; I felt as though the more I learned about Flavia, the more dynamic she appeared to be.

We did talk. We started the conversation.

But don’t be fooled, we danced. Of course. Always, always dancing in Rwanda.

The traditional Rwandan dancing came after our arrival and being introduced to the group of women Flavia helped to organize. Each woman shared their name and their home village. Some came in beautiful fabrics found only in these corners of the world, and as each woman presented themselves, I remembered how each one has a story. Each one has a vision. How humbling and grateful I am to work for an organization that blends these stories together for change. Wow.

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We told them of what we do, of the trainings we have completed in other parts of Rwanda and Tanzania, and our vision for women, bread, and business. The women – attentive, excited, and numerous – listened and asked questions. We spoke of the materials for training needed, the kinds of lessons we teach, and the process of what happens after the training is completed. We explained that because of the informational nature of this meeting, our team wanted to better understand if the Kayonza cooperative was ready, compatible, and able to consider seriously entering the process for TWB training.

This is the general process we have as an organization right now – to begin a training, it is important to meet, discuss, share, and negotiate how it would work for each group. Every women’s group that we meet and partner with is different, and the question of commitment and feasibility is always on our minds.

As our team meets with different potential partners, groups, and women, we realize and recognize that the discussions and process are truly a building process. Empowerment, education, and transformational change don’t just happen overnight. It’s a relationship, it’s a discussion, and we were excited to begin those conversations with this specific group in Kayonza. Moving forward will be dependent on numerous variables, largely funding, and yet, the opportunity persists; the need remains. It’s a gap in the world that we are driven by – women’s empowerment – and this group in Kayonza (along with Flavia) was a reminder that because the need remains, we are able to offer opportunity and choice as market-based solutions. That, we believe, is bread power.

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Our woman of the week is Flavia.

Flavia, a leader who is seeking, eyes opened wide, for access and opportunity for her women’s group. Demonstrating what strong advocacy looks like, the conversation for a potential group match would never have begun if she had not initiated the initially small, light-hearted discussion a few weeks back on that sun-soaked bus.

As an organization, we appreciate women like Flavia, as these are the women who are changing, renewing, and innovating their communities – more and more, we hope with bread. Because who doesn’t love a good loaf, right?

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the tasty side of what we do.

the tasty side of what we do.

bread makes for perfect lunch time meals.

bread makes for perfect lunch time meals.

honey, oat, and olive oil.

honey, oat, and olive oil.

new recipes - spinach! basil! oh my!

new recipes – spinach! basil! oh my!

Empowerment (theoretically).

A candle-lit room, electricity gone, alone with a man twice my age, isolated in the deep hills and forests of a country that is not my own. Sure, I have built, metaphorically speaking, a sense of belonging here. Sort of. But Rwanda is not my home, cannot be my home. This man isn’t Rwandan either; but I don’t trust him. This is his home, he’s been living here for 9 years. I speak nervously. What in the world did I get myself into?

I’m not in any real danger. There are people around. People from all over the world, actually. From Hong Kong, from Slovenia, and even from my country, the United States. It’s an eclectic group of people that found themselves drawn to this particular place, in a cabin-like structure, perched on the top of quite literally, one of a thousand hills.

I do get back to my tent, just outside the cabin, eventually. But, not before I internally scold myself for being vulnerable, voiceless, and far less bold than I would expect of myself.

I tucked myself into a small, red sleeping bag, warm from the flushing blood in my body.

Herein lies the real struggle of women in the world; often, more often than we should, we find ourselves in situations where simply because of dynamics we become voiceless, powerless, senseless. I could have said something, but I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE I COULD.

Friends, this is coming from someone who reads any article about women making progress in any kind of way, in any kind of society. I am pretty sure I included “women’s empowerment advocate” or something like that on my twitter profile. I live for this stuff. And yet, I’m not immune to encountering a minor blip of dis empowerment. I’m not pretending, by any stretch of the imagination, to fight the battles that some of the girls I know have faced. I haven’t been blatantly discriminated against (for a while, anyway) or suffered continual disfranchisement or abuse. What I am saying is that our structures run so deep, that they pervade even in the small corners of power in relationships and situations. I have preached self-confidence, but what happens when the element of confidence becomes a moot point, and you are quieted simply because of how the world works?

*

This got me thinking. And thinking some more. It makes me believe even more ardently in a dual & multi-pronged approach to empowering women – at all levels. If we are going to teach women their rights, their abilities, their dignity, than we should be doing the same for young men; not only encouraging them to see the value in lifting up women in society, but pushing men to see that their value, and women’s values, can intrinsically work together. It’s not enough to jump around and yell about “yes we can” when really, no you can’t. We have to actually make it possible. We need men, women, power structures, attitudes, and structures to make the shift too. That’s the thing about change in the world – we all have to have a piece of the pie.

*

I see it happening all the time. Women could be talking in a room, loudly, freely, until a man walks in. Voices are quieted, the transfer of power almost immediate. Rwanda may have the most proportion of women parliament members in the world, but I don’t care what the statistics tell us. Rwanda is very much a patriarchal society.

Men, sorry for the generalization, can often do what they want.

Let me give you an example of what happens when I get onto a public bus, nearly every morning.

Inevitably, everyone stares. This is normal. I have developed a habit of always carrying my IPOD and music. Yeah, I like greeting and saying “hello” to people, but to stay sane, I also don’t want to hear all of the commentary about my clothes, my skin, or how rich I am. That’s the downfall of speaking Kinyarwanda, I suppose, sometimes you wish you didn’t understand the words being spoken – especially when they are about you.

The staring is intense and I can feel it all over me. It’s normal, I tell myself. And it is, people in this culture tend to stare at anything. Just a couple weeks a fire broke out downtown and they couldn’t get a fire truck through because so many people gathered around – to stare.

So, I don’t feel so bad. Until I catch the eyes of some people, usually a man, roaming with his eyes in places I would rather he did not go. Women tend to look at me with a sense of scrutiny or amazement – usually because of my long hair. It’s different.

But men. Beady eyes survey, look, and I become uncomfortable. I cross my legs, very much aware of every square inch of skin they can see. I hate when this happens. Mostly because I feel like there is a part of me that can’t protect myself; I can’t stop them. I feel objectified. It sounds dramatic, perhaps, but when this happens daily, it does begin to affect you.

What kind of annoys me, more than anything, is the social dynamics of when I am traveling, hanging out with, or moving around with a man.

Let’s take the time Sarah, her boyfriend, Marshall, and I went hiking on Mt. Kigali.

We went to the base of the hill, climbed up it, and then weaved within a bunch of the other hills, mostly just for the hell of it. It was hot, but it was fun. Sarah and I noticed about half-way through that people were honestly, not paying that much attention to us. And if they were, it was far more subdued and less obnoxious than usual. Few comments of “sheri” (my love) came our way and I was only half-joking when I said it was because Marshall, a strong, tall, imposing Marine, was walking with us. Well, guess what? It’s true. I thought back to when my dad was here and hanging out with my guy friends – true. True. True. People are intimidated by men and because of this, they hold back, using much more restraint. Which on one hand, thrills me beyond belief. On the other hand, I find it irritating. Why can’t that happen when I’m walking alone? Why, when I seem most vulnerable, do situations like the ones above arise? I want to command respect no matter what. But, this is not a reality that we are always dealt, is it?

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To promote women’s empowerment, we must first encourage and stand by gender equality. I know, gender equality, it’s becoming one of the most over-used development go-to terms. Nobody really seems to know what it looks like in practice, but I think it’s simply valuing both genders, recognizing that men and women are different, but that it’s a good thing. Society shouldn’t be full of a bunch of robots that are the same, think the same, and have the same abilities. Gender equality implies equal opportunity to expression and capacity. Here’s the kicker, though: I am thinking from my particular structure of understanding. I’m an American, and so naturally “expression” along with innovation and creativity are values in society that I can list off without really much thought. But, I live in a country that actually values other things far before expression: order, security, tradition, and more than anything, respect.

Can we achieve gender equality without an emphasis on expression?

I don’t know. But, I would love your thoughts.

That’s just what I was thinking about today. On the bus. After a man looked at me the way many seem to do.

But, don’t get the wrong idea. As usual, there is reason to hope.

Just last week, at a church service out near Kigali International Airport, I sat next to a 60-something year old man who actually stood up, clapping, and hollering for the women pastor that had come to preach. I was a bit amazed by this demonstration of appreciation; so, of course, I had to ask some questions.

He explained to me that this woman was young, fearless, and had aimed to preach the Word of God for many years. Other churches had turned her away – women preaching was a big “no-no”. But not here. The congregation loved her. I pressed him further, asking his personal take about women in the church.

“We can all learn together. We all have something to share – whether you are a man or woman. She brings us energy. Of course we love her. She is a gift from God.”

Learning from each other. Maybe gender equality and empowerment for humans is less about expression and more about learning. Again, I don’t know. I’m still trying to sort it all out.

But, I do believe it’s possible.

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practical idealism & the holy land

As days and weeks have meshed together and mid-May has become mid-July, I take some stock of the weird stuff that has happened this summer, here in Kigali, Rwanda.

I couldn’t help think of all of the ups-and-downs as I passed a man walking swiftly past me. His shirt said something to the effect of, “every day I’m snufflin,” inclusive of a Sesame Street character reminiscent of way back when. I couldn’t help but smile and think, yep, life sure is strange here.

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*My job as an independent consultant to the bank really has become, well independent – my supervisor was recently demoted to another department, leaving me manager-less and ridin’ solo in the world of education finance. That’s been interesting. What this has meant is me giving slideshow presentations to room full of students, telling them how a loan could change the course of their educational path.

*I discovered a secret informant, and that’s all I can really say about that.

*I, along with some of my friends, met one of the three Rwandan visionaries in the mountain town of Kibeho, whom the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to in the 1980’s. Perhaps one of the most surreal experience ever.

*I served meat (namely beef) to top government officials at a post-funeral BBQ. Don’t ask.

*I watched World Cup matches at the open, fresh, and green lawn of the United States of America Embassy amidst hundreds of Americans and at other times in a dimly lit Kenyan bar with a cold Skol beer.

Really, not much surprises me anymore.

The fluidity of life here makes it so that routine is nearly impossible and days will bring you all sorts of places – good and bad.

People regularly ask, “how long have you been here?,” shocked that a) I could possibly speak Kinyarwanda and that b) I would continue to be here when I’m from the “promised land” of America. Wait. You left America, worked here, went home, and came back AGAIN? Apparently, this is mind-blowing a lot of times.

In ways, the 2 ½ years of time I have invested in Rwanda feels like forever and in other ways, it feels like so much more of a time warp where I can’t really fathom the continuum and diversity in which I have worked and lived in this country.

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And so, well, here’s the thing.

There’s more where that came from.

About a month ago, when summer was kickin’ into gear and the summer sun was hitting its peak (not that it really changes that much in equatorial Africa), I received an email from and old Peace Corps colleague. I saw the subject line and the sender and I didn’t have a clue in the least what it would be about. The message was pretty short and sweet:

Hey. Along with a capable and motivated group of Rwandan women, we are launching and expanding a social enterprise. You in?

And okay, of course there was way more to it than that. Yet, that was the hook-line-and sinker of the email; I was being offered a job. Not a volunteer position. A JOB.

The Rwanda Women’s Bakery, based in Eastern Rwanda, has been established as a subsidiary of an LLC (called The Women’s Bakery) that is aiming to use this small business start-up model around Rwanda and even the world to empower women. It all started as a small cooperative in my colleague’s Rwandan village when she was working as an education sector Peace Corps Volunteer. Women saw her baking, she taught them some of the basics, and the idea for a business began. With increased investment, business support, and a defined plan, the small social enterprise is ready to scale up. I, along with another former Peace Corps Volunteer, will be on board for a year to enable the operation and expansion of the bakery and its business model. The bakery addresses malnutrition by incorporating nutritious, locally-based ingredients into bread products, such as peanut flour as a substitute for the normal flour utilized. Moreover, women are trained and prepared to function autonomously. I will work (oh, and making a 5-figure income) to work myself out of a job: we are going to work to implement Rwandan-motivated internal organization and leadership. It’s a RWANDAN business through and through; yes, this is a development model I can get behind. Finally, a like-minded job opportunity that I feel strongly about. And hey, if it works, who knows where this could professionally end up. It’s risky, but I am drawn to that.

I exchanged emails with my colleagues, asking questions and considering what joining the team would mean. I also talked it over with my parents, and a couple of my best friends from back home, as I highly value their input. About a week ago, I committed to the one-year contract and agreed to jump in – with work starting this fall, in October, after a couple of months back home once I return to Colorado next month. I never imagined a small business venture as my next set of cards, so to speak, but hey that’s life. It’s full of unexpected surprises.

Something I have really learned about myself this summer is the need in my life for practical idealism; slowly, I feel a pull to emphasize certain passions I have (say, women’s empowerment) and combining that value with a practical approach (like, starting a business, for example). Because ultimately, I will be able to do all of the things I love – leadership development, mentorship, relationship building – while also feeding into something tangibly sustainable. The reality of poverty is this, especially as it concerns women: capital is needed. If you can provide both components – social and economic – welcome to social enterprise. Welcome to an opportunity to transform gender roles, expectations, and a real shot at having a long-term impact.

Where Peace Corps engaged my altruistic, idealistic, and optimistic belief in women’s empowerment, Urwego Opportunity Bank (UOB) has tempered that in the need for something that gives tangible ownership. I’m grateful for this summer for that reason more than anything; I realize now that we can still change women’s lives, but we may need to do so in ways we never before thought of. Or, in ways at least I never really thought of. My upcoming job will combine the cultural integration, social impact, relational development that I care so much about with accessibility to the market and actual financial worth.

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My eyes were wide open when we entered the small room and we saw her just standing there, greeting people, praying, no big deal. We had reached Kibeho, Rwanda earlier in the morning to accomplish two things:

1)     To visit Maisara’s school (literally on the property of the historical site, “The Holy Land” and,

 

welcome to the holy land - rwanda

welcome to the holy land – rwanda

a look at maisara's school.

a look at maisara’s school.

2)    To tour Kibeho.

kibeho, southern province

kibeho, southern province

the girls. reunited.

the girls. reunited.

I had come last year with Divine and a group from my church on the annual Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and now I was back again to see the place that visitors from all over the world come to see. Mary sightings here have been confirmed three times and in dramatic fashion too. When the visionaries saw the Virgin Mary, they also claimed to foresee bloodshed and incredible violence – all of this happening about a decade before the 1994 Genocide.

The gift shop, adjacent to a prayer chapel, held colorful rosaries and other trinkets that tourists can take back home to remember their experience. Also in the room was Natalie, the second of the three Rwandan visionaries. Um. WHAT?!

She greeted us, clapping lightly each time one of us made our introductions (I’m not kidding), telling her where we lived in Rwanda what we had been doing in this country.

PEACE is the only word that can describe those brief interactions.

It was like she held onto every word, giving us her undivided attention, as if we were the only people in the room. Simply, this woman exudes a sense of kindness that you find in few people.

When we turned to go and make our way down the hill to the holy water (amazi umugisha) I turned back and saw her head bowed in prayer, just 10 or so feet from us, in the middle of the courtyard. That’s the love and grace of God, I think. People had told us that Natalie feels called to pray. So, that’s literally how she spends her life. She’s praying throughout the day, always speaking and talking with God. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty darn cool.

It made me think:

We move forward and leave and do new things, but may we always bow our heads, remembering the constant that ties it all together – the force by which we are able to trust doors that close and doors that open.

GOD.

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Margauex and Zahara taking 'holy water'.

Margauex and Zahara taking ‘holy water’.

being shown the place the Virgin Mary appeared to a student by a school administrator at Kibeho

being shown the place the Virgin Mary appeared to a student by a school administrator at Kibeho

in front of the cathedral - kibeho, rwanda

in front of the cathedral – kibeho, rwanda

the cross on top of the cathedral at Kibeho

the cross on top of the cathedral at Kibeho