By Worldchanging SF local blogger, Britt Bravo
From her Berkeley-based office, Melinda Kramer facilitates an international network of women leaders. She is the co-founder and co-director of Women's Global Green Action Network, a nonprofit that cultivates global partnerships of grassroots women environmental leaders by providing access to communication tools, support services and networking capabilities. Below is a transcript of an interview with her from the Big Vision Podcast.
Melinda Kramer: Women's Global Green Action Network is an international organization that is linking and empowering women working in environmental sustainability around the world. Our essential intention is to cultivate partnerships of grassroots women who are working at the community level on issues of environmental sustainability and social justice, so that they can really find opportunities to collaborate and to exchange best practices, exchange resources, and really build a collective agenda. So many of these women are local leaders, and Women's Global Green Action Network is attempting to provide a space for women to step into roles of being global advocates, and to really have a more prevalent platform for the messages and the work that they are doing.
We do it in a number of ways. The most important way for people to collaborate is face to face, so we have a number of ways that we convene women who are doing this work on various different levels.
The first is our International Strategy Meetings, where we convene our founding women from 26 different countries, who come together and really examine what the local issues are, what are the global trends, what is the work that they can do in partnership, and they really map out their plan and their goals and their work for the coming year. We also take part in trainings that are relevant to most of their work. It could be training in information and communication technology, or it could be a training on a local water filter that would be helpful for people to bring to their communities.
Another one of our opportunities to convene women face to face is through our regional trainings. The idea behind the regional trainings is that many women doing this work have a sense of what the most pressing issues are in their regions, and the regional trainings give them an opportunity to really take that issue to the forefront and host the training, bring women in their community together, but really call upon the global network to inform that regional training.
So, for example, we just did a really powerful training in the Philippines, where our regional leaders there hosted a training on a water filter. It's called the Biosand Water Filter. It's a slow sand water filter that is made up of all local materials, so it is very easy to make once you learn how to do it, and it is very easy to train others. So our women there knew that this was an issue, that it was really hard to get water to the household and the schools; and women in the Philippines, and in many parts of the world, are responsible for making sure that the water is available and it's clean.
So acknowledging that this was a big issue, Gemma Bulos, who is the woman who really led this project, identified the project and called upon the Global Network to help her find the right trainer to help her find the resources and set up the training in a way that would really be powerful. At the end of the training, which was an enormous success, she then had created a best practice that could be shared with other women in the network. For example, some of our women in Africa and India are interested in taking the ideas and the best practices that came out of this training into their regions.
The third kind of face to face opportunity we provide is in partnership with an organization called Global Exchange. Global Exchange is a wonderful organization, also in the Bay Area, that does human rights work around the world. One of their programs is the Reality Tours, where they bring groups of individuals to regions to look at the social justice issues and other pressing issues, that really color the experience and the culture of a place. We work in partnership with them because we really believe it is a very powerful opportunity to understand a community, and environmental challenges, and social justice challenges, by looking through the lens of women, women's experiences.
So our first exchange that we did with Global Exchange was called "Transformative Advocacy in Bolivia." We brought a group of ten environmental justice lawyers from throughout North America to work in partnership with grassroots women leaders in Bolivia, with the focus on sustainable agriculture and food security issues. We spent ten days traveling through the lowlands up to the Altiplano, meeting with groups and forging partnerships and developing long term work with these groups. There is a powerful opportunity, again, to cultivate partnerships that, a lot of these women have so many issues, and so many solutions that are similar, but haven't yet had an opportunity to extend beyond their local regions and be able to share, and therefore amp up their effectiveness.
In the work in Bolivia, we really saw, sitting around that table, women really talking to each other and seeing reflections of themselves; and watching the connection that then became available was worth all of it. It was really tremendous. And then what we see is that people really get to work, and really forge partnerships that are ongoing, and that keep feeding themselves and their work and their communities. So I am humbled by watching, just by providing a space, how much people will do with that space, and what can emerge from connection.
Britt: Are all of the women you work with all outside of the United States, or are there women within the United States as well?
Melinda: Well, it might be helpful to explain the origin of Women's Global Green Action Network, because it helps to describe how we are structured. When the idea of Women's Global Green Action Network formed, it was myself, my colleague and partner Mary Rose Kaczorowski, and a small group of women from different parts of the world who really saw that there was so much leadership coming from women working locally in their communities around environmental challenges, it was tremendous. From rural areas to urban areas, toxic issues, water issues, forestry, you name it, women were really at the forefront of the challenge and the forefront of the solutions, and we wanted to do something about that. So we saw a need, and we really spent time looking at that need, looking at what else was out there, and what the niche was. What was really missing and what we could fill through a structured place and space, and that would be Women's Global Green Action Network.
So we designed the framework of the organization; but then we knew that the organization would find its strength from pulling together the very women who were on the front lines of these issues, and really out there making it happen, and therefore seeing what was missing and seeing what was needed. So we put out a call for nominations far and wide. We worked with many organizations and networks to get a message out to communities where people were working on environmental issues, to say, "Who are the leading women in your community? Who are the women who are really at the center of a lot of these campaigns, and of these projects? Who are women who really understand the landscape of the issues, and the challenges, and who have really taken action to protect their environment, to sustain their communities?"
And we got an incredible flood of nominations, and these were joint applications, where someone would recommend a woman, and she would also speak to her leadership. We had a very hard decision to make, but we had a team of people who looked at the applications and chose based on geographic diversity, age diversity, and issue diversity. So we convened 30 women from 26 countries who would be the founding leaders of the organization. They would help to identify, what were the needs, what were the communication and information needs that women doing this work have, what are the kinds of solutions and support that would help them do their work more effectively on the local level, and help them really and meaningfully influence policy?
So we convened our group in Mexico City in March of 2006, and it was an incredible three days. First of all, standing around that room and seeing women who for much of their work felt alone, standing in sisterhood and really feeling the connection and feeling the shared commitment to this work, was something that I don't think I will ever forget. And then what occurred over the three days was a lot of great work. I mean, these women did not get on those planes, and leave their families, and leave their work, to just sit around. They really got things done, and they designed a very strong network and a very strong set of values and principles and goals for the coming years. And we have been operating on those goals.
So the way that we are structured now is that we have our founding coordinators in different parts of the country, in all the U.N. regions and sub-regions. We have a woman who is designing educational programs for young women in Brooklyn. We have a woman in the Philippines who is helping to train women on local water filters. We have a woman in Africa who is helping to convene women for the World Social Forum. So everywhere we have women who are already doing these projects, who have been doing them for years, but who are now part of a global support network, and can really call upon each other to strengthen their work.
Britt: If there is a woman who is listening who is involved in green or environmental work, how could she get involved?
Melinda: First of all, I would recommend to check out our web site, which is www.wggan.org. WGGAN is our acronym, and the African women love to say, "We can, Wee-gan!" So definitely check out our web site, and there are a lot of projects that we are working on which we really encourage a lot of participation and collaboration.
This fall we are actually developing our communication and information platform, which will be the place where anyone who is interested in getting involved in this work can plug in. They can fill out a profile, they can describe their work, they can describe the kind of work they are looking to support, or the kind of support they need, and really step into a network of information, resources, contacts, and opportunities for collaboration. We are doing that in partnership with an organization called the Natural Capital Institute out of Sausalito. They have really put the time and the effort, into this technology, and are partnering with organizations like ours to really make sure that it is meaningful and it is useful, and that it is effective for organizations that are global, that do have a diversity of experience with technology, to really have a tool that is useful for communication.
So for people who are interested in being a part of these kinds of conversations and these dialogues, I would definitely recommend to check out our web site, and especially in the next month, to become a part of our network, which is a free tool that is all open-source technology, and a really exciting way to talk to each other when we can't be face to face, but when we have a lot to share and we don't want to go it alone, but we see that the problems are huge and the solutions are out there.
Britt: What brought you to this work?
Melinda: I think about that a lot, because sometimes I stop what I am doing and I say, "How did I get here? How did this trajectory look?" I think it started--I know it started--when I was very young, although I probably wasn't aware what was going on at the time. But I had wonderful opportunities to be in nature, and to just be out in my own environment from a very young age. My parents used to take me to Maine, and we'd camp for weeks in the summers. I think my first trip I was a few months old and I just chewed on some rubber keys and just sat there looking at the sun speckling through the trees and smelling the pine, hearing the loons and hearing the water hit the shore. And I think that was when my senses were forming, that connection was really given to me, and it has become a part of my life. I have always been very connected to my environment and to the earth. So that has always been kind of the underpinning of my choices and my work and my commitments. But only recently has it really, in the last five or ten years, been the guiding force for the work that I do.
I have been doing environmental work for a number of years now. I was working for an organization called Pacific Environment for several years, which is a wonderful organization, also out of the Bay Area, that works to support grassroots environmental movements throughout the North Pacific Rim. I spent a number of years traveling and working in communities throughout China and Russia and Alaska, working with communities where the problems were right in their face. And therefore, they were the ones that had to design the solutions, and the solutions were incredible. And yet they needed more support from each other throughout their regions, outside resources and specific environment help to build capacity and to help them build alliances with each other and leverage outside resources to improve and enhance their campaigns.
In that work, I met dozens and dozens of people, sat at tables with people over lunch and dinner and heard the work that they were doing, the stories and the fights and the victories. Many of those meetings were with women. I found that trend to just be more and more. I started talking to other people about this interesting connection between women's leadership and the environment and environmental challenges. And I dug into that a little bit more to find that indeed there is a very powerful connection with the ways that women are disproportionately affected by environmental challenges, and therefore have really taken it upon themselves to launch campaigns, to start organizations, and to organize their communities to really shift things.
What I also heard from a lot of the women that I met with, and developed working relationships with, and friendships with was the issue of access. A lot of the women that I met with expressed an isolation from other women doing this work, from the information that they knew was out there, but couldn't get their hands on, for whatever reason, for a lot of the resources that would really enhance the work that they were doing. I really started to envision a solid central space where women could come together, could feel the solidarity that existed, could see the movement that they were working within.
Britt: What drives you to do this work rather than other work?
Melinda: One of the interesting things about working within women's empowerment as it relates to environmental sustainability is I've really learned the ways that we talk about environmentalism is as this siloed issue. There are environmentalists, and there are people working in human rights, there are people working in health, and there are people working in education. One of the things that I've found in working with women and hearing how women articulate environmental and social justice challenges is the holistic aspect of the conversation, that these issues are related and that there is no separation. We know this. But to hear a woman talk about herself as not an environmentalist, but as a mother, or as a health worker, as a community leader, as a teacher, as someone who is the thread of her community who cares about the well being of her children and children's children. It helps me to back up and see, wow, yes we are talking about the systems, we are talking about the ecosystems and the trees and the water and the fish, but we are talking about it in a much bigger system, a system where our lives, and our children's lives are a part of that system.
To look at it from that view, really changes and shifts it for me, because I realize that I'm not making a choice, and working within one siloed issue. I'm strategically talking about one piece of a much larger system. And so I feel as though the more we can support efforts to broaden that conversation and really expand that conversation, the more powerful our work will be.
Britt: What is the biggest challenge of your work?
Melinda: I think the biggest challenge in my work is talking about Women's Global Green Action Network and trying to explain that it's not just about women, or for women. It's not just an environmental organization. That it's one effort to build healthy, equitable communities and that the work that we're doing is to serve our communities and everyone who is a part of those communities. So sometimes, and I myself have been guilty of it, I hear "women's organization", and I think, that's for women. I hear "rainforest organization", and think, that's about rainforests. But I'm learning and I'm challenging myself to really look deeper into what this work that we're all doing is serving. Often times its expansive, it is inclusive and its collaborative. So I think it's a good challenge because it helps me to try to describe this work in a way that does speak to the person that I'm talking to. Because I really believe that this project, and many of the projects that are out there, are incredibly collaborative in nature and design and that if we can see where it all weaves together, I think we're all better off.
Britt: How do you keep inspired?
Melinda: There is so much inspiration in this work. I feel like every day that I get on my computer, or that I have a meeting with someone, something bursts, something goes deeper into the work that I am doing. So I would say that the inspiration comes from the connection that is available through opening up a space like this. I have heard so many people tell me stories that I would never have heard, about their work, about their commitments, about their decisions, that inspire me to keep going, and to build something even more solid and even more supportive. I just, throughout the day, draw upon the different stories and the work that the people who are a part of this network are doing, and that is just incredibly inspirational to me.
I also feel like the design of Women's Global Green Action Network is such that it is constantly providing opportunities for someone to step into their power, to step into this work and to bring something that they love, that they are inspired by, that they are committed to, that strengthens the whole. Like I explained earlier, the design of Women's Global Green Action Network was collaborative, and the way that it draws its strength is through collaboration, is through the participation of those who are committed to this work, interested in this work. So I get to feel that feeding into the network throughout my work, and it is very inspiring to me. I often just step back and watch how many people are playing a part in this beautiful emergence of an organization and an initiative that, I really think its time has come.
Britt: Can you tell us one collaboration success story?
Melinda: I spoke earlier about the Biosand Water Filter in the Philippines, and that is, to me, one of the best examples of how WGGAN is really at work. When we convened in Mexico City, two of our women had a shared interest in these water issues, and they deepened that connection and designed this first project in the Philippines, while they were still there in Mexico. You could just feel the energy. They were in their corner, figuring it out, scribbling things on paper; and a few months later, before we knew it, there they were with 30 something women from five provinces throughout the Philippines, carrying out trainings with a trainer from Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology, out of Canada, who they had found through the Global Network, who had sent her staff to help with the training.
So we had an international trainer in this region in the Philippines, with our two women who had met in Mexico for Women's Global Green Action Network's first strategy session; and we had 30 women who had never met each other, but who had been committed to water, security and health for a long time, sitting around and learning how to bring something into their community that would be incredibly effective, and would essentially save lives.
When they were finished, there was a sense of solidarity and community among the women, who are now still in contact. Each of them have brought these projects into their regions, and are training others, and have started small businesses to train to build these Biosand Water Filters, and out of the project has been a best practice that these women created, that said: "This was what worked. This was what didn't. These were our challenges. These were our victories." And that is now being shared with women in Africa, women in India, who will then try to implement something similar in their communities.
So just the web, and the connections that form because the space is available, says to me that this is working.
Britt: Are there any books, movies or websites that inspire you, or that you can recommend?
Melinda: There is a new magazine that is coming out, that I recommend people stay attuned to, which is called World Pulse. It is a magazine that is collecting the stories of grassroots women around the world, on all issues, and I think that is one of the most powerful things, is telling the stories, is really highlighting the work that is being done on the local level, the challenges, the victories that we don't see in everyday news, and in the media that we are exposed to. So I am really excited about this effort, and I definitely recommend that people pay attention to that coming out, World Pulse Magazine.
Britt: Is there anything else you want people to know about Women's Global Green Action Network?
Melinda: I would like to mention Dr. Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. That happened when our organization really was in formation, and it was such an affirmation for us, because when she won the prize for the environmental work that she had done with one of the largest tree-planting campaigns in the world, which started in Kenya, which is her home country, it was really telling because it was making the connection between peace, and environmental sustainability. And I think that needs to be more and more visible for the world as we go forward in designing our policies and carrying out our work, that these issues really are about peace and justice, and creating the kinds of communities that we would want to live in and that we would want our children to live in.
When Dr. Wangari Maathai won that award, it was challenging for some people, and she got some criticism: "Environmentalism isn't peace! We're getting the issues confused" But what we had done as a global community was make a very powerful connection, and sometimes when we do shift into new ideologies and ways of thinking, it is challenging, but I think it was a hugely important shift for us to make, and I don't think we're going back. So the more that we can draw upon those connections, and break down those silos, and see the opportunities for collaboration, the better off we'll be.
For more information about Women's Global Green Action Network, go to wggan.org.