By WeNews correspondents
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Profiles of seven outstanding leaders dedicated to improving women's lives: Nell Merlino, Oraia Reid, Edit Schlaffer, Pernessa Seele, Eveline Shen, Jennifer Blei Stockman and Jen Taylor Friedman.
"Think big." Nell Merlino has been telling women that for two decades--big enough to grow your business to $1 million in revenue, and big enough to join the 71 million people who have participated in Take Our Daughters to Work Day.
Merlino, founder of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, has taken on the mission to help women make their big ideas real. She launched the microlending program in 1999 to help women start their own businesses, but soon realized that she also wanted to help them expand their businesses. She refocused the organization to aid female entrepreneurs take their businesses past the $1 million revenue mark, an achievement that less than 3 percent of female business owners have reached. In response, the Make Mine a Million $ Business Award was born.
These efforts were based on Merlino's original work of creating a program for parents in the workplace to talk with their daughters about their careers. In the early 1990s, she was tapped by the Ms. Foundation for Women to help with a campaign for improving the self-esteem of adolescent girls. After attending her father's retirement dinner and realizing how
important learning about his career in the New Jersey State Senate had been to her, she and the foundation developed the idea for Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The successful campaign started in 1993.
"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if other girls had the opportunity to understand their parents' work?'" Merlino says, adding that it was equally important for bosses and employees to see all the young women who would be joining them someday.
After seeing the positive response to Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Merlino's longtime interest in seeing women ascend the ranks of business grew.
"No group in history has ever spent their way to power," Merlino says. "We have to be more focused on the creation and retention of wealth. I think it's the last frontier for women."
For the Make Mine a Million $ Business Award, female business owners across the country apply and present their business pitch to a live audience of judges and peers. They compete for a package of prizes--including business coaching, financing, support from corporate partners, publicity and products--and membership in a community dedicated to helping them take their businesses to the next level.
"It's about moving women out of thinking small and giving them the confidence to succeed."
Merlino says encouraging female entrepreneurs will also affect women as consumers, since many of the Make Mine a Million winners and contestants design businesses that cater to other women or underrepresented groups.
"Think about what would happen if a larger number of products were designed with women in mind," Merlino says. "The possibilities are endless. I am seeing that in terms of the level of pent-up innovation that we have in 51 percent of the population."
With more women signing up for the Make Mine a Million contest--more than 5,000 have applied to date, with over 140 winners--Merlino says her next goal is getting the larger business world to pay attention to these up-and-coming female entrepreneurs and help tap their potential.
Oraia Reid took note of an increase in assaults of women in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Being a survivor of sexual assault herself, she started offering free late-night rides home in her car to help lower the risk of being attacked.
"I just wanted to get everyone home safely," Reid says.
This sentiment inspired Reid to start RightRides for Women's Safety, a New York nonprofit organization she co-founded in August 2004 and now serves as its executive director. Today, RightRides has more than 150 volunteers and a partnership with Zipcar, which donates nine cars each week.
The program is dedicated to building safer communities by eliminating sexual assault and violence. It offers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, along with women and gender nonconforming individuals, a free late-night ride home to ensure a safe commute in high-risk areas throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Since its inception, RightRides has served more than 2,500 customers.
Reid says RightRides is so important because the service is "here for people, even if they are walking two blocks." She recalls a young woman who fought off an attacker after getting lost trying to get home. The young woman had the RightRides number in her cell phone directory, but did not call for a ride.
"She became a volunteer because of that experience and to encourage people to not wait to call RightRides," Reid says. "RightRides can and should be utilized."
RightRides for Women's Safety is also a founding member of New Yorkers for Safe Transit, an initiative to increase safety measures and reduce sexual harassment and assault in subways and at bus stops. In 2008, New Yorkers for Safe Transit secured an anti-harassment poster campaign and public service announcements that are heard in subway cars throughout the New York City subway system.
RightRides intends to open chapters in cities such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., within the next year.
"We've heard from people all over the world who want to bring RightRides to their city," Reid says. "RightRides perpetuates a message of empowerment that truly anyone can make social change happen."
Under Reid's leadership, RightRides for Women's Safety has received several civic awards, including a mayoral proclamation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Rising Star Award from The New York Women's Agenda and the Susan B. Anthony Award from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. In 2009, RightRides was honored by the Stonewall Community Foundation and also received a Union Square Award.
The concept of social justice motivated Edit Schlaffer to use her skills as a social scientist to collect evidence about women in countries of crisis and transition. In 2002, the former sociology lecturer founded Women without Borders, an action-oriented global think tank, to empower women as agents of change.
Schlaffer grew up on a farm in Austria idolizing two women: her grandmother, who taught her to believe in herself, and Bertha von Suttner, the Austrian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who over 100 years ago rang the alarm bells in a poetic and persuasive way: "The stars of eternal truth and right have always shone in the firmament of human understanding."
To bring those stars down to Earth and translate this truth into reality are the ongoing inspirations for Schlaffer and her work. She is convinced that women do have a deeper understanding of relationships because they are instrumental for weaving the fabrics of their societies together.
Schlaffer has designed a number of groundbreaking projects focused on building female self-confidence as a key tool in establishing a female powerbase in countries that are transitioning from tradition to modernity, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and India.
These projects include realizing girls' football teams in Rwanda to enhance empowerment and trauma healing, hosting basketball games for Afghan girls to celebrate their liberty and teaching swimming classes to women in the South Indian tsunami region.
"These programs were successful in challenging women to become competent and active participants in rebuilding their communities," Schlaffer says.
Women without Borders is setting the stage for new conversations and debates about violent extremism. In 2008 Schlaffer created SAVE – Sisters Against Violent Extremism, the first women's counter-terrorism platform. Headquartered at the Women without Borders offices in Vienna, SAVE brings together a broad spectrum of women determined to create a united front against violent extremism.
The goal of SAVE is to provide women with tools to critically debate and challenge extremist thinking, as well as to develop alternative strategies to combat terrorism.
"SAVE links the collective female know-how to create a new sisterhood for a world without violent extremism," Schlaffer says.
SAVE started chapters in India, Spain, Northern Ireland, Yemen and the United Kingdom and launched two global campaigns: "Schools and Students Against Violent Extremism" and "Mothers for Change." These campaigns provide the young generation and mothers who raise the next generation with constructive alternatives to the subversive appeal of extremist ideologies.
"Women have found effective ways of resolving conflicts from Northern Ireland to Liberia," she says. "Their actors were not generals and military strategists, but women with compassion who decided to listen to the other side."
Pernessa Seele knows that for the HIV-AIDS rates to drop in African American communities, a wide-ranging discussion must sweep through the neighborhoods at a rate far faster than the virus can spread. As the founder of the Balm in Gilead, she wants to help jump-start the conversation.
"Most women are getting the disease from their heterosexual partners, so we need men to begin to talk about this disease in a frank and truthful way," Seele says. "And we need women to help men have that dialogue."
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the overall HIV-AIDS diagnoses among African Americans declined in 2007--the most recent data available--the rate of AIDS diagnoses for black women was 22 times higher than that for white women. African Americans accounted for 51 percent of the 42, 655 new HIV-AIDS diagnoses in 34 states.
A new effort Seele is rolling out in 2010 is the National Week of Prayer, in which women will play an essential role in championing the cause. She believes her work as an immunologist--which combines public health with personal faith--is no accident, citing the Rev. Johnnie Colemon of the Christ Universal Temple in Chicago as a major influence in setting her on the path of medicine and ministry.
"I was amazed at this African American woman who was so spiritually evolved," Seele says of Colemon, who was the first African American woman to graduate from the Unity School of Christianity in Unity Village, Mo. "She changed the whole racial dynamic."
Seele's first major endeavor was launching the Harlem Week of Prayer in New York in 1989, where she sought religious leaders in the African American community to come together to address the HIV-AIDS epidemic and demonstrate compassion for those affected by the disease. The following year, she created the Balm in Gilead as an educational support system for HIV-AIDS patients.
Over the next decade, the organization expanded its efforts to countries like Barbados and Zimbabwe. Seele also developed programs geared toward women, starting the African-American Denominational Leadership Health Initiative in 2005 with the help of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. In addition to HIV-AIDS, she wanted to tackle other health-related crises affecting women in the community, such as cervical cancer and diabetes.
"The Balm in Gilead establishes health ministries at the national and local levels to provide training and technical services," Seele says, "and provides screenings for HIV-AIDS and high blood pressure, as well as resources to help women get the human papillomavirus test."
Climate change, toxic work environments and immigrant women workers are just some of the issues that Eveline Shen links to women's reproductive health. Going beyond the issues of access to appropriate health care or even nutrition, Shen's mission is to improve women's health--particularly those of color--by interjecting the concept of justice throughout her work.
"A person has reproductive justice when they can drink water and not be worried about reproductive health," says Shen, the executive director of the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. "A person has reproductive justice when he or she can adopt, regardless of his or her sexual orientation. A person has reproductive justice when they can walk safely at night, free from physical or sexual violence, and when they are able to receive appropriate health care (if) they are transgender."
Shen explains that the concept of reproductive justice emerged in 1994 from a group of African American women during an informal caucus at a national pro-choice conference in Chicago. That was around the time Shen, a first-generation Chinese American, was completing her master's degree in public health at the University of California, Berkeley, and starting an internship at the Oakland, Calif.-based organization.
While still a student, Shen created and implemented an educational training program for 14-year-old Southeast Asian girls to teach them about self-defense, sex education, media advocacy, body image and the importance of teen health clinics. This work became the foundation for the group's youth organizing project curriculum, now called Sisters in Action for Issues of Reproductive Empowerment.
The program is comprised of low-income teenage girls who organized to get a medical waste incinerator moved out of a low-income area in Oakland. They also educate their peers about the harmful chemicals contained in personal body care products. Shen says through these efforts, the teens are learning about the connection between climate justice and reproductive justice.
Shen has also worked to elevate the importance of reproductive justice issues to meet the world's changing needs for the past decade. Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice embraces several objectives: creating conditions so women of color and their communities can thrive, securing rights for immigrant women workers and youth and pursuing racial and environmental justice. She supervises a staff of 10 and manages an annual budget of $1 million.
"In the U.S. many women of color and immigrant women work in low-wage toxic industries," says Shen. "It is not enough for climate change solutions to focus only on the levels of pollution emitted by industries, but we must also consider the working conditions and toxic exposures faced by these workers who bear the greatest burden."
Jennifer Blei Stockman still remembers how she was one of the few female managers at IBM in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. She says she encountered a glass ceiling while carving a path in the male-dominated management sector. She was expected to bond with male colleagues on the golf course and wear bowties as part of her wardrobe.
"It was all about trying to fit into a man's world," Stockman says.
But Stockman didn't give in, drawing inspiration from her mother's words that a "woman needed to be self-sufficient and independent." This spirit influenced her career choices and political viewpoints as she dedicated her life to business, politics, art and community service, and used every opportunity to push for women's rights.
Stockman had her first brush with politics while selling computers to government agencies. She believed in the Republican principles of small government, but became dismayed with her party's anti-choice agenda. She founded a board for the YWCA in her hometown of Greenwich, Conn., that was devoted to empowering women facing illness, abuse and neglect. She also committed herself to supporting pro-choice Republican candidates and legislation nationwide.
From 2002 to 2008, Stockman was co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice, the largest pro-choice and pro-stem cell advocacy group within the GOP. She fought against President Bush's policies that tried to take reproductive rights away from women.
"The extreme right of the GOP had Bush's ear and they were determined to overturn Roe v. Wade and have women go back in time before abortion was legal, thus limiting their career opportunities and chances for advancement," Stockman says. "It was like pushing a 20-ton boulder uphill during his administration; there was such narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy."
The Republican Majority for Choice also worked to elect pro-choice Republicans at the national level, lobby Congress for legislation that seeks to reduce the incidence of abortion, promote family planning and stem cell legislation and play an active role in the Supreme Court nomination process. They also launched the "Women for Arnold" campaign in October 2003, which helped Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger close the gender gap in California's recall election.
Now serving as a board member of the Republican Majority for Choice and as the first female president of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Stockman is still pushing for women's rights. She says she's proud to have established a strong voice for moderate Republicans.
"My greatest achievement is raising two independent and motivated young women who share the same values and will hopefully continue a legacy I've just begun."
In 2007, Jen Taylor Friedman became the first female Jewish ritual scribe in modern times to complete a Torah scroll. The aftermath of her achievement earned her a spot on the Forward's Top 50 Jew list as well as some notoriety, but she never wanted to make a statement--she just wanted to write a Torah and make a decent living.
"I happened to be in the right place at the right time and I wrote a Torah," Taylor Friedman says. "I didn't set out to change anything except myself."
The 29-year-old post-denominational halakhically-observant egalitarian scholar spent a year completing the Torah. These sacred writings of Judaism are written on parchment in a formal, traditional manner by a specially trained scribe, who combines the skill of calligraphy with the study of halakha (Jewish ritual law).
Taylor Friedman received her first commission to write a Torah in 2005 with the St. Louis Reform Synagogue, who found her on Google. She says she encountered many challenges during this time, most notably a steep learning curve.
"If you are a woman, many people are not interested in teaching you," Taylor Friedman says. "They feel it would be a betrayal of their principles." This sentiment stems from established gender roles in the community, where Orthodox canon law says a Torah written by a female isn't fit for ritual use.
As a woman, Taylor Friedman says it's nearly impossible to find an apprenticeship with a competent sofer (ritual scribe). Not one to give up, she taught herself calligraphy and halakha and learned Hebrew from reading "A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew." Unlike clergy roles, there is no formal ordination required to become a sofer, so she was able to proceed to writing sacred scrolls despite being barred from entry into existing professional organizations.
"It is very difficult," Taylor Friedman says. "How do you balance between respect for somebody's traditions and an idea that your interpretation of the traditions is somewhat different?"
In 2005, Taylor Friedman received a research award from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to explore the relationship between writing sacred scrolls and menstruation. While her inquiry generated little interest within the community, it proved useful for reassuring new female scribes that the normal body function wouldn't interfere with their work.
"There is no technical reason (that) menstruation should interfere with the writing of Torahs."
Taylor Friedman is forging ahead in a male-dominated field as she works on her third Torah. She's also carving out a path for other females who seek to follow in her footsteps by sharing her knowledge with them.
"The most exciting thing that is happening is that my student is writing her first Torah," Taylor Friedman says, taking pride in passing on the new tradition.
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By Charlotte Cooper
By WeNews correspondents
By WeNews Staff