Pan-African women and power

Q&A with Jackie Copeland-Carson of African Women’s Development Fund-USA, on women, power and philanthropy

The Twin Cities is home to the most diverse African-descent communities in the United States, with the largest Somali, Kenyan and Liberian populations in the country and very large Ethiopian and Nigerian communities. Dr. Jackie Copeland-Carson is a scholar, a philanthropy activist and one of the world’s few experts in African diaspora philanthropy, which focuses on improving the lives of people of African descent living throughout the world. She lives in California but lived in Minnesota for 13 years. During that time she founded the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network-an organization working to sustain an ongoing support network for black women in philanthropy. She returned to the Twin Cities in July as chair of the Pan-African Women’s Action Summit. She is currently executive director of the African Women’s Development Fund-USA.

Copeland-Carson spoke with the Minnesota Women’s Press about women, power and philanthropy.

MWP: Where is the power in everyday philanthropy?
Copeland-Carson: The pooling of resources of everyday people is the basis of power in transformative social movements. We often talk about how to move from social service to social change. It’s an instance of changing your consciousness and realizing that if you act in collaboration with others, you have an opportunity to move an entire community and an entire nation.

What is the relationship between power and money?
It’s the old adage that money is power but there are other forms of power. Grassroots community building [is] where people, who on their own, don’t have much in the way of financial resources, can find voice and influence. [People find power] through the pooling of their votes, the pooling of their finances, and the pooling of their commitment and courage.

Where do you see hope these days?
I am inspired by my interactions with the leaders [I saw at the August conference]. Often these women tend to be the social glue that holds together their tattered communities. They are the women who are driving people to doctor’s appointments. They are the women who are filling in when a family does not have enough money to pay their rent and buy food. They’re the Africans who send $40 billion a year to families in their home countries. African Americans give over $12 billion a year to charitable causes.

What inspires me is the daily acts of selflessness and heroism that the people committing them often take for granted. Because they were raised that that is what a responsible adult does-they give. However, I think that when people become conscious of themselves as philanthropists, it’s an opportunity to increase their power, to move the needle on challenges that face us all.

There is an interest in what we might call social enterprise and micro finance as a tool to help low-income people in Africa and the African diaspora either pull themselves out of poverty or make it into the middle class.

Where do you see change?
Things look bad now because of the impact of this recession but I think there are islands or beacons of hope.

A particular concern right now in Pan-African communities across the world is the growing poverty rates. And the declining wealth in the wake of this recession that has affected all communities but the severity according to a [recent] Pew research report, is much, much worse in Pan-African communities.

What do you see as important calls to action?
One is to think locally and act globally. To recognize that there is a Pan-African global economy, that we can come together and identify common issues and work on them together.

Part of what we are trying to do is to promote a more global cultural identity which says it’s OK to be who you are, whether you are African American or Minnesotan, but at the same time we live in a new world where everyone is affected by the global economy. It’s in all of our best interests to have a global identity, to feel comfortable living and working in diversity, to understand that inclusion is in our best interests, to understand that supporting the full development of women and girls is fundamental to the success and sustainability of any community. If women and girls are weak our communities are weak.

You would hope that people would still understand and agree that diversity and inclusion and cooperation and honoring and promoting the roles of women in society is important. But I am not so sure in our current political climate if that is a consensus any more.

When times are hard economically a community’s spirit and sense of hope can be damaged. One of our visions is that we will empower the participants [of the August conference] to feel as if they can together shape the future of the community. That yes, the economy is difficult, but together we are social innovators. This is not the worst time in our history. We do have the capacity to make tomorrow better especially if we work together and pool the ingenuity and resources of diverse people.

We would like for Pan-African women to be recognized as powerful, social innovators who contribute in very positive ways to their communities.

You talk about the full development of women and girls. Why is that important?
It is important because most of humanity is women. If you just think about the fundamental roles we take on-educating our children, giving birth to humanity, the economic functions we take on in a family and a community-we need to be healthy. We need to have opportunities for full development so that we can maximize our full potential as human beings. The societies that develop the best and are best able to sustain their development have opportunities for women to fully contribute.

It is almost becoming a basic best practice across the world. The research shows that when you invest in a woman’s development she tends to invest more immediately in the education of herself and her family. The multiplier effect in the community from an investment dollar in a woman is higher, frankly, than it is in men. And it stands to reason because in most societies we are the primary caretakers of children. Our children automatically benefit. They go to better schools, get better nutrition, have better housing.

I am hoping that this becomes common sense for the 21st century-that you can’t undermine women and expect that you will be able to sustain your social or economic infrastructure over the long term. And that’s as true in the Pan-African community as it would be anywhere else.