November 1, 2022 — The Community Solutions Program — an innocuous name for a powerful U.S. Department of State-supported global network of changemakers — has for 11 years matched international fellows with U.S. partner organizations. Roughly 8,000 applicants lead to a select group of people who are focused on issues of the environment, governmental transparency, peace-building, and women and gender.
This year, 93 fellows and 43 hosts gathered in Washington, D.C., for the IREX Global Impact Summit. It was the largest gathering ever, aided by the fact that two years’ worth of applicants had to work virtually during the pandemic, rather than spending a few months in their host’s city. Then-director of Global Minnesota, Mark Ritchie, invited Minnesota Women’s Press to participate in 2021. We ended up with two fellows, both journalists: Amra Avdic, Bosnia, focused on electing women in a patriarchy, and Terence Animbom, Cameroon, focused on narratives designed to reduce gender-based violence.
The program was a vision of Senator J. William Fulbright, of Arkansas, who had a mix of ideologies, but believed the best of America in collaboration with the best of people around the world, was worth investing in. Long-time chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, he eventually strongly opposed the Vietnam War, opposed funding Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communism crusades — yet also opposed integration and other civil rights measures, believing he needed to appease his voters in order to be elected in his generally racist state.
Ultimately, as attendees were told at the summit, Fulbright believed that the best investment the U.S. could make was not in submarines but in human relations. That legacy was highly apparent in my experience at the summit.
Talking About Gender Issues
The deepest conversation I was involved in during the three-day event was several hours engaged on the women-and-gender topic with about 30 people. A small group at my table had a lively conversation about the importance of engaging pre-teens in dialogue to adjust behaviors about consent, protection, and confidence early.
A man from Bhutan said children work early, and recruitment to conversations would need to involve enrichment activities — learning to bake, code, and other job training.
A woman from Malawi said there is an initiation ceremony in one village where young girls and boys are brought together to have (unprotected) sex as they reach puberty; in a country with only 3 percent access to electricity, communication via technology to stem such traditions is thus far limited.
Many people told me of corruption in their countries, such as people in authority, including teachers, requiring sex from young girls in order to get food rations; one girl was crossing heavy streams, due to climate change, in order to get education somewhere safer.
Lack of access to funding for grassroots programs is universally limited. As a fellow Twin Cities host put it, there is a divide and conquer mentality that permeates — small organizations are forced to compete for crumbs, she says. This, then, requires a collaborative spirit of partnerships in order to compete with larger organizations. It is a similar theme I have heard from women in our Diversity in Politics series.
An important thing I learned about language at the event: Our March theme of “Defusing Toxic Masculinity” will be retitled. Toxic is a buzzword that likely will limit the men we want to have dialogue with if we are to learn together how to address root causes of gender-based violence. Instead, we will be hosting conversations about co-creating healthy masculinity. [In a related vein, one reader — a man — sent us a column by The Cut that toxic masculinity is a safer way of saying ‘sociopathic baby-men.’]
Another topic we discussed: systems are built for competition and transactional business because they were created by men who are wired for that. Collaborating is a tendency of women that needs to be used for the purpose of competing together — so that crumbs can become an entire bakery shop. Sustainability requires generating revenue as part of the model, not simply waiting for grants.
In a discussion about women and confidence, a man from Kenya said that men tend to have confidence in most matters, “even when they have low skills.”
Other People I Met
- A woman in Algiers, Louisiana, looks toward helping Indigenous people move to Baton Rouge from their long-time homeland — which has been swallowed by the ocean. She refers to them as the first U.S. climate refugees. We talked about how many Americans impacted by natural disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires, are finding that insurance companies will not let them rebuild; many standing properties have been deemed unsellable.
- A man from Honduras is working to empower and stabilize economically people in a country that has a 60 percent illiteracy rate.
- A young man from Philippines and a woman from Uganda are attempting to offer media narratives for LGBTQ+ communities.
- At one lunch table discussion, men from Cameroon, Guinea, and Ethiopia shared stories of the corruption in their countries. One president has held office for 40 years and is surrounded by well-paid militia who protect his self interests.
As we have written about in our pages, there is a growing field of research that shows the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), caused by any of ten measures of trauma, that impact our rates of violence, addictions, high risk-taking, and poor judgment. Because of the cortisol that regularly courses through the heart of people who have been traumatized into steady flight or fight mode, health issues are rampant.
However, a high ACEs scored “does not define who you are and your future,” said Florida mediator Jeffrey Weisberg, of River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, in a workshop about trauma-informed care. The source of trauma is disconnection, and anything that can be established to reconnect — trusted adult, spiritual beliefs, healing resources — can have an impact. He says people who have experienced trauma can be beacons for others, with “post-traumatic wisdom.”
Said one woman in the workshop, scientific research is helping us discover how much trauma is not simply about emotions, but brain and body. Triggers can come at any time, such as from a smell. “Sucking it up” is not the answer.
Gender-based Violence (GBV)
A majority of the people I met at the global summit are engaged with GBV in their countries. One of the fellows I worked with in 2021, Animbom, brought up a theme with me that I subsequently heard from many others. For men to be engaged in resolving the root causes of GBV, they need to be invited into the conversations with others. Even offenders need to know people are trying to work with them, not against them, if behavior is to change. He wants to gather data to show how this approach might have an impact.
The benefit of the Community Solutions Network is matching people’s passions. I subsequently met a woman from Portland, Oregon, who offers grants for data research, and connected her with Animbom at the event.
Our fellowship with Amra Avdic
The highlight of the past few weeks has been working closely with Amra Avdic, our Bosnian fellow determined to find ways to elevate women as political leaders in her patriarchal culture. Fear of change because of traumas from the war that split Yugoslavia into religious factions has led to an anxious society today that is not inclined to deviate from the traditional, long-term male leader.
She returned to the Twin Cities with me and spent two weeks connecting with some of the amazing women leaders we do have — albeit not yet at the 51 percent we should have for truly representative government.
We also had fun, and several people stepped in as hosts for activities ranging from a restaurant opening to a Halloween Pub Crawl. It has been a rewarding partnership, and we look forward to continued dialogue about what we can learn from each other about how to uplift collaboratively competitive teams of people who are building the funds, action steps, and changes needed to create healthier and safer communities for all.