Tuesday, March 22, 2016

#WorldWaterDay Is for Everyone

Clean water for students at Railway Primary School in
Kampala, Uganda Photo by Cindy Levin)
For past World Water Days, I admit my thoughts always turned to countries far from the U.S. where women and girls spend precious time and energy every day to carry water. Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Haiti...these are the places that immediately jump to my mind where people in extreme poverty don't have access to clean water. 

Me: rehydrating after training
Yet this year, my own country got a crash course in clean water needs as well because of recent events in the city of Flint, Michigan. (Fun fact: I ran my first 10 mile race in Flint in 1996, never thinking once about the gallons of water I drank during training and racing) Until 2014, many Flint citizens were as trusting of water coming out of their taps as I had been. However, after Flint changed its water source to water from from the Flint River without corrosion treatment, corrosive water from the river caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the public water supply. The drinking water ended up contaminated with lead, creating a serious public health danger. Over 8,000 children under 6 have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead according to the Detroit Free Press. Now, you can go online to hear and see stories of American moms traveling miles and carrying clean bottled water for their children to wash in and drink.

So this World Water Day, I'm thinking about how the Sustainable Development Goals  - including Goal 6: Ensure Access to Water and Sanitation for All - (remember those #GlobalGoals we adopted?) are for EVERYONE...not just Africans, not just Asians, not just rich people, not just poor people. 
Everyone deserves good, clean sources of drinking water. 
A woman carries 10 gallons of water barefoot
along the side of the road in Uganda
(Photo by Cindy Levin)
The actions I take today are for all of the 663 million people without access to clean water worldwide (source: UNICEF) and especially for the mothers and daughters who carry that heavy, precious water to their families every single day. 

To start the day out right, I decided to take inspiration from two African women I've never met: this anonymous woman pictured to the right who was one of many I saw along the Ugandan roads carrying plastic jerry cans full of water and Siabatou Sanney who walked a marathon with 5 gallons of water on her head to raise money and awareness for Water for Africa. See a video of Siabatou's story here:

Now, please enjoy a video of me clumsily trying to carry 5 gallons on my head around my neighborhood...

Not surprisingly, my awkwardness and difficulty with the task helps illustrate the skill and strength of other women who carry water for years. Slate magazine reported years ago in a piece called "The Art and Science of Carrying Things on Your Head": "For untrained controls who have not had years to strengthen the right muscles and build up spinal bone density, carrying things on your head actually requires more energy than using a backpack." In other words, don't try Siabatou's marathon trick at home, folks!

My daughter's 3rd grade class carrying water for
3/4 of a mile to learn what it's like.
Now, has my foolishness inspired you to take an action? Here are a few easy actions YOU can take today to provide water to others for years. They are listed from least to most effort:

Monday, February 8, 2016

Julia Jenkins Empowers Women with Noonday Collection

I'm so glad I met Julia Jenkins. She is so many things, including...a mom-of-three, a fun/classy lady, and a Noonday Collection Ambassador. If you haven't heard of Noonday, think of it as a fair-trade fashion company that will throw trunk shows at your house with some of the proceeds helping adoptive families. "Wow!" right?

Julia is as passionate as I am about empowering girls and women. I love the fact that she does it in a different way than I do, but it all comes from the same place of love, hope, and practical optimism. She's my guest blogger today, sharing with you how Noonday is empowering her as well as her customers and the artisans that make all the beautiful accessories in the Noonday Collection. PLUS, if you are a U.S. reader and leave a comment for us on this blog answering the question "How do you empower women?" by 9PM CST February 15th, you'll be in a drawing to win a Noonday Collection scarf!
Thank you, Julia, for sharing your story.

Julia's Story
As a Noonday Collection Ambassador, I regularly stand in front of hostesses and their guests telling stories about artisans who make the gorgeous handmade jewelry and accessories I showcase in their homes. While they sip wine, I tell them about how lives are transformed, because of the power having a job. I show them how amazing they look wearing a statement necklace made by one of our artisans. I empower them to change the world and feel beautiful at the same time.

But, here's my secret: Each time I stand up in front of a group of customers, I am trembling (and sweating). The voices in my head say that I'm not pretty enough, thin enough, well-spoken enough, outgoing enough, or confident enough to do this justice.

I advocate on behalf of women---women who depend on the job they have to live, and that happens because of my voice, and your purchases. It’s something I feel very called to do...in spite of my sweaty armpits!

I recently returned from Austin, Texas where I had the privilege of meeting some of Noonday’s partner artisans. It’s incredibly humbling to meet these ladies. This is Ana:

Ana lives in Guatemala and learned the beautiful tradition of blackstrap loom weaving from her mother when she was just seven years old. As she grew, she became unsatisfied with the way she saw economic opportunities for women in her village. She sought out ways to make a difference. At the age of 28, she now owns a business and employs 30 female artisans. Ana partners with Noonday to make beautiful scarves. In this picture, you can see how each one is made. It takes five hours to weave one.

I’ve adopted a really powerful mental exercise that I learned from Melissa Russell, from the International Justice Mission, that she uses before she asks people for money to help her end human trafficking.

I imagine myself sitting down next to Ana, and telling her that I just don't feel confident enough to stand before you, because I’ve gained five pounds, and you have really pretty friends, and over 20 of them will be there, and I get really, really sweaty. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?! 20 ladies who can use their purchasing power for good, so that Ana can hire more single mamas to do weaving. I want to talk to those ladies, and tell them all about Ana!
In spite of myself, and because of the women I represent, I’m an ambassador. And I work at it, so that I can do it better!

Here's what Ana has taught me, and there's something here for you, too. Ana knows she's enough. She was 20-years-old when she started her business. At twenty, she was giving single mamas the opportunity to weave in their homes, so that they can also take care of their small children! And here's the truth: 
You are enough! I am enough, and so is that pretty/thin/well-spoken/confident woman across the room. Her “enough-ness” doesn’t diminish my own. And we can elevate the worth of all women when we stop listening to the voices that tell us where we fall short, and start empowering those around us.
What if we all chose to live wholeheartedly, and pour into women around us, rather than listen to the voices in our heads saying that we don't measure up? When we stomp those voices out, and believe that we are enough, we have the power to change the world!

Ana has this dream of building her business to provide jobs for 100 women! Isn’t that incredible? I want to help her on her way to that goal today. Enter to win the scarf Ana was making by answering this question in the comments by 9PM CST February 15th
How do you empower women? 
We ALL empower the women around us--each one of you can add a voice to this conversation. I can't wait to hear what you have to say!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

#ElectrifyAfrica Act Passes the House & Senate!

Did you hear? The Electrify Africa Act passed in the House of Representatives! Because it already passed in the Senate in December, this means the next stop is President Obama's desk. When he signs it, it will help sub-Saharan African countries to increase modern electricity access, which will save lives, boost education, alleviate extreme poverty, and accelerate economic growth. Hooray!

I first wrote about Electrify Africa in July of 2014. Yep, you read that right. A year and a half ago. And that certainly wasn't even at the beginning of the life of the bill, which started out with a self-dating name of "Electrify Africa Act of 2013." The bill took on the thorny problem of the lack of consistent electric power in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, 589 million people do not have access to electricity. In 20 African countries, endemic power shortages - at all economic levels - are a way of life. This lack impacts lives in profound ways with disproportionately negative effects on women and girls. For example:

  • Poor healthcare: 30% of health facilities do not have electricity to store vaccines, operate medical equipment like incubators, or even provide consistent light during childbirth.
  • Toxic fumes: Every year, over 3 million worldwide premature deaths occur from exposure to toxic smoke of indoor open fires and kerosene for cooking, heating, and lighting. That's more deaths than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.
  • Limited or no education: 90 million kids in sub-Saharan Africa attend schools without electricity. In many places, women and girls must spend hours each day in the time-consuming task of gathering fuel, often a key reason why girls spend less time in school than boys.
  • Lack of safety: Without streetlights, telephones, or other means of communication, women and girls are particularly vulnerable after dark. 
The Electrify Africa Act seeks to prioritize and coordinate U.S. government resources to encourage the installation of at least an additional 20,000 megawatts of electrical power and promote first-time access to electricity for at least 50 million people, particularly the poor, by 2020. It requires our president to develop a comprehensive, multi-year strategy to addressing these problems. It also encourages USAID to provide additional grants and make loan guarantees to local African banks to facilitate investment in African power projects.

Those initiatives and more will have the effect of preserving life and bringing economic growth to areas of Africa that desperately need it. 
St. Louis ONE volunteers with Senator
McCaskill's district aide
We did this...the volunteers of the ONE Campaign. Citizens. Moms, kids, engineers, teachers, and more. Never fool yourself into believing that Congress would have done this all by themselves. Sure, a handful of them have their eye on extreme poverty issues, but as a whole body of legislators, they do not naturally unite to help the most vulnerable people without power or influence. 

So...everybody take a step back and let out a deep breath. Pour a beverage of your choice and toast yourself. Advocacy works! When it does, we need to celebrate it to fuel our souls for the next flight. But for today..."Cheers!" To me...to you...to all of those who will receive power and be empowered for years to come.

P.S. If you would like to see the C-SPAN clip of the bill passing, check out this link.