At this season of academic transitions—students seeking summer internships, jobs, and experiences, and new grads heading out into the world—I have good news and bad news. Even mature adults are stuck figuring out what to do when they grew up, or at least grow older.
That is how I have become a first-time author and a grandmother at the same time. Granted, writing 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women did not take me 40 years; I had several careers before arriving at this juncture. But it is a great reminder that with luck and long life, one can have many work trajectories.
About a decade ago my art business had become predictable and my youngest child, Nomi (Wesleyan ’11), was leaving home. I treated this as an opportunity to let my business contract while beginning to search for Frederick Buechner’s “place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I did eventually grow a new career, though it was a slow, non-linear process.
Getting to 100 Under $100 involved a lot of serendipity. I began blogging about sustainability and socially responsible consumption; though a hobby, it turned out I was acquiring actual skills. I went on a lot of informational interviews. The main takeaway: I was too old for an entry level job and too quirky for more specialized positions.
Through networking, though, I learned about a conference on microfinance and was bowled over by Elizabeth Israel, head of GreenMicrofinance. She displayed a chart showing how much impoverished people lacking electricity pay per KwH—more than we rich country denizens do. She further explained that a solar panel provides a path out of extreme poverty. Within a few weeks I was the Communications Director of the fledgling GreenMicrofinance. My blogging? Now it was part of my dream job.
GreenMicrofinance launched in 2008; you can guess how that ended. Nomi, then a sophomore, phoned home one day, very excited, reporting that a young man in her sociology class had just arrived at Wesleyan straight from a slum in Kenya and was starting a school for girls back home. She was jumping in to help. Of course that was Kennedy Odede ’12, dreaming the Kibera School for Girls into existence. Soon the school was under construction and I volunteered to help. That’s how I wound up a [lucky!] member of the founding board of Shining Hope for Communities.
I saw very few signs of women in the humanitarian technology world, either as designers or as users; I knew that was a problem. In the women’s empowerment sector, exemplified by SHOFCO and other initiatives I learned about, I saw very little tech. This, too, posed a problem. How can girls and women be empowered without the power of the plug? I decided I could, and should, focus on this disconnect and try to contribute to bridging it.
I started searching for women in humanitarian tech and design, experimenting with a then new social media tool, Pinterest—more serendipity. Soon I’d “pinned” scores of images of women doing amazing things: designing affordable water treatment, better maternal health tool, improved fuel, even sanitary napkins. These women were actively improving the lives of women all over the world.
After a few weeks I sat back to admire these vibrant images. Blam! It hit me. I needed to write a book about these women and their work: a beautiful, hopeful, informative book that would invite people to engage in and support these initiatives. A crazy undertaking, perhaps, but I knew my deep gladness had met up with the world’s hunger.
My definition of “tool” expanded as I researched, to include public health practices, WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene), ICT (Info & Communication Tech), Sustainable Agriculture, Financial Inclusion, and Legal Tools. (When it’s your book, you make the rules.) The book is a comprehensive look at the sectors of development. Each entry has a icon: something YOU, the reader, could do. These were really fun to track down, varying from something as simple as buying fair trade products to challenges as huge as replicating an existing model in a different region. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of internships included in the book. The actionable items make the book extremely useful to a wide range of readers: students, idealists, classroom and informal educators, families seeking meaningful philanthropic or travel opportunities, and socially responsible consumers.
Readers will find an immense amount of information about Human Centered Design, social enterprise and entrepreneurship, and flat-out cool surprises. Who knew that urine makes great fertilizer? Or that you can make bricks out of plastic bottles filled with non-recyclable waste, a win-win? The book is oversize, with 170 gorgeous photos of women in action. One of my favorite reviews describes it as “a coffee table book for activists.”
A special shout-out to Aaron Greenberg ’11, fact checker for the book’s sustainable farming section. He was a farmer at Long Lane, back in the day!