Wisdom & Insight
Suggestions For Interacting With Community Women Through VolunTourism
Women. Clearly, they are the dominant force in VolunTourism. It matters not what community or part of the world I may find myself; what I will doubtless see is a group of women exercising their muscles of keen interest in the well-being of those in their charge and beyond. If there was only a way to 'bottle' this and serve it as an elixir of compassion, igniting us all to greater heights of cooperative engagement. Until that day comes, we will rely on the wisdom & insight of those who work most closely with some of these women. For this issue, I caught up with Caitlin Sislin of Women's Earth Alliance.
One would be hard-pressed to over-emphasize the contribution that women have made, and continue to make, in the realm of VolunTourism. Every day I receive emails or telephone calls from women who play some role in the ongoing evolution of VolunTourism. Although they may hail from a place utterly unknown to me, or conduct activities that rest outside of my level of understanding, I am grateful to make acquaintance with the work they are doing and the generative nature of their service to humanity.
And so it is in keeping with this theme that not long ago I received an email from Caitlin Sislin and was acquainted the work of Women's Earth Alliance. After a review of their mission, goals, and objectives, and some back-and-forth correspondence, I decided to ask Ms. Sislin and her team to share some of their wisdom and insight with us in an effort to expand our awareness and understanding of possible approaches to interacting with women at the community level. Here are Ms. Sislin's responses to my questions:
|"As voluntourists, we can succeed by standing together with our partners around the world and coordinating resources in a way that is responsive and responsible. You might imagine traditional development models as a straight and slightly downward-slanted line, where people at one end of the line funnel resources towards people at the other end of the line, without full, sustained engagement or a strong emphasis on relationship. Voluntourism is an opportunity to invest in the power of partnership, and in the powerful, self-perpetuating web of results both immediate and long-term that can arise when everyone involved in a 'development' process gets to bring their skills, their wisdom, their resources, their spirits."
Caitlin Sislin, Women's Earth Alliance
Women's Earth Alliance (WEA) unites and empowers women on the frontiers of environmental justice, resource sustainability, and community development.
In Africa WEA works with the Global Women's Water Initiative to support communities to develop clean and sustainable water supplies, through technology transfer and microcredit for key women leaders. In India WEA supports sustainable agriculture and fertile land conservation, including equipping local Indian women farmers with training, business skills, networking support, and seed capital for micro-businesses. In North America, WEA's Sacred Earth Advocacy Network mobilizes legal and policy advocates to protect sacred sites, promote equitable energy policies, and support environmental health.
In the few short years since its founding, our team has developed many fruitful partnerships around the world and an impressive track record of successes, which includes providing $70,000 in seed money to women-led organizations in over 50 countries, organizing international delegations of grassroots women activists to the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, providing hundreds of hours of legal and policy advocacy support to indigenous environmental justice campaigns in North America, and equipping 30 teams of African grassroots leaders from fourteen countries with technology and business training and $40,000 in seed capital to help launch water projects.
WEA grew out of a global women's movement that coalesced with the gathering of women leaders from 26 countries that met in Mexico City in 2006. That conference focused on the lack of collaboration and support for women environmental leaders, conditions that limit their ability to be agents of change. The ideas that emerged inspired our team to spend the next three years piloting projects, engaging multiple learning curves, building community support, finding innovative approaches to social change and forming partnerships with other like-minded organizations. Currently their work focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, northern India, and the American Southwest.
Our time in Mexico City gave us three important pieces of information: first, that women environmental leaders, positioned as hubs of community networks, are ready to move resources efficiently through those networks; second, that we can never predict in advance the powerful opportunities for collaboration that will arise from in-person encounters; and third, that women leaders need support for their work in the areas of capacity-building, advocacy, and communication.
When we got home, we started to build these key principles and mandates into every aspect of our program development; we've found that this ecosystem-like way of working sharing resources within the context of interpersonal relationships in such a way that those resources can have as broad of a reach as possible really works!
Collaboration works when the organization wanting to collaborate prioritizes listening and horizontal relationships. Speaking from our own experience of what works: our three Initiatives focus on different concerns in different regions, but they share a basic process:
- We always begin with face-to-face inquiry, so that we can determine whether there is a need for and an interest in the convening and resource-coordinating work that we do.
- Then, we collaboratively develop and implement a capacity-building initiative and/or an advocacy initiative, incorporating the participation of advocates, activists, community leaders, and experts.
- Finally, we place a strong emphasis on follow-up and follow-through, so that our efforts can really take root in a sustainable and long-term way.
Voluntourists might consider programs that are committed to taking direction from the women leaders with whom we partner; that explicitly value collaboration, transparency, and shared leadership; that strive to always act respectfully and with awareness, and to only step forward in collaboration when there is a clear call for it from grassroots partners.
Around the world, courageous women and men equally invest their time and energy into environmental protection and sustainability. At the same time, we see a trend of women stepping forward at the grassroots level to confront environmental threats. We see that across the world, women are often positioned as the caretakers of future generations and resource stewards for the community. Concomitantly, it can be said that when women thrive, communities thrive; when the women leaders who are so often at the helm of resource management and community care can experience full empowerment for environmental protection, everyone benefits. So collaboration with and support of these women leaders is really an investment in health, sustainability and justice for communities.
As voluntourists, we can succeed by standing together with our partners around the world and coordinating resources in a way that is responsive and responsible. You might imagine traditional development models as a straight and slightly downward-slanted line, where people at one end of the line funnel resources towards people at the other end of the line, without full, sustained engagement or a strong emphasis on relationship. Voluntourism is an opportunity to invest in the power of partnership, and in the powerful, self-perpetuating web of results both immediate and long-term that can arise when everyone involved in a 'development' process gets to bring their skills, their wisdom, their resources, their spirits.
We act from the principle that every time we gather, every time we share our true stories of leadership, courage, and successful action, the world changes. Every day, everywhere in the world, courageous women do the urgent work of healing of our world by speaking out about what their communities and lands need to flourish. As we build the work of voluntourism and steward our voluntourism programs, let's continually strive to listen and respond, powerfully and effectively, to these women's stories, creating strong connections and offering opportunities for service.
About Caitlin Sislin
In her career in public interest environmental law, Caitlin has worked with Natural Resources Defense Council; Earthjustice; the Center for Law, Energy and Environment; and Argentina's Center for Human Rights and Environment. As an Associate Attorney at the Law Offices of Stephan C. Volker, Caitlin oversaw the initiation of a lawsuit against the United States Environmental Protection Agency for violations of federal pesticide laws. As a law student at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, Caitlin chaired the Environmental Law Society and coordinated the first annual Environmental Justice Symposium. Her article “Exempting Department of Defense from Federal Hazardous Waste Laws: Resource Contamination as 'Range Preservation” was published in Ecology Law Quarterly, one of the nation’s foremost environmental law journals. Caitlin is a student of herbal medicine, and her poem entitled “The Nation Waits” appears in Imagining Ourselves, an anthology of women's art and writing published by the International Museum of Women.
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