Getting Comfortable with “Productive Discomfort”

Allison Lee, American Jewish World Service (AJWS)'s Los Angeles Regional Director, explains how AJWS helps make change possible.

Allison Lee, American Jewish World Service (AJWS)'s Los Angeles Regional Director, explains how AJWS helps make change possible.

For me, one of the most intriguing and valuable aspects of Women Hold Up Half the Sky has been the Expert Insights program on the weekends. From an inspiring Afternoon with Edna Adan to Jane Roberts Seeking 34 Million Friends, these in-gallery discussions have added dimension to the exhibition and to Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky movement.

This afternoon, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) will be sharing their expert insights on the work they do each and every day around the world. I was fortunate to be in the audience for one of their previous gallery visits and I learned a lot, not just about what they do but how they do it.

AJWS was founded about twenty-six years ago. The organization is inspired by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice and to help secure it for even the most marginalized communities in the developing world. AJWS has been an important partner in presenting the exhibition for many reasons: because of the work they do on the frontlines with women in the developing world, because of the Jewish lens with which they approach their work, and because of their longstanding relationship with Nick Kristof.

These were all things that I already knew, but that afternoon listening to Allison Lee, AJWS’ Los Angeles Regional Director, I learned what it all really means.

AJWS works with about 450 small grassroots organizations working on the ground in about thirty-four countries throughout Asia, Africa, and the “Global South.” For the most part, these organizations are concerned with how women and children grapple with issues of poverty, human rights, land rights, education, and HIV/AIDS. As the exhibition shows in very stark terms, women are too often underserved, undervalued, and ignored.

AJWS works with women to provide education and tools for empowering themselves, with the goal of creating real and sustainable change. To AJWS, what that means is asking the women themselves, whether they live in a remote village or an urban slum, what it is that they need to make their lives better. As Allison emphasized, AJWS never walks into a situation and says, “We know what you need.” Instead, they ask what women in the communities are already doing and then what it is that they need to improve their circumstances.

That is what really impresses me. I admire the patience and wisdom it takes for an organization to say, “We are going to invest in you, your way.”

Case in point: Over fifteen years ago,  AJWS provided a small grant to Tostan, an NGO in Senegal “dedicated to educating and empowering Africans who have had little or no access to formal schooling.” Women in the community wanted to learn to read, so the $3,000 was used start a basic literacy program. A few years later, Tostan requested additional funding for a series of workshops focused on women’s health and hygiene, because the women now wanted to be able to teach their daughters about their bodies. Part of the workshop curriculum put forth the World Health Organization declaration that health is a universal human right. During this workshop, one woman stood up to ask why, if health is a human right, do women participate in and permit female genital cutting (FGC) of their daughters when they know that the practice often leaves young girls sick, injured, or dead. “If we know this, why do we allow it?” she asked. The women began talking about it to each other, to their village chiefs, to their imams. Change was sparked, and within twelve years FGC has almost ceased to exist in their community. What’s important is this: The movement was initiated and energized by  women of Senegal. AJWS enabled a process of empowerment and self-actualization, but the women paved their own way.

As Allison said the afternoon I heard her speak, “The last thing that the Skirball, Kristoff and WuDunn, or AJWS would want is for people to finish the book or leave this exhibition moved, but not feel moved to action.”

She continued, “At AJWS we feel that part of our job in the world is to produce a ‘productive discomfort.’ The idea is that the stories should make you feel a little uncomfortable, but there should be something productive to that discomfort, because it is in that tension that change is possible.”

Since reading Kristof and WuDunn’s book and spending so much time in the exhibition, I have been in productive discomfort. I consider it a very good thing.

This afternoon, Allison Lee will be back in the gallery for another AJWS Expert Insights talk. and she will be joined by AJWS grantee Ikal Angelei, one of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize recipients. Angelei’s story is so full of passion and dedication that I know it will be an incredible experience to meet her in person. She is fighting for her communities’ livelihood, and the amazing thing is that she seems to be winning!

Learn more about the story of Ikal Angelei’s work in Kenya on the AJWS blog. And find out more about her work in this video, narrated by Robert Redford:

If you are still looking for a way to get involved, consider visiting during Expert Insights. Speakers from different organizations will be here every weekend until the exhibition closes on May 20.

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