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. Continue reading

Connecting (and Coloring) the Dots

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the sixty million girls and women who are “missing”  from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the tragic fact that sixty million girls and women are “missing” from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.

Inside the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, one wall of the gallery is covered with dots—20,000 of them, give or take a few. Each one measures about an inch in diameter, a thin blue line rounding an empty center. Over time visitors have filled in the white circles, transforming the mostly blank space into a field of tenderly hand-colored dots.

The 20,000 are meant to represent, if only in part, the sixty million girls and women estimated to be “missing” worldwide because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, or gender-specific abuse or neglect—or what an article in The Economist calls “gendercide” (the article also increases the estimate to 100 million). It’s a startling, sobering figure. While standing before this giant display of thousands upon thousands of dots, visitors are invited to take a moment and color in a circle in honor of a life lost.

A young middle-schooler, B.J. Dare, who toured the exhibition as part of a recent school field trip, colored in more than a dot or two, then chose to share the experience with online reading and writing community Figment. We stumbled upon it late last week, and we were moved. Here’s an excerpt of B.J.’s composition “A Trip to the Skirball”:

I colored and colored and colored and colored. Every dot was a new color, some were multi-color. For each dot, I felt like I was trying to help, or give support, somehow. Continue reading

Gallery Visitor Jane Roberts Seeking 34 Million Friends

Women Hold up Half the Sky has been attracting a lot of amazing folks who are involved in organizations that work on behalf of women and girls. On any given day, we seem to bump into activists exploring the exhibition and sharing stories during their visits.

One day, a Skirball docent stopped me in the hallway to tell me that a woman “who was in the book”—that is, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky—was in the gallery. The docent was referring to Jane Roberts, who is featured prominently in chapter 8 on family planning and maternal health. I went to the galleries to welcome Jane to the Skirball and to learn more about her remarkable life’s work.

Hear Jane Roberts talk about her impactful 34 Million Friends movement,
“I believe that when the world takes care of women, women take care of the world.”

Jane shared that she was upset to learn that during President George W. Bush’s first administration, the U.S. was withholding $34 million from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because of false claims that the organization funded coercive abortions as part of its family planning program. UNFPA does much to help women by promoting reproductive health, prenatal care, and safe deliveries. Jane felt that something should be done to restore the withheld funds so that women needing maternity resources could receive them.

In 2002, Jane started a movement, working with another incensed American, Lois Abraham, to raise the missing $34 million. They are asking people to donate one dollar each. To date, 34 Million Friends of UNFPA has raised over $4 million that goes directly to UNFPA. In 2005, in recognition of their efforts and accomplishments, Jane and Lois were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! Continue reading

An Afternoon with Edna Adan

Edna Adan Ismail views the section of the exhibition that tells her story and describes the impactful work that her hospital does to promote maternal and infant health. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

When Edna Adan Ismail, founder of the pioneering Edna Adan University Hospital in Somaliland, walked into Women Hold Up Half the Sky a few weeks ago, she exclaimed to the crowd of visitors who had gathered to see her, “I am very emotional by the way, so if I get emotional, bear with me.” She walked through the gallery, half a world away from her home in Hargeisa, and took in the stories and images of her life on display. Edna did get emotional. And impassioned. And I did, too.

As I learned in chapter seven of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, one woman dies from childbirth every minute somewhere in the world. The personal narratives they share in the book put a face to that statistic, making every heartbreaking word worth the read.

In a country like Somaliland, Kristof and WuDunn write that there are four main factors that account for such grim maternal mortality: biology, lack of schooling, lack of rural health systems, and disregard for women. This only makes it that much more impressive that against all odds Edna learned to read and write even when there were no schools for girls; was the first Somali girl to earn a scholarship to study abroad in Britain; trained to become the first qualified nurse-midwife; served as First Lady of Somalia while her husband served as Prime Minister; had a career at the World Health Organization; held the position of Foreign Minister of Somaliland; and finally reached her lifelong goal of founding and administering a hospital. Being in her presence is inspiring, and I feel proud to know that she is out there fighting for every woman’s right to good health care and education. Continue reading