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Author: Kristina Wilfore

Kristina Wilfore brings more than 20 years of experience and mastery of virtually all aspects of politics and grassroots organizing to Karakoyun Strategies (www.KarakoyunStrategies.com). She is a specialist in grassroots organizing, women’s political participation and election monitoring, working across Eastern Europe, South Asia and the Middle East, in countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Her work is not exclusive to developing democracies and includes engaging with political parties preparing for the European Parliament election (May 2014) in Western Europe (Sweden, Spain, Finland and Amsterdam). With a home base in Istanbul, she is strategically located between the East and West and travels wherever grassroots tools are needed to create lasting social change.

Picturing democracy

Working to build democracy isn’t always a pretty picture — and most of the time there is no picture at all. The lack of compelling visuals may contribute to the difficulty that we as changemakers face in demonstrating what we do and how we do it.

If you look in my photo folder, you’ll see countless pictures of people standing in front of a flipchart in a dimly lit room (yawn) or sitting next to each other talking (double yawn). This is the manner in which activism, political party assistance, and civic advocacy happens. It’s through dialogue, small group discussions, planning, writing, reflection, collecting data, building lists, over and over again that democracy building happens (most likely in stuffy, windowless rooms, usually accompanied with dry cookies and bad coffee). Can you picture it? This is where the architecture of change is charted.

Which is why I was delighted that the work that Leah Kimothi (Episode 3) and Carla Chianese (Episode 2) did on behalf of IFES to interrupt violence was recognized recently. USAID highlighted eight photos that capture the essence of how partners with local change makers promote, protect and deepen democracy, human rights and governance around the globe. Kenya’s “White Ribbon” campaign was a finalist of the 2018 USAID/Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) photo contest, judged by a panel from USAID.

I love that Ms. Fanis Lisiagali, Director of Healthcare Assistance Kenya ,is pictured front and center marching her heart out. She is one of the long-standing grassroots leaders fighting against gender-based violence. I had the honor to work with her while overseeing and election and conflict program in Kenya in 2017. It’s a great photo that captures the spirit and perseverance of the women fighting for peace and justice.

And why is USAID trying to demonstrate their impact, anyway? Because most Americans don’t understand the value of democracy assistance. Most Americans are surprised to learn that foreign assistance is only about one percent of the total U.S. budget. Democracy assistance represents just 4 percent of foreign aid.

We need a PR campaign for democracy – stock full of photos and visual aids, and info graphics! It is only because of the work of citizens on the ground — through the development of global standards for civil society and governance, and by courageous leadership –  that there are more open societies across the world compared to 30 years ago.

As Ken Wollack, longtime director of the National Democratic Institute, pointed out in recent Congressional testimony

“When World War II ended, fewer than a dozen democracies stood as the Iron Curtain rose, military dictatorships proliferated, and colonialism sought to regain its footing. Major breakthroughs against those trends began with the so-called third wave of democratization which, since the 1970s, impacted more than 100 countries where people in every region of the world struggled against oppression and for government based on popular will.” He continued, “On the African continent, only four leaders since 1960 had retired voluntarily or left office after losing an election — that figure stands at nearly 50 since then. Democracy, freedom and dignity were not even part of the lexicon of the Middle East. And Soviet communism, which extended to the borders of Western Europe, seemed deeply embedded.”

So, we have much to celebrate when we take the long view….and a lot to be worried about considering the short -term changes and challenges to democracy. According to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World Report 2018”, political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom. The basic tenets of democracy are being challenged today —including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—even in long-standing liberal democracies.

These are tough days, and even more are ahead. There is no shortage of problems. Yet there is also an abundance of solutions. We just don’t see the solutions as clearly as the problems. And if you can’t picture the way out, it’s hard to actualize it.

Thanks USAID for your support of democracy development, especially in light of both the external and internal problems you face. And thanks for helping us picture it a little more by honoring the photos of the ground warriors in the fight for more open, just and inclusive societies. I will do my part by committing to capturing less flip chart training photos and more dynamic change agents in action!  

Episode 4: Fighting Against Injustice and Being a Mom, Serbia to Africa

Marija Markovic is a strong, outspoken and deeply empathetic advocate who embraces these roles as rigorously as those of wife and mother. In this episode of Fatima’s Hand, she brings 20 years of wisdom in democracy and governance in the context of democratic transitions to the conversation. Starting from the Balkans, Marija talks about her leadership in the student movement that played a critical role in mobilizing voters in the historical 2000 election in which Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls – through massive street demonstrations against his bid to prolong a 13-year dictatorship.

Hear about how Marija took this experience and applied it to work across Africa and the Middle East. Her formative years spent as an activist in the Balkans made her more sensitive to conflict and the way political systems influence people on a cellular level. Through the Balkan Center for the Middle East she worked with civil society actors from the region on institutional transformation post Arab spring. As director of the offices of Freedom House and the International Republican Institute in Kenya, she has strong opinions about the difficulty of measuring improvements in democracy one quarterly report at a time.

In this episode Marija also shares her perspectives on feminism – rooted in justice. After being raised in a gender neutral household, it wasn’t until later in life that she was exposed to discrimination. She talks openly about her approach to bringing up a son who can see by example what gender equality means in the household, and the decisions she has made to prioritize family. Her hope for the future is that girls will learn not to be nice, be open to transforming themselves and pay it forward to other women. Her political wish for women in the US is that maternity rights develop more so that American women can pursue their purpose in life while having the support systems that enable them to focus on their families at the same time.

Episode 3: Peace, Conflict and Motherhood

Leah Kimathi is a professional peacemaker. She brings a depth of experience to the field and clarity of vision in how she utilizes the tools of conflict mitigation. Her on-the-ground know how, as well as her philosophical approach to the work, gives her a unique blend between practitioner and academic when it comes to healing divisions in society.

The conversation with Leah covers a great deal of ground – from the conditions of parts of Africa after the cold war and its influence on civic empowerment, to the spiritual side of peacemaking and what women need to do to gain more political power in society. Leah also opens up about the role of family in keeping her centered, the pressures she feels as a single mother, and the self-care needed to keep seeing the light in people.

We dive deep into the role of gender in peacemaking and talk about the methodology of interrupting violence. We discuss whether women are naturally better peacemakers and question the stereotypes surrounding this premise. A continually growing research base has now recognized the importance of women’s involvement in peace and security issues to achieving long lasting stability. This acknowledgment stems from the efforts by international organizations, national governments and civil society around the world to establish a women and peace security agenda, embodied in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 which affirms that peace and security efforts are more sustainable when women are equal partners in the prevention of violent conflict, the delivery of relief and recovery efforts and in the forging of lasting peace.

Much like democracy, peace is a process, not a destination. Leah gives insights on the practitioner side of the field, unwinding the elements involved in this process, intertwined with the dynamics of gender and power. This is all communicated authentically with levity and wisdom, which is uniquely Leah — a woman who works everyday to make the world a less conflicted place.

Alternatively, listen to this podcast on Fatima’s Hand website.

More on Episode 2 with Carla

I absolutely love this episode, partly because I have such affection for Carla – her optimism and energy and her commitment to equality and access in elections. But also because we go into details about how you do advocacy around elections and fight fake news and misinformation, a burning topic in the world today. This episode is rich with information and nuggets of wisdom – about what behavioral campaigns are, grassroots activism around elections, and why “hell yes” she’s a feminist. Carla also talks openly about the difficulties that sometimes come with motherhood in a multi-cultural context.

This is a perfect photo that sums up Carla and what she does best – listens deeply and intently. The process of listening (with sincerity and deep interest in whomever she is talking to) is what enables her to build inclusion into all of her work – through civic engagement projects, with election management bodies, and through digital media campaigns.

What do we mean by inclusion? You will have to listen to the show to find out!

Many of the wonderful women I have had the privilege to work with are often behind the scenes, quietly and deligently supporting young people, other women, and helping form the building blocks of politics in their communities. Part of my goal is to take the ‘behind the scenes’ women and put a spotlight on who they are and how they go about their work. We all have a story to tell. Thanks Carla for sharing yours!

But it does beg the question, why are so many women behind the scenes?

It’s part of the inequality equation, unfortunately. For several reasons:

1. If an interview is on TV, women have to look a way that society will accept us as experts. We may not have the time, energy or interest in doing this. I conduct media trainings for women. In these trainings we spend a lot of time on what not to wear. It’s unfortunate, but it comes with the territory.

2. A lot of change makers are simply too busy to pause and reflect publicly about their work. Let’s be real, even in the most gender-balanced marriages, a lot of the unpaid, household work, falls on the shoulders of women, who are often mothers. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gboweeworked with men in her country to get them to account for the unpaid work of their wives, by putting a price tag on everyday duties. It was transformative for the men. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 after turning a grassroots women’s movement into the force that ended her country’s civil war and eventually led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president on the African continent. Gbowee also has a brilliant idea for demonstrating the value of unpaid housework. Here’s a calculator that puts a dollar figure on the value of unpaid work. Every country and currency should have one!

3. The “lean in” factor. I have too many thoughts about Lean In for one blog post. To keep it brief: Sheryl Sandberg brought some important truths forward. Women’s assertiveness, or lack thereof, can be part of the problem. For sure ladies, we have to step up and be in the spaces where we are sometimes pushed from. But we have to also ask, why are we being pushed from those places to begin with? And how do we deal with the conditions that require women to lean in — be better, be smarter, and strive for perfection? This is also part of the gender inequality equation. I love what Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011 had to say about it, Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg).

So that’s my rant for the day!

We are the sum of our parts – for many women that means part advocate, part wife, mother, leader, listener. Some days we lean in. Some days we recline. I am so appreciative of Carla’s honesty in this episode, and willingness to engage with me on this journey of mine in Kenya, and with this podcast, and share a bit of her story.

As for what’s next with the podcast…I’m out of Africa these days (with a less dramatic exit than Karen Blixen), but it doesn’t stop me from continuing to engage with the many women I met along that path and try to tell a bit of the stories from this region of the world.

Moving back to Istanbul after a year in Kenya, jumping into new countries and clients, and launching this podcast, puts me smack in the middle of a crazy amount of change. This week I conducted a strategy session with Syrians working on building community and dialogue, last week I was in Macedonia, and next week I’m off to Ukraine to help support campaigns for women’s participation in politics. I still have more stories to share from Africa, so check back here for new content and the chance to meet other change makers along the way!

Episode 2: Campaigns for Inclusion – In Advocacy and Life

In this episode of Fatima’s Hand, Carla Chianese gives insights about the nature of behavioral-based change campaigns – in work and life. This enriching and personal conversations covers a wide range of topics: how voter education is organized through grassroots campaigns, strategies for countering fake news, the impact of the #MeToo movement and what it’s like to raise a son in a racially blended family. Learn coping skills for deflecting harsh judgements put on the shoulders of mothers raising young children and what women can do to get more active and engaged in the business of change making.

Aussie born Carla is a changemaker and creative communicator. She is a civic engagement and strategic communications specialist with over 10 years’ experience in democracy education, advocacy campaigns and inclusion.

She has successfully designed and implemented nationwide public information and behavioral change campaigns covering political and social issues and has specialist knowledge in using opinion research to shape behavior change communications, creating inclusive and accessible messaging, intersectionality and designing complimentary offline and online campaigns.

Carla has spent the last six years in Kenya where she was appointed to government and civil society task forces, developed national outreach, public communications, rapid response and civic engagement programs and was appointed as the Director of the Nairobi Node of the Dialogue, Empathic Engagement and Peace Building (DEEP) Global Network. Most recently Carla has been working on creative engagement strategies around elections with Kenyan civil society and government institutions through the Kenyan office of the International Foundation for Electoral Assistance.

Follow Carla on Twitter

Listen to this Episode online

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