Celebrate International Women’s Day by joining the new Idealist network

Here at Idealist, we couldn’t be more pumped that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Inspiring Change.”

With the launch of our new network in just a few days, Idealist is inspiring change by empowering more women (and men!) around the world to connect and take action on the issues that concern them.

One of Idealist’s core values is that all people should be able to lead free and dignified lives. On this International Women’s Day, we’d like to invite all people who share this belief to take a stand and spark change in your community, country, and world.


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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new network for change.

How will you inspire change this year?

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Awesome photographer shoots grandmas in band t-shirts; blows the doors off his own stereotypes

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

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Photography by Jay Hynes

Jay Hynes didn’t set out to prove that grannies rock, but he definitely did.

By photographing grandmas in their homes wearing punk and metal t-shirts in a photo series called “Grandmas Rock,” the Melbourne-based photographer aimed to contrast the rebelliousness represented by rock n’ roll with the more prim and proper lifestyles he expected from his subjects.

A former advertising art director, Jay recently switched career paths to become a full-time music and portrait photographer. He wanted a photo series in his portfolio that would combine his interests in portraits, domestic spaces, and bands—and look really awesome.

As he went out to meet the women he’d be photographing, his assumptions and opinions about what “normal” grandmas do and how they live started to unravel. For starters, their interest in participating in such a conceptual art project was a delightful surprise.

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Photography by Jay Hynes

“I think this part is almost cooler than the actual photos—the fact that all of them said, sure, I’ll do that!” he says. “It showed me that they were trusting and supportive, but more than anything that they were interested in doing something out of the ordinary.”

Before the shoot, Jay sat down with each of the women—strangers that he’d connected to through friends—over a cup of tea to get a sense of their personalities.

“That time spent with them made me realize how much I miss my own grandma,” he says.

Although his project started out as a way to contrast rock n’ roll with the straight-laced exterior of grandmas, he came away from the project inspired by how rad these golden girls really are.

“They don’t take life as seriously as people assume they would. I think if I had asked a bunch of 40-to-50 year old women to do the same thing, the answer would have been no.”

Right on, Jay! We think grandmas are pretty punk rock, too.

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Photography by Jay Hynes

See the complete photo series here.

Have you ever started a project and ended up surprised by how it changed your perspective? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

 

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Help Maha and Hikmat give secondhand clothes more sparkle

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

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By teaching sewing skills to women like this participant in their fall workshop, Second Chance hopes to provide economic independence to women in rural areas of Lebanon. (photo courtesy Second Chance Facebook)

Meet Maha and Hikmat

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Maha, left, and Hikmat
(photo courtesy Hikmat Al Khansa)

Sparkle jeans. Dip-dye. Metallic piping. Maha Mrad’s got more style in her manicured little finger than many of us have in our whole closet.

Maha’s obsession with fashion started when she was about 10. Her cousin was drawing pictures of dresses in her sketchbook and they caught Maha’s eye. Though her cousin’s interest turned out to be more fleeting, Maha’s been designing interesting outfits and patterns ever since.

As a student at Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon, she found a way to connect her passion for fashion with her studies in social entrepreneurialism.

With a partner, friend and fellow student Hikmat Al Khansa, she’s laid the groundwork for a new social good business, Second Chance, which will revamp secondhand clothing into eco-friendly recycled and upcycled fashions.

“I put together the idea and sent it to Hikmat with a feeling that she’s gonna laugh about it,” Maha says. “Surprisingly she liked it and we went through with it.”

Maha, Hikmat, and eight other student collaborators at their university have been working on the model and marketing plans for Second Chance. After they finish their degrees, Maha and Hikmat plan to go into business together to make their idea a reality.

“She’s the best partner I could think of,” says Maha.

The intention

While thrifting and DIY fashion may be commonplace in the US, in Lebanon and many other countries around the world, buying new and designer clothing remains a status symbol that makes shopping for and buying secondhand clothing unpopular.

Because of this, Hikmat explains, “It’s hard for Lebanese people to admit to buying used clothes even if they do it frequently.”

Second Chance hopes to make over both the clothes themselves and the reputation of previously-owned clothes by upgrading outdated garments with stylish twists. With help and training from a well-known designer, Maha and Hikmat plan to hire women from rural areas around Beirut to do the sewing and redesigning.

“We’re trying to show people that it is okay to wear secondhand clothing,” Maha explains. “Wearing such clothes can be trendy and helpful to both community and environment. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”

Obstacles

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Some of the custom designs created for Second Chance’s 2013 pilot exhibition (photo courtesy Second Chance Facebook)

In fall 2013, Maha, Hikmat, and their fellow student collaborators launched a pilot program of Second Chance and organized a 10-day training workshop for seamstresses.

The result was a fashion exhibition featuring over 70 unique designs. While reception was good, the students sold fewer clothes than they were hoping to.

Maha takes the lack of sales at their initial exhibit in stride, saying, “The biggest lesson I learned is to be more patient and not make an obstacle of myself. It’s all about the attitude.”

As students, Maha and Hikmat are still learning about business management and intend to get Masters degrees in management before they launch Second Chance.

In addition to finishing school, they also need to find partnerships with more established fashion designers or brands to help build their reputation. For their pilot project, they enlisted the help of a local tailor to train the women (rather than a famous designer).

When Maha and Hikmat make a real go of it, they’re hoping to get a big-name designer involved to help increase their visibility.

“People here are all about appearance and prestige,” says Maha.

How you can help

  • Do you know of similar projects in the US or elsewhere around the world that Maha and Hikmat could learn from?
  • Are you connected with a well-known fashion designer or existing clothing brand that wants to get involved in a social good project in the Middle East?
  • Are you or do you know a lawyer in Lebanon who can offer advice to Maha and Hikmat as they set up their business?
  • Do you know of a potential marketing or advertising firm that could offer professional branding services to Second Chance?

Reach out to Second Chance through their Facebook page.

Are you a practical dreamer with an idea that’s just starting to take shape? If you’d like to be a part of this series, or know someone else who would be a good fit, email rebecca@idealist.org.

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The Reconstructionists: A yearlong celebration of amazing women

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days. 

Portrait of Maya Angelou by Lisa Congdon

The portrait of Maya Angelou was the hardest.

Illustrator Lisa Congdon says that it was partially her struggle to capture the poet’s essence that made the finished product turn out so well.

“I was able to capture her decently in the end because in the beginning I was ready to rip it up,” she says.

But most of her portraits come out a little easier than that. Lisa paints a different one every week as part of The Reconstructionists, a yearlong collaborative art/writing/history project she started with Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova.

Every Monday in 2013, an inspiring woman has been featured on their website with a hand-painted portrait and a micro-essay about her life and work.

Named for twentieth-century novelist Anaïs Nin’s idea for “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world,” The Reconstructionists celebrates women who have reconstructed “our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.”

It’s featured some well-known feminist figures of the past like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, but many subjects—like Patty Smith, Diana Nyad, Janette Sadik-Khan, Joan Didion, and (of course) Maya Angelou—are still alive and well (and changing the world) today.

Lisa and Maria decide who they’d like to feature on a week-to-week basis depending on what’s going on in the news or in history or what’s been on their minds. With only 52 weeks in the year, they can’t pay homage to all the women they’d like to, so they focus on picking someone whose story is important to them.

“In that way it’s a personal project for us,” Lisa says.

While this is Lisa’s first time working on a collaborative project, this isn’t her first rodeo when it comes to yearlong projects. In 2010, she shared her collections through A Collection A Day, which is now a book. In 2012, she featured more of her artwork in 365 Days of Hand Lettering.

All of her yearlong art projects have been started through blogs. Lisa says she’s liked sharing The Reconstructionists this way because it’s “educational for people and low-pressure for us.”

“When you do a blog, there’s an expectation that you’re going to post every week,” she says. “It puts a self-imposed deadline and structure on personal work that might not exist otherwise.”

When asked if Lisa has a project in the works for 2014, she’s a little noncommittal.

“There are a few things stewing in my head,” she says, laughing.

What women inspire you?

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Idealist Gratitude: What Becky and Joshua are grateful for this Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, we asked our fellow Idealist staff members to reflect on a person or organization they’re grateful for. We’re posting their stories this week.

We’d love to hear what’s stuffing you with thankfulness this holiday season, too—drop us a line in the comments.

 

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Mara with a pig she is about to turn into bacon.

My friend Mara is the kind of tattooed farmer chick who built her own canoe and had pet goats until she butchered them.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer this September, self-pity wasn’t really an issue.

She was pissed about losing strength, kind of “silver lining” excited about getting new boobs after her double mastectomy, and as a 32-year-old, upset about losing fertility because of the estrogen suppression therapy she’ll need to stay healthy.

I’m thankful that she was able to find support and resources through the LIVESTRONG Foundation’s Fertile Hope program, which helps cancer patients secure financial assistance for fertility treatments. Fertile Hope covered the cost of her appointments with the fertility specialist and Walgreens donated the (crazy expensive) medication.

Because of this awesome program, Mara and her partner can have a kid when they’re ready to be parents. I have a feeling that in a few years, they’ll be taking some pretty epic family canoe trips.

Want to make a difference in the fight against cancer? Idealist can show you over 2,000 ways.

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Rebecca Olson is a communications intern at Idealist.

 

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Joshua’s greyhound, Conquer.

Nine years ago, I was at the grocery store and saw three greyhounds sticking out from the back of a truck. The driver was going around to racing tracks, trying to find greyhounds new homes so they wouldn’t be put down after they’d fulfilled their commercial purpose. I told him next time he was at the track to find me a dog and I’d take it in.

One month later I had Conquer. She came to me both emaciated and muscular. She had hairless patches from malnourishment. Her toenails were fragile and would easily break. She didn’t know what stairs were, and the first time she saw a fireplace she walked right into it.

It was amazing to watch her transform. Before I had her she’d only known the racetrack and cage she lived in; eventually she knew things like how to play with balls and splash in the ocean. She opened up to my affection, and loved being petted and cuddled.

Because of this experience, I’m extremely grateful for groups such as the Greyhound Adoption Center and Greyhound Pets of America for the work they do rescuing retired greyhounds from racing tracks across the nation and placing them in good homes.

It is not well known that greyhounds make amazing pets, and the exposure and advocacy these organizations generate for these gentle animals is crucial to their welfare.

Passionate about animal welfare? Browse Idealist for over 6,000 animal-related opportunities.

Joshua

 

Joshua Richey is a web designer at Idealist.

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How a female-focused bike shop is shifting gears

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Leah Benson behind the counter at her new shop.

In the new Gladys Bikes shop on North Williams Avenue in Portland, Oregon, there’s a sign on the mirror next to the rain gear and helmets. It says “you look perfect.”

Owner Leah Benson opened the shop last month with the intention of starting a bike repair and fit studio specifically catering to women and women-identified individuals. The name come from famous women’s suffragist Frances Willard who called her beloved bicycle “Gladys.”

“Everybody deserves to feel comfortable on their bike and welcomed in a bike shop, and unfortunately that’s not the case for a lot of people,” Leah says.

She knew she wanted to offer an alternative to the intimidating and exclusive vibe of many bike shops, so she left her job at a local nonprofit a year ago and dedicated herself full-time to setting up the business. To help her get started, she tapped into some micro-enterprise development classes offered through Mercy Corps and talked to a lot of shop owners in the Portland bike community.

Part of the reason Leah opted to start a small business instead of a nonprofit or bike coop was the frustration she’d felt with the constraints of grant cycles and funders at her nonprofit job.

“You can do a lot of good work in the nonprofit sector, but you’re always going to be beholden to other people’s deliverables,” she says. “I wanted to step out of that.”

Before she started setting up Gladys Bikes, Leah was pretty dismissive and negative about the for-profit world.

Gladys Bikes' saddle library. (photo via Gladys Bikes Face Book)

There’s a saddle for every body.
(photo via Gladys Bikes Instagram)

“I used to think that if you’re making money, you must be doing something wrong,” she says. “And then I was like, no, small businesses are usually just trying to make enough to get by while providing a valuable service.”

An experienced fundraiser from her nonprofit days, Leah raised a fair amount of the capital she needed to start her business from private donors. She also worked a handful of odd jobs over the past year to make extra money: juice truck cashier, nonprofit consultant, assistant stylist for a Nike photo shoot.

To keep her budget on track for the coming year, she’s also in the process of setting up an Independent Development Account (IDA) with Mercy Corps, a special type of savings account that helps small business owners build assets with a 4-to-1 matching program.

The people have spoken

One of the most useful things Leah did to make sure Gladys Bikes was on target with its services was to ask people directly what they wanted from the shop. She ran focus groups made up of people she knew, people she respected, and people that were referred to her to find out what they asked for most.

“It was one of the most fun and productive things I’ve ever done,” she says. “It was a great way for us to air our frustrations about bike shops that aren’t set up with women in mind while brainstorming some wildly great ideas.”

One of the awesome ideas inspired by the focus groups is Gladys Bikes’ one-of-a-kind saddle library.

“A comfortable saddle [the part of the bike seat you sit on] can be really body-specific in some pretty personal ways,” Leah says. “And a lot of the time, when there’s a piece of bike gear made for an ‘average person’ or ‘unisex,’ that usually just means ‘man.’”

To help achieve a more comfortable ride, customers can check out different saddle shapes and sizes from the library, try them out on their bikes for a full week, and bring them back later.

“Feeling good when you’re on your bike is really important,” she says. “It’s all about getting it set up in the way that’s most comfortable for you.”

What are some of your favorite socially-conscious small businesses?

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Do we miscast rural communities as places to leave behind?

Rural communities are often portrayed in the media as unfortunate starting places—restrictive, provincial hometowns that promising individuals must escape in order to reach their full potential.

But possibility and wealth of different kinds can be found outside big, prosperous cities. Read how one Guyanese woman saw great potential in a tiny community in eastern Ethiopia.

This post written by Grace Aneiza Ali originally appeared on OF NOTE, an online magazine focused on global artists who use the arts as catalysts for social change. 

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School girl from Harrare, Ethiopia.
(photo courtesy Grace Aneiza Ali)

There are no paved roads directly to Chaffe Jenetta—a small Muslim coffee farming community nestled in the remote terrains of Harrar in eastern Ethiopia. Telephone lines and electric wires are rare in these parts. Women are immersed in their day—fetching water, gathering wood and sticks to stoke fires, and cooking for their families.

Among their company, lush mountains and endless blue sky, I felt at home.

It was 2010 and my first time in Ethiopia, in fact my first trip to Africa. I had learned from growing up in Guyana and from a year traveling throughout India that there was no preparing for the rural countryside. You simply show up and let the land lead. So, I embraced Ethiopia with the same deference.

The journey to Harrar had started in New York City where I live. I was invited to travel with the staff and board members of The Abyssinian Fund, an NGO with a home-base in Harlem, New York, that works with coffee planters in Ethiopia’s rural villages like Chaffe Jenetta, helping them to grow better coffee, earn higher incomes, and improve social services with clinics, schools, and access to clean water.

While members of our group toured the village, I spent most of my time with the school children. One little girl in particular, about nine or ten years old, caught my attention—simply because of the way she clutched her notebooks. I asked for her name, but either she was too shy to tell me or didn’t understand my question. I pointed to her books and asked if I could look at them.

Her notes, written in Oromo, the local language of Chaffe Jenetta, filled up every usable blank space. Her handwriting was in the margins, on the inside and outside of the covers, written horizontally and vertically.

I recalled my own primary school days in Guyana when notebooks and paper were a luxury. Instead, we had hand-held chalkboards and little bits of chalk. It was cheaper, but it meant everything that was written had to be erased. So I would gather sheets of paper wherever I could find them and glue or sew them together to make books.

It was within those pages that I could invent the life I wanted. I wanted to be a writer.

Like that little girl at my side in Chaffe Jenetta, I left no free space unmarked in my hand-made books. I too wrote in the margins, within the covers, and sideways. As I turned the pages of her book, I wondered if this was where the stories of Chaffe Jenetta were being kept. Were they scribbled within the margins? Were they tucked in between the covers?

One of the Ethiopian guides that accompanied our group had remarked, “These are the forgotten people.” He had never been this deep into the mountains of Harrar and was visibly moved by the agrarian way of life in Chaffe Jenetta.

Perhaps what he was witnessing made him feel as a foreigner in his own land.

But as I stood there looking through this little girl’s notebooks, nothing about her seemed forgotten to me. There was a boldness about her. There was a joyfulness about her. What I saw was a young girl thriving amidst her circumstances.

I’ve found this to be universal from Harrar to Harlem—people thriving amidst contradictions, thriving in the messiness of life, thriving in the tragedies, thriving in the challenges, the hurts and the disappointments.

Notebooks may seem trivial when compared to the serious needs in Chaffe Jenetta like clean water, clinics, and paved roads. But they represent the freedom to dream, to create, and to imagine a future for oneself.

For that little girl, her future begins within the pages of her notebook—just like my dreams began for me. It was clear by the way she clung to her books, their pale blue covers tattered and torn, that what was written in them was of value. They were sacred to her.

Far too often the narratives about women and girls in rural communities whether they be in Asia, or Africa, or South America, are centered on an urgent call for them to look past the proverbial courtyard, to aim for a life beyond the confines of the village, to shed the veil. And we tell them that not doing so would render them invisible, marginalized, or trapped.

We’re wrong.

Chaffe Jenetta is not another nameless village in another ubiquitous story of poverty in Africa. It is a challenging but wealthy place—albeit not material wealth. It is not a place to flee from, but one to be nurtured and supported.

The little girl I met could one day turn out to be a powerful voice for Ethiopia. She might become a writer herself, sharing with the world its multiple stories. And to do so, perhaps she will find herself returning to those very notebooks.

GRACEGrace Aneiza Ali is the founder and editorial director of OF NOTE. She’s also an Adjunct Professor of Literature for the City University of New York, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and a Fulbright Scholar. She currently hosts the Visually Speaking series at the Schomburg Center, which examines the state of photojournalism through the lens of contemporary photographers and image-makers. Grace was born in Guyana and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen years old. Guyana continues to inform and influence her worldview.

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Beyond nonprofit jobs: How an Idealist plays matchmaker to help women leaders

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Photo credit: Peshkova, Shutterstock.com

Twice a year, women leaders from Kosovo travel to Washington, D.C. to shadow folks at nonprofits, think tanks, media organizations, and more.  They do this for one month as part of the National Albanian American Council’s Hope Fellowships.

To find a good professional match for the women, Allegra Panetto, current Program Assistant at the Hope Fellowship, turns to Idealist to search for similar programs they can learn from.

Recently, for example, a Fellow wanted to develop a project that focuses on empowering women in local governance in Kosovo by building leadership capacities for women on the ground. By using the keywords “democracy” and “leadership,”  Allegra searched Idealist and found Council for a Community of Democracies. She reached out to them, and now the Fellow will spend four days at their offices, learning best practices and sharing her knowledge of the region.

“I really like Idealist because it breaks down things in a clear way. I like that I can see how active these organizations are. If they’re posting jobs, then I’ll take that as a good sign, ” she says.

Her other tips on how to make the most out of our site? Searching with good, specific keywords, patience when sifting through organizations, and broadening your geographic region to include not only the city, but the entire metro area.

Allegra is just one example of how you can use Idealist to not only find a job, but do your job better. How do you use Idealist beyond nonprofit jobs? What tips do you have?

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Want to get more women in tech? Let Code Scouts guide you

Want to learn how to make websites, apps, and more but don’t know where to start? Code Scouts in Portland, Oregon can help. This post originally appeared on good.is, a global community of people who give a damn.

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Founder Michelle Rowley and Kevin Turner, who recently joined Code Scouts full-time as their Chief Technology Officer. (Photo by Jason Grilicky.)

At the kickoff event for Code Scouts—a nonprofit providing support and resources to women learning to code—founder Michelle Rowley stands in front of a room of almost all women, welcoming both new and familiar faces in the Portland, Oregon tech community.

She confesses how, at first, she didn’t feel smart or empowered enough to become a software developer. And how it wasn’t until her developer ex-husband said he’d help her learn that she traded her geography and French degrees for hacking.

To get to this point—being one of the 18 percent of developers today that are women—Michelle had a few things in her favor: a father who didn’t think twice about teaching her computer skills when she asked him growing up, a partner who believed in her, and friends in the scene who encouraged her to attend conferences and meetups.

She had hands helping her; now she wants to do the same.

“I want to take the experience and privilege I’ve had and give it to people who haven’t. Just for fun,” she says. “And I think it would change things.”

It’s no secret that knowing how to code comes with all sorts of benefits: good pay, flexible hours, and esteem in the eyes of colleagues and peers. But it’s also an industry known for its competitiveness, locker room atmosphere, and lack of diversity.

That’s where Code Scouts comes in. Michelle, who has been helping lead the Portland Python User Group since 2008, came up with the idea last year as a way to bridge the gap between the people creating the internet (mostly men) and the people using it (mostly women). By creating a safe space for learners to play around with 1’s and 0’s, and, more importantly, be okay with messing up, Michelle hopes to spread the coding love, and wealth, to new faces.

“Code Scouts exists to pull more people out of the woodwork who are thinking about doing it but are scared to even approach the situation,” she says. ” It can be a scary jungle. We’re guides in Code Scouts. We’ll go in that jungle with you.”

Women have come to the monthly event with varying skill levels and backgrounds. Marta McCasland, for one, has been learning coding on and off on her own for the past year. She works as a loan processor at a credit union, and hopes the skills she’s learning at Code Scouts will help her better serve her customers. She also wants to develop a geolocation-based apartment finder app in her spare time.

To do this, her Code Scouts guide will lead her down a path of available resources like Treehouse and Codeacademy. Over the course of the afternoon they’ll work together to find the right starting point, form learning circles with others at her level, and hopefully, make long-lasting connections.

“It feels like I’m surrounded by people who might actually have the same questions I have, whereas in other groups it feels like, ‘Should I ask this? Is everyone going to be like, Why are you asking that?”” Marta says.

While the nonprofit’s formal mission is to get more women in the tech industry, Michelle is also addressing a deeper issue: newbie shaming. Cliques are common, and more often than not, she says, expertise becomes the marker of whether you’re in or out. “Dumb” questions are usually cause for ridicule.

It can be uninviting for outsiders. And not just women.

“Guys are coming out to me and saying they don’t feel welcome in that scene either,” she says.

Michelle allows some men to participate in Code Scouts, and there are some male mentors. The values listed in the code of conduct—respect, kindness, generosity, growth, community—make it clear that no jerks are allowed.

At the start of the event, Michelle makes it a habit to encourage everyone to embrace the mistakes they’re bound to make in the next four hours—as well as in the rest of their coding lives.

“Be willing to do it wrong a thousand times,” she says. “This is the space to be wrong and still feel good about it.”

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Starting with San Francisco, Michelle’s ultimate goal is to have Code Scouts chapters in many, many other places. To learn more or get involved, follow them on Twitter or get in touch with Michelle: adventure@codescouts.org.

Read more from Idealist on good.is.

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Fighting, failure, and forgiveness: One Pakistani activist’s story

Inspired by the honor killing of her good friend when she was 16 years old, Pakistani activist Khalida Brohi set out to challenge this practice in her village through several campaigns over the years. Yet she was faced with death threats, both to her and her family. Torn between wanting to change her culture while embracing it, Khalida had to create a whole new way of working. Here’s how she tapped into her culture’s strengths to create the Sughar Women Program in 2009, which empowers 800 women in 23 learning centers across rural provinces. As told to Celeste Hamilton Dennis.

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Khalida (top right with glasses) with women from the program.

 

How it all began

I’ve never been able to say how much I adore the place where I come from. I’m from a village in the mountains of Balochistan. I was the first person in my family who went to Karachi and got her education. I got to see two very extreme worlds.

Honor killings are a tradition in Pakistan, and they come from a really, really old custom in Saudi Arabia. Women, money, and land: these three things are the property of man, and they can do anything they want with them. They can kill a woman for doing anything they judge brings dishonor to her family.

When I was 16, a friend of mine was killed for wanting to marry a boy she liked. As soon as I learned about her death, I went into a crazy state and decided I was going to stop this. I did the WAKE UP Campaign. [An online media campaign that set out to raise awareness about the issue through sharing women's stories.] It became really big. But the more I worked, the more I realized I was trying to fight the entire system in Pakistan, and that’s difficult because different tribal communities have their own laws. Every time I went back to my village, nothing had changed.

I started getting many death threats from men who were angry I was going against the traditions. I went back to Karachi, and into hiding for six months. 2008 was a really bad time.

In hiding I started thinking about what led me to this failure. Why did I get these death threats?

Then I realized that I never said there were good things in the rural, tribal traditions. I never involved the village women in the campaign; we only had urban activists involved. So I decided to take a new approach.

The birth of the centers

After the failure and all the problems I had in the Wake Up Campaign I thought nobody would support me. But we had these 13 urban youngsters who said they would do anything to come back and help me.

We went to villages in the Balochistan province, where I grew up, and found the tribal leaders were who were against us. We said we were very sorry about protesting openly against you, we’re here to make it up to you, and we have some funds which we are going to use to promote your traditions. We said we were going to focus on three: language, music, and embroidery.

Turns out tribal leaders are always looking for ways for traditions to be promoted. Elders are dying without telling their old stories, and they’re afraid for that. Embroidery is something women have been doing for centuries. Every day, all the women from the local havelis get together and sit and make embroidery while singing. My own aunties do that.

When we did the embroidery part, we established a center and selected the women. One woman from every house would come to the center every day for two hours. The men were like, Wow, that’s great, women wouldn’t have to go anywhere else.

So now, here’s the trick. Instead of embroidery, the women in the center go through life training, and also learn little bit of embroidery so we can show what’s going on in the center. We start with really small things like: women cannot speak loudly, women cannot say their names, women cannot laugh. We start by changing this week by week, day by day.

In two weeks the husbands find out because they’re acting so differently. Their first reaction is, My wife is not going to that center ever again!

We knew that when the men found out it was going to to be a disaster, so we had do to something to keep them happy. We launched Pakistan’s first ever tribal fashion brand. We did a fashion show. The top models wore clothing made by the village women. It became a hit, a cool thing, because nobody had seen anything like it before. Our product went from very cheap to very expensive in Pakistan. The fashion brand took off and so did the prices and income for the women.

The men were like, Oh my God, she is actually bringing in a lot of money which I really need. I can’t stop her from going. For six months, these women end up learning so many life skills and bringing in much needed income.

Women writing

Photo via Khalida Brohi.

Why respect and forgiveness are key

We have to show the men that without them we cannot do anything at all. We have separate people on our team who mobilize: one is a man, another is a woman. They are accountable to go in, talk to the tribal leaders about promoting their traditions, and get them on our side. Sometimes it takes three or four months because you have to learn their values, respect them.

Respecting others is key. I mean, I had to forgive those people who I knew had killed their daughters. I was sitting in front of the tribal leaders who were involved with honor killings. The day I learned how to forgive them, and give them respect and let them work for me, was like a key in my hand.

It’s so hard. Forgiving them for who they are is one of the most emotional things for me. The main inspiration I got about how to forgive was when I learned that the mothers who cannot say “Don’t kill my daughter” because it’s a custom, live inside the house with the person who has killed their daughter.

The hate they would feel all their life I think is very difficult. And to know them and to see that everyday has been a struggle for me in the forgiveness process. But I have to keep going.

The fight continues

For me it’s compulsion. I still live in two worlds. I have my home in the mountains, and I have my home in Karachi. When you live inside mountains and places where women are suffering domestic violence and inequality, anyone would’ve done what I’ve done. I still go and sit with my cousins who are making embroidery and I know about their lives and the women’s lives in my community. I still feel there’s a long way to go.

Remembering the person who I started this whole thing for, my friend when I was 16, I feel like if we reach one million women then maybe I’ll feel like I did something for her. Because my limited ability, the helplessness I felt at the time makes me feel so guilty. It’s something I will never get rid of.

Recently I went to visit one of the centers. Someone was like you have to meet Zeena, she’s amazing. When I went to meet Zeena, she said come sit beside me. I sat beside her. She took my pen and the paper I’d had in my hand, and she started writing her name on it, pronouncing it with her whole heart and spirit. Zeeeee Naaaa. She had this beautiful smile on her face and I couldn’t stop crying.

That’s the reason I’m working. I go on and on because I know how proud she felt, seeing her name emerge on that page.
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To learn more or get involved, follow Sughar Women Program on Facebook and Twitter

Khalida is graduate of The Unreasonable Institute, an accelerator program that strives to get entrepreneurs who are solving social and environmental problems the resources they need to scale their businesses and impact.

 

 

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