Jennifer Windsor: on the power of connectivity

Jennifer Windsor meets with women who are rebuilding their lives in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Jennifer Windsor meets with women who are rebuilding their lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Jennifer Windsor – CEO of Women for Women International (WfWI) – shares with Woman ChangeMAKER her perspective on educating and empowering women marginalized by conflict and war. With 25 years’ experience in international development and human rights advocacy across sectors, she previously worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Freedom House, and served as Associate Dean for Programs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. [get the pdf of this article]

WCM: As a seasoned international affairs executive, what’s your approach to achieving both breadth and depth in your career?

JW: I have a 10-year rule: never stay in any one institution for more than 10 years. Longer than that, and you start to see the world through only that prism.

It’s critical to examine the lens by which you look at the world and what your version of reality is to become truly aware of the problems we face – and what the potential solutions might be. One of the reasons I’ve moved around so much is to gain that perspective…if you really want to know how things work, you can’t stay in one place.

WCM: How do you balance working within the non-profit, government and academic sectors to help people reach their full potential?

JW: Look at all the tools that governments have – money, policy, trade. You can affect government by enabling it. There’s no substitute for that. Even now – as we work to educate and support women in Rwanda, for example – the local government is able to contribute resources and insights that complement what we bring to the table as an NGO.

WfWI graduates in Rwanda have formed their own cooperative to create and sell hand-woven peace baskets to support their families.

Jennifer with WfWI graduates in Rwanda who have formed their own cooperative to create and sell hand-woven peace baskets to support their families.

In academia, you can reflect on and learn about what happened in the past, and take the time to see what really works. And as an NGO, you can get much closer to those you’re trying to help – you can make a difference on a grassroots level.

The more I learn, the less sure I am that any one individual or organization or sector has all the answers. We’re dealing with complex problems, and if we consider any particular knowledge, experience or perspective in isolation, we’ll lose our guts that we can actually make a difference.

WCM: Among the different positions you’ve held, which has been the most rewarding and/or the most challenging?

JW: I’m so blessed by the jobs I’ve had. Within our government, to be able to integrate human rights considerations into our development strategy was meaningful on a policy level. With USAID, traveling around Africa and investing small amounts of money in courageous groups that were fighting for better governance was enormously rewarding on a personal level.

The women I work with now are also incredibly inspiring. What they’ve gone through, and their resilience and ability to move on, are extraordinary. But so are their challenges.

A lot of times people look at the women we work with – the most marginalized women with the biggest barriers in front of them – and they think there’s nothing we can do to help them on a grassroots level. But that’s our biggest opportunity: getting directly to individuals and offering them the resources to change their own lives, communities and nations.

WCM: At WfWI, in your work to help women take control of their lives by educating them about their rights, and providing tools and training to help them make a difference in their communities, who has inspired you most?

JW: I recently returned from Kosovo where I met a woman in a poor community outside Bajnica. She was attending one of our workshops and learning to grow vegetables.

She introduced herself to me with a huge smile and told me her story. She couldn’t read and she had 11 children to support, and she said this training was the most important thing in her life. She said it made her believe that she could support her children, that she could send them to school and give them a better life than she had. Before she planted these vegetables, she believed she couldn’t do anything to improve her situation on her own.

Jennifer greets WfWI-Kosovo staff in Pristina, who have served more than 32,000 women since the war ended in 1999.

Jennifer greets WfWI-Kosovo staff in Pristina, who have served more than 32,000 women since the war ended in 1999.

In Rwanda, I met a group of women who had graduated from our program two years ago. They have since become each other’s support system, and they continue to learn together and teach each other trades so they can continue to provide for their families and improve their lives.

WCM: Tell us more about the power of connectivity in the context of international development.

JW: We have a saying at WfWI: “One woman can do anything, and many women can do everything.” And it’s not just that connection to each other that’s important – it’s connecting these women with sponsors, with people on the other side of the world who believe in them enough to help them change their lives. It makes an enormous difference to have that support network.

We work with men, too. Our workshops are primarily for women, but there’s education and awareness that we bring to the men of their communities, as well. Change must happen for them, too.

WCM: Was it that sense of connectivity that attracted you to the mission of WfWI?

JW: Throughout my life, I have always felt the power of strong support networks.

My son nearly died at birth. He survived – he’s 10 years old, now – but he’s blind, unable to communicate verbally and has suffered seizures. When he was in intensive care and we thought he wasn’t going to survive, I kept a blog to share updates about his condition with friends and family. Within a year, I had 8,000 followers all over the world. People I didn’t know were sending me encouragement and sharing stories of losing their children.

That had a huge impact on me. The idea of being connected within a network of supporters is so important in my own life.

I felt it again when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. I went back to my support network. People came out of the woodwork. Not only my friends and family, but survivors of all kinds – people battling cancer and people who beat it – came forward to offer incredible support.

So, yes: that’s one of the things I love about WfWI. It’s all about connecting, and supporting each other.

WCM: What else motivates you in your daily responsibilities?

JW: I believe that every person deserves to live a life of dignity.

Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my role models, once said, “Human rights begin in small places close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.” If human rights can’t be realized in your home or your community, they can’t be realized anywhere else.

I really want women to embrace their own potential to live a life of dignity. Start with an individual…then the family, the community and broader society.

WCM: March 8 is International Women’s Day. At WfWI, you’re continuing a social media campaign that you started last year, #SheInspiresMe. What’s most important to you about this day, and the campaign?

JW: If it was up to me, there would be more than one day a year to focus on the roles, challenges and opportunities of women.

International Women’s Day is about recognizing the tremendous power of women, and the need to give them the tools to be fully equal members of our world. #SheInspiresMe is about celebrating individual women. It could be women survivors of war, or a woman who has personally touched your life and made you who you are – your mother, your sister, your friend.

We’re also celebrating women who have sponsored other women in our program, who have given their time, resources and energy to help women in far-flung parts of the globe. We’re sharing their inspiring stories on social media throughout the month, and inviting others to join us.

WCM: Any final thoughts you’d like to share about your role as a leader in human rights advocacy?

JW: I’ve always believed – and been reminded throughout my career – that you’re only as good as the people you’re surrounded by, and I’ve been blessed to have mentors and colleagues who have made me better along the way.

Leadership is about empowering and standing behind the people you work with, and the people you hope to serve.

your thoughts?