- Published on Friday, 08 June 2012 07:01
Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, has worked with women leaders to develop training programs and international forums in over 140 countries, serving a network of over 12,000 women worldwide. This week Nelson launched her new book, Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World, which draws on the history of the organization’s work with women around the world, focuses on key elements of Vital Voices’ five-step model of transformational leadership, and features interviews and first-hand accounts from prominent women leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning Burmese pro-democracy leader. Nelson recently spoke to Aslan Media about Vital Voices, women trailblazers in the Middle East, and how women are redefining leadership.
Aslan Media: Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, a U.S. Government initiative, led to the creation of Vital Voices Global Partnership—an NGO. Could you please expand on how the organization has evolved?
Alyse Nelson: It’s an interesting story. A story of a movement, not an organization. Movements happen because they are driven by a need. Swanee Hunt, the U.S. Ambassador to Austria at the time, she believed that women coming out of new democracies in the former USSR needed to flourish. Women were finding it hard to have their voices heard, whether in business or civil society. Swanee brought them together in Austria from the Soviet bloc and First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright at the time were able to put resources on the table. Many of the women didn’t know they had counterparts in other countries and cities. That was very inspiring for them. Next we went to Northern Ireland and Latin America then to the Baltics. We started to get calls from women all over saying they were starting Vital Voices chapters all over the world. This government conference had actually started a movement. It was a time in history when there was nowhere for women’s voices to be heard. At the end of the Clinton Administration we brought women from around the world and they said we need other NGOs and businesses and that this was more than one government. In the last few years we’ve grown dramatically and we have a network of more than 12,000 women. When women get training they feel as though they have to pay it forward to give back to their communities. It really has had a life of its own, starting chapters, reaching out, and creating networks. Women have the potential to make a difference.
AM: The ‘multiplier effect’ of women’s empowerment has been increasingly acknowledged in recent years–when organizations like Vital Voices and others invest in women, why do you think impact and growth are often the results?
AN: As part of the book I investigated why women feel compelled to do that. It has to do with how women come to leadership. It’s because of a cause. They saw inequity – then they stepped up not to lead, but to change. When you step up to lead change rather than stepping up to be in power, it’s different. So many women we work with wouldn’t even self identify as leaders. When you come at leadership from a cause-driven perspective and say, “I’m seeking power to empower people and issues I care about, rather than seeking it for power itself, [there’s a difference].”
AM: Vital Voices women tackle a range issues from sex trafficking in India to conflict resolution through the education system in Israel. But without a doubt a common obstacle each of these women confronts is changing the minds of men in their respective environments to become partners in the struggle for gender equality. How does the work of Vital Voices help with this?
AN: The way we work, it’s a new model. We go into a country and find the leaders who are making the change, who need some support and mentorship, and we support them. So we very much stand behind and support those making the change. You can’t lead change from outside. Leaders who are disconnected have to shift the way they lead. We are an interconnected world and some of these leaders are being toppled because they are out of touch. Being able to empathize is critical. When it comes to men our role has been how we can see men as great allies and speak a language they can understand. Talking about these issues in terms of economic development helps. Women are a force of economic and leadership potential. To work with men is to support women. This is particularly important when we look at domestic violence and human trafficking. For instance, we have worked with male police officers, NGO leaders, and business leaders. You educate men to show them how to be a solution to a problem [that affects everyone].
AM: The United States Senate just passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act by a unanimous vote. The legislation “describes child marriage as a human rights violation and states that the prevention and elimination of child marriage should be a U.S. foreign policy goal.” What kind of a message do you think that sends to the world?
AN: It sends a very clear and powerful message. Years ago when Madeleine was talking about FGM, she said, “These acts are not cultural; they’re criminal…” That’s exactly the kind of message we should be sending to the world.
AM: Vital Voices brings the business community into the cause of empowering women through corporate partnerships. One innovative program that has come about is the ANNpower Vital Voices Initiative focusing on empowering young female leaders. Why is it important, do you think, to focus on youth?
AN: I feel as though I have a debt to pay back. I have been mentored by so many women in our network who are trainers and on our board of directors. I want to mentor and give back. [ANNpower] engages some of the most extraordinary women we’ve worked with to train young girls. Not all lessons of leadership can be learned in this country. These young women are coming of age in an increasingly global world. I hope many of these girls will not just be in the non-profit world and in the business world, and the halls of Congress where they can think about [issues like] the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
AM: Your new book, Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World, focuses on Vital Voices’ five-step model of transformational leadership. Can you flush this out for our readers?
AN: First I’ll say, they have to read the book. This model is very powerful. Women around the world should hold themselves accountable to it because it’s a model that’s here to stay. We’ve learned the model over the last 17 years. It starts with an individual. Great leaders are very cause-driven. They’re stepping up to see a different kind of world. True leaders know what they’re about… their driving force. “I know what my driving force is.” It’s to give voice and empower others, and that’s what we do at Vital Voices. This is the mission statement of my life, not [just] Vital Voices. As we redefine what leadership means, we need people that are going to a step up with conviction. I think it’s important for a leader to be humbled by something—something that’s so great that they may never be able to achieve it. You need to be so inspired by that thing that nothing and no one can take you off that path. Once you have that, you are able to define your own purpose instead of someone else defining you.
The second part is about being rooted in the community. One of the leaders, Kah Walla, [a political leader in Cameroon] taught me and said that: “It’s so easy for guys to lead from their beautiful offices on the Hill, but they never come down to the community and are questioned by the people.” Real leaders should be lateral. It’s about empowerment, being self aware, and leading in a lateral style. Sometimes it’s hard to point out a woman leader because she’s typically in the crowd. It’s about being inclusive in how you lead and make decisions.
Thirdly, [a transformative leader must] reach across the divide. It’s about putting ego aside. We look for opportunities in places where we connect – bridging to other communities. Women don’t typically look for differences. This is important about leadership.
How do you make change? I’m tired of people saying women don’t take risks. Women evaluate and take risks in different ways. Sometimes we don’t see these things as risks, so if you’re not inside the box you don’t see the box the way those inside do. We tend to be more innovative and entrepreneurial. If you can’t take risks, you can’t lead. You’re never going to make change if you can’t [take risks].
The fifth part is that leadership means to be sustainable. It has to survive the individual. Thinking about succession planning and thinking about whom you’re going to mentor in your community. When women gain something, they have this desire to want to share it and give it away. If you think about it, when you hold on to power and resources, they disintegrate in your hand. When you empower and reach out and share, they multiply. When women gain power, they have this innate [desire] to share it. They get this understanding that power expands the moment it is shared. It’s a powerful thing that women bring as leaders.
This model is a model we learned from women, but I don’t think it’s a model that’s exclusive to women. I think that, as we gain greater power, that is going to have an impact. Leadership and leaders are going to change.
AM: This year’s Vital Voices Global Trailblazer Award goes to five Middle Eastern women who have fought for change in their societies over the past year. Has the role of Arab women in the global struggle for gender equality shifted in the past year?
AN: Traditionally, we’ve always thought of power when we think of leadership. But power is not just those at the top… it’s about those at the grassroots. Shatha, [a Yemeni journalist and Trailblazer Award recipient] says that, in Yemen, there is a new normal. Women protested with men and the world didn’t end. Women know what it feels like to be equal, the same. To just be seen as Egyptian and not be seen as male or female. And once you taste what equality looks like, you never go back, and that’s what’s changed. Now they know what they’re fighting for. Change and leadership is about staying the course, no matter how difficult the path. I recently visited Aung San Suu Kyi. I asked her advice for women in the Middle East and she said: “Stay the course.”
It goes back to the first principle: “If you know you’re about, you will eventually affect change.” That’s what we’re doing: supporting people who others call crazy, and we think are quite genius.
AM: What advice would you give rising female entrepreneurs, rights advocates, educators, and other community leaders?
AN: Mentorships. Sometimes we expect an invitation to lead or an invitation to be mentored. I think you need to seek it out yourself. Networks can be extremely powerful for women. One of the reasons why women have been left out is because they’re left out of networks, so networks are certainly critical.
My biggest advice is that leadership is not a final destination. It really is a journey. I don’t think there’s one leader who can say, “I did it perfectly.” For me this book will be a guideline, [to help ask] “How did I do today? Did I empathize? Did I reach across a divide?” Step up now. There is never a perfect moment. It’s not going to happen. Put aside fears. Certainly, some of the greatest fears we have, we put on ourselves.By Areej Noor, Aslan Media Women’s Editor