Letter From San Francisco #23

Since I last wrote, I’ve had a few weeks back in San Francisco and then time traveling again, this time to the diverse territories of Mongolia, Cape Town and Kauai. So, in my letter below, I share some of what happened, at home and away, over the last month or so.

What happens when you get a woman judge appointed to a courthouse in Pakistan? Aside from perhaps a different take on the factors fueling violence and crime, there is the sudden creation of a female toilet. This meant that all at once women who were required to testify in court in response to violence perpetrated against them could stay long enough to be able to testify rather than having to leave and not testify because there was no female toilet in the building.

Such are the simple acts that contribute to access to justice.

At a time when spaces for women’s organizing are diminishing and there’s less donor funding to support women’s political engagement, it’s critical to support getting more women into positions of influence, whether it be in parliaments, companies or courthouses. The political dimensions of empowering women need to be recognized and supported rather than seen as a sideline or follow-up to supporting women’s economic empowerment. Women’s economic and political empowerment are intrinsically linked and need to be funded in tandem rather than sequentially. With so much happening domestically, donors are pulling back from funding internationally at precisely the time where funding locally and globally is vital. At present only 12% of US foundations are funding women and girls internationally.

Last month I had the privilege of facilitating a session on Women at the Frontlines at the Women’s Funding Network Conference. The Asia Foundation organized for Professor Christine Chinkin, Founding Director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Jalila Haider, a human rights attorney, the first female attorney of her Hazara community, and founder of We the Humans – Pakistan and Vivienne Wee, a feminist activist, anthropologist and public intellectual and co-founder of AWARE, an organization working for gender justice in Singapore to share their views.

During our conference session when I asked Jalila Haider about the death threats she was receiving in response to her advocacy for women’s rights and access to justice, she responded that she knew she would be killed, it was only a matter of when. Jalila spoke of the isolation of her work in Pakistan and of the fact that women lawyers know the laws but as feminists, they don’t know their rights. We explored what the creation of a women in law network in Pakistan – and across Asia – could represent in terms of the support and solidarity for women who are human rights defenders in their work and advocacy.

Christine Chinkin is a rock star in the field of women, peace and security and she’s been at the forefront of many important peace negotiations across the globe as well as her sustained work in demonstrating that where women are involved in peace negotiations, there is characteristically a higher chance of agreement being reached and lasting. Christine Chinkin has also led important new programs at the Centre on Women, Peace and Security (CWPS) at the LSE. including the creation of an Activist-in-Residence program. We spoke of the possibility of Jalila having this opportunity to be located at the centre for a while through this program, considering the death threats she is experiencing, and the centre is now pursuing this option for Jalila.

In our conference session Vivienne Wee reminded us all that there’s no peace and security if there is violence against women,” And then she shared a story:

This story derives from the advocacy of AWARE, the feminist organisation in Singapore to which I belong and which I represent at this conference. For some time, we were troubled by the insensitive attitudes and behaviours of police officers to women who report being raped and sexually assaulted.

Most of these officers blamed the women for being victims, attributing the crime to their clothes, behavior and so on. Sometimes they did not even want to record the cases that were being reported. And even when the officers did record cases, the investigation was dragged out and very inadequate.

So, what AWARE did three years ago was to write a report that documented twenty such cases. Then we presented our report to some powerful policy makers, way higher than the police officers in police stations. Our report was taken seriously by these policy makers, who then ordered the Serious Sexual Crimes Branch of the police force to meet with us regularly. At a meeting, we asked the officers representing the Serious Sexual Crime Branch whether there was a hidden agenda to reject reports of rape and sexual assault so that the crime rate would be lower. They categorically assured us that there is no such intent. They then told us to report insensitive police officers who fail to do their duty. Three years later, in Feb this year, the Government announced initiatives to promote a more victim-centric approach in the handling of sexual assault cases by the criminal justice system. What’s significant about these new initiatives is they aim at improving police processes and capabilities on a systemic level, not just on a case by case basis. For example, the new initiatives include a new centre that will conduct forensic and medical examinations of sexual crime victims in a private facility, instead of taking them to a public hospital. The Home Affairs and Law Minister stated that a key issue is to encourage victims to come forward and not add to their trauma. The Government also announced its ongoing collaboration with AWARE.

What lessons can we draw from this success story? First, we identified a baseline of the situation. In this case, we characterised the situation 3 years ago as position 3 – that is, sexual crimes were condemned in words but not in actions. Our aim was to have sexual crimes condemned in words and actions. So, our next task was to identify powerful allies who would listen to us on this one issue. Perhaps we cannot mobilise them on every single issue. But for this one issue of changing the insensitive attitudes and behaviours of police officers to women reporting rape and sexually assault, can we count on them? We were successful in forming alliances with powerful policy makers who could make decisions and take initiatives. The next important thing is that we established a regular channel of communication with decision-makers. This enabled us to provide ongoing feedback to them. It also opened opportunities for collaboration, such as making a training video for police officers.

Another important lesson from this story is about the distance to travel. The distance is relatively short for changing position 3 to position 4 – that is, from condemnation of sexual crimes in words but not in actions to condemnation of these crimes in words and actions. But if you have an existing situation where violence is not even discussed in public as a social issue – that is, position 1 where people turn a blind eye – then it is too far to leap from this to condemnation of sexual crimes in words and actions. This lesson is relevant for funders who may focus on the formulation and implementation of laws and policies, regardless of where we are starting from. In a situation where violence is ignored, having this discussed in public as a social issue already makes a difference. Or if violence is condoned in the name of culture, including religion, public recognition that nothing justifies violence already makes a difference.

In AWARE’s work in Singapore and with our partners in Indonesia and Malaysia, we are realistic about the changes that we can help to bring about, taking into consideration current situations. In situations where it is taboo to talk of certain matters, such as female genital mutilation, we have brought such matters to the surface. In situations where violence is excused in the name of culture, we have promoted public recognition that nothing justifies violence.

After the conference, I flew to Mongolia where I was able to spend time at Women’s Business Center and Incubator Project, funded by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and implemented by The Asia Foundation jointly with the City Municipality and other partners.

The center supports women in Ulaanbaatar to overcome cultural, financial and legal barriers to starting their own businesses as well as to connect with other women entrepreneurs in Asia and to speak at key forums to support their leadership and advocacy for policy change.

Prior to the opening of the center, findings from The Asia Foundation’s survey of 150 new and current women entrepreneurs in addition to government officials, bankers, and NGO representatives, identified issues including access to finance, navigating government bureaucracy and accessing networking and professional opportunities available to male peers as key issues affecting women entrepreneurs’ success.

In the first two months of the center’s operation, a total of 721 services were provided and a comment made by one of the women entrepreneurs using the center seemed representative of many: “Before coming to the center, I couldn’t outgrow my problems but the training has given me new ideas and helped me to work more productively. Now my business is improving.”

From Mongolia, I flew to Cape Town where I spent a week as part of the Atlantic Fellowship program I’m undertaking with the Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics. Arriving on a Sunday, I caught a cable car to the top of Table Mountain with its sublime and sweeping vista across the city. Coming down the sky was crayoned crimson, an unfolding sunset as the floor in our cable car turned 360 degrees while we slung ever lower toward the ground. I can understand why it is one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature.

While in Cape Town we spent time in Khayelitsha, one of the informal settlements with a population of 2.4 million of which some 50% are under the age of 19. It’s a place where one of the most dangerous acts you can perform is to go to the toilet.

Sinoxolo Mafevuka was a 19-year-old woman who went to the toilet on the evening of March 2nd, 2016 and her body was found naked after being raped, strangled and dumped in a communal toilet.

She was black, female and poor and living in Cape Town, one of the most unequal places in the world. While in Khayelitsha I talked to Lindiwe Mafuya who has been living in the community for 25 years.

“There’s no safety here. I go to the bushes during the day but it’s too dangerous at night and so I use a bucket because I don’t want to get attacked. It’s dark at night with no protection. Some of the toilets were blocked for six months before someone came from the council to fix them and you can see the state they’re in.”

What gave me hope while I was in Cape Town was the rise of youth organizing, best personified by the Social Justice Coalition which is youth led and run, and that arranged our visit to Khayelitsha. SJC is working with residents in Khayelitsha and other informal communities to hold the government to account for action and changes to improve safety and living conditions for people in these communities. Mandisa Dyanti, SJC’s Deputy Secretary, readily acknowledges that SJC is very different to other community organizations operating in South Africa. ‘We’re youth led, vibrant and connected to the ground – and our composition is reflective of the population of South Africa – our citizens are very young. We’re in this for the long haul.”

On return to San Francisco I prepared for a few days rest –in Kauai. Swimming in Hanalei Bay in Kauai is one of my most favorite things to do as a place only four hours flying time from San Francisco. I swam and swam and swam in the sheltered bay each day with the backdrop of mountains and, frequently, double rainbows. When the rain came the waves came too, so I swung between serene swims in clear water to jumping waves in the wavy sea.

This year I stayed at a cool local place in Hanalei, rented a red beach cruiser bike and hung out with the surfers in the big waves when I wasn’t reading, resting and spending time at Kauai’s farmers’ markets. I went to the local church and sang to the Hawaiian hymns with women playing ukuleles, men singing along and with locals placing fresh purple orchid and tuberose leis around our necks.

I brought a trio of Julia Cameron’s books to spur my own creativity. I returned to her tried and true ritual of morning pages (3 pages of longhand about whatever you’re thinking and feeling to be written each morning) and artist dates (taking yourself to see or experience something new or different that invokes a creative response) while doing my own narrative journey mapping.

All the while I was inspired by the legendary Queen surfers and the matriarchal heritage of the island – there’s a softness to the culture as well as the seasons that allows for deep rest.

I returned to Sausalito with the feeling of flying from paradise to paradise. Rocking gently on my boat, looking up at the big lemony moon and seeing the flyer pinned on the boat community notice board inviting us all to share a Harvest Moon pot luck, I’m glad to be home.

Jane Sloane
San Francisco


Books I’ve Been Reading – September 2017

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I Read In September

Here are the highlights …

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters is her memoir and a great book for anyone interested in the intersection of counterculture, California, politics, food, France, film and family. Waters packs a lot into this book however it doesn’t feel heavy rather it zips along at a snappy pace with snippets of recipes and food facts interspersed throughout.

Living in California made this an extra special read for me however it’s an entrancing read for anyone interested in Alice Waters life journey and her opening her restaurant, Chez Panisse in 1971, when she was 27. It’s also a story of activism – food activism and an active and questing spirit learning when to be bold and when to bend.

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt – I read this on a 5-hour plane journey – started it when we took off and put it down just as we were landing – and then left it on my seat with a note for another passenger that it was a great read and to please take it! I was only into the first few pages when I began to laugh out loud, attracting a few sideways glances from other passengers – Litt can be very funny when he chooses. In other places, the stories he shared were poignant.

David Litt was the youngest ever White House speechwriters in history and his light touch in this book speaks to his control of language, timbre and tone and his ability to tell the story of his own political coming of age, as much as the Obama years. The subtitle, we learn, comes from Sarah Palin’s taunt – and it keeps coming back to me long after I finished this book. How’s that hopey changey world turning out for ya? For me, I’m happy to have joined the indivisible movement sweeping across the US that’s keeping that dream alive, in tandem with other social movements responding to the changed political landscape.

Ghost of the Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin – I tweeted that this book was hands down the best book I’d read this year. It’s hard to overstate the importance of its subject matter and that it’s brilliantly written. The book deserves to be a film and I hope someone has optioned the screen rights. It reminds me of the Shawshank Redemption however in this case there’s also those in the justice system who are seeking justice as much as those wrongly accused who serve life sentences in jail.

Essentially the book tells a dual narrative – of the more than two thousand American citizens that have been wrongfully convicted and who are given voice by the personal story of Willie Grimes and of the vision of a group of dedicated lawyers who created North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission. In many ways, the book captures the dual narrative of America’s history – devastating injustice and individuals banding together to challenge and fight this injustice. Rachlin is a gifted and compelling storyteller and his meticulous research shines a light on a too often forgotten issue in the US – and on Grimes, his dignity, fierce persistence and quest for justice. It’s profound, profound, profound – a deep resonant call for reform.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell – my friend Thatch introduced me to the mini-series, The Durrells, and I’m totally in love with the series, the characters and with Corfu. It’s been years since I went to Corfu – I was there in my 20s where I hired a scooter and spent days roaming the island – and now I’m thinking of being back there next year and reliving the dream.

The book tells the story of the Durrells decamping from a gray English climate to the sunny call of Corfu and of the many eccentric characters who populate the island, and the Durrell family’s life during their years on Corfu. While Gerald is best known as a naturalist, and for the zoo he created, this book is really about his family and the humans in his life as much as the more than human world he was drawn to on the island and beyond.

Prospero’s Cell A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corfu by Lawrence Durrell – Gerald Durrell’s brother, Lawrence, was the writer in the family and his own account of time spent in the Ionian island of Corfu before the second world war is poetic and eloquent. In fact, the travel writer, Freya Stark, pronounced it ‘among the best books ever written.’

Lawrence Durrell is masterful in his use of language and in his observation of both humans and landscape. It’s a slim volume and worth savoring. A keeper.

And here is a plug for two magazines I subscribe to:

Resurgence – a bi-monthly UK magazine created by former Jain monk, Satish Kumar who walked the world for peace and co-created the EF Schumacher College (Small is Beautiful) where they have such inspiring studies and short courses. The magazine is a positive expression and invocation of what we’re working for – a world that is equitable, sustainable and just, informed by an aesthetic of beauty in form, content and image.


Orion is also a bi-monthly magazine focused on nature, culture and place, with a commitment to addressing environmental and societal issues and stories and it’s published in the US. The magazine is studded with stories and articles written by luminaries such as Wendell Berry, Terri Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Rebecca Solnit, Michael Pollan, Sandra Steingraber, Bill McKibben, Gretel Ehrlich, James Howard Kunstler, Barbara Kingsolver, Gary Snyder, and E.O. Wilson.




Books I’ve Been Reading – August 2017

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.Sausalito Lbrary

In sharing this list of books I’ve been reading, and re-reading, a deep bow to my local library (#lovemylibrary). Sausalito Library is one of my favorite places. Aside from being a reading sanctuary, there’s also regular community evenings with local filmmakers, artists and activists.

This includes the screening of film classics such as ‘The Houseboat Wars’ and ‘The Last Free Ride’ (billed as a ‘hip pirate movie’) and ‘Sausalito After the Bridge’ where hundreds of locals turn up for the evening.

In the corridor next to the library hangs an artists’ history of Sausalito, complete with descriptors of the artists themselves and their own relationship with Sausalito. Complimenting this are the art exhibitions in the library, including art from the ‘anchor outs’ those on boats who live in the middle of the bay and row in each day to use the amenities and collect supplies. Within the library there’s big comfy chairs for the locals who wander in, plenty of spaces to plug in and the most brilliant collection of books and audio this gal could imagine. Upstairs there’s a Friends of Sausalito Library second hand book store,

The creativity of the offerings reminds me of the ‘Living Books’ that my local library from Australia (Stirling Library, Adelaide Hills) introduced where you could ‘borrow’ a person for an hour or more to learn more about their craft, talent, experience to inform your own research and curiosity.

Most of all for me, to be in a space free of cell phones and where there’s reverence for reading is pure joy.

Books I’ve Been Reading In August

No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming of Age in the First Lines of American medicine by Rachel Pearson, MD – I read about this book in the Sunday New York Times and then found it on the library shelf. The title is drawn from a phrase used to describe patients who appear stable. Medical students learn on the bodies of those who are poor―and those who are poor suffer from their medical mistakes. Pearson describes what happens when profit motives trump care and happen at the expense of those who can least afford or merit it. It’s an accessible read however the stories are devastating.

We of the Never Never by Mrs Aeneas Gunn was written by Jeannie Gunn however she published the book using her husband’s first and last name. This book is an account of the author’s experiences in 1902 at Elsey Station near Mataranka, Northern Territory, Australia. Gunn was the first white woman to settle in the Mataranka area. She was discouraged by officials from accompanying her husband to the station on the basis that as a woman she would be “out of place” on a station such as the Elsey. However, Gunn travelled south and her book describes the journey, settling in and contending with the local conditions and Indigenous and non-Indigenous bush folk. Gunn’s writing, and the book itself, is a revelation.

A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh – This is an exquisite and wise book on love, growing older, creative life, solitude, relationships and care of the soul which Lindbergh expresses through finding shells and other beached life on the seashore. Like Rilke, Lindbergh advocates time for solitude: “I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.’

Jonathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – I first read book this in my teens and was entranced its transcendence – the messages of being true to yourself, flying your own path and living a life of love, respect, forgiveness, compassion and generosity.  I found this edition in the Friends of Sausalito Library shop. It was inside a silvery case and I couldn’t resist – especially with seagulls flying all round my boat in such a non-conforming community. I’m sure there’s a flock of Jonathan’s flying above Sausalito – wings beating to their own drum.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan – I’ve always wanted to surf and one day I’ll go and enroll in that surfing and goddess retreat in Bali that has been tempting me. However, until then, reading surfing memoirs is the next best thing and Finnigan’s wild spirit is given full expression in this elegantly written, view from the ground, coming of age book.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – it’s astonishing that I haven’t read this book until now. I read it in one sitting – perched on my boat deck early evening after a very hot day with picnic food, a bottle of ginger beer and the poetry of boats and paddle boarders gliding before me.

There is so much wisdom in this book that it’s worth keeping close. One quote of many that I’ve dog-eared in the book:

‘…it is always my wish that you might find enough patience within yourself to endure, and enough innocence to have faith. It is my wish that you might gain more and more trust in whatever is difficult for you, in your aloneness among other things. Allow life to happen to you. Believe me, life is right in all cases.’

Poems by George Seferis – I thought I might find a poem sent to me once by someone I loved however it wasn’t in this volume. While this book has some good poems with lines such as ‘sleep wrapped you round, like a tree with green leaves’, it’s this fragment from a work in Seferis’s Collected Poems, 1924-1955 that I love best:

the angels are white flaming white and the eye that would
confront them shrivels
and there’s no other way you’ve got to become like stone if
you want their company
and when you look for the miracle you’ve got to scatter
your blood to the eight points of the wind
because the miracle is nowhere but circulates in the veins of
Hydra, Athens, 1939

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono No Komachi and Izumu Shikibu – both Komachi and Izumu lived in the one Golden Age in which women writers and poets were the (recognized) predominant geniuses. This occurred at the turn of the last millennium when the emperors of Japan held court in the city of Kyoto and Komachi and Shikibu were two of the women poets in this court.

These women were two of the most revered poets of their time. Here’s a taste:


A diver does not abandon
a seaweed-filled bay…
will you then turn away
from this floating, sea-foam body
that waits for your gathering hands?


I cannot say
which is which:
the glowing
plum blossom is
the spring night moon

and Shikibu’s last poem before she died

The way I must enter
leads through darkness to darkness
O moon above the mountain rim
please shine a little further
on my path

Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way I wanted a re-reminder from the author about the benefits of writing Morning Pages (15 minutes of free form writing), taking oneself on weekly artist dates (to open the mind and self), and 2-3 short walks each week and one long one to build creative strength. This book is a classic and her subsequent books reinforce the central tenet of this book: make time for your creative self.



(Sausalito Library)

Books I’ve Been Reading – July 2017

Reading is my great love, matched only by sharing these books, whether it’s by passing them on to others or telling friends about the stories I’ve read. I’m curious about so much in life and reading both satisfies and fuels this curiosity.

Perhaps that’s why my taste is so eclectic – it’s a response to the messiness of life. I pivot equally to fiction and non-fiction in both wanting to answer the ‘why’s and ‘how’s as much as wanting to be entranced by a story well told. I’m drawn to the feeling of being carried away and I also love standing on the shoulders of giants, figuratively speaking, and appreciating new perspectives on the world. And of course being up close and personal with others whose view is from the ground or from the margins.

Books I’ve Been Reading In July

Here are this month’s highlights …

No is Not Enough by Naomi Klein – Naomi Klein illustrates her analysis of the power and politics of shock with many potent examples of how the shock of natural disasters and humanitarian crises have been exploited for political gain. Her analysis and optimism in the potential of social movements and proposed course of action reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s writing and especially Solnit’s brilliant book, A Paradise Made in Hell. It would be great to have both these writers on stage together for an in-depth dialogue as they are two of the great intellects and advocates of our time. Until then we have their books.

Cloth Lullaby – The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky I was curious to learn more about Louise Burgeois, having been introduced to her work at the Tate Modern in London recently. This is poetic and evocative book weaves a visual and verbal narrative of Bourgeois’ art. From textile creations and water color illustrations to large scale sculptures and bold installations this book is a journey and a dreaming song.

Re-reading True North by Jill Ker Conway I first read The Rood from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway’s magical book that describes her journey from her life outback Australia to Harvard University in support of her desire for intellectual adventure and stimulation. True North is the description of her time at Harvard, earning a Ph.D. in history, her ‘true north’ in marriage and intellectual fulfilment, time at the University of Toronto finishing with the beginning of her new journey as President of Smith College. Ker Conway is a gifted storyteller as much as a leader and historian and I’m inspired by her continuing story, the choices she’s made and the grace and generosity of her sharing.

Wait Till You See Me Dance – Stories by Deb Olin Unferth Short stories are great to read on summer days and beaches and I was drawn to this collection by its name. The collection captures the messiness of life and the way her characters’ muddle through and make decisions feels real. Unferth’s style is spare and tender and she provokes thinking about the choices we make and what makes us feel fulfilled with this range of stories and situations. More a book for a long plane flight than a beach read though!

I wanted to read Somebody with a Little Hammer: Essays by Mary Gaitskill because her writing is so good and this is her first book of nonfiction. It’s a terrific collection that takes its title from a sentence in Anton Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries.” “At the door of every contented, happy man,” Chekhov wrote, “somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now.” These essays span music, writers, travel, politics, sex and gender and Gaitskill taps at the issues at the heart of work by artists including Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Talking Heads, Björk and Celine Dion.

Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif. The author made headlines in 2011 when she drove a car in Saudi Arabia in defiance of local regulations and was jailed for the crime of “driving while female.” This book is her memoir that charts the journey to this point, and then what happened afterwards. al-Sharif takes us into the world of Saudi Arabia oppresses women through rules such as male guardianship, refusal to allow women to drive, and restricting women’s freedom of movement and explains how this plays out practically as well as how a strict interpretation of Islam affects legal institutions including transportation, education, employment, and much more.

al-Sharif details her own experiences from childhood to adulthood and documents the impact such laws have on many who are marginalized in Saudi Arabia. She also shares personal stories such as the woman whose father dies at home because she couldn’t drive him to the hospital. When al-Sharif’s researches the law she discovers there’s no actual law against women driving her activism she determines to drive a car outside the compound and other women join her and create a movement they call Women2Drive, accompanied by a savvy social media campaign. When al-Sharif becomes a social media sensation, the reaction of the government is to jail her. Daring to Drive documents the immense challenges women face in Saudi Arabia today and the rising momentum for change. It was hard to read this book and I turned the last page just as my plane was landing and passed on my copy to the woman sitting next to me, keeping the story alive.




Letter From Laos and Larrakia Country

Jane Sloane - © Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I recently travelled to Laos to join The Asia Foundation’s country representative there, Nancy Kim, to visit local women artisans and some of the other work supported by the foundation. My colleague and filmmaker, Whitney, accompanied me to capture the stories and voices of the women we visited.

When we arrived in the villages near Savannakhet, the women brought out reams of exquisitely textured fabrics that had been created by women in their villages. We were supporting some of these women to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market this year. We heard from these artisans that this opportunity would allow them to keep their daughters in school this year, and that increased economic security would likely provide greater protection from trafficking.

If sales and buyer connections went well, the flow on benefits would provide more work opportunities for young women from their villages, so that they are not forced to go to Thailand to do low-wage work. This opportunity would then contribute to the renaissance of artisan power in Laos and their outreach to the world.

Two of the women in the villages we visited in Laos shared their stories.

This is Tui’s story.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

Our village has continued the same tradition for generations…we know how to do natural coloring of fabric as it’s our tradition. In the past, our village’s main job was rice farming. But during the dry season, women weaved, made blankets and mattresses for families, and took care of children.

I started weaving in 2000 and organized our weaving group. Everyone did their own weaving – if that person had finished two, I bought two, if another had five, then I bought five.

Some local community people knew how to produce weavings, but they did not have a market to sell their products and had no idea how to sell. Therefore, I buy their products at a reasonable price, and then find markets to sell. Then women have work to do and increase their income to support families.

The way of our practice is, everyone has different knowledges. I give everyone chances, if they had, I bought, we discussed and agreed.  I’m also proud to see them have work to do and gain some income. I can sell our products because the price is reasonable. We really focus on quality. With customers, we always tell them that our products are made with real natural color.  

Our community has changed (since I started weaving). Many women can earn income, women are stronger and have equal rights to men because women can earn money almost every day.  It was different in the past.  After finishing rice farming, women took care of children and waited to use money given by husbands. Today, women are stronger, a woman can earn money and that makes me proud to see women and our community gain more income.

In the past, men were always presented in the front of families while women were always behind. Now, family in our village has been reorganized. In some families, men support their wives to produce materials, they could make color for example, they become wife’s assistants and they are also proud of their wives.  And our women get more respect.

I buy almost all products from local people. Like what you saw over there.  Then I must find markets to buy those products. I usually send to market every three days. Some orders 50 and some orders 100 pieces; and some may order up to 200 pieces. I buy every day from the weavers, by this person and that person, depending on if they have products. I sometimes owed them because market did not pay me and I had no money to pay; but not more than one or two days so I had to inform them that tomorrow they could come to get money, and they came back.

I am so proud that our products will be known by the world and reach America. That will give us income and other benefits.  I would also like to encourage some of our young people working in Thailand to come back and work in our community when we are strong enough. I hope young women will return to the community to work here, produce traditional materials, making nature colors, planting and doing anything here. Many young women have left our village to work in Thailand at low pay.

My expectation is that in 10 years I would like to see the change of women and they have better livelihoods. I will be proud to see that happened and my family business will increase too in the future.

One of the other women we met, Lae, also shared her story.

© Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I’m proud to be able to do weaving. In the past, my parents taught me how to do weaving and I like doing it.

I started weaving in 2000 when I was about 16.  I also helped my parents doing farming as it was the only job in the community. I finished only secondary grade 2 at school. When I saw my mother gained income through weaving I followed her as her assistant. After a while my mother stopped working, so I  continued working. I started looking for customers until my village organized the weaving group. I applied, and have worked together with Mrs. Tui doing weaving and my own design.

There are about 10 women the same age as me that weave. Some of them also continue study. But most of them are just weaving. Some of them who left school went to work in Thailand in a factory.

If there are more markets, it would be good for us and it will help our community to have more work and people will have more income to support their family. I’m very happy and proud to have a chance to go to Santa Fe. Of course, I have a lot of hopes.  I expect to have more customers and more orders of our product; that would help to develop our village. I would like to thank Facebook and WhatsApp as they make me fast in trade and communication, comfortable and easy in conversation. When buyers need products, they can send the order. It’s easy and I’m happy.

My husband is happy with me. I married him in 1999. Since we married, he never disagreed that I work on weaving and it helps to increase family income, although my husband does not help me because we have divided our tasks: husband does farming and raise the cows, and I do weaving. But we discuss and support each other.

I hope that in the future, our work will be bigger. I expect we can sell more, especially through export.  I would like to do better than this and to have more customers.  But we have come a long way. When I started with my mother, we had no technology. It was very difficult for communication and transportation. If we needed something, we used letters and or communicated through public transportation like bus. The bus could service us only once per week, but some work requested was urgent.  Then we used radio to help communicate. Travel was also very difficult because of the quality of the roads. if it rained, we had to take tractor to help transport us to the main road to catch the bus. It was very difficult at that time, however, it’s comfortable now.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

While in Laos, we also visited the Laos Women’s Shelter, led by visionary director, Madame Virith Khattignavong. The Asia Foundation was instrumental in helping to create the shelter and supporting its early work. The shelter is located on a large tract of land, which was provided by the government on long-term lease, surrounded by gardens and market produce. The shelter takes in girls and young women who have been affected by violence, and it provides them with access to formal education and apprenticeships in hairdressing, hospitality, textiles, and horticulture.

The girls and young women go to school each day and return to the shelter as their home and community. For those young women who want to gain livelihood skills, they can learn these skills within the shelter grounds. The shelter has also have developed a network of employers who employ the girls and women who have completed their studies or apprenticeships. This integrated approach ensures that there are sustainable livelihood opportunities for girls and young women who arrive at the shelter, providing increased freedom from violence and pathways to prosperity. Others can access scholarships and continue their study at college or university.

@ Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

The grounds themselves are lush and spacious and we visit a community garden planted out with vegetables and fruit and herbs that are abundant and inviting.  The gardens are well tended and provide an important outlet for the girls and young women to learn about nutrition while also testing their skills as cooks and horticulturalists.

I listen to some of the young women talking and laughing, then we visit one of the training areas where it is very quiet as these women concentrate on their work, and from time to time glance over at us. I’m as curious as the young women, and I’m struck by the quality of their work and their composure.

What’s essential in this work is supporting girls and women to be safe and free from violence and connecting them to pathways to education and employment so that they have the economic security to pursue their potential and passions. I think back to the women artisans we met and to the real joy they expressed in their art and work.

While in Laos, I also had time to discuss with Nancy the potential of creating an artisan market in Asia, drawing on the success of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market that has been going for 14 years and which attracts more than 20,000 buyers each year. What if we could create the opportunity for a similar market in Asia that would provide women artisans in Asia the opportunity to be connected to more buyers and markets, and to build year-round sustainability of their products? That is some of what we’re exploring at present in our discussions with buyers and artisans.

Several of my colleagues traveled to Santa Fe to join the women artisans from Laos, Bangladesh and Timor Leste whom we’d funded to be able to participate in this market. My colleague, Whitney, was also there to capture on film the journey these women had made and their experience of the market and the outcomes for these artisans.

I couldn’t be there as I was flying to London to take up a non-residential Atlantic Fellowship with the Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics. This fellowship is one of several across the globe funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and is designed to support a corp of global practitioners working to address inequality in its many forms over a 20-year period. I’ll be sharing more about this experience in future blogs and this program inception was a powerful start to develop our thinking and action in relation to the inequalities we were focused on through our own work, for me most especially gender equality.

While I was in London I went to the Tate Modern and picked up one of the books written by Louise Bourgeois – one of the most provocative, creative and arresting sculptors and textile artists of this century. It was Bourgeois who said “Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole.”

She also said “I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands…” This resonated with me since it had been a few months since I’d taken time to draw, paint and dance. It was a reminder of not subsuming work and other commitments to the creative impulse to express and explore. There’s beauty and fire in taking up that invitation to enter another dimension by dancing, sculpting, painting, writing, filming and other creative forms.

After two weeks in London I was finally back on my boat. What joy!

A day later we held an event and pop-up shop in San Francisco for the artisan entrepreneurs who had traveled from Bangladesh, Laos and Timor Leste to Santa Fe so that we could welcome them to the Bay Area before they returned to their respective countries.

The color and energy these women brought with them through their textiles was contagious. The event we hosted was a riot of color and activity as guests exclaimed over the quality of the textiles and tapestries, and then went into a buying frenzy to purchase some of the gorgeous garments and crafts the artisans had for sale.

A year ago, this was just a dream. To find ways to get some women to the Santa Fe event, to explore a sister event in Asia and find donors to help make this a reality. Now it feels like we’re on our way.

On the other side of the world, in Darwin, Australia, enroute from Timor Leste to Sydney via Darwin, I recently interviewed a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women textile artists about their own work and art for an article in AQ: Australian Quarterly magazine.  One of my friends, and a great Australian leader, Lenore Dembski, who created the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s fund (ATSI women’s fund) brought these women together at Paperbark Woman, her Darwin based outlet to showcase these textiles.

June Mills holding one of her hand designed and pained skirts
June Mills @ Paperbark Woman

One of the women, June Mills, is a musician and a member of the famed Mills Sisters group, as well as a gifted artist.Here’s what she said, as an excerpt from the interview when I asked her to share more about what painting her dreaming on clothing and creating other art meant to her:

June: It’s cultural maintenance, cultural knowledge. You know, we’re in a dominant culture, which suppresses our cultural business, so there was a definite need for me to make clothing that is representative of our culture, our tribal people.

That skirt of mine that I made, that you fell in love with, is the major Dreaming for the Larrakia people… And you’ll see the sea eagle, another major Dreaming. The sea eagle flying over Casuarina Beach. So that, to me — calling up our Dreaming — is giving our children strength in the knowledge of whom they are, their identity… With each generation, there’s less and less cultural knowledge and all being passed on. And so we really have to fight against that, push against that. Assimilation and integration is still going on in this country … to make us like every other Joe Blow. Well, no, we’re not. We are people of the land and that’s what my art is about.

Jane [interviewer]: June, do you see a connection between your music and your art?

June: Well, my friends here are saying it’s all about making yourself happy. I was thinking about [how] for a long time with my sisters we just sang [as the Mills Sisters] what everyone else wanted us to sing… But then, at some point, I started to make my own music that had much more cultural relevance to me… My music is very much a mixture of cultural business, healing business and fun business… One of the things I did as healing business was I wrote a song for my grandmother who was taken away from her country when she was only three years old and taken to Warrnambool to be a slave there — until she was too old and then she was sent back to the territory. But there was no record of where she came from, or of her family — nothing.

Miraculously, she found her way back to country because she remembered one word. And that word was her birth name, Kilngaree. She had her name changed five times and yet she remembered her birth name. She sung her way back here before she died… So I wrote that song, ’Sweet Child of Mine’, which has in it the line, ‘remember your name’. But that name… Kilngaree, means ‘a stream system’ in Larrakia, and so Kilngaree took my nanna right back to her birthplace. She had to ask around and people knew the language and said, ‘This way’. I finally found my own voice and I wouldn’t even say that it’s fully developed today.

The women speak about their need for support systems for these textile artists. Ideally an ATSI textile artist business incubator and manufacturing cooperative for women sewers and designers who can share facilities and lay out their work, and then a pop-up incubator in more rural and remote communities.

Another Aboriginal designer, Colleen Tighe-Johnson, whom I also interviewed for Australian Quarterly has had invitations to New York Fashion Week and Cannes International Film Festival.  In the article she said, “Our people are hurting; our people are dying. They need the connection to community and economic opportunity that will give them hope and focus.”

Colleen also dreams of creating a similar cooperative in Redfern in Sydney to provide pathways to urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to be supported in developing their skills, designs and access to markets.

My own struggle and question, from the time I spend with the women in Laos and the time spent with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women artists, is how to connect these women to the funds and power they need to transform their lives.

Individual and institutional donors have so much money. The world is awash with money.  And yet so much of it bypasses those who have demonstrated time and time again the potency of their own work and potential to catalyze change in their countries and communities. As donors seek to aggregate their funding to reduce administrative costs, those at the frontline of change within their communities get left out.

The renewed focus and fascination with innovation frequently rewards those who are already well placed and positioned to receive the funding, further widening the divide with those on the margins.

We need a genuine commitment to funding grass roots groups, especially those led by women, and to ensuring they are included in policy forums and key places of influence – where their work on the ground can influence policies and laws and ensure an enabling environment for their work and creativity.

Funding these groups is important and yet inadequate if this funding isn’t combined with a commitment to support women leaders to assume power and influence in policy and legislative decision making and arenas. Without paying attention to the policy and legal factors that create an enabling environment as well as the social norms that sustain inequality, there’s a danger of ‘spinning wheels’ – i.e. getting the funds to groups without addressing the systemic and attitudinal factors that inhibit transformation.

A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.”

Diane Mariechild


Back in Sausalito there’s a buttery yellow moon slung low over the water. I’m back again! So now, full circle, I return to the flowing tide of my boat life to draw from the energy and power of nature’s rhythms, and the sweet beauty of home.

Jane Sloane