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The Devastating Impact of Decriminalizing the Sex Trade

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The Imago Dei Fund is committed to advancing human rights, human dignity, and gender balance. Through our work and partnerships, we seek to mend a broken world where girls and women are too often devalued, oppressed, and denied basic human agency. We also believe that solutions lie in centering the voices of women and girls to direct and drive change. Our partner World Without Exploitation embodies this approach, as you’ll read in WorldWE National Director Lauren Hersh’s story below. ~ Katinka Hakuta, Grants Manager

Lauren Hersh

Bea was 15-years-old when she was first sold in the sex trade. For two years, Bea was passed between pimps and bought by more sex buyers than she could possibly count. I learned about Bea by accident. As a New York City prosecutor, I had been investigating a Brooklyn-based brothel and someone mentioned that there was a “girl being sold out of a neighborhood apartment.”

For weeks, detectives watched the location. Expensive vehicles lined the street. Throughout the day, they observed men going in and out of a brownstone. They witnessed young women exiting the location late at night. Neighbors confirmed the open secret– that the location was a known brothel and was run by a pimp.

Because pimping and sex buying were illegal, we were able to seek a search warrant. When police entered the location, they found a badly beaten Bea and clear signs of sex trafficking.

That was a decade ago.

But in the last few years, instead of paving the way toward progress, we’ve seen society take several steps backward.

Across the country, a well-funded movement to decriminalize the sex trade in its entirety has gained momentum. Proponents of these proposals seek to provide a free pass to sex buyers and make pimps legitimate business owners. In New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Louisiana, legislation has been introduced to make pimping, sex buying, and brothel owning lawful. Right now in Oregon, there is a pending ballot initiative introduced by an uber-wealthy, self-admitted sex buyer to make the sex trade completely legal. If any of these dangerous measures were to pass, brothels, like the one we investigated in Brooklyn, would be businesses like any other, and search warrants would be nearly impossible to obtain.

If you are outraged, you are not alone. Sex trade survivors, anti-trafficking organizations, and child rights agencies all across America are joining forces and unequivocally opposing these dangerous proposals. Collectively, we are urging lawmakers to examine the devastating harms that plague the sex trade and the drastic racial, gender, and economic disparity between the buyers and those bought.

In jurisdictions throughout the country, research is shining a light on the inherent inequality in the sex trade. Both Seattle and Washington, DC, amassed data that demonstrate that women of color, children, and LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately overrepresented in the sex trade and that their buyers tend to be men–many of whom are white–with privilege and disposable income. In countries where the sex trade is legal, the demand for commercial sex expands and the void is quickly filled by those in society with the least choices. Where there is a legal sex trade, violent crime flourishes nearby.

But a common-sense, survivor-supported solution exists. Known as “The Equality Model,” this solution seeks to hold accountable exploiters–pimps, sex buyers and brothel owners–for the damage they cause. However, this approach also provides exit services, not criminal penalties, for those sold in the sex trade. With survivors at the helm, World Without Exploitation and our two hundred partners are working to bring this human rights model to communities across America. With the support of the Imago Dei Fund, we are meeting with lawmakers, educating leaders, and inspiring the public to join our movement.

A legal sex trade can never be safe, no matter what protections are put in place. It is time to prevent trauma and reduce harm, not create systems that embolden exploitation. For Bea and so many others, it’s time to reject full decriminalization and make The Equality Model a reality.

Lauren Hersh is the National Director of World Without Exploitation and an internationally recognized lawyer, activist, educator and writer working to combat violence against women and girls in schools, online and in the legal arena.

Photos credit: World Without Exploitation

Remembering Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

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When people think of the work of “Truth and Reconciliation” we tend to think of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the work of healing racial oppression and pain. We are pleased to share this piece honoring his legacy written by leaders of a global movement applying the same principles the Archbishop lived by and taught to the historic and global pain/struggles across the divide of gender. – Emily Nielsen Jones

My dear Brothers and Sisters, we are ONE human family. . . We can be human only together. ~
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

We pray for the peace of the soul of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who passed away on the day after Christmas. Our sincere and deepest condolences and prayers go to Leah Tutu, Rev. Mpho Tutu van Furth, and the whole Tutu family, as well as our many South African friends, and all those around the world who love him so dearly.

Through our friends and colleagues Dr. Dorothea Hendricks and Rev. Mpho Tutu van Furth, we had the immense privilege and joy of meeting with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu several times and receiving his blessing and endorsement for our Gender Equity and Reconciliation International (GERI) program, and for our Dawn of Interspirituality program.

“We are inaugurating and announcing this collaboration with an outstanding group [Gender Equity and Reconciliation International] that has done wonders in helping to recover the humanity of women,” said Archbishop Tutu.

Cynthia Brix (center) and Will Keepin (right) share a laugh with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

The GERI program was inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, led by Archbishop Tutu. The entire human family lives under the tyranny of a veritable ‘gender apartheid’ — a structural oppression that afflicts women and men and people of all gender identities, irrespective of sexual orientation. “We have undermined our humanity by the treatment that we have meted out to women,” said Archbishop Tutu, “just as much as racists undermine their humanity by treating others as less than human.”

“Gender Reconciliation is the logical next step for our country,” said Rev. Mpho Tutu van Furth, former Executive Director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, and daughter of the Tutus. The GERI program applies principles of truth and reconciliation to transform gender injustice, cultivate equal rights and mutual respect, and foster healing and mutual reverence between the genders by bringing men and women together in safe places to discuss gender and sexuality and to share their own stories. “The work of racial reconciliation will never be complete without the work of gender reconciliation,” she said.

The blessings of Archbishop and Rev. Mpho Tutu van Furth help keep the flame of reconciliation and transformation ablaze within our hearts. “We are made for loving,” says Tutu, affectionately called the Arch. “If we don’t love, we will be like plants without water.”

“My dear Brothers and Sisters, we are ONE human family,” said the Arch in his blessing for our Dawn of Interspirituality conferences, convened to bridge the major religions. “As we approach the transcendent One, we all find Home.”

The Arch was deeply committed to interfaith harmony and collaboration across the world religions, as beautifully exemplified by his close personal and spiritual friendship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their wonderful dialogues, their book on Joy, and their lively playfulness and deep spiritual resonance at the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity is such a unique blessing to the world, and a remarkable symbolic brotherhood between the Buddha and the Christ. As the Arch proclaimed in the startling title of one his books, God is not a Christian. “All of God’s children and their different faiths help us to realize the immensity of God. No faith contains the whole truth about God. All of us belong to God.”

The Arch concluded his blessing with this prayer: “The God that I worship—which you worship in different kinds of ways — is smiling upon you,” and upon all who endeavor in earnest to unite the human family as one.

We have been so grateful and inspired to serve as supporters of the Girl Child project and advisors on the patriarchy explainer video created by Imago Dei Fund (IDF), which is such a unique and groundbreaking project. Imagine bringing astounding clarity and cross-cultural awakening to thousands of years of patriarchal oppression across the entire human race—in just four minutes! This video does just that, and it not only lays bare the painful origins and legacy of patriarchy, but also points the way forward toward a new and brighter future for the female half of humanity. We are also deeply inspired to collaborate with IDF’s visionary commitment to contemplative spirituality, which creates an urgently needed inter-religious platform and praxis for reconciling the world’s great spiritual traditions, shedding their patriarchal and narrow sectarian dogmas of the past — and as the Arch called for — celebrating the unique contribution that the major spiritual traditions make to the shared quest for and realization of the oneness and unity of the entire human family.

May we always remember the remarkable life and legacy of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Few people in history have served humanity so profoundly and courageously as the Arch has done. He didn’t just speak spiritual truth to worldly power, he lived it. The Arch was instrumental in freeing an entire nation from one of the most tyrannical governments in modern history. And he didn’t stop there; he then led one of the most remarkable processes of reconciliation and forgiveness ever carried out on a national scale between the perpetrators and victims of the systematic violence of Apartheid.

How did one man accomplish so much? What was the Arch’s secret? It wasn’t actually him who did all these things; it was a higher divine power that worked through him. And we, too, are called onto this same path. There is no greater way to honor and celebrate the life of Archbishop Tutu, than for us, Read More

Holiday Wishes from IDF

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Dear partners and friends, holiday greetings from all of us at IDF! We hope this finds you healthy and safe as we turn the page on another year still in the grip of a global pandemic. Hopefully this time next year, Covid will be in our rearview mirror (or close anyway) but for the time being living with this unwanted guest for a bit longer is our shared project. As Arundhati Roy and others have described, the pandemic is indeed a portal revealing the deeper roots of many global crises that need our collective attention and urgency:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

As we reflect back on 2021, we have felt the discomfort of being in this “portal” yet are grateful to be part of larger change happening in the world. We are filled with gratitude for the little bits of normalcy and human connection that have been slowly returning, eg. going back to our office and getting to meet in person with some grantee partners passing through Boston. We are grateful for all the ways we have been able to stay connected with partners near and far and continue to be in awe of the incredible steadfast care and resourcefulness of partners on the frontline who are working tirelessly in these very challenging times to alleviate human suffering and not give up when so much progress on so many fronts has been set back by this pandemic and other global challenges. 

Change is in the air everywhere, here too at IDF. We were sad to say goodbye to Lisa Jackson, who is moving onto another chapter in her incredible career. We are so grateful for all the ways she has left her imprint on IDF over the past four years and has spoken into the larger ecosystem of philanthropic and social change we operate in. We are adapting and settling in with a smaller team and are busily working on a new set of strategy conversations as we look forward to the next chapter ahead.

On behalf of all of us at IDF, may you experience the peace of this holiday season as you embrace the uncertainties of change around you.

May our hearts continue to expand and grow and remain open and kind as we look ahead to 2022 and discern ways to lean in and tend to the needs and crises around us asking something of each of us.

May you find some hidden joy this upcoming year conspiring together for the better world we all seek.

Warm wishes for a blessed holiday season,

Emily & Ross

PS: In the spirit of rest and rejuvenation, the IDF offices will be closed Dec 27 – Dec 31. If you need anything before the end of the year, please reach out to your program partner within the next two weeks. Otherwise, we’ll be back in touch on Jan 3.

Sustaining Leaders to Make the Impossible, Possible

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I am continually inspired by the work of our grantee partners and the impact they achieve in the world. These partners are diverse and work on a range of issues and in a range of settings and geographies. What unites them is that each relies on passionate and dedicated leaders who work tirelessly to serve their communities. Often these leaders are so focused on organizational and external priorities that they can overlook their own spiritual, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. Perennial reminds us that a core component of leadership development is a focus on a leader’s inner life. We are excited by the programming and fellowship opportunities they offer, all of which are designed to nurture leadership skills and focus on renewal or as we like to say, “keep the spark alive.” — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

Some years ago, we chose to name our organization Perennial because of our experience that humans are remarkably sustainable and resilient beings who, like living soil, can generate magnificence. More specifically, the leaders who dream and inspire others to take action toward building a more inclusive, equitable and loving world regularly make the impossible, possible.

At Perennial our belief is that this capacity to generate hope and possibility is, again like living soil, something that can continue to produce if well tended. Therefore, our approach to leadership development has always been focused on those deeper, inner landscapes from where leaders access their resolve and capacity to renew themselves and their work.

After doing this well for two decades we have learned that ignoring or delaying these priorities inevitably leads to a depletion of inner resources that cannot be sustained. In short, our work has taught us that social leaders are capable of remarkable sustainability but tend to approach the inner landscape of their leadership in unsustainable ways. And when the depletion of inner resources hits critical levels of concern, and leaders cannot continue with their work, we are reminded that social leaders are not easily replaceable. More than anything—ideas, strategic plans, policies, funding—positive social change requires humans, leaders, to make the impossible, possible.

And over the past several months, we can see the world over that this proposition is under serious threat.

Leaders from all angles of social change—especially in health, education, environment, and human rights—have been called to be more resilient than ever and take actions while facing prolonged uncertainty. Communities are in crisis. People are displaced and under new threats. Organizational budgets are on the brink. More than ever we see widespread coverage of leadership burnout.

One anecdotal sign of how things have changed is that for many years our work at Perennial was not generally understood or, if it was, it was sometimes considered to be a “nice to have” leadership development training experience. But starting in 2020, it became less necessary for us to “make the case” for why our work and approach to leadership development is so important. Anyone who is involved with the social sector—whether it be at the local, national or global scale—knows leaders doing the work who have been working under crisis mode for what seems like forever.

Here we are reminded that while leadership may be sustainable, it is not easily replaceable.

Perennial is meeting this challenge by dramatically scaling our offerings to make our work more accessible to leaders around the world. With COVID protocols preventing us from conducting in-person trainings, we have adapted our work and expertise to be as powerful and transformational as a virtual offering. Since March 2020, we have trained hundreds of leaders throughout Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America through our Perennial Fellowship and other partnerships in our facilitated and asynchronous programs.

And perhaps as evidence that institutional philanthropy is beginning to recognize and prioritize leadership, wellbeing and sustainability, over the last two years we have worked closely with funders like the Obama Foundation, the Malala Fund, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, the Issroff Family Foundation, and of course Imago Dei Fund, to elevate and amplify the Perennial approach to leadership development.

In January 2022 we are excited to be launching a new program in partnership with the University of Washington Department of Global Health called Wellbeing for Healthcare Professionals. This ten-week course will be built around our Perennial Wellbeing Practice and will enroll 2,500 participants throughout the world.

Additionally, in Spring and Summer 2022 we are offering our two-month Perennial Fellowship, which is a great opportunity for leaders to restore and renew themselves in a global cohort of remarkable people leading change throughout the world.

For more information on our work and what we are learning about leadership sustainability, wellbeing and burnout, please visit our website.

A Warmi in STEM

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In July 2021, IDF grantee partner Girl Rising launched the Future Rising Fellowship program. The project seeks to support young activists working at the intersection of environmental justice and gender equity. This is the story of Leticia Tituana, an indigenous woman from Ecuador who became one of the Fellowship’s first cohort. She is working to combine her training as a chemical engineer with the indigenous wisdom of her ancestors to address water contamination in her community.

I’ll begin by defining “warmi,” it means “woman” and it comes from Kichwa, one of Ecuador’s two official languages. It represents the harmony of the indigenous home, the union, strength, and rebellion. 

Being born in a rural community and belonging to an Indigenous town allowed me to understand the needs of the most vulnerable sectors of the country, the challenges we confront as Indigenous women, and the environment that we must constantly adapt to. 

My name is Lisseth, but I feel that there’s always been confusion since everyone used to call me “María,” just like they called my mother, grandmother, neighbors, and all women who wore the anaco, the typical dress of the first nation communities they belonged to. I’ll never forget the smiles that each one of these women gave in response. It was a simple smile, warm, with eyes full of light, with the hope of being more than “María,” or that was my perception, that’s how I saw it and have wanted to change things ever since I started schooling at nine years old in the city. I wanted to be more than “María.” 

I studied in four schools, one in my community, one in the parish, and two in the city. When I was nine years old and ready to start my sixth year of elementary school, the city schools refused to accept me because I came from an indigenous village, along with everything that implied. My education would have stopped there had it not been for the persistence of my mother, who carried the hope that I would have a better education.

My mother was a housewife and my father was a construction worker and learned about the importance of education from his contractors. Earning money to survive was a constant struggle for them. I saw this and sensed their frustration and so I spent hours in the school’s computer center to find my way – searching for a path forward. I wouldn’t have found it alone. My chemistry teacher, Jaime Albuja, was excellent. He told me not to waste my talent and dedication in a career that many others chose just because it seemed easy, and it was he who suggested that I pursue a career in STEM. Just over a month ago, I graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering from Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL), one of the top public universities in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

It had always been in my plans to go far away, maybe I didn’t know my own place, but I longed for a change and thought about the challenges I faced. The main inconvenience from my point of view was money, how to pay the costs of rent, transport, food in a city. Luckily, I had seen all the Rocky movies on television and I knew from those stories, that I should not give up. However, something that I didn’t think about was that being an Indigenous woman, the first daughter from a home deeply tied to the customs and traditions of the Kichwa-Otavalo culture, might not allow me to go and study in another province.

My parents chose not to let me go, and my response to their refusal was that I didn’t care, that this time I would disobey them. I threatened to go and live under a bridge and not return without my degree. After some time, and a lot of soul searching, they finally accepted my decision, and I set off for Guayaquil, where I would study.

Once at University, I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. I was alone and I missed my family. We couldn’t speak because they didn’t have a cell phone or internet access, nor enough money to spend it on a call from a phone booth. At home every cent counted.

During my first days of classes, I didn’t realize that I was causing bewilderment in the university. I happily dressed in my typical dress, and that’s what I wore every day. A lot of my classmates asked me if the heat made me uncomfortable, but they were the only clothes I had. I felt proud to be dressed in so many colors stamped on my blouse and I wasn’t uncomfortable. My classmates never treated me badly, on the contrary, I made excellent friends who I still count on.

It was tough though to make ends meet and at one point, I was forced to leave school for lack of money. But I found my way back – working even harder than before at a lot of different jobs. I sold empanadas, cleaned houses, taught classes, sold crabs, lived in houses of families who helped me with a place to sleep and food. I helped with housework and saved for transportation costs. 

Eventually I became an aide in the chemistry department, and that led to a scholarship to study abroad at the University of Malaga in Spain.

The happiness that I felt that year is still indescribable. I’m grateful to my professor, the support of my friends, the unconditional love of my parents, self-love, principles, goals, and motivation. For the first time I felt I was equal. I felt that the academy offered me the same rights, rights that I Read More

Pain and Privilege of Leadership: Reflections of A Global South Change Maker

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I once read an article about MacArthur Fellows that highlighted their transnational and cross-sectoral life experiences. It affirmed my belief that our world’s increasingly complex problems are often solved by leaders who can transcend geographical borders, break down sectoral silos, and connect dots across fields and global communities in a way that others are challenged to do.

However, as a transnational and cross-sectoral bridge builder myself, I can attest that building “new boxes” that can hold solutions to our communities’ enduring issues is often a brutally challenging journey. My particular journey as an advocate for community-led structural change, spanning over three decades, has left me believing that social change should be led by communities, with communities, and for communities. At the same time, I’ve learned the hard way that most donor countries and philanthropic institutions that state their commitment to community-led development rarely put their money where their mouths are. It’s a reality check that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) activists in the U.S. and all over the world. And being a woman always adds insult to injury, because no matter how much we women, and especially women of color, do the grunt work that allows critical change to take root (from President Biden’s election victory in the U.S. to Liberia’s peace process and the everyday victory of cities, towns and villages’ survival), we get discounted, underpaid, and marginalized thanks to the crushing grip of patriarchy.

Since my Haitian and international network and I led the launching of Fondation Communautaire Haitienne-Espwa, known internationally as the The Haiti Community Foundation, we’ve had to deal with no less than four disasters, from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and now the 2021 Haiti Earthquake. Truth be told, our focus has been more on community-led development, community philanthropy, and nation building than disaster relief. However, when you live within a community, when you are close enough to hear its heartbeat and the yearnings of its soul, you cannot ignore the pain inflicted by the disasters that wrack its body.

What have we learned over the years? Women, children, the elderly, and the handicapped are usually left behind by most international aid stakeholders who are unfamiliar with the topography and sociological patterns of local communities and who (to be blunt) are unwilling to learn them. As a result, the Haiti Community Foundation gives priority to single mothers, lactating mothers, and physically disabled community members who cannot get to the centers of towns where aid is distributed. We’ve been funding more women’s groups and we carefully nurture and support women leaders through our community representation policies not just because they are often not noticed by funders. More importantly, they know how to get things done and they are and know the heartbeat of their communities. We’ve also learned that disaster readiness and response is not a separate funding category but rather is just a regular part of life and good development.

Our community-led approach helped us to build a cross-sectoral community leaders network of over 1,000 leaders in the Grand Sud region that showed its priceless value as a human infrastructure after Hurricane Matthew and at the very onset of the 2021 Haiti Earthquake. Our network mobilized, brought life-saving water, medicines, and medical supplies to Pestel and Corail’s towns and villages that had lost 95% of their housing and 100% of their water distribution systems to the earthquake. We haven’t stopped helping and with other organizations and funders, we’re planning reconstruction and training leaders to respond to the next disaster.

The amazing support, solidarity, and endorsements that we have been receiving from international development, humanitarian and philanthropy leaders from all over the world has stunned us. Somehow, while we had been building our community-led institution the hard way and shifting the power to Haitian communities, the world had noticed our work. We’ve received a great number of donations as well as offers of support and partnerships with a gratitude tinged with incredulity. “It only took you a decade to gain the recognition for the great work that you’ve been doing all along” said my husband with his usual dry sense of humor. His comment hit a nerve. Young white do-gooders with no solid community experience seem to easily attract praise, support, and significant levels of financial resources while we experienced BIPOC community leaders toil in obscurity and struggle to access resources for our communities year after year.

In one of my other lives, I am the Director of Imago Dei Fund’s Girl Child Long Walk Project where, with a great team that includes co-authors Emily Nielsen Jones and Rev. Domnic Misolo, we’ve built and are launching a Fellowship working at the rare intersectional space of faith, gender, equality, and community-led development. We are very excited about the incredibly talented and diverse cohort of leaders and student fellows that we’ve attracted that include eleven women and three men from various African countries, the United States, Pakistan, and Brazil.

(If you are interested in learning more about the very brave work of faith-inspired change agents around the world to untangle contradictions at the nexus of their own faith tradition, culture, and gender norms, please consider joining our upcoming reading journey beginning in just a few weeks!)

During the interview of a candidate for the fellowship, I was reminded of why this work matters. “I wondered,” she said with a voice filled with Read More

“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”
Nelson Mandela