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What About Asking the Girls?

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Photo courtesy of Komera

It’s been well over a year since COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic and yet it will be some time before we grasp the full impact of the pandemic on girls’ lives and education. However, AMPLIFY Girls reminds us of the necessity of taking the time to truly understand the complexity of the issues at work. The collaborative research effort by AMPLIFY Girls and its community-driven partners also demonstrates the wisdom of asking girls themselves about the unique issues they faced and what they need to move forward. At the Imago Dei Fund, we are grateful for the important insights shared below from their multi-country research project. We look forward to the release of the full report this summer and the launch of their campaign focused on community-based solutions and policy changes in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya that are informed by girls. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

When COVID19 hit, the global community was asked to stay home.

But what if home wasn’t safe? What if school was the only place where you could get a meal, escape from the weight of household chores, learn about your rights and health, and ultimately see a pathway out of poverty.

For many young women and girls, this is their reality.

During the COVID19 pandemic, the global community mobilized into research mode to understand how COVID19 would impact girls’ education. Much of it from a desk or a mobile phone, global directors were surveyed, government officials provided feedback, and modeling was completed.

Rarely did anyone ask a girl directly what she felt were the barriers to returning to school and what she considered were strategies for that return. In the world of development, as we rush to solve problems, we often forget to ask questions of those most affected by the situation. We are in a pandemic in and of itself as we seek to solve the problem rather than slowing down, taking the time to understand the issues and trying to solve them through a community-based lens.

AMPLIFY Girls, a partner-driven collective of community-driven organizations in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania decided to address this issue by asking and listening to the adolescent girls they serve.

What happened when we asked girls?

In October 2020, AMPLIFY Girls, undertook a multi-country qualitative research study to ask girls why they were dropping out of school and their recommendations to get young women back to school and back on track.

The results are painful but important.

Our research makes clear the fact that girls are experiencing protracted trauma during COVID-19—trauma that is much larger and long-lasting than the period of school closures. The daily experience of violence, acute poverty, stress, anxiety, stigmatization and insecurity have all served to deteriorate girls’ psychological and emotional health, making school return unlikely without sustained and holistic care for multiple facets of their wellbeing.

At the highest level, our findings suggest that pregnancy is the primary driver of girls’ dropout from school during the pandemic, but that pregnancy is a symptom of underlying acute, economic vulnerabilities and is augmented by situations of social and physical isolation that are often mutually reinforcing. The overwhelming majority of focus group discussion participants cited transactional sex for basic goods (such as food, clothing, and menstrual hygiene products) as the primary cause of unintended pregnancies in their communities. Accordingly, we found that economic precarity leading to transactional sex and unintended pregnancies was the most common pathway leading to girls’ dropout.

With pregnancy and economic hardship cited as the primary drivers of girls’ dropout, our research found that the primary barriers to girls’ school return are toxic home, school, and community environments that view pregnancy from a moral lens. Whereas respondents very rarely reported that their families were unsupportive of girls’ education, girls frequently noted that their communities were discouraging towards pregnant girls’ education. Our research suggests that the social stigma surrounding teen pregnancy and motherhood is the single biggest factor keeping girls from returning to school post-pandemic.

Photo courtesy of GirlUp Uganda

Girls offered many important solutions and policies that they felt could support their continued learning. Recognizing the complex nature of their needs, common features of these recommendations were their holistic nature and their deep care for the social and emotional aspects of girls’ wellbeing, particularly pregnant girls. The vast majority of girls felt that psychosocial support for girls, combined with community norm shift and sensitization around pregnant girls’ value, their needs, rights and opportunities would be profoundly impactful.  Girls had many suggestions for government including:

  • Strengthened reintegration policies
  • School-level implementation to make schools more girl-friendly and supportive of pregnant girls and young mothers
  • Community-based strategies for preventing early and unwanted pregnancies
  • Better access to the necessary tools for participating in remote learning; and
  • More structured support and encouragement for at-home learning.

Our synthesis of these findings and girls’ recommendations leads us to the following calls to action to support girls’ school return. We divide these into actions that should be taken immediately to halt attrition in the short term, and actions that should be taken in the medium and long term  to prevent continued dropout in the future.

Short-Term Actions:

  • Provision of immediate economic reliefspecifically menstrual health supplies, food and school fees for both pregnant and non-pregnant girls. Removing the immediate economic pressures associated with risky behaviors and dropout is a necessary and basic prerequisite for returning girls to school.
  • Trauma counseling and The vast majority of girls are experiencing both acute and protracted trauma. Psychosocial support and counseling are necessary to encourage girls (both pregnant and not pregnant) that it is both possible to return to school. Mentorship by either peers or adult women can provide girls with a sense of connection, belonging, and hope.
  • Pathways for pregnant girls to continue learning. As work is undertaken in the long term to make schools more girl-friendly and less toxic to pregnant girls, pregnant young Read More

Funding the Power of Women and Girls of Color

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In honor of Mother’s Day that we recently celebrated here in the USA, I want to reflect on the power of women and girls of color. At the Imago Dei Fund we care deeply about supporting women and girls of color to have agency and decision-making control over their lives. Our starting point in this work is the assumption that women and girls of color have power (they do not need to “be empowered”) and that this power can be supported and grown in ways that help women and girls of color live the lives they want for themselves, their families and their communities. We have the privilege of walking alongside a number of organizations and communities that center the needs of women and girls of color in this way.

Centering the agency of women and girls of color in our work as a funding partner means we partner with organizations that do the following:

  • Assume that women and girls of color live complex, dynamic, nuanced lives that are intersectional in a multitude of ways and do not shy away from centering women holistically,
  • Ask women and girls of color what they want and need, 
  • Trust in women and girls of color being the best qualified people to know what they want and need and therefore believe them when they say what they want and need, and
  • Leverage the power inherent in women and girls of color and do what is necessary to support them to attain what they want and need.

While the above may seem obvious to those of you already centering women and girls of color in your work, I continue to hear folks in the spaces I am in center themselves and what they think women and girls of color want and need, rather than centering the women and girls of color they claim they want to “help.” They often say things like “we need to empower women and girls” or “we need to include women and girls.” The assumptions in statements like this are the antithesis of what it means to center women and girls of color. In addition, the “of color” is often omitted, ignoring the racialized experience of women and girls of color and avoiding the intersectional nature of the work that needs to be supported.  

Oftentimes I hear “we want to remove barriers to access and equity for women and girls.” To be clear, it is critically important that barriers to access for women be removed and that organizations, including philanthropic organizations, center gender equity in their efforts. That said, when you center women and girls of color in your thinking and approach it is easier to see what those barriers are from the point of view of a woman or a girl of color. And once the barriers are removed, women and girls of color can then engage as they want, when they want, and on terms that work for them.

I am excited to share that the Imago Dei Fund recently invested in three remarkable organizations that fully center women and girls of color. They are remarkable for a few reasons.

  • They all center Black women and girls and women and girls of color unapologetically and respectfully.
  • They hold themselves accountable to the women and girls of color they partner with and engage them as leaders in the work.
  • They are focused on advancing the well-being of women and girls of color (different from “helping”).
  • They are all putting the decision-making power into the hands of women and girls of color when it comes to the distribution of resources. Women and girls of color are making the decisions about where the money goes, to whom and for what – rather than the organization or donor/funder making that decision.

The Black Girl Freedom Fund, the Children’s Rights Innovation Fund, and the Boston Women’s Fund are all deeply committed to centering the lives of women and girls of color, advancing their well-being, and ensuring racial and gender equity and justice for them and their communities. IDF is proud and humbled to walk with and learn from these organizations.

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

Our colleagues in philanthropy need to step up when it comes to centering and supporting women and girls of color. There is a lot of talk about what needs to be done, but very little action being taken. According to the Pocket Change report put out by the Ms. Foundation:

Of the $356 million from foundations available for women and girls of color (WGOC) in 20171, less than $15 million, about 4.2%, was specified as benefitting Black women and girls. The median size of grants benefitting Black women and girls was $18,000 compared to a median of $35,000 for all foundation grants reported to Candid in 2017.

If philanthropy actually wants to respond to the cries for racial and social justice in this country and have a real and sustainable impact on issues such as health care, education, poverty alleviation, civic engagement, it needs to de-center itself more and center women and girls of color – they have the power and wisdom to make the world a better place for all of us. We just need to get out of the way.

Top featured photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash.

Reflections on Caste

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Over the last few months, the IDF team read and met several times to discuss Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Here we share some of our personal thoughts, learnings, and what stuck with us.


Wilkerson’s deep, specific, critical analysis of how our country was designed pushes us to think really hard about who, what and how we want to collectively be as a country. We can’t shed our bones. So how do we choose to exist as a multiracial, caste based, democratic, capitalist society and ensure dignity for all of us despite our bones? — Lisa Jackson, Managing Partner

I was taught in grade school that slavery was a “sad dark chapter” in U.S. history. I understood in reading Caste that it is the foundational basis of our economic and social order and realized that my knowledge of the origins of our country was woefully inadequate and incomplete. Isabelle Wilkerson writes that we can’t diagnose America’s race problems of today without knowing a full, honest, and complete history of our country. Going back to the beginning and connecting the dots to see how this “unseen skeleton” or caste hierarchy came into being is helping me see my role to deconstruct and dismantle the whole insidious system. — Jennifer Oakley, Program Partner

In the epilogue of Caste, Wilkerson asks, “Will the United States adhere to its belief in majority rule if the majority does not look as it has throughout history?” This question has been reverberating loudly in my mind over the last weeks and months as the United States experiences just the latest in a long and shameful history of voter suppression. Wilkerson also reminds White Americans that “[you] can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate.” For me, Caste has served as powerful continuation of my learning that anti-racism work happens at many levels—individual, community, workplace—and that civic engagement is a necessary place where White Americans must step out of the complacency of their whiteness and “choose not to dominate” by actively and intentionally using their voice, their vote, and their resources to protect BIPOC voters. So in response to Wilkerson’s question, I’m asking myself whether I’ve done enough to ensure that people who don’t look like me or have the access that I do are able to fully participate in our democratic process. — Katinka Hakuta, Grants Manager

Isabel Wilkerson aptly names caste as “more than a rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.” As a woman of color in the U.S., a daughter of immigrants, a proud member of the AAPI community, my lived experiences are shaped by complicated and often contradictory legacies of coercive systems of power upheld by generations of people who’ve benefited from my subjugation. I’m well aware of the sociopolitical positioning of East Asians in particular in this country, casting a monolithic perception of Asian Americans as “the model minority,” fixed beneath the white racial hierarchy, pitted against Black and Brown communities, all to distract from the white supremacist scaffolding holding up this illusory power. Stolen power. When one understands the real history of how this country came to be – not the sanitized versions of history pumped into our collective consciousness through white dominated institutions and spaces – one begins to realize the pathology of whiteness, the insanity of whiteness, the irreparable harm cast upon generations of peoples of colors, how whiteness fuels disconnection from humanity, thus, inhibits any empathy from those who are plagued by it. In the wake of this past year, mourning the murders of our Black and Asian brothers and sisters, killed by state-sanctioned violence, perpetrated by those infected by the dehumanizing effects of whiteness, we must remain steadfast in unearthing our humanity through the dis-ease, hold one another’s pain as our own, work to unlearn the internalized hatred of the “Other,” and ask ourselves, beyond the false and meaningless associations and adjacency to power, who are we? — Leah Hong, Program Partner

I read Caste over the course of a month. It was something I needed to sit with and truly absorb. The book and discussions about it have had a profound effect on my understanding of race, whiteness, anti-blackness, privilege, systems of oppression and all their combined implications. As a white woman, I had some understanding of the privilege that flows to me and my family based on the color of our skin. Caste deepened that understanding and allowed me to see more clearly how our country’s history and culture have been shaped by this dehumanizing system. I find myself looking at everything through the lens of caste. It has caused me to examine so many assumptions and more importantly to look for ways to help weaken the systems that hold this hierarchy in place. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

I listened to the audiobook and somehow felt and imagined that the author, Isabel Wilkerson, was speaking directly to me. It was a powerful experience reading the book as a team and being able to process together. As a white person reading the book, I found myself so saddened by how much I have been oblivious to both the savagely inhumane realities of slavery that our history books have so sanitized and whitewashed as well as the more subtle forms of racism that Wilkerson so vividly describes from her own personal experience. Her sociological and intersectional lens on how caste operates in the past and the present has stamped my psyche deeply and motivates me personally to want to do more to repair the deeper roots and branches of the caste-based racism that Read More

Silence is Not an Option – Violence Against Asian Americans Must Stop Now

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Sometimes I just respond too slowly. Last year, as protests were happening in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and all of the other murders of African American men and women that had happened before and after his, it took me a while to speak. Internally I was busy processing my anger, grief, and fear for my own son and husband. Externally I just wasn’t talking about it. I didn’t want to. I was tired and scared from way back when as a child my family sat in fear after being pulled over by a white male police officer in my hometown in California. My father had already trained me and my brother on how to behave in this situation so we were prepared. It didn’t make us less scared. I am no less scared today.

I’ve done it again. While I am responding and speaking right now, the violence that is happening now (and has been happening for quite a while before now) against the Asian American community in this country, required me to speak yesterday, last week, last fall. And it requires me to keep speaking, and keep speaking, and keep speaking. Even those of us who are tired now and have been since the dawn of this country because we have had to fight to survive in a country that was designed for us not to do so, even we need to speak and keep speaking and keep speaking. Silence is a form of complicity and we (the collective we) simply can’t be complicit in our own subjugation, oppression, violence, trauma. We just can’t. We collectively need to represent and respect humanity for all of us – and right now in particular we need to do so for our Asian American friends, families, and communities that are experiencing the worst of what this country has to offer BIPOC.

And lest it go unnoticed, we must name the racialized misogyny at play with the violence that is occurring. It is not by accident that the majority of victims are women as the recent New York Times article points out (and many of us know from experience), racism and sexism often combine in ways that result in violence against women of color. Then add to that the commercial sexual exploitation of Asian American women in particular, and the urgency to speak now is even greater. IDF partners with several organizations that are actively fighting for women of color at these intersections (10 Thousand Windows, Chab Dai, Willow International, My Life My Choice, CEASE Boston, World Without Exploitation, International Justice Mission, Precious Women, Mother’s Heart, Route One Ministry) – fighting against the racialized misogyny that allow people like Captain Baker to incorrectly treat Asian American women as either women or Asian American claiming that the deep hatred of the white man who killed these women could not be based on the intersection of both. Kimberlée Crenshaw has been telling us for years that we must understand the intersectionality of women of color in order to address the resulting unique vulnerability faced by women of color in our society:

Intersectional vulnerabilities are not simplistic identitarian claims; they are explanations of the multiple dynamics at play in what we witnessed this week. Indeed, the root causes of these killings — misogyny, racism, and economic precarity — are only further entrenched by the erasure of certain dimensions of this violence. For Asian Americans, and Asian-American women in particular, the bullets that ended the lives of so many in Georgia were the endpoint of a cultural frame that makes them vulnerable to racist, sexualized violence. (The African American Policy Forum)

On behalf of the Imago Dei Fund, we strongly denounce the violence that is happening against Asian American people in this country, and in particular against Asian American women. The humanity and dignity of Asian American women is “bound up” with our humanity and dignity. The violence must stop now. And we must all do our part to interrupt it, to be allies and not bystanders, to support and to care, and to hold each other accountable for how we act and what we say (or don’t say). This requires a persistent commitment in the context of fighting for racial justice. IDF, continues to commit to racial justice in our grantmaking, with our voice, and in our actions.

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson

A Snapshot of Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Philippines

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As we reach the midpoint of Women’s History month and celebrate International Women’s Day, my inbox and social media pages are filled with stories and posts of amazing women. Many of these women have broken barriers, shattered glass ceilings and risen to the top of their respective fields. And make no mistake I am glad we celebrate their accomplishments. But, Janice’s story reminds us to make space to celebrate the power and “essence” of every woman, particularly those who are working to build better lives for themselves and their families. At Imago Dei Fund we are filled with gratitude for the grantee partners like 10Thousand Windows who offer intense support for women and alongside them as they create lives filled with dignity and empowerment. In my mind, this is what International Women’s Day is all about – celebrating the courage, power and love that women can offer themselves, each other and the broader community, especially during challenging times. I hope you will take a moment to read Janice’s story. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

It was the summer of 1994, at the age of twelve, when I encountered the question “What for you is the essence of being a woman?” It was the final question asked during the Miss Universe pageant held in Manila, Philippines, my beloved country. I cannot remember the answers of the candidates but the question stuck in my head. I even remembered scanning our dictionary for the meaning of “essence.” Miss India brought home the crown and her answer that impressed the judges was, “Just being a woman is a gift of God that all of us must appreciate.”

Many years later, I found the courage to answer my childhood Miss Universe question. After seven years of working hard building a career in the corporate arena, I just had a powerful urge to leave and join the social sector. I realized that for me, in my life, the essence of being a woman is to make a significant impact in the community by helping vulnerable, under resourced women realize their dreams and potential. I welcomed and embraced the mission of 10ThousandWindows of helping women experience economic empowerment so they may live safe, free, and hopeful lives. I made that scary yet exciting decision 11 years ago and I am glad that I did! I never looked back nor had an ounce of regret in the decision that I made because the work in 10ThousandWindows, which I am privileged to be a part of, has empowered me to empower other women. I believe that every empowered woman has the natural capacity to empower others within her circle of influence. This circle of influence keeps growing and gets bigger and wider as more resources, passion, and dedication are being poured in by us all. Together with the colleagues and partners of 10ThousandWindows, we support and lift each other up in facing the challenges as we serve these women, who dream of having a better world for themselves and their children.

At 10ThousandWindows, 81 percent of the clients that we serve are women. These women joined our program because they do not know where and how to start living their lives again with dignity after it was disrupted by the most unimaginable things that happened to them, which left them traumatized, scarred, and vulnerable. A majority of the women had not even completed basic education or a high school diploma making it difficult to access safe and sustainable jobs. A majority of them had children to care for and were dependent on the meager income from partners, family members, and relatives who mostly worked in the informal sector such as jeepney drivers, street vendors, and stevedores. Many of them were already the breadwinner in the family at a young age because of the loss or absence of functional parents or adult carers. Many of them were displaced and ran away from home because of neglect and multiple abuses. Many of them turned to peers, friends, neighbors, or individuals they thought they could trust but influenced them to engage in risky, unhealthy behaviors, manipulated, deceived, and harmed them.

This brings up a lot of great questions such as “what can we do to make a difference in the lives of these women?”, “what approach or method can we use to empower them?”, “how do we start?”, “what are the resources that we need?”, “who are we going to partner with?” Question after question. There are no quick fixes and there are no perfect solutions because we are dealing with unique individuals with unique circumstances. Each of these women have their own personalities, different stories to tell, and different battles to fight internally and externally.

With the help of field experts and through research and related studies, 10ThousandWindows developed its theory of change. If we prepare these women to meet local market needs by providing them with education, relevant workplace skills training, career guidance, and psycho-social support in a supportive and trauma-informed environment, we reduce their vulnerability. If we can prepare employers so they may develop safe and inclusive workplaces through training and awareness, we can increase the likelihood of success for these women. When this happens, these women will be empowered to protect themselves in the workplace, be able to sustain employment in their communities, and improve their ability to provide for themselves and their children.

UN Women shared some insights about women economic empowerment:

  • Women’s economic empowerment includes women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household Read More

2021 – A Year of Intentional Action

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If there is one thing I have learned that matters above all in my 25 years in the social sector, it is that being intentional in how you act matters. If you seek to be a trust-based grantee-centric foundation, getting there won’t happen accidentally or just because you are well-intended. You actually have to act intentionally in ways that can make it happen.

In addition to being intentional in our actions, it matters greatly how we go about defining the thing we are trying to be intentional about. For example, if you seek to support NGOs to be successful and you define the problem or barrier as their lack of capacity, then your actions are all about having those NGOs participate in endless professional development and capacity building workshops to gain more capacity. If you define the problem or barrier as your lack of trust in the leadership of the NGO, your actions will be something different (anyone want to try unrestricted general operating grants?).

In our work at IDF we are constantly asking ourselves, “How do we define the problem and how do we plan to act to address it? Does this action align with our values?” Whether the question is about the length and content of our application, or who should pay the cost for equivalency determinations, we work with intentionality to ensure that what we do, and how we act, can be traced back to what we value and what we believe.

For example, we believe our role is to walk alongside our partners and to support them in their work. We inherently trust them and their knowledge, and want to make it as easy as possible for them to access the resources we have to offer. Our application is only four questions and our Program Team does the work of getting additional information we need for diligence. There is no proposal required. We only make unrestricted general operating grants. In addition, we provide additional flexible funds to support things like professional development, organizational development, and keeping the spark alive – things other funders rarely provide and that organizations tell us they greatly need.

Working this way means that you are always on alert for when something you are doing isn’t aligned, or not as aligned, as it should be. We recently tackled the fact that when one of our grants ends for a partner they have to wait a quarter for us to determine whether they will be invited to apply for another grant. Why was it this way? For no good reason. We just hadn’t put the time and effort into fixing it. So now we are – piloting a new process with our partners in hopes that if we close this gap, it will support them to plan better and to have some clarity about where they stand with our funding as early as possible (not as early as it is convenient for us!). And yes, we will get feedback from our partners about whether our intentions are realized or not.

I am so proud of our Team and Trustees for pushing on things like this. To be clear, there are many contradictions in our work that we haven’t solved for and we have to own that and continue to push on those. Thank you for your patience as we keep at it.

This year, in addition to continuing to leverage our gender, faith, and community-driven development lenses to get to know potential grantee partners, we are prioritizing the following characteristics of organizations in our process: BIPOC women-led organizations, and organizations with operating budgets under $1 million USD. We believe deeply in the agency of communities to identify and solve the challenges they face. By intentionally seeking out organizations with these characteristics to add to our portfolio, we will be working more often with community-driven and community-led efforts. This supports us in fulfilling our role as a funder which is to walk alongside (never out in front!) those who are proximal to communities and opportunities to advance gender balance, human rights, justice, and spiritual holism.

Thanks to the intentionality and generosity of our Trustees, Ross and Emily Jones, we will also have the chance this year to partner with some exceptional organizations and movements domestically that are working on racial justice. As we define this effort, we will be particularly interested in working with folks at the intersection of our lenses including faith, gender and community driven development. We promise to share more as we learn more. This effort further supports IDF in its mission and pushes us to intentionally include racial justice in the work.

Along these lines, we are also internally working on issues of racial equity, white supremacy, and anti-racism at IDF. As a newly re-formed team, we’d decided that as part of our staff development we would do a few things together on this front. We’ve read books together including Me and White Supremacy, Homegoing, and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. We have hired an external consultant to address the hard stuff inherent in working in a multiracial environment. We are thrilled to be working with Bina Patel of Saathi Impact Consulting as our team coach this year. While we are a combination of nervous, excited, and curious about where all this work will take us, we are so glad to be doing it together and with the support and engagement of our Trustees.

As we all put our heads down and get to work to make 2021 even a little better than 2020, I of course want to share a poem about staying the course and getting the work done. Dr. Angelou says it best:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like Read More

“We’ve been taught to think of courage as the courage to go out and kill the enemy. But spiritual courage is a much more deeply human courage. It’s the courage to stand up against injustice out of love.”
Dr. Riane Eisler