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Step into Hadija’s & Cynthia’s Shoes Today On International Day of Disabled Persons

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The annual observance of the International Day of Disabled Persons was proclaimed in 1992 by United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/3. It aims to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life. Kupenda for the Children is grateful for its partnership with the Imago Dei Fund, which is helping us meet these objectives in low income countries around the world.

“Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image (Imago Dei) yet there is so much diversity among [God’s] people?” ~Desmond Tutu

Imagine being a young girl with multiple disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. You are locked in a one-room hut made of mud. It’s hot. There are no windows, or water, or food. There hasn’t been any all day. When your father comes home, he beats you to get the demons causing your seizures to leave you. You have never known care from another person. All you know of God is that He cursed you. You don’t cry because no one comes to help anyway. This is all you’ve known.

How you would feel is how she does. Her name is Hadija.

If you can envision yourself in this situation, you have a glimpse of what it is like for the millions of children with disabilities like Hadija around the world. Most living in abject poverty, especially girls and women impacted by disability.

Girls with disabilities, like Hadija, and mothers of children with disability (who are often blame for causing the child’s disability) are particularly vulnerable to emotional, verbal, and physical mistreatment. For example, 83% of women with developmental disabilities experience sexual violence compared to just 32% of males with similar conditions. Women with disabilities are also especially susceptible to human trafficking and sexual violence. Girls with disabilities are up to 10 times more likely to be abused, raped and assaulted than girls who are not disabled, often by their own family or caregivers.

If I was born on the coast of Kenya, my situation might be the same or worse as Hadija’s. I’ve been told I might have been killed to protect my family from stigma and curse because I was born without my left hand.

This stigma is what drove me to visit the special school I passed every day while doing my wildlife graduate research on the Kenyan coast. It’s where I met the school’s founder, Leonard Mbonani, and 15 kids with disabilities who were unable to afford school fees or their parents were unwilling to support them. I couldn’t have imagined that funding these kids to attend school 20 years ago would grow into a nonprofit I co-founded with Leonard, called Kupenda (“love in Swahili) for the Children. I also didn’t expect that we would improve the lives of over 40,000 children with disabilities like we did last year.

We are able to benefit this many children because we are replacing harmful practices and beliefs about disability with loving and effective support for these families. In addition to directly supporting health and education, we are conducting participatory, culturally-tailored training for community leaders, which is leading to changes in negative beliefs about disability and provision of services that benefit thousands of kids like Hadija.

This has led to Hadija now living with her sisters and grandmother. Kupenda and our trained community leaders are also ensuring she is receiving the services and medication she needs. She is no longer abused and hungry but well-fed and smiling. Most of all, she now knows what it means to be loved by other people, including herself.

Fortunately, our trainings and initiatives have effectively engaged families and community members in reducing these risks and improving conditions for Hadija and thousands of other girls like her. Because of our success, other organizations are requesting assistance to implement our community leader disability training model in their work around the world. We have already partnered with development organizations to help them improve the lives of people with disabilities in Tanzania, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Malawi, and Haiti.

This work benefits children like Hadija; for less than the cost of a cup of coffee per day, and can:

  • train a pastor to provide counseling for a family impacted by disabilities instead of casting out their “demons”,
  • equip a traditional healer to replace “healing” rituals with medical care,
  • educate a government official on the rights of people with disabilities, and
  • run a workshop that helps families impacted by disabilities to support one another,
  • provide medication,
  • fund education,
  • transform communities and save lives.

These results show us that we can make a difference for the millions of children with disabilities around the world still locked in dark rooms, like Hadija. However, I can’t help thinking of the countless children with disabilities around the world who will die before they ever know their true worth.

Someone recently asked me if I stand in awe of all Kupenda has done in the last 2 decades. I thought about it for a minute and said that, while I am grateful, I can’t help but feel that these achievements are modest in light of the statistics highlighted by The United Nations and World Health Organization revealing:

Although it is easy to be overwhelmed by these needs, there is hope.  When I close my eyes, I can see the faces of the children who were once abused and neglected, now thriving in loving communities. They remind me that we Read More

Gratitude for 10 Years of Investing Together in the Mutuality & Doggedness of the Human Spirit

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One thing about philanthropy that I struggle with is nailing the elevator speech. “Talkers talking their talk” as Walt Whitman put the quest to pin down complex, multifaceted realities into precise, airtight words. Indeed, we do a lot of talking in philanthropy. The work of social change is complex and philanthropy, as a sector, is particularly laden with contradictions, complexities, and paradoxes that can be hard to unravel.

When we founded the fund in 2009, my husband and I were philanthropic neophytes, unschooled in the craft and big ideas and prose of philanthropy. What got us started was almost too simple and unsophisticated to name: an interior nudge, I guess you might say a “call” of sorts, to grapple with what was ours to do in this world of increasingly concentrated economic privilege along side of great human need which we sensed was tearing our social fabric.

Ten years later, I look back and marvel at all of the incredible change agents I have met along the way and the multiplicity of ways that people frame and do the work of social change and philanthropy. Our primary way of languaging what we sought to do was the Christian notion of stewardship combined with a more pragmatic capitalist “return on investment” frame. We named the fund the Imago Dei Fund to capture our spiritual motivation and the sacred trust we all are endowed with as human beings to do our part to repair and mend the fractures that create so much harm and oppression in the world.

Whatever language you use, at the end of the day philanthropy is a means to an end of getting more money and resources circulating out into the world to invest in what Mauricio Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative, calls the “mutuality economy”—two words that might sound like an oxymoron placed side by side in one sentence. Let me not take up too much word count trying to untangle this but rather point you to Miller’s The Liberia Project — mutuality will grow the economy to unpack it for yourself but mostly let me just express my gratitude, on behalf of all of us at the Imago Dei Fund as we enter this Thanksgiving season and as we reflect back on both this past year and decade, for being a link in the many links that make up this more kind and reciprocal world that we all know is essential for basic human thriving and collective happiness and wellbeing.

Ok ok all that sounds nice, but what really does the Imago Dei Fund “do”? Ten years ago, we decided not to follow the advice to choose “one thing” to do/fund. Rather, we opted to engage more holistically and intentionally not put ourselves or our need to explain or measure the change we are funding in airtight terms. We got started without a clear road map or a fully-baked “theory of change” and gave ourselves permission to learn as we go and look for movements already happening in the world to get behind, partner with, and invest in. Ten years later, I can see how not needing to be, do, speak, and fund just one thing—though a bit murky—is essential to our DNA as a foundation and gives us a capacity to enter into the multifaceted and complex realities of our partners on the frontlines of change who do not have the luxury of doing just one thing.

In her wildly popular Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic personal and cultural voice by not defining others or allowing herself to be defined by any one identity or story. “When we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.” Individual people are complex. How much more so the problems we create? And even more so the solutions to these problems that human beings are inspired to create? Though a more nailable elevator speech, the downside of the single story—whether applied to a person, an organization, or people group or a cultural system—is that the whole gets reduced down to one of its parts or facets.

So ten years later, here I am still at times at a loss to distill down in a few snappy words what exactly we have been up to and what our place is in this world where the very philanthropy we are privileged to do is enabled by an economy that is a far cry from a mutuality economy with widening economic disparities which exacerbate vulnerabilities to the very social inhumanities our philanthropy is seeking to mitigate: modern-day slaveries which treat human beings like commodities to be transacted for profit and cheap labor, cold and heartless inhumanities all too often justified by culture and tradition, back-breaking and soul-numbing oppression, and eerily normalized sexual exploitation of vulnerable people, mostly children, women and migrants, which is all too often swept under the carpet as just the way things are.

What is our place in this world of abundance and plenty to go around yet where the economic structures of our world are making it less not more mutual?

Where stunning consolidations of wealth are the norm side-by-side needless want and heart-wrenching suffering?

And where freedom and democracy are in decline around the world? Indeed, the same widening economic disparities which nudged us to start the Imago Dei Fund in 2009 have worsened over the past ten years, creating socioeconomic conditions ripe for authoritarian “strong men” near and far preying on human vulnerability and longing for someone larger-than-life to “save” them. As we approach another election here in the US, lots of talkers talking their talk, but our words can feel like they are just bricks building that wall…

Though ever elusive and laden with traps, language is important. It gives the human spirit a voice to grapple with and make sense of all of the competing narratives that fill our brains. Language helps make the intangible more tangible. Read More

NEID 2020 Women’s Empowerment: Maternal and Reproductive Health Giving Circle

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Join us from December to June as we learn about the global landscape surrounding family planning as an essential part of poverty alleviation efforts and devise a grantmaking strategy to fund a shortlist of organizations together. Led by Emily Nielson Jones, Imago Dei Fund and Rebecca Obounou, Social Innovation, MIT. Read More

Self Help Groups Named in The Economist as “Best Bet” Intervention for Africa

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The leaves are turning, the temperatures are dropping, and we are closing in on an incredible first year here at The Share Trust.

We have built inspiring partnerships, uncovered and collected powerful evidence and found Self Help Groups thriving in every possible context. Our work was featured in this week’s edition of The Economist – calling out women’s Self Help Groups as one of the most cost effective interventions for Africa! We are thrilled that these groups are starting to get some of the attention that they deserve. Read More

NEST New Handworker Economy Convening & Dinner on Dec 5, 2019

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December 5, 2019 in New York, NY.
Handwork Rebooted: addressing technology’s role in building a connected, transparent, globalized handworker economy Read More

Congrats to Our Own Lina Maria Cañon for Being Selected as One of the 2019 Boston’s Latino 30 Under 30!

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The El Mundo Boston Latino 30 under 30 honors young individuals making an impact on the Massachusetts Latino community in a variety of fields including, but not limited to, Business, Sports, Community Service, and Fine Arts. The list serves to highlight the growing and invaluable impact of the Latino community in Boston, the state and world. Read More

"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."
Martin Luther King Jr.