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Breaking Through the Glass Sidewalk: Why Every City Needs Women Influencers

Breaking Through the Glass Sidewalk: Why Every City Needs Women Influencers

How women uniquely lead neighborhood transformation.

One dark night in 2003, a vivid dream woke Leymah Gbowee with a start. Leymah immediately called a meeting of the women in her small Liberian church. Together they formed the Christian Women's Peace Initiative to protest the civil war ripping apart their country. In weeks, the Initiative grew to become the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which now draws thousands of Christian and Muslim women.

From illiterate villager to government employee, they had husbands, sons, and brothers on either side of the conflict. They had children who did not have enough to eat and daughters who were rape victims. After years of living in conflict, these women were fed up. Led by the dream God gave Leymah, they came together to peacefully protest and to pray and fast for the end of the bloodshed. When the going got tough, they determined to boycott sexual relations until a ceasefire could be reached. Their husbands became motivated allies in prayer and fasting, and the pace of the peace process picked up.

Gbowee, a young mother without special leadership experience, had faith that Jesus was leading her. Due to her and the initiative's efforts, and against all odds, a peace accord was signed in the summer of 2003. Tyrant President Charles Taylor's regime was successfully dismantled, and in its place a democratic government was born. The women had literally helped save their country. Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

War zones are certainly not the only places women are bringing unprecedented change to their communities. A recent Atlantic Cities article featured trailblazer Jane Jacobs, who changed the face of contemporary urban planning in the late 20th century. Jacobs, a housewife without a college degree, was a seemingly unlikely candidate in a field dominated by men. In fact, she became influential almost by accident when she, at the last minute, was forced to fill in for her boss at a conference and won admiration for her novel perspective.

Jacobs was a keen observer of "things close to home—street, neighborhood and community," which informed her grassroots approach to urban planning. A male colleague once pronounced: "Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood." Jane's response captured the spirit of her work: "Funny, big plans never stirred women's blood. Women have always been willing to consider little plans." The longevity of Jacobs's work demonstrates that "little plans" executed with care make a big difference.

Reflecting on Jacobs' legacy, Roberta Brandes Gratz writes:

It is one thing to dwell in the world of ideas, another to actively engage in the transformations we need in our world today. Any dogged observer of American cities of the 20th and 21st centuries can't escape the discovery that women have been in the forefront of saving and regenerating American cities.

I am encouraged by these women. Some are dear friends, others are new acquaintances. All are an inspiration.

Hannah Lieder lives in the 9th Ward in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the most racially diverse neighborhood in the state, with 94 languages spoken. 9th Ward is home to the highest per-capita number of immigrants in the country and to a large Native American housing project. Nearly all (98 percent) of children are non-white and are on the subsidized lunch program. For 12 years Hannah and her husband have called this neighborhood home.

Several years ago, Hannah began to take groups of neighborhood children on afterschool outings. They went for hikes—some had never seen the Mississippi River which runs through the city of Minneapolis—roasted marshmallows, and went swimming. None of the children knew how to swim. Years ago, many urban public pools chose to shut down rather than to integrate, leaving the urban poor without a place to learn to swim. From 2000-2005, Minnesota had the highest minority drowning rate in the country, and 2011 was a near-record drowning rate for the state. Hannah, a swimmer and outdoorswoman, was horrified to learn all this. And when Hannah is horrified, she takes action. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, every child should know how to swim.

In the past three years, Hannah has pulled the neighborhood together around resurrecting an abandoned indoor swimming pool and creating an inner-city swim and training center. With $300 in the bank, a fierce sense of purpose, and a lot love for the children of the 9th Ward, "Minneapolis Swims" has come to life. Hannah built a grassroots team of other Christian friends and of neighbors, lobbied the legislature, engaged Lakota Sioux, Somali, and African American neighbors to feel empowered in the political process and to know their voices matter. She wrote bond proposals and, with hours to spare, prevented the local pool from being filled with concrete. With approval from the Parks Bureau and a growing cadre of government supporters, she now has the go-ahead to take this project forward to a major fundraising campaign, with the goal of improving lives of the 9th Ward's youth. Like Leymah and Jane, Hannah is motivated by things close to home; she has no special training for her community engagement. She is motivated by heart and call; she says, "As a woman I am patient, nurturing, and strong. These kids need that kind of love and relationship for the long haul." Hannah was just recognized as the 9th Ward Leader of the Year.

Several years ago the Ford Foundation released a study on women and community development, concluding that if women care deeply about a cause, they will often work regardless of pay or without pay. Love for swimming and kids led Hannah to something much bigger than herself. Another friend, Tamara Bryan, began to pull her BBQ grill onto the sidewalk in front of her Portland, Oregon, house once a week in the summer. She now hosts a neighborhood potluck and grill that attracts neighbors and allows them to build community. Majora Carter stumbled upon her calling to environmental and urban renewal when she discovered a neglected riverfront while walking her dog in the South Bronx. When a business venture and sense of calling took Jennifer Jukanovich and her family to Rwanda, they choose not to live in a gated community separated from poor neighbors. As her neighbors talked with her, they formed a dream together, and Jennifer invited her American friends to join. This international group of women has now teamed with more than a dozen Rwandan ladies to help them complete tailoring school and start a small sewing cooperative. Although it isn't always easy in another culture, Jennifer cared enough to slow down, listen, and learn before taking action. Her neighbors are now on the way to becoming independent small business owners who will be able to feed their children and send them to school.

Each of these neighborhoods has been renewed and enlivened because Hannah, Tamara, Majora, and Jennifer paid attention, considered "little plans," and acted on their dreams, thus transforming their cities and neighborhoods. Some of the stories seem extraordinary, and others quite ordinary. In either case, "little plans"—walking the dog, listening carefully, taking a child swimming, moving the backyard BBQ to the front sidewalk, bringing other women together in a church or a living room to talk about what needs to change—do matter. Jesus, who has conquered death and redeems all things, calls and empowers us to bring new life to our communities in these ways. When women who care about their cities follow Jesus in "little plans" and invite others to join in, the little plans can lead to big change in cities and entire countries.

Leymah Gbowee's "crazy dream to get the women of the church together …" was a dream worth dreaming and still is. What will happen in your city in 2012 as women who follow Jesus dream his dreams, get the women of the church together to consider "little plans," and then take action?

Kelly Bean is cultivator of Third Saturday and co-planter of Urban Abbey. A pastor, speaker, writer, mentor, activist and artist, Kelly is passionate about creating environments that seed deep community with diverse groups. She is writing a book with Baker about church communities.

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