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Interview: The Importance of Having a Voice

I had the pleasure of talking to Jade Frank about her work towards empowering women and girls through World Pulse and Context Partners. It was an inspiring and informative conversation full of great insights. Here's what I learned...

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Jade Frank started working in women and girls empowerment through World Pulse, helping the print magazine become an online network that allows women to share their voice and vision for change. One way World Pulse amplifies the voices of it’s community members is by partnering with different advocacy groups and bringing women’s perspectives to influential arenas where they’re underrepresented, such as in government or at technology conferences. Jade has continued working on women’s empowerment in her role at Context Partners, a social innovation design firm in Portland that relies on a community centered design approach. With Context Partners, Jade has been helping build an alumni network for a program that works with development practitioners in Africa to include girls in building education, health and economic development projects.

Key Lessons:
  • Always LISTEN to the community you’re trying to engage and let them guide you. They’re the ones that know their needs best. When you’re designing something for someone it’s really important that you include them in the entire process. As you’re rolling it out, work with them again to find out how to modify it and what needs to change.
  • Something very simple can make a difference. Sometimes participants felt that just writing down their perspectives and being heard by someone was more empowering than whether or not world leaders listened
  • Start in one place and pilot your project. You can take your learnings and adapt them elsewhere.
  • Having the right incentives for community participation is important, but they need not always be extrinsic rewards.
  • When tech access is limited, Internet cafe and radios can help. Also, find where people are already gathering offline and go to them. Also, safe spaces with free connectivity are being developed by World Pulse, Intel, Telecenters.org, BeyondAccess and others.
  • Helping women have a voice is incredibly powerful. There are so many places that women are told they should not be heard, even in their own homes. Their voices are literally trapped inside of them. Giving them a platform offers so much. It allows their hopes dreams to be articulated.
  • Helping women build connection and escape isolation is also very important. Friendships are a powerful asset for empowerment.

Interview Notes

Can you tell me about an effort that had a great impact?
At World Pulse we decided to focus a project on the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s known as the rape capital of the world. It’s incredibly dangerous for women and has suffered through 16 or 17 years of war. There’s also hardly any Internet there. Nor is there English spoken. So it was a really big challenge to work there, but we also saw it as a great opportunity: If we could create community and impact there, then we could do it anywhere.

The key was finding a champion. We had a woman from the DRC on our platform who ended up being simply one of the most amazing people on the planet. She worked with us to make the platform and on the ground efforts reach the community. We crowdsourced translation. We used an Internet cafe for connectivity and launched a campaign to recruit participation.

When a new security threat in the region developed with rebel troops approaching the area, women started using the platform to ask for help. World Pulse reached out to advocacy partners in the US and started a Change.org petition. The petition went viral, gained 100,000 signatures, and was delivered it to the White House. Because of this effort effort, the White House appointed a special envoy to focus on violence against women in the region.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from your work?
When you’re designing something for someone it’s really important that you include them in the entire process. As you’re rolling it out, work with them again to find out how to modify it and what needs to change.

One of our partners invited girls to workshops with international development practitioners and grassroots organizations in Africa. Having these girls in the room to inform new programs being built is so powerful. Every time they really challenged the assumptions of the "experts", and they always made clear a need to change tactics in some way.

From the beginning I believed it was important to have the right incentives to get alumni to participate in the network. I took that very literally in the beginning and felt pressure to always use tangible rewards. That ultimately felt somewhat inauthentic to the nature of the work. I learned that since this is passion-based work for the participants, the rewards are often intrinsic. So long as that intrinsic value was clear, people would be motivated.  

How should we think about the role of technology in empowerment efforts where tech access is limited?
That’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time. In our most recent project, we’re focusing on women that don’t have Internet at their work. They could walk to an Internet cafe. Most people have feature phones, not smartphones. So any effort to try to connect this community to people or information elsewhere in the world is really challenging. We’ve tried things with SMS, and in Africa its a great tool. Radio is also a great tool, and there are ways to connect SMS and radio by asking people to respond to radio surveys via text messages.

Rather than forcing people to interact with an online platform, we know people are meeting and connecting offline. So how can technology be included where people are already connecting offline?

Language is another challenge. There are so many different dialects in different regions, and in diverse cities. Making sure information is accessible to diverse communities is a real challenge.

Partnerships with information centers can be really powerful. World Pulse is working with libraries, Telecenters.org and Intel on safe spaces where women can connect for free. Another cool organization is called BeyondAccess, which is working with Gates Foundation, to develop info centers with libraries.

You’ve worked on several different approaches to empowering women. What are you most optimistic about?
Voice. So many places that women are told they should not be heard, even in their own homes. Their voices are literally trapped inside of them. Giving them a platform offers so much. It allows their hope dreams to be articulated.

Power of connection. Bringing people out of isolation. One of our partners has developed a radio program that helps girls build connections. Friendships are a powerful asset for empowerment.

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Great insight. I have worked alongside Jade and she brings such wisdom and insight into the issues that women and girls face on a daily basis. It is wonderful to hear her voice on OpenIDEO.

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