Archives

Micro-Lending Circles: From Mongu to St. Louis

a presentation to Women’s Voices of St. Louis
March 13, 2014

At the Zambezi River, Zambia

At the Zambezi River, Zambia

Mongu

In the weeks leading up to my trip to Zambia with Women’s Global Connection, I was excited about my upcoming trip to do workshops on micro-lending and fundraising in Mongu. And then the day of departure actually arrived and I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. While development workshops were something I could do in my sleep, what I knew of micro-lending was strictly out of a book. With fifty pounds of navy blue uniform shorts in my suitcase, a backpack of protein bars and cheese crackers, and a small carry-on, I took the 18 hour flight to Lusaka.

image

The next day we departed on an eight hour bus ride through the baking bushlands on roads that looked like rolled cookie dough with ragged edges overtaking the dry beige dust. Waves of dry heat distorted the sparse trees in the distance.

The OK Restaurant greeted us upon our arrival in Mongu. Entrepreneurs were everywhere–setting up shop in little corrugated buildings of ultramarine, orange, scarlet and grass green selling wood block stamped fabrics, bottled drinks, hard boiled eggs on sticks.

I was prepared, powerpoint presentation in hand, to present a workshop the next day to a group of Lotsi tribeswomen so that they could begin their micro-lending circle. The women arrived in brightly batiked dresses. One woman had lost her home to a fire in the past week. Many had seen family members die from AIDS. All lived with limited means. Despite this, the women were happy and optimistic. They had recently formed a rice collaborative to capitalize on the high demand for the famed iron-rich rice of the western province and had been given land to farm by the tribe. That was a big step.

We sat to begin our circle. They spoke Lotsi–I spoke English. The handouts made great scrap paper. Sennana, an Oxford-educated princess of the Lotsi tribe, served as an able translator and I discarded my presentation and started with questions:

Why did they want to create a micro-lending circle?

What could the funds be used for and what projects were outside the circle?

Who could participate?

What was the amount for a loan?

How long could you take to pay it back, and what was the interest?

The women had their own circle process. For each question they would start at a different point in the circle. The reason for micro-lending was simple. They wanted to start businesses–that should have been obvious to me given that the entire town was given over to small entrepreneurs. Funds could be used for micro-enterprises, for their children’s education fees, for funerals, but not for bottle–liquor–stores.

image

They quickly settled on loan terms and interest rates. Actually they were so efficient that they completed the micro-lending design in the morning and took the afternoon to develop a business plan for their rice business.

And then they danced.

St. Louis

When I returned to St. Louis I was determined to bring the micro-lending concept here. The Incarnate Word Foundation provided $5,000 in seed money to each bank. Women came together at Midtown Catholic Community Services, Haven of Grace, Let’s Start and East Side Heart and Home to begin their own circles.

There were no rules. Each group developed their own lending policies, repayment plans and interest rates. Most of the banks have interest rates that hover at about 5%. Usually loans are for no more than $500 and can be used not only to start a micro-business, but also to buy an appliance, provide a down payment on an apartment, or repair a car.

A partnership with the St. Louis Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) took the micro-lending circles to a new level. After an initial grant form the Incarnate Word Foundation the NCJW took the micro-lending circles to a new level by providing a mentoring component and focusing on women had suffered from domestic violence or limited economic opportunity. In two years they have expanded to five Helping Heart Banks serving women connected to Lydia’s House, Safe Connections, ROW, and the YWCA. Their efforts have also expanded to credit repair as they link women who are paying their loans back with the Credit Builder’s Network so that the women are able to repair their credit scores.

Banks like the Women’s Helping Hands Bank continue to make loans based on a “face check” not a credit check. That particular group has gone on to develop a cooperative farmers market, City Greens, as well as a matched saving program for neighborhood youth. The bankers of Women’s Helping Hands Bank have not only developed a handbook on micro-lending but also presented at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington. That trip was a highlight not only for them, but also for me as I sat and listened to them tell other leaders how they had started a micro-lending circle that had blossomed into other enterprises.
image
What does it all mean?

For me the most important outcomes from micro-lending aren’t repayment rates or bank assets. What really matters is empowerment.

Each bank begins with the women themselves. They set the agenda. Their opinions are the ones that matter. After years and sometimes decades of being told what to do they are now the decision-makers. In one instance the women began by saying that they couldn’t do it–they didn’t feel they had the education or ability. But inspired by the example of the Lotsi women, they went ahead and did it anyway. No one stepped in to do it for them; instead other women walked with them to reassure, encourage and celebrate.

The affirmation that the women bankers and clients experience is the heart of each bank.

What does it feel like to finally be able to make decisions?

When does apprehension evolve into trust?

How does empowerment change our relationships with our children?

How does empowerment change how we see ourselves and the world?

I went to Mongu to teach women about micro-lending and the women of Mongu and St. Louis ended up teaching me.

City Greens Market

City Greens Market

Knitting in the Round: Casting on a Circle of Story

image

Usually when I knit I use circular needles. Lighter than straight needles, circulars are flexible, nimble quick to the touch. Circulars make it possible to knit in the round.

Recently, Mia, a young dynamic young social worker with sparkling dark eyes, asked me to teach her to knit. We had met on a social justice retreat where I was knitting socks on two circular needles. We briefly chatted over a lunch of mung bean soup and warm multi-grain bread, and I was pleasantly surprised when she e-mailed me several weeks later about knitting.

We met for coffee and pulled out the needles. I started to cast on, knit one pearl two, create ribbing. Mia talked about her commitment to counseling women who struggle with poverty and abuse. I smiled at her excitement on becoming an advocate for justice for these women. As she reflected on what had lead her to that path, I saw her childhood in the crisp golden autumn of a Michigan upbringing.

The conversation turned to my daughters so close to her in age and to Aunt Margie who gave me my first set of needles decades ago–to my story.

Finally, we talked about faith.

  • What keeps the spark of the divine within us alight despite the failings of religious structures?
  • How do you get past rhetoric and dogma to hold what you know is true?
  • Where does integrity lie?

At the end of the morning I wasn’t surprised that we had only completed a few rows. Instead we has created a circle of story.

Next time, perhaps we will knit socks.

Prayer Flags and the Four Winds: What Is God Telling Us?

image

My friend Pat just sent me a set of her prayer flags. Bright symbols of faith and aspiration are tossed by the four winds in my garden. Each morning the bright colors, symbols and messages catch my attention. They are beautiful and it is easy to not notice the wind itself.

At the foundation where I work, I often go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret’s office to debrief after a meeting or a phone call. She possesses a tart realism leavened with affection and wisdom; she is an excellent colleague and mentor. Her German practicality is the ideal counterpoint to my Irish intuition.

There are times when I’ll tell her about a particularly frustrating meeting. Or I may have encountered what appears to be an unjust situation that hurts those who are powerless. Perhaps it is a project that is going awry, a set of policies that actually mitigate against accomplishing the goal.

When I voice my aggravation and annoyance, Mary Margaret’s response is not to commiserate, but to say, “What is God telling you?”

My first thought is usually, ‘I don’t really care what God is telling me. What I care about is how bad or wrong this is and how frustrated I am.’

But later I return to Mary Margaret’s question: What is God telling me using this situation?

And that question leads to others.

What is the underlying message that I am missing when I focus on situation itself rather than on what we are working toward?

How can I stay attuned to what actually needs to be accomplished rather than get mired in negativity?

What is the other perspective that is present and what is the good to be found in that perspective?

Where can we turn to move past the obstacle and build consensus around a solution?

How do I emphasize the inherent value of human relationships rather than get bogged down in being political?

I take time to feel the wind. Because while it is important to see the prayer flags, it is the wind that makes them flutter and dance.

image

The Mission Is Within

photo by Grant Gillard

photo by Grant Gillard

The primary nectar flow is in full swing and my bees are single-mindedly going about their work. Some guard the hive, others fetch water from the pond, forage for nectar, alert their comrades to new blooms by dancing on the doorstep. They and their mission are one. The mission is within.

And I think of Sr. Alice.

I first met Sr. Alice when she was leading a spirituality and arts center in the congregation’s old dairy barn. Alice is a white-haired wise woman, her features sharp, her eyes kind and laughing. She is a tai chi practitioner, tall and angular, moving effortlessly through the world of spiritual traditions.

Alice’s white barn housed vibrant art and quiet music where the dairy stalls had been. The soaring beams of the hayloft framed a contemplative sacred space. I loved walking past the tall rosemary bushes into the barn, reflecting upon artists’ visions, listening to Alice as she shared her latest spiritual journey. But then it was gone.

The sisters’ retirement complex was next door and needed more space. The barn gave way for senior apartments to expand the sisters’ ministry to serve older adults.

The loss touched my heart. I thought of Alice, the scent of the rosemary and heat bouncing off the Texas sandstone that bordered the barn path, the light coming through the square dairy stall windows. The white barn gave way for a high-rise. I couldn’t imagine how terrible Alice felt about losing that beautiful space.

A few months later I was in San Antonio on the motherhouse grounds walking behind the retirement center. Suddenly, I saw Alice striding toward me, tall and slender in a red shirt and denim skirt. I hurried toward her and blurted out my concern for her and the loss of the barn.

She just smiled. Then she said that she was fine.

The barn was just a place, albeit a beautiful place, but a place all the same. She had been given an office in the retirement center and was carrying out the mission in a new way that she called Chispas, or sparks, for the sparks of the divine that are in each of us.

Alice explained that the mission is within her. The place is unimportant because she carries the mission within wherever she is. The mission manifests itself in whatever she is doing.

I have thought about that conversation with Alice many times. So often we get caught up in the need to possess something, whether it be a place, a project, our job or another person. To varying degrees these things are necessary for us, but they do not define us.

Each of us has a mission.

The bees currently live in a hive box in my yard, but they could swarm and move to a hollow sycamore tree or rotted building eaves. The bees would construct new comb, rebuild the honey stores.

We carry the mission within.

Quiet Leadership

photo by Taline Manassian

photo by Taline Manassian

We had a day of silence while at Aldermarsh for the PeerSpirit writing workshop. I didn’t know how that would work for me. Life is loud. We are always talking, sometimes all at once, pushing our points of view. But this is a space where cell phones don’t work.

Rather than stare at the wall or cheat by getting on the internet, I took a walk.

In my work at the Incarnate Word Foundation, we are called to the table many times. Board meetings, committee discussions, agency collaboratives and community workgroups–all of these require leadership, and there as many leadership styles as there are leaders. But should leadership be equated with whomever has the loudest voice, or who convened the meeting, or who has the most community standing?

Sometimes the most effective leadership style is quiet.

Sr. Mary was the foundation’s Board chair for nine years. During that time she practiced what I have come to think of as quiet leadership. The fundamentals are simple:

Listen to the ideas of others before you speak.

Don’t become consumed with anxiety about getting your idea out on the table.

Focus on making the outcome one that incorporates the best thinking of the group rather than furthering a personal agenda.

Stay calm and respect the integrity of each person involved in the discussion.

Speak quietly.

When I began walking the woods at Aldermarsh, I started in aimless silence only to become aware of murmuring sounds at every turn, leading me down the path and through the labyrinth.

Photo by Taline Manassian

Photo by Taline Manassian

The Red Barn

The red barn, Winfield, MO

The red barn, Winfield, MO

A few weeks ago I went with Michael to pick up a package of bees near Winfield. One of my hives had died out after an unexpected snowstorm in March. They were my favorite hive–Carniolan bees, gentler than the Minnesota hygienic Italian bees I usually raise. It was a dreary day with heavy skies and the fields were newly planted with little growth amid the standing water on the Missouri River flood plains.

I was not in the best frame of mind and wished I could have put the whole trip off but the bees could only stay in their temporary package so long before they would die off. As we rounded the bend, I saw it–a weathered red barn in a field of yellow wildflowers. How could I give in to the gloomy day with this reminder that the world was a good and beautiful place?

A few weeks later I was on the radio talking about a new youth summer jobs program the foundation had initiated. These programs are common in other large cities but there was currently no organized widespread effort in our community.

It had been a long haul. We had had some success and two hundred young people would have jobs. Donors had come forward from the business and philanthropic sectors and we had garnered support from the local government as well.

It had not, however, been easy. The foundation’s motivation was grounded in social justice. The rationale for business’s support related to workforce development and economic growth. The governmental involvement meant balancing political realities. Fundamentally, everyone wanted the project to succeed, but the behind-the-scenes work to develop the actual program, create realistic expectations and manage relationships took an inordinate amount of time and energy. Being on the radio was a piece of cake compared to all of that. I was tired.

After the radio show a friend texted me and said she had heard the radio program and it was great. And then a colleague sent me an e-mail in which she acknowledged that it must have been tough navigating all of the relationships to bring the program to fruition but that it was worth it; she thanked me.

A red barn in a field of yellow flowers.

Relationships: Begin as You Mean to Go on

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing at the wheel, typically I begin as I mean to go on. As I center the clay, I am intentional. For a vase, I keep my left hand firm against the side to maintain a centered clay column; I push down with my right fist and strong arm the clay into a flat disc to create what will become a plate. I begin as I mean to go on.

Recently, a friend was worried about how she would work with a new colleague. She liked this person but, as an introvert, she was worried about being overshadowed. Would she be second fiddle, not because he put her in that place but because she placed herself there?

I told her quite simply,

Begin as you mean to go on.

At meetings, continue to share your perspective and not hold back because your new colleague is the extrovert. Continue doing your part of the work, and don’t carry his water.

It may appear to you that he doesn’t have all of his ducks in a row for a meeting, but don’t begin by assuming he is unprepared and then put yourself in a support role to provide what you think he needs to make his presentation a success. He is a professional and his way of preparing might be quite different, but still successful. And if turns out you were right and he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been, he will learn to do a better job the next time.

You need to establish an equitable relationship from the start and not place yourself in a subordinate role. You are, in fact, colleagues. If you represent yourself as support staff, that is how he will treat you.


When I throw that vase, I establish the parameters from the outset. Because if it starts as a plate, it is almost impossible to force the clay back into a cylinder and pull it up into a vase. The clay particles have been pushed in a different direction. Even if you do force it back, the results are usually not happy.

Begin as you mean to go on.