Tag Archive | grassroots organizations

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.

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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.

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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.
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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

Butterflies and Bees: Sharing Opportunity

My Garden

My Garden

A few years ago my friend, Ann, brought me a bouquet of Mexican sunflowers as a surprise. In their overblown lushness they are the my garden’s equivalent of Betty Boop flowers. This morning a butterfly went from flower to flower doing the work of pollination. After a few minutes the bee arrived and took up the task.

I thought back to something my friend, Chris, had shared with me. I had been invited to serve on a Board by a nonprofit agency. It was a busy time–when isn’t a busy time–and I was telling him how frustrated I was because I had to take on one more thing.

That’s when Chris quietly said, “You should give someone else the opportunity. What is a burden for you is an opportunity for them.” And he was right. I had been focusing on myself, not on what would be best for agency Board or on how another individual could happily bring their talents to the table. What could be burdensome for me was an opportunity for someone else.

I didn’t join that Board and somehow they managed just fine, perhaps even better, without me. Someone else served instead.

The bee can pollinate the sunflowers as well as the butterfly. It is only a matter of sharing opportunity.

Bees in the Garden

Bees in the Garden

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

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.

Walking over the Alder Marsh–Passing Over Obstacles

Alder Marsh, photo by Joanna Powell Colbert

Alder Marsh, photo by Joanna Powell Colbert

Recently I attended a PeerSpirit writer’s retreat at Alder Marsh on Whidbey Island off of the Seattle Coast where I spent a week in a cabin cushioned by soft air among Douglas firs and alders.

Communal gatherings were at the Marsh House, a low round building in a grassy clearing on the far side of the marshland.

Several times each day and evening we’d travel through the watery marsh, sometimes singly and other times in quietly conversing pairs. In the morning weak sunlight struggling through grey clouds and full conifers revealed the way. In the evening fairy lights defined the boardwalk at the turns over black water.

The Alder Marsh was an obstacle. If we tried to walk through it we would have been soaked through by icy water, pushing past floating leaves, tripping over submerged stumps, stirring up the decaying vegetation and sucking mud.

Instead, we walked above it. We were careful–the wooden path was wet with moss and mist. We were observant, seeing the floating leaves, sticks covered with lichen, majestic alders and logs furred by emerald moss.

Everyday in our work we encounter obstacles. Some obstacles are deliberately dropped in front of us; others, intrinsic to the landscape. It’s much tougher if we force our way through. Rather, we can acknowledge what is in our way and walk above it, ending up where we need to be.

Being Intentional: A Path to Equity

Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Vase, Carondelet Pottery

At my pottery studio I mix my own glazes in a century-old cool gray stone cellar with half-windows that provide dappled natural light. Silica is usually the dominant ingredient, followed by ball clay and kaolin. They are heavy flour. Neph sy is lighter and a bright white while strontium carbonate that makes me think of NASA and the space program for some weird reason.But no glaze is complete without the colorants–the green patina of copper carbonate, the dirty mustard of rutile, and the deep red of Spanish iron oxide. My favorite is finely milled cobalt, its delicate lavender a paradox given that the smallest bit can color glazes the deepest midnight blue. There is nothing random about mixing a glaze. It is intentional. Each ingredient is essential and no measurement is left to chance. And that is the same when you are leading a work group; the involvement of each person is essential to the best end result. Everyone has a critical role to play.

How we interact with others is fundamental to the issue of equity. Have you ever attended a meeting where the only people speaking are the white participants? Or the older participants? Or the male participants? Are the contributions of those in the minority dismissed? Is a suggestion made by those in the minority ignored, only to be accepted when it is given later by someone from the majority? This calls us to be intentional. When we are working in a group, it can be as simple as being deliberate in how the meeting flows.

  • Recognize the ideas of each person and acknowledge those.
  • Take an intentional approach and use processes at meetings to ensure everyone’s voice is heard by going around the table, or start the meeting by asking someone who is typically overlooked or not in the majority to lead off with their comments or thoughts.
  • Invite those who are heard the least  to speak first.

Be purposeful in everything you do–who you invite to the table. It’s not enough to have stereotypical diversity–go deeper–mix old powerbrokers with new voices, large established groups and new innovative grassroots organizations, senior staff and the new intern.

Take a moment to be intentional to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be heard and that there contributions are recognized and respected.   Sometimes small things make  big difference.

A pinch of cobalt added to a copper carb glaze changes a green into turquoise.