Non-Profit Spotlight: Women's Earth Alliance

International Women's Day is this week and we're celebrating all month like it's our birthday. So, we're super excited to introduce you to our partner in female empowerment! 

Women's Earth Alliance (WEA) is an international non-profit organization based right up the street from us in Berkeley, California. They're helping women save indigenous seeds, launch sustainable farms, access safe water, protect their land rights and sooooo much more. 

"The education of women is the best way to save the environment."  -E. O. Wilson

Keep reading and you'll be like a fly on the wall in our conversation with WEA's incredible Founder and Executive Director, Melinda Kramer. 

Stasher: What is your mission at Women's Earth Alliance?

Melinda: "As ecological crises intensify, women and children are hit the hardest. In some parts of the world, women risk their lives every day, just to ensure their families can access clean water, food, and land to call home.

From these frontlines, women are also the best positioned to design the solutions our world needs. Yet what women leaders need—access to education, training and resources—is hard to come by.

WEA’s mission is to equip women leaders with the skills and tools they need to protect our earth and strengthen communities from the inside out. WEA produces trainings where leaders share skills and tools in appropriate technology, entrepreneurship, and advocacy. They gain seed funding, mentorship, and a global alliance. With these resources in hand, women participants go on to launch and scale environmental projects, while enrolling others to do the same."

Tea growers in Assam, India where WEA is partnered with Numi Organic Tea on clean water initiative, Together for H20PE. Photo Credit: Numi Foundation

Stasher: What inspired you to start WEA, and what was the first step in creating this unique organization?

Melinda: "Years ago when I was studying at the University of Nairobi, I learned that a woman named Dr. Wangari Maathai would be giving a lecture. I went to hear her speak about her campaign to mobilize Kenyan women to plant trees, which would eventually lead to the planting of more than 30 million trees in Africa and help nearly 900,000 women.  

I walked up to her after her speech and thanked her for her leadership. We got talking, and at the end of our conversation, she said: “What we need to do is simple. Just plant seeds. Please plant more. Seeds of all kinds. You will be amazed at how they grow." Then she flashed me a radiant smile, and I could see the fierce resolve in her eyes.

Little did I know, years later I would be listening to Dr. Wangari Maathai give another inspiring speech, this time accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; and a few years after that, she stood addressing our training participants at our first Women and Water Training Program in Kenya.

Initially, Dr. Maathai’s insistence that peace could not exist without women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability was met with skepticism by some. But over time, thankfully, the world’s development community and political leaders have come to recognize this intersection.

A small group of us started WEA because we recognized this linkage, we knew it wasn’t about meeting quotas for women’s representation, or “binders full of women”, or women as “target beneficiaries” of massive international development schemes.

We knew we needed to design an initiative that had investing in women’s leadership as the core strategy for achieving global environmental sustainability. We knew, because we saw it happening everywhere, that women’s empowerment creates the tipping point for ecological and social change. More than top-down decisions, more than development projects imposed from the outside, we knew women’s community-based leadership is the main driver of lasting transformation for the critical issues we all care about and want to help solve.

So we launched WEA in Mexico City, where 30 women from 26 countries gathered to design the blueprint for WEA. We wanted to know: “What would the world look like if women protecting the Earth were supported and united?”

Since its start — one circle of 30 women — WEA has given rise to thousands more circles. The actions women take in WEA’s programs are simple but profound — saving indigenous seeds, upcycling plastic waste, planting native trees, teaching solar cooking, launching sustainable farms, providing safe water, and more. One becomes two, two becomes four, and millions."

Stasher: How has your role evolved at WEA since 2006? And what has it been like to see your team grow?

Melinda: "Let me tell you-- when it comes to women leaders, the ripple effect is real. 5,000 women have taken WEA trainings since 2006. These women have multiplied their impact by teaching others, reaching over 1 million people in 20 countries with critical environmental solutions. Regardless of what region we’re working in or what environmental issue we’re tackling, we see the same phenomenon. These leaders create a set of cascading benefits (we call it the WEA Effect): women are empowered, children are safer, communities are healthier, natural resources regenerate, local economies prosper, regions stabilize, and lasting transformation takes root.

The numbers are indeed exciting, but at the end of the day, I’m most moved by knowing the difference each leader in our alliance makes.

Take Binta Yahaya, for example. She is from Lere, a rural town in Kaduna State, Nigeria. In her town, most women and girls cook over open fires, and many suffer chronic respiratory infections and other health problems from the toxic smoke. Few are aware that cooking with an open fire is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour in your kitchen or that firewood smoke is the 3rd largest killer of women and children in Nigeria. Even Binta didn’t know what to do about the dangerous accumulation of dirty soot on her own traditional cookstove. Then she participated in our 9-month WISE Women’s Clean Cookstove Training and learned of powerful alternatives. Within 1 week of entrepreneurship, leadership, and technical training, Binta sold 70 clean cookstoves to women in her village. She quickly watched this simple solution reduce sickness, medical bills, and daily fuel costs for these families. Today, Binta is a clean cookstove entrepreneur, and as a trusted member of her community, people listen.

Olanike Olugboji, WEA Regional Lead in Nigeria and Founder of WISE Nigeria, with Binta Yahaya, training graduate from WISE Clean Cookstoves Initiative. Photo Credit: WISE

She even launched a second business producing her own clean cookstove model and selling cooking fuel made from agricultural waste instead of charcoal. Every day she improves the lives of people (1,000 already have access to clean energy and improved health because of her), mentors more women entrepreneurs, and plays a part in Nigeria’s clean energy future. On the last day of the training she said to the other women leaders, "You have already changed my life...if I had to pay for what I learned from you, I don't think I could afford it. I have no words to say thank you."

Stasher: Have you encountered plastic pollution in places you would not expect? If so, how did that affect you?

Melinda: "In Nigeria, we partnered with WISE, a Nigerian organization led by our longtime colleague Olanike Olugboji. Plastic waste in Nigeria is a growing crisis, causing severe health issues and environmental degradation throughout the country. In particular, single-use plastic bags and water sachets (plastic bags used to store drinking water) are everywhere; it is common for people to discard them on the ground. Nigeria generates more plastic bag waste than the total landmass of the country, and about 30-50% of generated plastic waste ends up traveling through the drains and polluting the nearest water sources.

Through the WISE Women’s Plastic Solutions Project, Nigerian women entrepreneurs received training and support to design and launch income-generating micro-enterprises that upcycle plastic waste into planters, jewelry, stuffing for bean bags and pillows, and many more creative solutions. They’re not only addressing the problem, they are transforming it into life-giving opportunities."

Stasher: WEA has made remarkable impacts for communities in countries like India, Indonesia, Mexico, Uganda, Bolivia, and right here in the U.S.. What's next?

Melinda: "In the face of environmental crises, the diverse solutions that WEA women deliver are critical to our survival.  In response, WEA's next chapter is designed for broader reach and higher impact.

Our growth plan is to reach 5.7 million people with life-saving environmental solutions in the next 5 years, expanding our impact and reach through powerful partnerships with peer organizations.

Just in time for Women’s History Month, we’re launching two new accelerators designed to catalyze the critical efforts of women leaders who have stepped forward to protect our families, communities, and ecosystems from environmental and climate threats.

In the U.S., WEA is partnering with the Sierra Club to launch the U.S. Grassroots Accelerator for Women Environmental Leaders. This initiative will support a diverse group of women leaders from across the country to deepen their strategies for change, build powerful alliances within and across their movements, and scale their solutions for environmental protection, health, and justice.

We’re also preparing the launch of the Indonesia Women’s Earth Alliance Grassroots Accelerator this month. Women in Indonesia experience the brunt of climate disruptions and have therefore stepped forward as key leaders in designing solutions to critical issues like palm oil extraction, plastic pollution, sea level rise, and deforestation."

Stasher: What sparked the concept behind your letterpress prints? (pictured above)

Melinda:  When I went to the second Women’s March with my friend, Mara Gerson (Bay Area artist), I didn’t have a sign to carry. She handed me one she had made (the RESIST print). Every few steps I took, someone commented on it, and I knew we had to get her art out there.

Melinda at the Women's March with WEA's hero and advisory board member Kavita Ramdas. Photo via Instagram. 

Along with letterpress master, Camden Richards, Mara worked with us to create a series of prints, all inspired by the strength, leadership and resilience of women. In this watershed moment for women's rights and women-led movements, RESIST, RECLAIM, RISE, AND RIPPLE supports WEA’s work around the world to resist violence and destruction and build solutions that protect our communities, our future generations, and our Earth. Put one up on your wall or send a postcard to the women in your life for Women’s History Month! Check them out."

Stasher: What can our readers do to support your projects, or other communities they know of that are facing environmental challenges?

Melinda: "The recent climate reports tell us everything we already know: we are living in tremendous imbalance--in terms of wealth, natural resources, and power.

One of the best ways to tip the scales toward balance is to invest in women's leadership. Take the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by 193 countries— achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is integral to each of these goals. Only by supporting women and girls will we get to justice and inclusion, economies that work for all, and a thriving environment now and for future generations.

Supporting WEA—with a donation or a purchase of our art—makes a huge difference in the world. When a woman leader has the resources she needs to be an effective agent of change, everyone wins.There is a saying that goes:

Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. 
Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.
But teach a woman to fish, and everyone eats for a lifetime.

You can also join the drumbeat on our social media channels, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for updates, events, and ways to support our growing alliance."

Stasher: How do you stay grounded in the world today?

Melinda: "When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I borrow strength from the many women around me, who in big and small ways are leaning in to this moment with courage and grit. The work of our time is to find ways to live on this planet so that its bounty can provide for generations to come. We are on a dangerous path as a species, entering uncharted territory in terms of climate disruption, habitat destruction, and species decline. We are already seeing the social unrest that surfaces when land, water, and food are insecure, and if we don’t act-- from every vantage point, from every community, from every nation-- it will only get worse.

When I wonder if my actions will make a difference, I think of Wangari Maathai who started with a small tree farm and a passion to transform destruction into beauty. We are all on the frontlines of climate change, and we all have what it takes to turn things around."

Stasher: Favorite snack to stash?

Melinda: "My kids call it my “squirrel food”—a mix of goji berries, cacao nibs, almonds, mulberries and cashews."