For International Women’s Day: On Being a Woman in Agriculture

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I’m never quite sure what to say when people ask me what it’s like to be a woman in agriculture. It’s a lot of things; which, I imagine, is akin to being a man in agriculture. It’s all at once easy, difficult, tiring, exhilarating, thankless, rewarding, frustrating, motivating and… overall, kind of awesome. Sometimes it’s cold; sometimes it’s hot. It’s virtually always dirty.

The truth is, I don’t consider myself all that much different. It’s like when people ask me what it’s like to be a small farmer or an alternative farmer. There was a time when I was hyper aware of the ways in which I diverged from the majority, but as I’ve become more confident in myself, my grasp on this industry and my experience both in and outside of it, that hyper awareness has largely melted away.

Sure, sometimes it’s lonely. Being a female producer is different than being a farm wife or an agribusiness employee, and there are very, very few women who understand and can relate to that experience. Which means I don’t have the same community and camaraderie that my male counterparts do. Continue reading

One Year Later + FashionABLE Celebrates Three!

Just over a year ago, when I stepped onto African soil for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. What followed were ten days that still rank among the best in my life; not necessarily for what happened there, but for what has happened since.

Shortly after we returned from Ethiopia we received an email from the founder of FashionABLE. Inside were words on which I am still unable to place a value. “We had to hire three more women,” he wrote. And, “Thank you.”

Compared to the number of women in the sex trade in Ethiopia three seems like such an insignificant number, but at the same time three lives forever changed seems like such a tremendously unfathomable thing for which to be somehow, for lack of a better word, responsible.

Roughly 75% of the women engaged in the sex trade in Ethiopia end up with HIV, the money they make is astonishingly little, they’re often unable to feed and house themselves and their children. Women who come to work at FashionABLE have made a personal decision to break the ties they have with that world, they go through job and life skills training, and the company pays them both a living wage and for their childrens’ school fees to ensure their children are educated and have the opportunity to break the cycle of extreme poverty in their own lives. It’s something that I would be floored to have been a part of for even one woman so when, within mere weeks of our visit, we got news of being a part of that opportunity for three it was not an insignificant moment.

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Through the end of this week FashionABLE is celebrating their third birthday. That video embedded above is part of the celebration, and as a token of their appreciation for the business that has allowed them to grow into this stage of their mission they are running a third birthday sale. Everything in their store is 30% off — and it’s really great stuff that supports an even greater cause. The new Sebel scarf in gunmetal grey and scarlet is my favorite fall scarf right now. And their Tigist leather clutch is the sort of soft, supple leather to die for. The Genet scarf served me well at the Western Wall. And the first FashionABLE scarf I ever owned, the Etanesh Stripes has travelled with me across three continents.

With Christmas coming up I know where I’ll be doing my shopping, and I hope you’ll consider it, too. Having had the opportunity to meet the women at their factory in Ethiopia, it’s a little bit of good in the world that is very close to my heart.

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BONUS: My dear friends, Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest (who were both in Ethiopia with me last year) are donating all royalties from the sale of their book, Minimalist Parenting, to Help Women at Risk. A collaboration with Women at Risk is how FashionABLE came to staff women who previously worked in the sex trades in Ethiopia. It’s a great cause, and an awesome book. Check it out!

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Picture at top courtesy Karen Walrond; taken during our time in Ethiopia, October 2012.

When Worlds Collide

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Meet Mihret.

One day last week this adorable little girl’s mom called me about buying feeder pigs. At the time, neither of us knew we had a reason to discuss Mihret. She’d seen an ad for the pigs, one not tied to our website, and I don’t make it a habit to screen potential pig owners for ties to Ethiopia.

A few days later I received an email, “Hi Diana,” it began, “My family and I are new to the adventures of raising feeder pigs. I was doing some research and ended up on your site. Ironically, I think we are coming to pick up 3 or 4 pigs at your farm on Wednesday morning.” Kelly had a few questions about feeder pigs, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the latter part of her email. ” I’m really enjoying your posts about Ethiopia. I spent a month there in 2010. Even though she is only three, my daughter will be excited to learn you have visited her home country.”

Her home country!

To say that I never expected my work with ONE and our little patch of rural Mid-Michigan to cross paths is an enormous understatement. You don’t find many people out here who are familiar with and passionate about the state of extreme poverty in Ethiopia. And yet, here I had a family with ties to just that coming to our little hog farm. I’ve been walking on cloud nine ever since and today all the excitement culminated with the wrangling of four pigs into the back of a truck as Mihret and her older sister Olivia looked on.

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Afterwards, with their Mom and Dad’s permission I brought out my camera and both girls broke into gorgeous smiles as soon as the lens was pointed in their direction. Mihret is the size and weight you’d expect of a normal three year old, was dressed in warm and adequate clothing, her feet protected by boots so she could safely accompany us as I showed her parents our various fencing. She will sleep in a warm bed tonight, with a full belly, and her Mom and Dad won’t have to worry that she’ll be bitten by a mosquito and contract Malaria as she does. When she’s old enough she’ll get an education, there’s no question about it. But looking into Mihret’s beautiful brown eyes I was immediately transported back to Ethiopia where none of this is true for thousands of kids just like her.

Recently, by leveraging the voices of ONE’s membership we were able to protect some of the most important global health initiatives of our time; initiatives that, among other things, could virtually eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. Unfortunately, some other programs continue to come under fire as details of implementing budget cuts in Washington are worked out.

I’ve written extensively in the past about how these programs are not partisan, about why preserving funding behooves all of us, regardless of our political affiliation. If you’re not sure why the less than 1% of the federal budget that goes to funding global health initiatives are important for everyone, please click that link and find out. We’re winning many of the battles, but the war is far from over and one misstep could cost us the victory we all so desperately need.

As ONE continues to work to ensure transparency and efficacy from world governments and tracks the progress of programs on the ground in the poorest countries they’re going to need more voices to make the hardest battles well fought. They never ask for your money, only your voice. It may seem silly, but your voice really is most effective. The tweets, emails, Facebook messages, and letters you send to your legislators make a tremendous difference in their work on The Hill. They know who ONE members are and they listen when we speak up as a group. It’s how ONE gets things done.

So please, join the ONE Membership.

And consider signing their active petitions, including the one focused on the on going U.S. budget crisis.

Do it for Mihret. For me. For all the people who continue to live without even life’s most basic amenities; food, water, life-saving vaccinations. If nothing else, do it for you. Do it for national security, for saving our country the money it cannot afford to spend in the future.

In It To End It: World Aids Day 12

For the next couple of weeks ONE is running a video campaign in honor of World Aids Day (which is officially today, December 1.) I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone and made a quick video explaining why, though the fight against AIDs was not a particularly moving issue for me in the past, it has become more so since traveling to Africa in person.

If you’d like to join in the movement there are guidelines on the the ONE site.

You can also see all the videos and take action on the issue at YouTube.

Putting It In Action: Lobbying with ONE

One of my biggest fears coming back from Ethiopia was that I wouldn’t be able to do something of worth with what I’d learned. You travel halfway around the world and have this tremendous, life-changing experience and then when you return home it’s not always immediately evident how you can incorporate that experience into your life.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve been looking forward to spending this week in Washington D.C. at the ONE offices and on Capitol Hill — my reluctant obsession with politics being the other. I’ve oft joked in the weeks leading up to this that now at least when people at home kvetch about those damned lobbyists I can have a little fun with them, but the truth is it’s really nice to have the ability to do something physical and immediately tangible with all of this.

Though this week is just an extension of the storytelling that we’ve all been focusing on for the past month, there is something really incredible about having the opportunity to do that storytelling in person, face to face. So nice, in fact, I’d love nothing more than to to sit down over a nice cup of coffee with each and every single one of you and do the same. Being able to do so with the people who hold a tremendous amount of responsibility for the future of the programs we saw on the ground in Africa in their hands is just icing on the cake.

Today, along with nine other women, I spent a full day on Capitol Hill visiting both with the office of my own Member of Congress as well as some of those Senators who are playing key roles in negotiations over the impending Fiscal Cliff, and I’ve repeatedly been struck by how much these people care, how much they want to hear from us, and how sincerely interested they are in listening to our experiences and opinions.

If there’s anything I’ve taken away from this experience it’s that your legislators want to hear from you. As we continue to march towards the Fiscal Cliff, please consider contacting your House Representative and Senator(s) offices to let them know what budget items are important to you and why. They and their staff are there to serve you — you’re the voters, your ideas matter. And if you’ve been moved by what you’ve read here and elsewhere about development aid be sure to mention ONE in your calls and letters. ONE staffers are here year round making sure these people know what they do, and we’re here this week to make sure they know who we are, and by extension you, too.

On Loss and The Fear of Forgetting

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You know the fog that sets in during the weeks surrounding the funeral of someone so close to you a piece of your identity depends on their existence in the world? That odd, intangible, and indescribable feeling you’ve lost something far greater than the person? Something you can’t quite put your finger on; something in the absence of which everything looks and feels and is different?

That’s how I’ve felt this weekend.

Saturday night The Man and I went out for Ethiopian food and while it was good, it wasn’t quite right. I’d been craving it for weeks, and maybe the suspense of waiting for the time to go contributed to the let down of finally being there, but it just… wasn’t the same, wasn’t what I’d needed.

And then last night, as I read Karen’s latest post about the scent of Ethiopia on Christmas presents she purchased there, I realized I don’t remember the smells. I can’t conjure up a whiff of Ethiopia, fill my nostrils with the memories of a life-changing journey the way I could as recently as a week ago. Even with my face buried in the scarves I brought home from FashionABLE, I’m having a hard time transporting myself back.

I can’t quite feel the full depth of the joy that is turning around from taking a picture of school grounds to find hundreds of school-aged children have been let out of class and are flooding in around me like high tide, each vying for a position to shake my hand, practice their English, thank me for coming when I’m the one who should be thanking them for the opportunity to experience their incredible country and culture.

I worry the loss of the little details will lead to the loss of the important moments, the gut wrenching and awe inspiring ones alike. I worry I’ll lose the ability to tell the stories effectively over time. I don’t know that one can forget things like this, but I’m not entirely sure one can’t either, and that’s the part that scares me.

ONE + Ethiopia: The Quick-and-Dirty Guide

Children on Fence at Health Post Outside Bahir Dar, Ethiopia | ONEMoms

Today, something really exciting is happening for both ONE and myself. Our local newspaper, The Lansing State Journal, is featuring a front page story about ONE, my work with them, and our trip to Ethiopia. Front page! So, with apologies to those regular readers who have seen all of this before, I want to give a big welcome to the LSJ readers who are clicking through, and offer up a recap of some of the most notable trip highlights.

Mom and Child at Health Post in Ethiopia | ONEMoms

The Stories

You can find all the posts about my work with ONE — before, during, and after the Ethiopia trip — here, and pieces from each and every member of ONE’s Delegation to Ethiopia over at ONE.org. There are so many inspiring pieces I can’t possibly link to them all, but I would encourage everyone to take a few moments out of their day to browse.

Meanwhile, here are a few of my favorites:

Thousands | I knew Ethiopia would be “behind”, but I wasn’t prepared for just how far behind.

Smell. Sip. Sacrament. | “Of all the exotic aromas and experiences from my sojourn in Ethiopia, it’s the frankincense I miss most.” – Cathleen Falsani

Soul-Pulling Dance in Ethiopia | “For a while I stopped eating and couldn’t take my eyes off of the live performers and musicians. I kept staring at them and didn’t realize I was crying until the tears starting falling from my chin and I wiped them off with my scarf hoping that no one would notice this odd breakdown I was having in the middle of dinner.” – Kelly Wickham

On The 6.8 Million | Thoughts on the malnourished children of Ethiopia and a look at how the programs on the ground there are helping make things better long term.

What Mother Want for Our Children. | “While the statistics are, with good reason, what the administrators are proud of, it’s the children–the joyful, amazing, energetic children–that demonstrated to us in the most basic way, that things are going well thanks to grants from the US.” – Liz Gumbinner

Conservative Thoughts on Foreign Aid and The Fiscal Cliff | Why foreign aid is not just a pet project of the left and how going over The Fiscal Cliff will effect us all.

The Faces of Ethiopia | “I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love faces — because I truly believe every one of them is beautiful. ​And so today, I want to share with you some of the amazing faces that I was able to photograph while I was in Ethiopia.” – Karen Walrond

“You See Something That You Can’t Unsee” | How a quote from a speech Bono, co-founder of ONE, gave at Georgetown University helped me finally put into words one of the most powerful parts of our trip.


Video by Ryan Youngblood, Youngblood Films

The Action

First, go to ONE.org and join the cause. ONE never asks for your money, only your voice. And works to make it easier for you to leverage your power as a citizen of one of the world’s biggest governments.

If you still have time after that, consider signing the ONE petitions to help combat AIDs, support life-saving vaccine availability, support sustainable food solutions that will help end hunger and malnutrition, encourage politicians to take action on the federal budget, and foster transparency in all the world’s major governments.

You can also follow ONE on Twitter, like ONE on Facebook, and follow the ONE Campaign on Pinterest.

Child outside Bahir Dar, Ethiopia | ONEMoms

The Delegation

Click on any picture, or its corresponding name/number below to learn more about each ONE Delegation member.

Asha Dornfest Cathleen Falsani Kelly Wickham Gabrielle Blair Michelle Pannell Christine Koh Maya Haile Samuelsson Jen Howze Liz Gumbinner

[1] Asha Dornfest [2] Cathleen Falsani [3] Kelly Wickham
[4] Gabrielle Blair [5] Michelle Pannell [6] Christine Koh
[7] Maya Haile Samuelsson [8] Jen Howze [9] Liz Gumbinner
[10] Alice Currah [11] Rana DiOrio [12] Me!

Karen Walrond All headshots copyright the incredible Karen Walrond, pictured at left. Karen traveled with ONE as part of a delegation to Kenya last year and returned to Africa with us this year as the official trip photographer. Trini by blood, Texan by choice, and English by Marriage, Karen is, above all else, a force to be reckoned with.

Karen’s headshot copyright Maile Wilson

“You See Something That You Can’t Unsee.”

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This post has been sitting in draft for weeks, since the first days I was home, but I’ve struggled to form the words around the picture that I’ve wanted to share with you most of all.

She was the single most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life at a time when I was curling up on hotel beds and sitting out under the Ethiopian stars discussing the future of Africa with a supermodel. It was only fitting that beneath all the layers of fabric would also be one of the most stunning babies in the world.

Over her left eye, wrapped around to the outer edge, was a ball the size of the baby’s fist. A hazard of the job, though it took nothing from her beauty she compulsively shielded it with her hand. We met at her place of work; the side of a mountain, overlooking the Ethiopian country side, the same place I met and photographed the man threshing barley at the rate of just one bushel a day.

She is a business owner, along with several other women from her community, who scrimped and saved to front 50% of the start up costs for a beekeeping operation. The other half came in the form of grants and now they tend their bees — often with babies on their backs — twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. It’ll take a year to produce their first harvest.

And this is the part where her beauty became so much more than skin deep, our connection became so much more than woman and woman, mother and mother; the part where the line between me and her, them and us, here and there, virtually disappeared; the part where the world opened up right there on the spot and the snarled core that entangles us all was revealed.

I don’t remember which member of our delegation asked, but I will never forget the very moment when, as the translator was relaying the question to the women of Sene Mariam Beekeeping Group, they all lit up. Quiet chatter coursed through their group, every woman sat up a little straighter, and the passion in their eyes grew by leaps and bounds. Sometimes, in answering questions there would be a pause as they decided what to tell us, but there was no pause this time. “The men,” the translator relayed, “normally do all of the trading at market, but because this is our product, we will take.” And as the women in our own group, — most of which are business owners themselves, some of whom work in decidedly male dominated fields — all reacted with gasps and cheers and the kind of uncontrollable smiles that spread from ear to ear and force even your eyebrows up in a display of elation, there was an intangible, but very real connection forged. A connection that I’ve had tremendous difficulty trying to put into words.

Tremendous difficulty, until I read a post by Cathleen Falsani, a salt-of-the-earth woman who happened to be my roommate during part of the time we were in Ethiopia. She wrote on Sojourners about the speech Bono, co-founder of ONE, gave earlier this month at Georgetown University, and towards the end she included this quote from him:

“…when you truly accept that those children in some far off place in the global village have the same value as you — in God’s eyes or even just in your eyes — then your life is forever changed. You see something that you can’t unsee.”

It only fully occurred to me after returning that those momentary connections, the tiny things that pulled me in, were always at the very moments where I could see the sameness in us all washing over the faces of the people — women, men, children — sitting across from me. Pride, hope, motivation, ownership, identity; these were the things that washed over the women that day. Just as I’d watched passion and fiery injustice wash over the face of a man at dinner a few nights later and was drawn to him the same way.

You see something you can’t unsee. You feel something you can’t unfeel. You learn that we are all one.

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Consider joining ONE in the campaign against extreme poverty. Sign up:

I just returned from traveling in Ethiopia as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign to report on how American-supported programs are improving and saving lives. ONE is a non-partisan organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable disease by pressing political leaders to support smart programs that do just that. They’re also launching a new initiative to focus specifically on Agriculture, which is where I’m most excited to join in. ONE doesn’t ask for your money, just your voice. It’s something I can get behind and I hope you can, too.