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Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Wangari Maathai

Part II of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series

“Some of our human rights is environmental rights.” – Wangari Maathai

We all know that the #FutureIsFemme 🙂 but we also have to take a step back to acknowledge the remarkable women who helped paved that way. One African queen, in particular, is Wangari Maathai, Kenyan activist and founder of the Green Belt Movement.

Madame Maathai was born in 1940 in the rural compound of Nyeri, Kenya. An environmental scholar that studied in the U.S., Germany, and later Kenya, Madame Maathai returned to Kenya to receive her doctorate degree in veterinary anatomy in the late 1970s. She was the first woman in the East and Central African region to earn her doctorate. Her work as a department chair and professor for the University of Nairobi was short-lived in comparison to her grassroots environmental activism which began in the early 1980s and lasted until her death in 2011. She began her activism by being an active member (and later chairwoman) for the National Council of Women for Kenya. It was in this position that she informed members and communities about the importance of planting trees. Her commitment to the environment and the people of Kenya as a whole was relentless and no one, regardless of wealth or power, was immune to it:

“In the 1980s Maathai led a courageous fight against the construction of a skyscraper scheduled for construction in the middle of Uhuru park, Nairobi’s most important public space. Her vocal opposition to the location of the proposed complex led the government of President Daniel Arap Moi to label both Maathai and the Green Belt Movement ‘subversive.‘ She was vilified in Parliament and in the press and forced to vacate her office of 10 years with 24 hours’ notice. Nevertheless, thanks to Maathai’s opposition, foreign investors withdrew their support for the Uhuru Park complex and the project was canceled.” (Goldman Prize)

Madame Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, with the premise of paying local women to plant trees in their community. An organization which started off with an environmental focus soon elevated itself to a human rights organization. She allowed people to see their growth and power by planting trees which made her a threat to the Kenyan government but ultimately a hero to not only the people of Kenya but all over the world. She worked with communities, mostly women around different parts of Kenya, to plant at least 20 million trees while she was alive (Nobel Prize). Today, the number of trees planted has surpassed 51 million (Green Belt Movement). Her work soon spilled over to neighboring countries in which tree planting initiatives began in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe. In 2004 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of her human rights and environmental conservation work.

In 2011, Wangari Maathai, passed away from ovarian cancer. She was an author, politician, environmentalist, professor, activist, but ultimately a visionary who saw that in order to properly help ourselves, we must help our environment.  Her impact continues to resonate across generations and countries because she was a fighter for justice; in fact, in Washington, D.C. there is a community garden named after her called Wangari Gardens. Today, her legacy continues to remain intact because of the continuous work of the Green Belt Movement which is still a positive force within Kenya.   

“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.”

Wangari Maathai 

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Activism in Retrospect

During the last two weeks of February, the Quixote Center was involved in actions of solidarity for Dreamers and the people of Honduras. I attended the Honduras Awareness Tour (Feb. 22) and the Catholic Day of Action for Dreamers (Feb. 27) and was equally moved by both events that called us to be a catalyst for change. Below are my reflections on these experiences.

Honduras Awareness Tour

On February 22, I attended the Honduras Awareness Tour in its final stop in Washington, D.C. The three-city tour was an opportunity for Honduran journalists and human rights activists, Joaquin Mejia and Claudia Mendoza, to update the public on the current conditions of Honduras. It was only befitting that the tour ended in our nation’s capital since both speakers emphasized the destabilizing role the U.S. has played in its foreign policy towards Latin America, in particular, Honduras, starting with the Obama administration’s legitimization of the 2009 coup in which democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power by the Honduran military (NCR). For a country that claims to promote democracy and is even considering punishing other countries for not upholding democracy (as seen, for example, in the NICA Act), the U.S. position to dismiss democracy in Honduras by engaging with the Honduran military speaks volumes about the continuation of foreign policies that disregard the plight of the people of Honduras.

The event began with disturbing news reported by the event host, Oscar Chacon (Executive Director of Alianza Americas). He told the audience that Mejia’s family was still receiving death threats for his role of using Radio Progreso to discuss the conditions of Honduras. We also heard that one of Mendoza’s loved one’s passed away from an illness the night before. There before us stood two fearless people, determined to bring a message despite personal loss. The message, simply put, is that Honduras is suffering. Their democracy is being choked and as U.S. citizens we need to hold our government accountable for these actions and demand change. Why is our government still sending military aid to Honduras, a country where activists are met with death (#BertaVive)?.   

Overall the event provided a much-needed update on the conditions in Honduras. This is a U.S. concern as well since the people of Honduras need us to stand with them. They need us to raise our voices to a level that demands change in U.S. foreign policy. We need to support avenues of authentic journalism like Radio Progreso and the many other organizations in Honduras being harassed in an effort made to silence them. Now more than ever it is important to stand with the people of Honduras.

Catholic Day of Action for Dreamers

The final Tuesday in February was a day of both hope and sorrow. On February 27, Quixote Center staff took part in the Catholic Day of Action for Dreamers, a peaceful protest in Washington, D.C. that encouraged Catholics and non-Catholics to elevate voices in support Dreamers and demand their right to stay in the U.S. The first year of the Trump administration has been a disaster for immigrant families. The administration’s dehumanizing rhetoric and willingness to use families to create a deal for a misconceived border wall is, frankly, disgusting. 

QC staff: (left to right) Mfon Edet, Jessica DeCou, Jocelyn Trainer

The protest was an opportunity to stand with our neighbors, families, and friends who are Dreamers, during this stressful time in their life. Have you ever been in a situation when you didn’t know where you were going to live or have to face the possibility that your family could be split apart? The amount of stress those types of concerns come with is too heavy to bear alone. We need to support immigration reform that leads to paths to citizenship for not only Dreamers but all immigrants who have built lives here.

The number of people that showed up in support of Dreamers was beautiful to witness. There was mass in the morning at St. Peters on Capitol Hill and a rally in front of the Senate building in which different activists spoke about the much-needed change in our immigration policies. The protest eventually moved inside of the Senate building where protesters met in the rotunda to pray. Soon after the prayer, the protest ended with the arrest of approximately 40 nuns.

After the arrest, I saw protest participants walking directly into their state representatives’ offices to discuss the need for a path to citizenship with better immigration reform legislation. I also saw families around the rotunda crying and it dawned on me even more that this is their reality. They are in limbo and it’s SCARY. With our members of Congress failing to support positive immigration reform, and with the current injustices of ICE raids, the voices of immigrants are being ignored.

Overall I’m glad to have been a part of this protest. As a Catholic, a person of color, a first-generation American, and an activist, seeing the nuns being arrested coupled with the families crying made me take a step back to look at the conditions of this country. In the words of Daniel Neri, one of the speakers at the rally, “We are not criminals, we are not rapists, we are good people” (NCR). 

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Adventures in the “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes”

It has been a little over a month since we got back from the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” ‘aka’ Nicaragua, a delegation of six individuals from different lives who willfully spent a week together in another country where language was a barrier for some. It was like a social justice version of MTV’s The Real-World. And, unlike the 90s tv show, it was both a positive and eye-opening experience.

Oftentimes when people from the States go to other countries in the Americas, like Nicaragua, in which not everything is manicured, they talk about a “humbling” experience. But “humbling” seems very pompous and arrogant and overall comes off as if to say, “Oh, look how the poor live. I’m glad I’m not poor.” When humbling is a description of an experience that stems from viewing poverty, it just doesn’t seem appropriate to me.

So Nicaragua, to me, wasn’t humbling; it was different yet familiar. Nicaragua, in particular, Managua, represents a simpler time when people weren’t ruled by technology or social media. Yes, there are phones, internet and all those things related to the technology age but the Nicaraguan people had limits. They enjoy each other’s presence; they converse. And so, naturally, did our delegation. Being the youngest in the group and an admitted Instagram addict, talking to strangers, using my phone to actually make phone calls instead of using it like a computer, going on long car rides to rural areas and simply enjoying the beauty of nature were all a little odd, but refreshing. Being in Nicaragua, I felt like I could breathe freely without being (or watching) a screen. It was great!

The purpose of our trip to Nicaragua was to catch up, face-to-face, with our local partners: the Institute of John XXIII (the Institute) and FEDICAMP. Although we’re in contact via email and Skype from our home office in Maryland, being able to see the work being done and directly talking (in Spanish) to the families affected by such work was fantastic.

We got to see homes being built and spoke to multiple families about the experience of having a safe place to live and raise their family. I was excited for the families  but also because I saw strong community connections developing due to the way our Homes of Hope program responds to the different needs and conditions of the communities in which it is carried out.

The journey to Esteli provided another opportunity to bond with other members of the delegation as we travelled the open road. Once in Esteli, we were able to visit a number of families impacted by FEDICAMP’s work with the community. We spoke to students, families, and women entrepreneurs who are very active in addressing sustainable agricultural needs (such as access to water) for the greater community.

The Institute and FEDICAMP, along with the communities they serve, think like a team and move like a team, because they are one. So, too, was the Quixote Center and our delegation. We looked out for each other’s well-being. Seeing that theme present throughout the trip made me really proud to be a part of the delegation, to be a staff member at the Quixote Center, and to be associated with great partners such as the Institute and FEDICAMP.

I definitely saw some beautiful lakes (not so much the volcanoes) but surrounding those natural elements were the beautiful people and their fight for social change. Nicaragua made me realize even more that I have a responsibility to take care of the planet. On top of that, I have a responsibility to work alongside different communities because, although we may look different, at the end of the day we all want a safe place to sleep, good food in our bellies, and an opportunity to have a positive impact. Overall my trip was great. I highly recommend Nicaragua as your next adventure. Come join us on the next delegation!

 

**Photo: Fertility statue common in Nicaragua.**

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Humble Oneself and Take a Knee

Opinion piece by Mfon E. 

Growing up Catholic, I am used to the act of humbling myself by kneeling. And as a sports fan, especially for football, I know that “taking a knee” is a sign of respect for players who have gotten hurt. Whether in a religious or sports setting, kneeling is a reflection of community, humility, and respect.

When I recently attended a church service, the priest spoke about how we need to constantly humble ourselves by kneeling before God.  That statement made me think about the cries and complaints of those who are disturbed by the actions of athletes taking a knee to put a spotlight on the social injustices, specifically police killings of minority women, men, and children, especially in African-American communities. Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL player for the San Francisco 49ers, began this peaceful protest a year ago. Few  understood why he was kneeling during the anthem to protest racial discrimination and police killings. He’s a rich athlete; why should he care about the mistreatment of individuals being profiled and abused by racist cops?

Kaepernick cares and used his platform to express his concerns because if he weren’t in the NFL, if he didn’t have great athletic skills, if he weren’t rich, if he weren’t well-known, he would just be another “black man,” another problem for communities, another practice target for racist police officers. By taking a knee, Kaepernick decided to push aside worldly possessions and humble himself, before his teammates, his opponents, and the United States. His kneeling and the silence that accompanied it, have directed the public’s attention to the issues that are causing this protest. But the only thing critics are focused on is the kneeling and how he is not honoring his country. But, we must ask, how is his country honoring him? By killing people who look like him because they can?

The media and a handful of conservatives depict Kaepernick’s actions as disrespectful to U.S. soldiers. They make it seem as if you’re not honoring the country and those who fought for it if you fail to stand during the national anthem, but again, I ask, are they? Some of our veterans are homeless, and the way they are treated in Veterans’ Hospitals around the country is disgraceful. On top of that, the words of condolence that came out of the mouth of their Commander-in-Chief, Donald Trump, to a now pregnant widow who lost her husband in battle were, “But you know he must have known what he signed up for.” How is that honoring soldiers who have fought and died for this country?

Those who have chosen to take a knee are humbling themselves for justice. If you were to watch a neighbor, friend, or family member, die by the hands of someone else, and that person (or institution) got away with it, would you not be overwhelmed with rage and sadness? By taking a knee, these individuals are screaming their rage with silence; they’re fighting without firearms. Some people say that discussing social issues at a sporting event is bad timing, so when is the right time? In our personal and professional lives when everything seems confusing and chaotic, sometimes we have to stop, think, drop to our knees, and humble ourselves to find inner peace, or pray to God (if you’re religious). We all need to take a knee and really look at this country we hold dear.

#SayTheirName

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CSO: Next Chapter

Written by: Dolly Pomerleau  and  Kathleen Blank Riether, Quixote Volunteer

Catholics Speak Out (CSO), since its inception has focused on dialogue between the laity and hierarchy promoting equality and justice within the Church.  We are now discerning the need for a shift and expansion in CSO’s mission as the national climate of polarization in our country based on marginalizing, scapegoating and excluding certain minority groups has intensified.

Throughout last year’s election cycle, we were saddened and outraged by the use of insensitive and insulting language to objectify and deny the human dignity of people who are poor, immigrant, LGBTQI, or otherwise considered on the margins of our society. Since then, we have seen a significant rise in violence against members of minority groups.  We have seen legislation and executive orders designed to roll back anti-discrimination laws and to legalize even harsher measures of exclusion.  Many have even come to believe that policies that exclude and disregard the human dignity of those on the margins are acceptable and necessary. Education, the arts, and environmental protection are also on the chopping block.

In light of these disturbing trends, CSO has a responsibility to advocate actively for the integration of Gospel values into our public discourse and policies.  Vatican II produced one of the most important documents in the Church’s social tradition:  Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) – A Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.  It announced that our duties as God’s people are to scrutinize the signs of the times in light of the Gospel and to work to enhance human dignity and the common good.  CSO believes that the times call for an urgent response in our mission to uphold the values of the Gospel in the world.

This year CSO’s first act of witnessing to God’s inclusive love through the use of inclusive language was in sending copies of The Inclusive Bible to the U.S. bishops.  Our next step is to expand our mission into the public arena where we will promote the use of inclusive language in our national discourse and public policies that upholds the dignity and equality of all people. We aim to organize Catholic voices to inject the values embodied in Catholic social justice teaching into political issues such as immigration, health care, torture, and refugees.

To volunteer in the future with our CSO program, please send us an email (“Subject: CSO Volunteer”) with your skills and availability. If you’re unable to volunteer but would still like to be involved in our growth please consider making a generous donation of  $35, $50, $100 or more today!  Our goal is to work steadfastly for the integration of Gospel values into our national consciousness and institutions.  Please help us make this transition. We’ll provide you ample opportunities to speak truth to power.

Blessings during this Easter season.

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The Women’s March—Two Perspectives from Quixote Center Women

By: Dolly P.

At 75 years old, I’ve been around a few blocks more than a few times, with signs held aloft. The White House. The Pentagon. The Capitol. The Catholic bishops’ headquarters. The Vatican Ambassador’s place. The Vatican. The DC Republican headquarters. And so on.

After 40 years of pounding

the pavements, I am rather jaded. When I first heard of a Women’s March on DC scheduled for January 21, 2017, I had a “ho-hum” reaction. I pledged to be there, of course, to addanother body at a time when numbers mattered. But I wasn’t excited. Then…

As the time approached, it dawned on me exactly how important this event would be. The Quixote Center delegation would meet at a certain spot. We would march, waving the Quixote banner. Together.

From the moment my friends and I boarded an already too-full Metro train, the spirit of the day elated me. No matter that the Metro ride and getting out of the station took 1.5 hours. We were chanting in the underground and waving our signs, wearing our pink hats. Once outside, all we could see were rivers of people moving from all sides, up and down and around. Forget meeting up with anyone. It didn’t matter. Being in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people was enough. We were all friends. Solidarity unfolded, and we were a united community,

Ready to struggle, to persist, for the next four years. Together. I’ll be 79 by then.


Womens March 5694

By: Mfon E.

The Women’s March on Washington was definitely an experience. I moved to the DC area in 2015, and in my longing to learn more about the culture, I knew I needed to immerse myself in the life of the nation’s capital.  I soon learned that a big cultural component of living here is activism; it isn’t enough just to protest injustice on social media, you need to show up in person and be present.

So my Saturday morning, the day after 45’s inauguration, began with me flowing with a sea of people, mostly women, who decided to come out from behind their computer screens to fight in person. We filled up the streets of downtown DC to express our need for change, our love for equality, our right to the pursuit of happiness, and our unwavering dedication to fight any policy by the current administration that hinders the progress we have made as a country toward gender equality.

The camaraderie was truly amazing, but there were times when the march was overwhelming because of the number of people that were present. It was definitely a sight to see!  We bonded, a half a million of us, as we listened to speeches, laughed at funny signs, chanted, walked, and talked to fellow marchers. We seemed invincible!  So it was terribly disappointing to see just days later that Republicans in Congress were still planning to defund Planned Parenthood. I had to ask myself, “What was this all for if change isn’t occurring now?”

When I reflected on my weekend the following week, I realized the following things. First, I hit the jackpot of political protest for this generation; to this day the number of people at the march still blows my mind. Secondly, this protest was an enormous rallying cry for choice, equality, and respect for all that will definitely go into the history books. Lastly and most importantly, the march was just the beginning of the fight. So although change didn’t occur immediately, the Women’s March was truly an empowering event that caused me to see how the need for change can be ignited with one voice and many helping hands—and feet! Keep marching, everyone.

Were you at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017?  What were your experiences?  What role do you see in the future for women to create change in American society?  Please share your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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NICA Act: Perpetuating Suffering in Nicaragua

The Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA Act) is a congressional bill introduced in July 2016. The NICA Act focuses on limiting long term aid to Nicaragua from financial institutions such the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank due to the Nicaraguan government’s restrictions on transparent elections and limitations on political freedoms (i.e. political opposition parties).

The NICA Act (H.R. 5708) was passed in the House in September 2016 and is currently being reviewed in the Senate. The House sponsor for the bill is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Senate sponsor for the bill (S. 3284) is Senator Ted Cruz.

Adverse Impact

Many individuals are in support of the NICA Act without fully understanding the negative impact of this bill if passed. “Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America and second poorest in the Western Hemisphere.” (Foundation for Sustainable Development) Financial opportunities are rare to come by in Nicaragua because of the limited amount of job opportunities. On top of that, financial institutions i.e. banks, are extremely limited; throughout the country there are between 10 – 20 banks throughout the country.

The NICA Act is the United States’ solution to punishing the current Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Although we do not agree with or condone Daniel Ortega’s approach to politics and human rights overall, the NICA Act is not an appropriate response. The reason being is because the NICA Act will perpetuate poverty within the country.  The NICA Act will also perpetuate the unbalanced relationship between the U.S. and Latin American countries by continuing to view the Latin American region as the “backyard” to the United States in which they can treat the people in this countries however they like.

By making micro loans impossible for the Nicaraguan people to attain with the presence of the NICA Act, the United States will be taking a strong hold approach to systematic change in the Americas. History is repeating itself with this bill because we have seen it before with the Cuban embargo. In an effort to punish the late Fidel Castro by banning trading opportunities to Cuba, the Cuban people suffered severely, not so much Fidel Castro. It actually gave more leverage for Fidel Castro to preach to the Cuban people more animosity towards the United States.

Change the Policies

At The Center we advocate for better U.S.-Latin American foreign policies that uplifts every country in the Americas. Therefore we are against the NICA Act because of the negative effect it will have on the Nicaraguan people and U.S.-Nicaragua relations overall.  We ask that you stand with the Quixote Center as we oppose this bill by contacting your state Congressional representative. Express to your congressman/woman that they have the opportunity to alleviate the suffering of the Nicaraguan people by not enacting the NICA Act.

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Homes of Hope – Manos Amigos

This August we began our first concentrated construction project through the Homes of Hope and our financing agreement with Banpro. Concentrating production allows us to save money on materials, transportation, and labor, and gives the homes a strong social component as new communities are built with the houses. Our first client for this new approach is Manos Amigas, a housing cooperative in Leon formed by school teachers otherwise unable to afford land and their own homes. There are more than fifty such land cooperatives in Nicaragua, and judging by the success of this initiative, many will soon be moving into new homes.

Manos Amigas: In their own words

(translation by Mfon Edet)

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A community meeting at the Manos Amigas site

Shelter and social connections are two elements of humanity that come together to create hope. Manos Amigos, a housing cooperative in Leon, Nicaragua is a local organization spreading hope in the Utrecht district of Leon. Starting in 2009 with 37 partners, community members of the Utrecht district came together to buy land collectively and individually. The objective: shelter in a dismal Nicaraguan housing market. In the past seven years some partnerships have continued while others have subsided. Nonetheless the communal bond present in Manos Amigos is too strong to be destroyed, “This trajectory of unifying and fighting is one of its main strengths and has allowed them to know each other and strengthen their relationships.”

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The groundbreaking ceremony

Beginning with a dream that over time became a reality, brick by brick Manos Amigos has built a strong, stable,
proactive community. By coming together, individuals of Manos Amigos are showing a commitment to their homeland, compassion for the welfare of others, as well as supporting social change and individual empowerment. Community members are literally building their neighborhood and the beautiful thing about the Homes of Hope program is that community members have complete ownership; no one can strip them of their homes. The progress of Manos Amigos is truly amazing and a ceremonial celebration will take place in November 2016.

 

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Contact Us

  • Quixote Center
    7307 Baltimore Ave.
    Ste 214
    College Park, MD 20740
  • Office: 301-699-0042
    Email: info@quixote.org

Direction to office:

For driving: From Baltimore Ave (Route 1) towards University of Maryland, turn right onto Hartwick Rd. Turn immediate right in the office complex.

Look for building 7307. We are located on the 2nd floor.

For public transportation: We are located near the College Park metro station (green line)