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Q&A With Chloe Safier

In any uphill battle, solidarity is often the key to success. Last weekend I had dinner with an old friend, Chloe Safier, who has been an ongoing advocate for women’s rights, both in the US and abroad.  I took the opportunity to talk with her about the global movement for gender justice and how building bridges for and amongst women across the world is hugely impacting the fight for women’s rights domestically and abroad.

Yonina:

Chloe, can you tell me a little bit about the kind of work you do?

Chloe:

I’m a gender justice and international development consultant. Right now, most of my work focuses on leading a consortium of partners to design and resource the Roots Lab, a new social innovation lab for young women’s rights activists. I work for Oxfam, and we are working collaboratively with FRIDA |The Young Feminist Fund, the Global Fund for Women, and the Young Foundation to make the Roots Lab happen.

Yonina:

Wow, that sounds super impressive.  How did you first become involved in gender justice issues?

Chloe:

I grew up in a family of refugees and humanitarians, and conversations about social justice were always a big part of our home life. One formative experience was volunteering with Alexandria House, a transitional house for women and children, near where I grew up in LA. We were there every week, and the women and kids who lived there were a big part of our lives, as were the incredible activist women who ran it. I really admired them. I think it was partly because of that work that I identified as a feminist from the time I was pretty young.

In college, I took a class where one of my assignments was to interview women soldiers about their experiences in the military. So many of them spoke about rape and sexual assault, and wrote my thesis on their stories and the intersection of gender, militarism, and law. When I applied to graduate school a few years later, I knew I wanted to study gender issues, but I didn’t know exactly how to make a career out of it. Through a series of very lucky breaks, I ended up working at (the then newly created) UN Women, and my work has been focused on gender justice, women’s rights and international development ever since.

Yonina:

It is always amazing to hear how empowering experiences we have as young girls can be. It sounds like these women at the transitional house in L.A. really made an impression on you.  So tell me about this project you’re working on for Oxfam – the Roots Lab.

Chloe:

The Roots Lab is a new pilot program that, once operational, will test how to incubate change driven by young women. It’s a social innovation lab that will give young women the tools, skills, networks, and financial support they need to take their ideas for how to advance women’s rights in their communities and make them a reality.

A lot of organizations have been thinking about the intersection of social innovation and women’s rights- it’s definitely in the air. The initial spark for the Roots Lab came about when I was working for Oxfam in Southern Africa, where I was the regional gender lead developing a multi-country woman’s rights program. We knew that strong feminist and women’s movements are one of the biggest factors in driving change for women’s rights, and one of our strategies was to figure out how to support that. The Roots Lab concept evolved from the collective design thinking of the four partners, as well as many consultations with social innovation organizations, young feminist activists, women’s rights organizations, and really smart people who are working on these same issues.

Yonina:

Oh interesting – how did you zero in on this idea that strong networks of women advocates can be real drivers for positive change regarding women’s rights?

Chloe:

In 2013, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development published a report titled “Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots”, which found that “the ‘leaves’—individual women and girls—are receiving growing attention without support for ‘the roots’ – the sustained, collective action by feminists and women’s rights activists and organizations that has been at the centre of women’s rights advances throughout history.” Many of us working on these issues have seen a stark need to create more intergenerational links between older and younger feminist activists, and to open up more opportunities for feminist activists to take risks and try innovations. There are a lot of development projects “for” young women but not “by” them.

Yonina:

I see, so the idea is to support women in cultivating movements of empowered advocates to lead the campaign for gender justice in their own communities. I love it. What is your role in all this?

Chloe:

At Oxfam, I was encouraged to take the idea for a social innovation lab for young women’s rights and grow it. I reached out to FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Global Fund for Women and the Young Foundation to form a consortium to grow the idea and take it forward; each organization has something unique they contribute to the partnership.

A lab can be a number of things; as Nesta defines it, it’s an “experimental method to address social and public challenges.” The Roots Lab is a two-year program, during which teams of young women will be guided through a set of steps to develop a program, product, campaign or project that responds to a challenge in their community. The challenge is decided collaboratively; it might be focused on ending gender-based violence, or increasing economic justice or women’s leadership, for example. Throughout the program, the teams will receive support in the form of mentorship, training, networking, stipends and grants. I’m currently leading on designing and resourcing the lab, in collaboration with our partners. We’ve built a really exciting, well-developed and thoughtful program, and now we’re mobilizing resources to get it off the ground.

Yonina:

That is really exciting news and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the program! Have you incorporated this idea of cultivating networks of women advocates into your own life?

Chloe:

Yes! My friends and I started a group called Internationalistas, a network of women working in civil and human rights, law, development, humanitarian, campaigns, journalism, research, and other fields in the international or global justice space. The concept came about in 2010-2011, when my UN Women colleagues and I started talking about how we wanted to create some space for women working in international development to connect. But it really got off the ground when I met the amazing May Miller Dawkins at the AWID Forum in 2012 in Istanbul. May and I have a very productive, creative friendship where one of us has will have idea and the other runs with it. May came up with the name “internationalistas,” we set up a Facebook group, and started holding monthly drinks in New York. It’s now a network of nearly 700 women working across the globe, with meet-ups happening in London, Wellington, Berlin, San Francisco, and New York (and hopefully expanding to other cities soon). We have hosted dinners with guest speakers, an action-learning workshop, and now we’re creating a newsletter. It’s been an organic process, and I think the positive response has come from a real need for this kind of community.

Yonina:

That’s great! So aside from joining Internationalistas and signing up for the newsletter (bloggers note: I am a member of this group and it is fantastic!), what is the best way to get involved in this sort of work?

Chloe:

There is so much great work happening on gender justice and women’s rights, both domestically and internationally. AWID is a great place to get informed about what’s happening globally for women’s rights. The partners working on the Roots Lab (FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, Global Fund for Women, Oxfam and the Young Foundation) have tons of resources and research about gender justice. Donating financial and other in-kind resources to women’s rights and feminist organizations can have a huge impact, especially because these organizations are often operating on insanely low budgets. And of course, signing up for the upcoming Internationalistas newsletter (check our twitter for the link), where we will highlight news, events, job opportunities and trainings is a good start.

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For more information on the Roots Lab, Internationalistas, and fighting the good fight for women’s rights across the globe, you can contact Chloe at csafier@oxfam.org.uk or follow her on twitter @chloelenas

Yonina Alexander

Yonina Alexander

Yonina Alexander brings her passion for advocating for a workplace that provides fair wages to its employees and is free from discrimination.  When she is not promoting gender equity in the workplace, Yonina can be found riding her bike across the American Southwest, or baking (and let’s be honest, eating) a mean bourbon pecan pie.

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