Melinda Kramer graduated from WashU in 2003 with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and Environmental Studies. In addition to working with various NGO’s, such as CARE International, Pacific Environment, and the Natural Capital Institute, Melinda is best known for her founding of The Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA), a nonprofit that seeks to foster sustainability while also empowering women and indigenous populations around the globe.
Jacob Plotkin, an intern with the Office of Sustainability, spoke with Melinda to learn more about her professional career and gain further insight into how WashU has helped bring her to where she is today.
This is the first of a three-part interview with Melinda on her journey through the world of sustainability. In this section, we discuss her years at WashU and the founding of the WEA.
How did your years at WashU prepare you for a career in sustainability?
My anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University sparked my passion for the linkages between environmental and social issues. To this day, I carry the books, words, and insights from my professors with me, and they’ve remained at the bedrock of my work.
As a student, I was able to study abroad in East Africa. Walking for six hours with women retrieving water for their families, I saw the inescapable linkages between environmental issues and human ones. After returning to St. Louis, I became active in Wash U’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic, where I worked in Herculaneum, Missouri, to help a community fight for the cleanup of a massive Superfund waste site. I met families whose homes were black with soot from the nearby toxic lead smelter. I found it was the everyday folks—without the professional environmental or litigation training—who were the most effective in expressing their community’s needs. I began to understand that the challenges these Missouri women faced were surprisingly similar to the ones I saw in Kenya. Every community around the world has mothers fighting for their families’ health—and that energy, when harnessed, is unstoppable.
After completing an anthropology honors thesis on the role of indigenous farmers’ knowledge in modern agricultural research, I graduated from WashU and traveled the world working for development organizations including CARE Kenya, Pacific Environment and the Natural Capital Institute. In my TED talk, I chronicle my journey from undergraduate to social entrepreneur, developing the knowledge and experience that would ultimately help me bring together women from around the world to create WEA.
What motivated you to create the Women’s Earth Alliance?
Years ago when I was at the University of Nairobi, studying anthropology as a part of my WashU abroad program, 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 that radiant smile and I could see the fierce resolve in her eyes.
Little did I know, years later I would be listening to her give another inspiring speech, this time accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; and a few years after that, there we were at her training center where she was addressing the women participants of 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 truth. In the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, 194 countries agree that promoting the empowerment of women as a crucial way to combat poverty, hunger and disease, and to stimulate environmental sustainability.
This is because for better or for worse, women are at the center of every one of these issues. Women produce most of the world’s food, yet they own less than 10 percent of all titled land worldwide. Women worldwide spend a combined total of 200 million hours per day collecting water, which takes away their opportunities for education and employment. Because of poverty and lack of access to resources, women are 14 times more likely than men to die in a climate-related disaster. Women carry a disproportionate “body burden” of pesticides, pollutants and chemicals in our body fat and can pass this toxicity on to our children in the womb. And the Center for Media and Democracy found that regions experiencing severe environmental destruction like fracking or mining show significant increases in rape, assaults, and other types violence against women.
But what happens when these obstacles are removed? When women are accessing financial resources, training, leadership opportunities, when they can advocate for their land and their communities with knowledge and support, how does this change the equation? When their ideas are prioritized and their voices heard, what is the outcome? These are the questions that motivated me to begin WEA 14 years ago. When women who are giving everything to protect their communities are supported, not only do they excel, but they help others to do the same. The children benefit, the communities benefit, natural resources and local economies can flourish, and real transformation can take root.
A small group of us had a hunch this would be the case, and 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, or “women’s issues” as the last tab on the drop down menu of an organization’s website.
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 see that 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.
Follow this link to read the next part of Melinda’s interview.