Right Sharing - An Interview with Jackie Stillwell

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Jacqueline Stillwell became the general secretary of Right Sharing of World Resources in January 2015. She is a life-long Friend with many years’ experience working with not-for-profit organizations and Quaker organizations, including twenty-two years as Head of School for The Meeting School in Rindge, New Hampshire, and four years service as the presiding clerk of New England Yearly Meeting. Jackie spoke by phone with Western Friend on April 5, 2016. The following text is an edited transcript of portions of that interview. A more complete depiction of the interview can be found in the Western Friend online library.

Western Friend: What drew you to working with Right Sharing of World Resources?

Jackie Stillwell: First of all, the mission of Right Sharing resonated with me as a person. I’ll read you the mission statement: “God calls us to the right sharing of world resources, from the burdens of materialism and poverty into the abundance of God’s love, to work for equity through partnership with our sisters and brothers throughout the world.” When I was a student at Friends World College, one of our primary learning goals was to understand the basic human needs of all of our brothers and sisters in the world. During those years, I traveled and lived in England, Norway, the mountains of Appalachia, and then I spent nearly ten years in Guatemala. That really helped me understand the world through a new lens, and it embedded firmly, in the depth of my being, this desire to create equity.

WF: What do you mean by equity?

JS: This is going to pull us right into what Right Sharing is about. Right Sharing was founded at the 1967 meeting of Friends World Committee for Consultation. It was birthed at that time as the “1% Fund.” The idea was that we all have abundance in terms of financial wealth, and that we should each be able to give 1% of our abundance into the pot and then redistribute that where the need is the greatest.

I think it’s only recently that, as a greater culture, we’ve begun to understand that equity isn’t just about how much each one of us has, or doesn’t have, in terms of things. If we back up and look at equity in terms of quality of life, we can put ourselves into the right balance that frees us to do God’s work. Equity isn’t about how much you have; it’s about the quality of your time and how you spend your life.

WF: Would you talk some about how Right Sharing of World Resources works?

JS: Our mission involves two different arms of work. One arm is to talk about these concepts among Friends because it is good for us to think about them and talk about them. That helps all of us get into better balance to do God’s work. One of the byproducts is people recognizing that they have abundance, and that they can share their wealth if they so choose.

Friends who share their wealth with Right Sharing, and there are many, are supporting the second arm of our work. We give micro-grants that become micro-loan programs run by groups of women in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Southern India. These are usually groups of twenty or so women who have gotten to a place together where they are ready to begin doing small-group, income-generating projects. We are stepping in at a place where people are eager to start something, and they need the affirmation, training, and seed money to begin their businesses.

WF: What support do you provide beyond financial?

JS: Well, we have a field representative in each country. Those field reps visit with the groups to understand the stage of development each group is in. Then they might encourage them to learn new skills before applying for a grant. For example if they don’t have a savings plan set up yet, the field rep will explain different ways they could do savings.

When the group is ready to start their businesses, and their application has been approved, then we grant them somewhere between $3500 to $5500, and we give them training that helps them set up and manage their own micro-loan organization. They are not going to pay that grant back to us, but they are going to loan it among themselves individually, and pay it back to the group. As it is paid back, it becomes available to additional women to borrow from and start their own businesses.

The program is a little different in each country. In India, there are local non-governmental organizations that do the ongoing training. In Kenya, the society does not have abundant local NGOs, so we are in the process of figuring out how we can create more support for women in Kenya. I am expecting to find the same situation in Sierra Leone.

WF: So why these three parts of the globe?

JS: By happenstance, really; through trustworthy Friends. We started our work in India because a trusted Friend was traveling in India, and came back and said, “There is an opportunity here. People are really ready for us to help them.” Sierra Leone, the same thing happened. Our history in Kenya is somewhat different. In Kenya, we began working primarily through the United Society of Friends Women.

WF: Are you seeing the effectiveness of micro-financing?

JS: It is hugely effective. I have visited with over eight hundred women individually in India and Kenya. I have seen without a doubt that their lives are changed – they are able to care for their families better and help their communities.

For example, one of the women I visited in India lives with two children and her husband in a house that is probably seven feet by sixteen feet, with no running water, no bathroom. Her husband does migrant agricultural work, which is undependable, and it means he is gone a lot. She used to work sewing in a local factory, which meant she was not home for her children.

So when Right Sharing came, this woman became part of a group that gave her a loan so she could buy her own sewing machine. This radically changed how she could live. She stays at home now and sews. She can take care of her children at home. She can take in local sewing work in abundance. So this woman’s daily life has changed, and her income has also increased because she is not working for somebody else who is taking a cut. When I met her, she was still living in that same little house, but she has the tenacity to do the hard work and to know that someday she is going to live in a house with indoor plumbing. And she is going to teach other young women how to sew. She is really thinking strategically about it – how she can help other people in her community and how she can get things to be better for her family.

Micro-financing is definitely a powerful vehicle. I do not have any doubts about that. It’s really the bigger picture that I wonder about.

WF: What do you mean?

JS: The women I’ve met throw a hundred percent of their energy – two hundred percent – into doing their work well. Whatever it is they set out to do – whether it is raising chickens, starting a tree nursery, selling recycled clothing, whatever it is – they put their whole selves into it. In India, they have a lot of support from local NGOs, so when they come up against a problem – like they can’t figure out how to get transportation to work – there is another layer of expertise beyond the group of women that helps them figure it out.

In Kenya, the women receive a grant, and the group essentially has to figure things out on their own because there are few supporting services available. The local group meets every month, and they talk with each other about what’s working and what isn’t working. But they are all at the same level, just starting in business. It is my sense, without any concrete data, that the projects in Kenya would be more successful with just a little more support.

WF: India’s got a more multi-tiered economy.

JS: Exactly. There is more wealth available to buy things. There are more educated people available to help. So I need to ask, “What factors do we need to look at in the local culture that will make our participation most effective?”

WF: So, comparing and contrasting your experiences in different countries, what would you say broadly about the effects of global poverty?

JS: I would say right away that we are going to get into a problem just using the expression, “global poverty.” In our culture, this is immediately thought of as material wealth unequally distributed. But that begs the question of what do we mean by poverty. If you have very little, but the quality of your life is joyful, are you poor? I don’t think equity is just about material wealth. So I’m not sure I agree with the concept, “global poverty.”

When I lived in Guatemala, I really struggled with a sense of guilt in terms of “I have so much.” And then I came to the question, “OK, God, you have put me in this place in the universe, what is it you want me to do with it?” And what came to me was, “OK, I have been blessed with more in terms of wealth. So what’s my right balance? How do I learn to live so that I don’t take more than my share?”

WF: If you don’t talk about global poverty, what terms do you use?

JS: I really stick with “right sharing.” That says so much to me. Right sharing is about sharing what I have, and it is also about not taking more than I need. I see the concept of “global poverty” as coming out of a culture and an attitude of colonization. Like, “We know better; we can help you.” So “right sharing” is how I tend to talk about it.

WF: How do you think about your work in relation to forces that are a dragging in the other direction? Global wealth inequality continues to worsen.

JS: The growing concentration of wealth is a scary trajectory. But it reminds me that the mission of Right Sharing is right on. It is all about right sharing! As a planet, it is true that the wealth is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer individuals. There’s work to be done about that, and Right Sharing is taking the piece that we’re able to deal with. The more we get out there and talk about it, the better.

WF: You’ve talked about some shifts in framing and perspective that are helping me look at this from a slightly different angle.

JS: And as we learn to see things differently, it influences who we elect in our leadership and where we put our energy. It does make a difference eventually.

What makes me mad . . . money talks in my culture, and it talks on the planet. . . I lived in Norway for a couple of years, and they have universal health care, they have universal education, they have a sense of caring for each other. There is much more equity there. And when I look at the culture I live in, it is based on the fear of scarcity. And I think that if you base your economy on the fear of scarcity, then everyone feels like they need more, because they are afraid they won’t have enough. Some people figure out how to garner more than their share, which feels totally justified to them, approaching life from a fear of scarcity.

WF: So what do we do about it?

JS: Part of what I discover as I step into these communities of women, is that if you step into a culture that has a sense of community and caring for each other already, and if you bring to them the idea of an income-generating project, it’s possible for the integrity of the community to continue to be the primary mandate. It’s possible that the income-generating project can actually help all of them. So, that would be my hope as I am moving forward, that these projects will benefit communities because they care about each other, and they are trying to figure out how to do better together.  ~~~