Before being nicknamed ‘The Mindful Warrior’ of Global Grassroots, Gretchen Ki Steidle began her humanitarian pilgrimage by first listening to and learning from the marginalized. From the deserts of Eastern Chad to the corners of Thailand and the townships of South Africa, Gretchen spent months speaking with survivors fleeing the genocide in Darfur, studying under a female Buddhist monk fighting a pandemic of domestic violence, and sitting at the knees of women, who served as pillars for their community, even while suffering from HIV/AIDS.
It was inspiration from her experience meeting social visionaries around the world, making a difference even with such limited resources, that led Gretchen to found Global Grassroots in 2004. The international non-profit blends elements of mindfulness coaching with social entrepreneurship training and seed funding to help vulnerable women design and launch their own micro-ventures to aid other women in their respective communities.
Women, by nature of their role as primary caretakers, especially in post-conflict circumstances, have the greatest insight into the critical issues facing society at the grassroots level. Yet, these women almost always have the least access to the financial resources, education, skills training, and other support services needed to advance their plans for social change or attend to their own rehabilitation needs. To address this, Global Grassroots has trained over 600 change agents from Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Cameroon, Canada and the US, giving birth to 120 different women-led projects in the past ten years.
Each woman Global Grassroots works with is trained in the art of mindfulness which research has shown benefits the individual in a myriad of ways, including increased positive emotions, decreased stress, depression and rumination, increased immune functioning, increased memory function, and lower conflict or anger. Mindfulness practices, like breathing techniques and meditation, can also be used to help rebuild a patient’s confidence, dignity, and compassion which are critical elements for PTSD and sexual assault victims in trauma zones, which are the primary areas Global Grassroots operates.
In her own words, Gretchen defines mindfulness as becoming aware of the present moment whatever it is, without judgment, yet with curiosity. Just paying attention to what is. “Mindfulness allows us to understand ourselves and change from the inside out, build stronger relationships, respond more wisely instead of reacting, be guided by our own unique wisdom and insights, learn from and find meaning in our work, step into our leadership capacity and serve the needs around us responsively, creatively and compassionately,” she said.
The theoretical model her organization embodies is her own – ‘Conscious Social Change’, a design philosophy and methodology of creative, compassionate problem-solving and solutions-building grounded in mindfulness and self-awareness. We got the chance to sit down with Gretchen and ask her some of our questions to dive deeper into her philosophy and hear about the women she has worked with over time; continue reading below for her answers and scroll all the way down to learn how your next purchase of Maxim Organic and Natural Menstrual Care Products will fund Global Grassroots and get you a discount too!
Can you explain your Conscious Social Change theory to us a bit more?
It begins with a deep understanding of ourselves and our own needs. We must first cultivate our own ability to be present or mindful. That leads us to see how change affects us personally and where suffering, anxiety, reactivity and fear originate. Then we can work to find wholeness in the areas of our lives that may need attention. We learn how to restore balance through self-care when our work becomes too stressful or we get off track in our approach. Mindfulness also helps us determine what is the wisest response in any moment so that we are aware of our intentions, do not get stuck on our own agenda and do not react and cause harm, but instead transform suffering. This helps us stay attuned to the needs of the people we are serving and to find ways to work compassionately with our opposition. Finally, this process helps us find what we are most called to do so that we can pursue our passions and embody mindfulness while helping others. Bringing mindfulness to our social justice work allows for radical creativity.
How do breathing practices affect the mind and why are they so important?
Most of American culture is operating with an overly-stimulated sympathetic nervous system which is why we have so many people with chronic fatigue syndrome – they wear themselves out. It is also possible that it can get stuck on or become over-stimulated overtime. This system burns a lot of energy, and when it stays on for too long, it leads to exhaustion and illness. When the stress response system gets stuck on high, it can lead to difficulty sleeping, nervousness, hyper-arousal, headaches, back pain, shaking, paranoia, flashbacks, muscle tension, constant worry, memories of the event, avoidance of things that are associated with the situation, over-reactivity to certain stimuli, feeling overemotional or numb.
The breath is a mirror of the mind. We can use a focus on conscious breathing as a way to strengthen our awareness of what we are experiencing emotionally, mentally and physically. And self healing begins with awareness and acceptance of “what is”. With each inhale and exhale, breath represents the potential of the fullness of life, the cycle of impermanence, the balance of free will and letting go, the rising of energy, the impetus for healing and the intelligence of our bodies. Breathing essentially resets and rebalances the autonomic nervous system, letting people gradually begin to explore and talk through traumatic events, integrating real memories.
How do you connect these women and girls to the global network of resources that do exist? And how are their projects funded?
Our program first trains them in understanding the nuts-and-bolts skills needed to plan a social venture from scratch so that they can always do it again to start something new or to evolve or expand their existing programs. Included in this training are best practices on how to financially sustain their operations after they begin by using creative strategies to raise funds, leverage waste, and draw upon their own community. Also through their process of venture planning, monitoring and evaluation and reporting to us, they learn what is necessary to attend to any other grant application and reporting process. We teach them the financial literacy to budget for their ventures, analyze their spending and make sound financial decisions.
After going through our 40 hour curriculum and 6-12 months of venture development coaching, we then fund 100% of their start-up costs with a grant (not a loan, as we do not want them distracted by debt payments as they begin operations). Once they are operating, we stick with them for an entire year to help them with any operational, funding and managerial challenge so that they can reach self-sufficiency within 12 months. At that time, they have officially graduated from our incubator and then if they need it, we help them connect with interested donors, use crowd-funding platforms like GlobalGiving and apply for grants with other institutions they or we may have identified to provide additional resources. We also help our teams connect with experts and volunteers, as well as connect the with other NGOs operating in their region on similar issues when they may need such experts. This has included in the past, support from filmmakers and editors, reproductive health experts, gender-based violence experts, legal experts, technical assistance with construction, water quality testing and hygiene management.
How can our readers get involved or support Global Grassroots?
Our biggest needs are funding and visibility. Because our change agents have no capacity to pay for their training or the funding of their ventures (most of our change agents live on about $2 per day and it takes between $10,000 – $18,000 to train and initiate a woman’s venture and about $4000 for a young woman’s project), we completely depend on the generosity of our donors. Just $7 can provide clean water access and help alleviate the violence associated with water collection through our current Women’s Water Leadership Initiative, a partnership with Coca-Cola that will be launching nine to eleven women-led water enterprises that will bring clean water to 30,000 people across Rwanda this year.
How will the money raised through our #FierceWomenFunded campaign be used by Global Grassroots?
The funding raised through the #FierceWomenFunded campaign will go directly to supporting the ventures of our fierce women and girls in Rwanda and Uganda. We currently have 11 venture teams under development in Rwanda that will address clean water access, hygiene, sexual exploitation, sexual and domestic violence, girls education and economic opportunity among 30,000 people across Rwanda. And we have 25 young women’s ventures currently engaged in our program, including 12 in Uganda and 13 in Rwanda, all working on issues central to girls lives including reproductive health, sex education, teen pregnancy, early marriage and girls education. Please see our website for profiles of their ideas.
Maxim Hygiene readers who want to help support Global Grassroot’s can host a dinner to share project videos and raise money among friends, bid on items to benefit their organization via CharityBuzz, or retweet them (@consciouschange or @ggrassroots)!
Our team was so inspired by Gretchen’s story that we wanted to do more! We asked them to be a premiere partner in our #FierceWomenFunded campaign, where, year round, our featured fierce women have the option to choose Global Grassroots as the charity they want Maxim to donate 10% of their online store sales to for the duration of their feature. So if you’re feeling just as inspired, use the following promo code at the Maxim Hygiene online store to get 10% off your next order and support a 10% donation paid by Maxim to Global Grassroots! Coupon Code: GLOBALGR