Empowering women is a proven strategy for addressing social challenges
A social and environmental justice leader, Dr. Jackie Copeland is the founder/CEO of The Women Invested to Save Earth (WISE) Fund, an innovation enterprise, supporting grassroots women climate change innovators in Africa, Brazil, Australia and the USA. Also the founder of Black Philanthropy Month, a global campaign to document, celebrate and promote giving, social investment and venture funding that has reached 17 million people, she also is an award-winning social change visionary recognised as a HistoryMaker by the US Congress for her impactful civic contributions.
Trained as an Anthropologist and Urban Designer, her life mission is to promote the wellness and rights of humanity. Having served as COO/CEO of several boards, companies and financial institutions, she is also a professor, curator, blogger and keynote speaker. She is also founder of the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network and among her proudest social justice contributions is the initial design of My Brothers’ Keeper, an Obama Administration legacy initiative to advance equality and the life opportunities of low-income men and boys. Specialising in the US, Africa and South Asia, she studied African history, culture, languages and religion at OAU, Ile-Ife under Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she shares her experiences, especially as it concerns women empowerment in Africa.
Tell us about the WISE Fund, how did you come about this idea?
I created the Fund because the severity of the challenges facing the world require that all people have a chance to make a difference for humanity and the planet. But not all people get equal opportunity and funding to contribute their talents to solve the world’s problems. Founded in March 2020 as our Women’s History Month celebration and launch, the WISE Fund is an initiative devoted to empowering black and indigenous leaders address the most daunting social and environmental challenges in their communities and the world.
We have two primary programs. First, we are the backbone organisation for Black Philanthropy Month and Reunity: The Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network, its summits and other social action efforts. Second, we identify and fund grassroots women innovators with novel, promising, high impact technology or other strategies to help their communities and the world address the many negative environmental and health effects of global warming, while providing more economic opportunity for women in the much needed “green economy,” especially in Africa and other parts of the world. We focus on these groups because they’re the world’s most undersupported innovators. Furthermore, empowering women is a proven strategy for addressing all social and environmental challenges. Women, especially from lower income communities, are hit hardest by environmental and related public health challenges such as COVID-19. We will do our first funding round next month and hope that others will join in supporting the amazing women-led or benefiting organisations that could literally save our planet.
Climate change is not something that is being taken very serious in Nigeria, how do you intend to pass your message across and get people interested in it?
Nigerians are some of the most resilient people on the planet and manage to adjust to all nature of calamity, natural and artificial, with ingenuity. But the effects of climate change are all around Nigeria, even if people just take it for granted as another indication of life’s unending hardships. Most Nigerians know that the dry season has been getting hotter and dustier; the wet season, wetter. The resulting floods, fires, destruction of land, water shortages, as well as increase in public health challenges such as asthma, lung diseases, visual impairment and even COVID-19, are not just part of some natural cycle of life; they are the direct result of the destruction of natural habitats, the atmosphere and agricultural lands brought on by the escalation in the world, Africa’s and the world’s temperature levels.
We plan to support activists and innovators who can help everyday people better understand how climate change is impacting their daily life, making people and lands unhealthy, and making survival more difficult overall. We also highlight the people and organisations making a difference. Renewable energy such as solar and wind power, making them accessible to the masses, as well as efficient public transportation are important steps to reduce the fossil fuels use that is warming the environment too rapidly and damaging our natural environments.
As the world battles with increasing climate changes, what key lessons are thre for Nigeria?
There are three key levers for positive change. First, environmentally-friendly government policies that encourage and require clean energy are key. This is difficult here where so many leaders benefit from oil production. But oil and utility companies around the world are recognising that renewable energy sources are necessary as the costs of overdependence on oil outweigh the societal benefit as indicated by our warming planet and encroaching environmental problems. So, government policies that make sustainable, clean energy production a priority are key.
Also, support of innovators and technologists throughout Nigeria to solve global warming challenges is important. The WISE Fund is considering support of several of these initiatives that include creating clean drinking water inexpensively from condensation in the air, solar powered lighting with built-in WiFi made from recycled materials.
Third, every citizen should get educated and come up with a plan, including holding leaders accountable for renewable energy policies and practices; recycling; promotion of green economy jobs that help people make a good living caring for the environment; protection of animal species many of whom make our natural environments more habitable by consuming natural pathogens that infect humans left unchecked; new building standards to better protect people from more severe and frequent weather and flooding; as well as public environmental education for youth and adults so that we can all understand that protecting the natural environment is vital to the health and prosperity of all.
How does the Black Philanthropy Month benefit the average Nigerian woman?
With its ancient giving practices that have now spread worldwide, I’m proud that it has always been a continental and global Pan-African endeavour, including all African regions and its worldwide diaspora. Nigerians have been strong supporters of Black Philanthropy Month and fundamental to its growth. In fact, seven Nigerians were among the leadership of Black Philanthropy Month 2020, including Thelma Ekiyor, Founder and Chairperson, Afrigrants; Dr. Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome, Co-founder Bring Back Our Girls NYC and Professor at Brooklyn College; Dr. Una Osili, Associate Dean Lilly Family School of Philanthropy; Ndidi Nwuneli, Founder/CEO LEAP Africa; Mosun Layode, Executive Director African Philanthropy Forum; Aisha Oyebode-Muhammed of Murtala Muhammed Foundation; Toyin Adegbite-Moore, Executive Director (West Africa Region) African Venture Philanthropy Alliance; and Folake Marcus Bello of We The Women. They were instrumental in organising the summits and their collective work, as well as the contributions of other Nigerian philanthropic leaders, is providing access to basic life necessities, educational and economic opportunity, as well as life saving health care for millions of Nigerians. They are filling gaps left by government and public services, even if the everyday Nigerian does not know the source of the support. They do this work by supporting high impact NGOs, businesses and policy reforms to advance everyday Nigerians’ human rights, economic security and wellness. My hope is that the Nigerian Philanthropy Movement expands even further and collaborates with grassroots organisations to ensure the country’s resources uplift all people.
What conversations and actions are being taken to generate impact and mobilise funding?
Outcomes are still emerging, but so far, it seems to have had several positive outcomes, incuding involvement of at least 2000 participants; a novel, high tech virtual community platform for networking and knowledge exchange among the world’s philanthropy and funding leaders, an important contribution in a COVID world of social isolation; further global expansion of the BPM Movement in Africa and diaspora; the creation of an actionable set of principles to strengthen homegrown black funding and promote funding equity in the corporate sector; the emergence of The WISE Fund as the BPM backbone organisation to sustain the movement overtime, including coordination and tracking of its funding empowerment and equity principles this year and in the future; and finally, garnering more global support for women funding leaders. We planned three BPM Central events for August as part of the global Black Giving and Beyond Summit. Reunity, the remaining event for BPM’s 2020 Summits, is a global women funders’ leadership revival and personal development retreat. Featuring top funding leaders, the event would end with a celebration and party led by renowned @DJRedCorvette. The first 100 registrants will receive a free e-book copy of Everyday Ubuntu, an engaging guide on how live well through giving and mutual support by Mungi Ngomane, patron of the Tutu Foundation, granddaughter of Archbishop Tutu and daughter of Reverend Nontombi Naomi Tutu.
You studied Anthropology and Urban Design, how did you transition into activism?
I have always wanted to use the knowledge of our communities to empower what I consider the art and science of social change. I have always been an activist-scholar, believing communities contribute much to academic learning and we must use that knowledge to better humanity and the planet. Furthermore, Africans are often studied by those outside of our community; I wanted to be part of the movement to empower us, including those in the diaspora like me, studying their own communities as well, which is a basic human right to know one’s history and culture. As a person of African descent, I am exceedingly blessed to document and expand our voluntary sector traditions and innovation practices to promote social and environmental justice. There is so much to learn from Africa and the global experience of its people.
Nigeria is still battles with power supply, do you think embracing alternative energy is the way forward?
Nigeria and the world must embrace alternative energy sources, as extracting the conventional fossil fuel sources at the levels needed and using oil-based energy to support our burgeoning populations, is literally destroying the planet, including its land, animals, human health and our atmosphere. Africans throughout the continent are creating novel alternatives.
Furthermore, the reason ‘NEPA is always taking the light’ is because the conventional electrical grid, above ground, stationary infrastructure is not feasible to install or maintain to meet the demand of megacities or withstand the increasingly severe weather storms of a warming planet. The downed power lines can be blown by the wind into parched, doubt-stricken landscapes causing virulent wildfires.
One of my favorite alternative power infrastructure solutions has been created by a fellow Nigerian, Jessica Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Powers, where I am a board advisor. Using a high-tech combination of easy to install-in-the-ground panels, powered in part by kinetic and other alternative sources, Uncharted Power, along with many other indigenous organisations, have exciting renewable energy solutions for Nigeria that could fix the perennial power problem that I remember so well from my youth spent in Nigeria.
You have a keen interest in African history, culture, languages and religion, how best can we market these things to the world?
Africa has a huge influence on the culture of the world from throughout its history. American and world popular music, jazz, and modern art have their origins in the adaptation of African-derived aesthetics, language, oratory religion and dance by its global diaspora and by Europeans who appropriated the culture. The challenge now is for Africans and its diaspora to own and benefit from their cultural and creative production. A key to this is strategically using international trade and patent law for us to own and financially benefit from our production, while protecting our cultural heritage. Appalling recent examples of cultural appropriation include Diseny’s trademark of the Swahili term Hakuna Matata, used in its Lion King movie.
There are calls to trademark African languages to prevent commercialisation that does not benefit us. There is some precedent being set for protection of African cultural production. For example, South Africa’s Khoisan people were able to get some recurring compensation for the commercialisation of their traditional Rooibos tea, although 1.5 per cent of sales seems a bit low; it is a start.
Yoruba Ifa divination is now recognised and protected by UNESCO. Many African technology innovations are at-risk of appropriation by multinational companies without these intellectual property protections.
Awareness by African peoples and creating policies that make it easier for African innovators on the continent and in the diaspora to have equitable trademark protections for our cultural heritage and contemporary creative production are an important component of the global human rights and economic justice movements. I’m most impressed with the development of Nollywood and its international sophistication in matters of trademark protections.
You have written books and articles on business and social issues, what are some economic strategies you would tell women entrepreneurs to embrace especially now?
I think it is most important for those of us with some financial means to create collectives such as The WISE Fund to share and economically empower women and others in Africa and the diaspora. All African women should ensure that they are financially literate in the contemporary capital world, avoiding the pitfalls of overleveraged, easy-to-get mobile money that is increasingly leaving people indebted. Creating coops to lower the cost of financial and other administrative services and provide mutual support such as babysitting is critical, especially in lean times like the current recession. Mastering creative uses of virtual tech that allows for low cost business operations that can make the home one’s office is also critical. Accessing and using mobile solar power to support one’s business and household is key. Collaborate with others to give time, talent, treasure and voice to create safe communities and women’s rights that are critical for successful enterprise. Master contemporary marketing, including social media, as a means to promoting your business across communities and even international boundaries, especially since our diasporas are huge global markets for our products and services. Finally, take time to take care of yourself so that you are well and able to enjoy the fruit of your labours.
How can we get more women to access funding for businesses?
This is a tough one as very little venture funding gets to Africans. A promising development is the expansion indigenous social investment and venture funding. Start with a strong business plan and some track record, then visit the African Venture Philanthropy Alliance and SME.Ng for advice on how to begin.
Sitting on the board and advising many companies, what are some key life lessons you have learned?
I have shared many of my lessons already, but I think that having the full diversity of the market served is key to a profitable, socially and environmentally responsible company. Diversity in governance is good for business and society.
You worked on My Brothers Keeper Initiative that President Obama adopted then, can we model and implement something similar for Nigerians?
I did not work for that initiative, but I did create the original groundwork contained in a 2008 programme design and report that I wrote called, My Brothers Keeper that he and his team consulted in creating the initiative. The framework, adapted appropriately for different communities, could work in many places where there are broad based structural barriers to human rights and equal opportunity for men from disadvantaged communities.
I could see such an approach worthy of possible consideration in South Africa with Khoisan men, for example, who are socially ostracised. In any case, gender sensitive initiatives for disadvantaged children, men, women and nonbinary people to achieve their full human potential is a worthy endeavor for a just society in any country.
A professor, curator, blogger and speaker amongst other things you do, how do you make everything work?
Like most leaders, I work hard to keep burnout at bay. The key is to remain creative, doing the work of my heart in a community of kindred spirits. I’m re-energised and it seems that the universe gives me the support I need, especially as I have grown older, and hopefully wiser, I do more to prioritise my own wellness. I have to take care of myself, because I deserve it, so that I can keep serving.
In your opinion, why do we have fewer women at the helm of affairs and how can this be corrected?
Sexism and patriarchy are as old as humanity itself. It’s never been fair, if we believe that all human beings should have equal rights, as most of our constitutions claim. But given the world’s challenges especially, it’s not sustainable to exclude women from the corridors of power. The African Women’s Rights movement is demanding women’s inclusion in leadership and making strides throughout the continent.
If you could influence change for Nigerian women, what is the first thing you would do?
Nigerian women are strong and brilliant; they’ve inspired and supported me in so many ways. The one thing that I would say to my sisters is to remember that you are beautiful and powerful just the way you are. Be proud of being Nigerian, always remembering the richness and resilience of the culture, much of it is created and sustained by women. Teach it and model it for our children, including teaching our children to be proud of their diverse and striking natural beauty, African culture and languages. Mastery of our heritage, combined with mutual support and justice for all, are the keys to the success of our people in the contemporary world.
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