Photo of Melinda Kramer building solar cookers at the 2010 West Africa Global Women's Water Initiative Training
Melinda Kramer (middle) building solar cookers at the 2010 West Africa Global Women’s Water Initiative Training

Listening and Connecting the Dots

by Kirsten Jacobsen

Melinda Kramer, AB’03, founded and co-directs the Women’s Earth Alliance, a nonprofit that supports women at the grassroots level in their efforts to implement meaningful environmental reforms in their own communities. The organization focuses on promoting clean water, healthy food and land rights through direct empowerment of women leaders in some of the most underserved and environmentally threatened parts of the world.

Kramer credits two WUSTL opportunities with helping shape her perspective on the relationship between environmental issues and social issues. Both experiences underscored the role women play in keeping their families and communities healthy. First, as an anthropology major studying abroad in Kenya, Kramer accompanied women who walked four hours daily to collect water weighing 40 pounds or more for their families. After returning to St. Louis, Kramer became involved in the Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic working in Herculaneum, Mo. where the community was fighting to clean up land made toxic by the local lead smelter. Kramer was actively engaged with their effort.

“I met families whose homes were literally 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 articulate in expressing their community’s needs,” Kramer says. “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 women 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, Kramer graduated from WUSTL and traveled the world working for development organizations including CARE Kenya, Pacific Environment and the Natural Capital Institute. In her inspiring TED talk, Kramer chronicles her journey from undergraduate to seasoned social entrepreneur, developing the knowledge and experience that would ultimately help her bring together women from around the world to create WEA. In all her travels she saw confirmation of the observations she had made as a student.

“Every environmental issue I encountered, I found women leading the charge, often without support or recognition. I started seeing woman after woman after woman environmental leader who I had encountered on my path…I could actually feel the groundswell of genius, passion and know-how that could be tapped if these women were linked strategically, pooling their eforts, so that they were not only able to influence their local campaigns but to participate meaningfully at a global level.”

Photo of Melinda Kramer

Speaking at the 2013 WEA Gala: From Ripple to Wave

Further inspiration for Kramer arrived with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kenyan activist Wangari Mathaai in 2004 for her work to end deforestation in Kenya. Kramer knew that there were scores of such women hard at work in their own communities who could benefit tremendously from the opportunity to learn from, and teach, one another. With this in mind, Kramer along with advisers and colleagues organized a meeting in 2006 that would plant the seed for Women’s Earth Alliance to grow. Thirty women community leaders from 26 countries around the world, ranging in age from 26 to 82, were invited to Mexico City ahead of the Fourth World Water Forum. Together they were asked the question, “What would it look like if grassroots women leaders around the world were supported and united in their efforts to protect our communities and our lands?”

Women who had previously worked in relative isolation now found themselves able to share stories of progress and failure, compare notes, and strategize for the future with allies who shared their vision for change. Kramer tells the story of one participant who told the group, “I traveled thousands of miles to be here, but I finally feel like I am home.”

By the end of the visioning meeting, the attendees had devised a core set of strategies to enhance their efforts at the local and global level and set regional priorities for the group to address. Women’s Earth Alliance was born.

Photo of participants of the West Africa Global Women's Water Initiative Training in 2010

The 2010 participants of the West Africa Global Women’s Water Initiative Training

WEA currently works in three areas of the world. Its South Asia Program supports small and emerging women’s groups that are promoting food sovereignty and traditional knowledge, and advocating for the rights of women farmers. The North America Program links their Advocacy Network of pro bono legal, policy and business advocates nationwide with Indigenous women leading grassroots environmental campaigns in North America. In Africa, WEA created the Global Women’s Water Initiative (GWWI) in partnership with Crabgrass, a California-based group. Together, they provide training for women and grassroots groups to implement water-related strategies so they can improve their communities’ health, self reliance and resilience to climate change.

Kramer says she would never have predicted that she would one day lead a global women’s organization. She fell in love with anthropology at Washington University, she says, and the opportunities she enjoyed in college started her on this path. Her passion for collaboration, listening and engaging demonstrate her anthropological roots.

“. . .these women have the answers, they know what they need to do. All they need is a little bit of support and connection to other leaders. The best thing we can do is listen and connect the dots.”

For more information about Melinda Kramer, please see the Women’s Earth Alliance website, Ms. Kramer’s TED talk, and this previous interview with WUSTL.