An Ordinary Woman

Dr. Harrison is the 2007 recipient of the Helena, Montana Soroptimist award to "Women Who Make A Difference."  The following is her comment about this award:

An Ordinary Woman

I never particularly wanted to go to Africa. 

I think about that as I prepare for my fifth trip of service to Kenya. Whether my first choice or not, Africa beckons—the desperate needs of the sub-Saharan people beckon, and I choose to respond.

I do not identify with successful women of great accomplishment, those who have abundant resources to support carefully structured goals and organized lives. I am not an Oprah Winfrey or Melinda Gates. I am an ordinary woman: a mother, a colleague, a friend, a wanna-be wife.

Six years ago circumstances brought me to a place of dramatic need, sub-Saharan Africa. I was a faculty member aboard a university ship, leading students to visit AIDS orphans when we docked in Kenya. Returning home, I couldn’t get those little brown faces, those beautiful and hungry orphaned faces, out of my mind...13,000,000 of them in Africa. I didn’t have a clue what to do. What did I feel I could do? Not much. It took me a couple more years in a mediocre career before I would just stop worrying, let go, open my arms wide and say “yes” to wherever that simple affirmation might take me.   I learned quickly that you don’t have to know much to take action. You do have to have a strong desire, then start asking questions and ask for help. Ideas come. Doors open. That’s it; it’s that easy.

I merely said “yes” to something catching at my heart. What an impractical idea! How would I ever pay my rent?! But because I said “yes” many women are alive today, living with dignity. They are able to feed their families without resorting to prostitution or selling a child. An ordinary woman did this, one not particularly organized, knowing nothing of fundraising, nonprofits, or business, with no great vision and no plan. I looked in front of me, saw one small step and took it, feeling my way in the dark. It is indeed true that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and I challenge you to take that first step. People will call you odd, impulsive, foolhardy, or worse. Take it anyway.

For me, one step led to another, to new ideas and resources. Some didn’t work, some did. At every step I thought “I can’t possibly do this!” But I remembered those faces, and I did it anyway.  I am founder and director of HARAMBEE, which means “all pull together” in Swahili. HARAMBEE is a small organization, but in two years has accomplished the following:

  1. 501 c 3 nonprofit status
  2. Through slideshow talks, craft shows, photo exhibits, raised $20,000 funding microeconomics projects in Kenya caring for women and children
  3. Organized workgroups of HIV+ women at three sites in Kenya, marketing their  goods in the U.S. and sending profits back to Kenya
  4. Crafted a business and marketing plan for HARAMBEE products, with help from Loyola University’s College of Business Administration
  5. Designed HARAMBEE’s website (www.projectharambee.org)
  6. Participated as panelist and presenter at the World AIDS Day forum in 2004 and 2005 at Loyola University and Stritch College of Medicine
  7. Collected 20 donated sewing machines for transport to the HARAMBEE groups, expanding their production repertoire and productivity
  8. Founded Chicago Africa Care Consortium, a networking and resource-sharing group for regional nonprofits working in Africa
  9. Authored a grant proposal for the development of a Chicago-based medical volunteer program to Africa
  10. Planned and presented an undergraduate college syllabus for a survey course studying  economics/politics/history/public health in developing countries, culminating in a volunteer trip to Africa
  11. Organized 3 service missions to Kenya. In 2006 this included a comprehensive medical student program including fundraising, education, in-country donation and volunteer work, and an epidemiological study resulting in two publications and two workshops in a university sponsored leadership development conference

Our 2007 trip further targets economic and community development:

  1. soapmaking
  2. dairy goats & chickens to supply clinics & schools with milk, eggs, & cheese
  3. oral rehydration therapy
  4. beekeeping

Maybe there’s a good reason for someone like me to win the Soroptimist award. Maybe the world needs to see that an ordinary woman who says “yes” will be filled with increasingly focused energy and power, that the world can be changed by one ordinary woman who won’t keep quiet and won’t quit.

Of course there are limits in our lives and they are real. In times past they came in the form of bound feet, tight corsets, restrictions on voting, education, property ownership. Not too many years ago, I myself was denied when I applied for a bank account in my maiden name (certainly a subversive idea!)

Now, though, women are heads of corporations, leaders of countries, speakers of the house, heads of WHO. The external limits are gone. The only ones left are self-imposed.

So stop it. Don’t keep yourself down. The world needs you and is waiting for just an ordinary woman who will do extraordinary things. That woman is me. That woman is every female reading this. That woman is you.

We women, with our two X chromosomes, deeply understand that the secret of life is to make things grow.

Women in their 50’s are dangerous. So are women in their 40’s, their 60’s, their 30’s, their 20’s. So be dangerous. Let love be dangerous. Change the world.