Monthly Archives: May 2012

Antonia Bowring – Inspiring on many dimensions

In this, my second profile in the series “Celebrating a Whole Life,” I am privileged to write about Antonia Bowring, a woman who has inspired me for many years and who truly deserves to be celebrated. Antonia is someone who I have admired for her thoughtful choices and honesty, but what first amazed me about her was something I discovered in a freezer.

I was impressed by Antonia from the moment I met her. She was facilitating the first staff retreat I attended with Acumen Fund nine years ago, and her approach to guiding us through complex and sometimes delicate conversations was both intimate and commanding. She had the complete trust of our CEO, and I was so curious about her story – who was this woman who could pop into our three day meeting to help us as we shaped some of the key elements of our strategy as a freelance consultant.

So I was already curious about her when on our second day at the offsite retreat I opened the freezer to find ice cubes and found small frozen pouches of milk and naively asked what they were. She was nearby and told me she was pumping milk for a baby she had at home. The whole concept was foreign to me at the time (though it is all too familiar now) and I suddenly had to replay the past 24 hours. In the past day of marathon working sessions, interspersed with the kind of intense social time that was possible for a team of about 11, she had been finding time to fulfill this commitment to an infant somewhere hours away.

Antonia became somewhat of a beacon for me as I thought about having a family years later. Wondering how it would all work, I would think of her and know that it was possible to achieve tremendous professional respect even in the midst of nursing a baby.  This may seem obvious to the many many women who do this every day, but to me, at that moment that I peered into the freezer, it was a revelation.

It had a big impact on me years later when I was nursing my first child and returned to work. Rather than aim for subtlety in managing the oh-so-fun process of pumping 3 times a day at work for months, I decided to be relaxed and open about it, wondering if perhaps some younger woman might make a mental note, as I had, that this was something that people do, and it can work.

Antonia has stayed in Acumen Fund’s orbit, and I have continued to watch her career and life with fascination, moving from success to success, now the mother of two beautiful boys and the COO of the Open Space Institute. The Open Space Institute (OSI) protects scenic, natural, and historic landscapes for the public as well as for the sake of environmental conservation. She manages the systems and finances of an organization that has protected more than 116,000 acres and made more than 70 loans and grants for nearly $80 million to protect 1.6 million acres valued at over $530 million. From her work in women’s microfinance internationally to serving as a portfolio manager at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation – one of New York’s most innovative education philanthropies – and now serving on the board of ioby, a grassroots environmental organization, she has found so many ways to make a difference on so many important issues.

When I decided to write this series of posts I knew I would reach out to her. In part because I already owed her a tremendous debt for cracking open the idea of combining mothering and contributing professionally in such a powerful way, but also because I wanted to better understand her story.

We had dinner together recently and I was able to form a more nuanced picture of her work at the Open Space Institute, balancing the needs of two children a few years older than my own with her leadership responsibilities. She was refreshingly honest about tradeoffs she had made, but I saw that the same art that I had observed when I first met her to put the pieces together was still in full effect. She agreed to answer my five questions, and I had one more for her before we parted ways after our dinner. “What is the bottom line, when it comes to work – what can’t be given up?” Her response – “Making a difference.” I was so glad we’d stayed in touch and that I would have a chance to celebrate Antonia, and thank her, in writing, for helping show me a path I could learn from.

Here’s how Antonia answered the 5 questions I pose to all of the women I highlight in my Celebrating a Whole Life series.

1.     How do you define success?

When I “started out”, I defined it as “making a difference”.  By that I meant a difference in resolving the inequalities faced by many people – my focus was economic inequalities faced by women in developing countries.  I still want to make a difference….but my tableau right now is more local.  I can’t work if it doesn’t have a positive benefit for society one way or another.  But my definition of success now also includes raising two strong, capable, thoughtful, adventure seeking young men.  Oh yes, I’d love to define success by winning a tennis tournament. I know it will happen ONE DAY.

2.     What is your greatest struggle?

It’s such a cliché.  Its feeling like I don’t do much of anything well because I’m so scattered.  I do “ok” work; I’m an “ok” mom; I’m an OK athlete, I’m an ok board member; I’m not sure if I even rise to the ranks of “ok” life partner.

3.     What are you proudest of?

Hands down, my two boys.

4.     Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life? 

I don’t recall her name.  She is the publisher of Julia Child’s cookbook series. (I can look it up.)  She was a pioneer in believing in the book and its impact.  And now in her 80s in VT, she is still a pioneer raising organic cattle.  I love that she still has a sense of adventure, creativity and she hasn’t just stopped “thinking” and watches TV all the time.

5.     If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

 I’d cook, I’d have friends over, I’d eat and drink with them, and we’d all have scintillating conversations because I’d have time to keep up on news and read books about philosophy!  (And I’d listen more to my boys in a non distracted way.)

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A Gift on Many Levels

I went to Harlem this weekend with some friends who live there. We went for the food, and we stayed after to play in Jackie Robinson Park with my two kids. It was an idyllic day, and though I could see that it was different in some ways from being in my own West Village neighborhood I was mostly noticing how it was the same. Same clusters of kids making playgrounds boisterous, same slightly weary moms or dads keeping an eye out, same couples trolling for a place to dine. But all neighborhoods have their histories, their own journeys, migrations towards the future – and particularly, threads that weave through a neighborhood of local leaders and institutions that can shape what the future looks like for the children of a neighborhood.

These local leaders and institutions are evident in little things – are the playgrounds safe, is the equipment freshly painted? In the playgrounds I visited, they were. How are the schools, the crime, the availability of nutritious food? How’s unemployment, college graduation rates? Now we start to talk about the big things. But these things are less dictated by history than they are by the local leaders and institutions that claim the neighborhood as their own. HEAF, the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, and its VP of Programs Merle McGee, are exactly the kind of institution and leader that are shaping this neighborhood’s future, and in truly incredible ways.

It’s not something I do very often, but today I am compelled to ask my friends and family to give to a good cause. The cause is a service learning trip by a group of young people from Harlem that are part of HEAF, a program designed to give them an opportunity to fulfill their potential through enrichment programs and support in attending and graduating from 4 year colleges. I met the VP of Programs, Merle McGee, several months ago and she is a dynamo of passion and dedication to the young people she works with.

Every year, a group of students goes on a service learning trip, and this year they’re going to do a cultural preservation project with the Garifuna. According to Merle “The Garifuna are descendents of Africans bound for slavery and indigenous Carib Indians of St. Vincent. Never heard of them? Well, despite being named a Masterpiece of Intangible Human Heritage by UNESCO, the Garifuna way of life and language are dying. HEAF scholars will partner with Garifuna youth to develop an interactive cultural preservation website for children throughout the Garifuna Diaspora.”

Giving should be about the receiver, and I am often critical of giving that centers on the giver, but this is really about both to me. The project that the HEAF Scholars will undertake with the Garifuna and the value it will have for them as young leaders is incredibly worthwhile – I have no doubts about that. But when I got the note from Merle asking for $50 to support the trip and project, I had this feeling that I was the lucky one that I would have a way to participate in some small way in this inspiring endeavor. This is not just about a good cause, but about a vision of the world where young people who have themselves been confronted by challenges are reaching outside of themselves, their community, their country, to connect with, learn from and honor another community that has faced even greater challenges. In a time when people everywhere are pulling inwards, driven by fear and anxiety, the picture I have in my mind of the HEAF Scholars on this trip fills me with hope.

I find this project inspiring in a way that is irresistible, and this is a gift that will make me feel connected to that sense of hope. Some gifts are like that, and I guess that’s OK. For whatever might motivate you – the desire to support high potential Harlem youth, the desire to help preserve a precious and unique culture, or the desire to be part of a beautiful story of what’s possible in the world – or maybe just the desire to follow the lead of a very enthusiastic blogger – I hope you’ll consider giving $50 to this project.  If you do, I hope it gives you the same lift that it has given me to tell you about this beautiful initiative.

To give, click here and select Learning for Social Impact as the program you’d like to support. And then just enjoy that feeling. It’s not always this easy. In fact, it rarely is.

HEAF’s Mission:

The Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, is a comprehensive, non-profit supplemental education and youth development organization that helps motivated students develop the intellectual curiosity, academic ability, social values, and personal resiliency they need to ensure success in school, career, and life. HEAF identifies students in middle school and supports them until they have successfully graduated from four-year colleges through a variety of after-school, Saturday, and summer educational and youth development programs.

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