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Posts Tagged ‘leadership & social change’

Call the Midwife

by Jennifer Worth

Penguin, 2012

3 volumes

I love BBC TV. Even the old shows, with their fuzzy camera work and costumes that look as if they came out of a long-neglected dress-up bin. I don’t have cable, however, and can’t get PBS over my TV antenna, so I have to make do with whatever Netflix has in its stockpile.

Thankfully, that stockpile is rather considerable, but it’s not very current. So when my English mother-in-law started raving about a new show titled Call the Midwife, I had no way of watching it right off the bat. Right about the time it finally showed up on Netflix, I learned that the show is based on true events–more specifically, a memoir of the same name.

Being me, I thought, “Why watch the TV show when I can read the books?!” and headed off to the library. I still intend to watch the show (in fact, this is the first time that a book has left me feeling more eager to see its TV/movie adaptation), but I’m glad I read the books first. Experiencing the stories as nonfiction, firsthand accounts, knowing that author Jennifer Worth and her friends lived every gritty detail, was incredibly inspiring.

Call the Midwife tells the story, in three fairly short volumes, of the time Worth spent training as a nurse-midwife in the East End of 1950s London. For those not familiar with London’s social history, the East End was the city’s poorest neighborhood, the site of centuries-old slums. It was also the site of the Docklands, Hitler’s prime target during the Blitz; bombed-out buildings (many of them inhabited by drug addicts, pimps, and gang members) dotted the neighborhood.

Worth comes to the East End looking for an adventurous escape from her mundane middle-class background. Thinking she will be training in a hospital, she is surprised to discover that she will actually be living and working out of a convent–her mentors are an order of nuns who have been providing nursing and midwifery services to the East End since Victorian times. Medical care and births take place in the East Enders’ homes, which are often at a level of squalor Worth has never before imagined, let alone encountered.

Over time, she forms fast friendships with her fellow trainees and with the nuns (who are not nearly as stuffy and rigid as she thought they would be) and comes to admire the dignity, tenacity, and sheer survivability of her patients.

Her memoir is full of incredible characters and situations, many of them seeming to come straight out of a Dickens novel. And as in Dickens, many of them are dark and unhappy. Worth tells of a mother and father who smother their newborn because they simply cannot fathom having another mouth to feed; of a pregnant teenage who is rescued from prostitution, only to suffer a nervous breakdown when her newborn is taken away for adoption; of families who turn to incest for relief from the emotional and mental trauma of extreme poverty.

But just when the darkness seems unbearable, Worth finds rays of light. Conchita Warren nurses her dangerously premature 25th (yes, 25th) baby to health, in defiance of doctors’ dire predictions. Julie fights through devastating personal loss to become the successful first mistress of her family’s 100-year-old pub. Families gather with awe and love around babies delivered in clean but ragged hovels, in the midst of raucous Christmas celebrations, in a haze of soot fallen from a dilapidated fireplace.

There’s inspiration in the convent, too. Ninety-year-old Sister Monica Joan, furious at Victorian society’s treatment of poor women, defied her aristocratic family’s wishes to work in the East End. Big, brassy Sister Evangelina clawed her way out of poverty, working dangerous jobs in munitions factories, to become the order’s most expert general nurse. And trainee Chummy, vilified by her upper-class family for her complete lack of social graces and her desire to be a missionary, finds fulfillment as an intuitive and gifted midwife.

Worth tells how these women, and the ones who came before them, brought some relief from suffering to the East End. They worked through cholera and typhoid epidemics, the Blitz, and the AIDS crisis. On their watch, the area’s maternal and infant mortality rates plummeted. Terminally ill residents died with dignity at home, instead of neglected in workhouse infirmaries. Traumatized and outcast people found love, acceptance, and purpose in the convent.

Though these women could not eliminate the dire circumstances that oppressed their patients, they could make a very real difference in individual lives. And the East Enders loved them for it–Worth points out that, while police officers had to travel the streets in pairs for safety, the nuns and nurses could roam alone without fear. Her memoir is an inspiring reminder of the very real impact of perseverance, of continuing to do good works in even apparently hopeless conditions. So long as one life is touched, she shows, no cause is truly lost.

Content note: Call the Midwife contains graphic accounts of childbirth, squalid living conditions, violence, sexual exploitation and assault, and other situations that might offend or upset some readers.

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Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

by Donna Jo Napoli; ill. by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster, 2010

40 pages

I’ve written before about my desire to raise my daughter with a nuanced view of Africa, one that’s more multi-dimensional than the depressing and patronizing portrayal in popular media.

Part of what I want her to understand is that we (meaning white Westerners) do not need to “save” Africa. It is not a monolith peopled and governed entirely by helpless, ignorant victims and violent, power-mad warlords. Rather, it is a place of varied cultures, histories, and people, many of whom are acting with courage, intelligence, and great effectiveness to improve their nations.

In other words, I want her to know that we do not need to step in, like arrogant colonialists, to “fix” the region. Rather, we need to be humble and helpful, partnering with suffering people in a way that supports dignity, their unique communities, and the good works of native leaders.

So when I found Mama Miti at our local library, it had to come home with us. I love Kadir Nelson’s work anyway, and I could see at a glance that this picture book carries an inspiring message about the power of one woman to help others, both on a personal and national level.

Mama Miti is the nickname of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Born in rural Kenya in 1940, Maathai became the first woman in central or east Africa to earn a Ph.D., and the first woman to head a Kenyan university department (the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi).

Through her work as a veterinarian, she became a pioneer in the fields of sustainable development and ecological preservation. She was arrested numerous times over the years for her activism, but her work so inspired the Kenyan people that she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament in 2002.

Mama Miti is the story of how Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots effort to reforest Kenya and other African nations.

In elegant, straightforward text, repeating the phrase “Thaya nyumba–Peace, my people,” Donna Jo Napoli tells how women from all over Kenya came to Maathai’s home in Nairobi to seek her advice. One had no food for her family, so Maathai told her to plant the fruit-bearing mubiru muiru tree. Another lamented that her spring had become polluted, so Maathai told her to plan the mukuyu tree, which naturally filters water.

Others had starving, sick, or predator-ravished livestock; dilapidated homes; low-yielding crops; or not enough firewood. For each problem, Maathai suggested a tree that would help. Her solutions were so effective that they developed into the Green Belt Movement, which spread like wildfire. Since 1976, when the movement began, Maathai and her protegees have planted more than 30 million trees.

Nelson’s paintings, made using oil paints and fabrics on gessoed board, pay homage to East Africa’s rich heritage of textile art. Their vibrant colors and energy show the true beauty of Kenya and its people. With many of the images dominated by just one or two female figures, he captures the strength and tenacity of the Kenyan women and the personal nature of Maathai’s leadership.

This is indeed a living, breathing Africa–not the one-dimensional cutout seen in the news. Napoli and Nelson don’t downplay the women’s problems; in fact, art and text together dramatically portray the anguish and anxiety that brings the women to Nairobi. But this is ultimately a story of hope, of how encouragement from an empathetic leader can empower downtrodden women to help themselves, their families, their villages, and (ultimately) their nation.

It’s also an example of why I love picture books so much. In just 40 short pages, Napoli and Nelson present a subtle, impactful, true story that engages the reader as much as any epic novel. It has pathos, courage, and rawness. The final image, of Maathai herself, is close to monumental.

It’s a wonderful kind of inspiration: a testament to the power of kindness, peace, and determined women.

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Abigail Adams

by Alexandra Wallner

Holiday House, 2001

32 pages

Grade-school lessons about the women’s movement are pretty limited in scope. They tend to focus on the women’s suffrage campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then skip ahead to the ’60s and ’70s and the battle over the ERA.

As a result, young girls can come away with the impression that the women’s movement (or any progressive movement, really) consists of isolated, dramatic showdowns, with nothing significant happening in between.

The reality, of course, is completely different.

While those dramatic showdowns are great for wide-reaching legislative or judicial gains, they’re only the culmination of days, months, years, even decades of day-to-day choices on the part of equality-minded men and women everywhere.

A dad tells his daughter he’s proud of her good grades, and she realizes that being a girl isn’t just about being pretty. A scientist mentors a woman protegee, and a male-dominated field gains one more female. A teacher corrects a child who says something offensive, and classmates learn to think outside stereotypes.

Or, of course, a caregiver reads an inspiring book, and a child learns to think of women as strong, capable, and smart. Alexandra Wallner’s picture book biography of Abigail Adams is one of those inspiring books you can read to very young girls (or boys, for that matter).

When I was a kid, Abigail Adams didn’t get much attention: she was notable primarily as the only woman to be both the wife and mother of a president. In recent years, however, blockbuster biographies, major miniseries, and the popularity of the revived musical 1776 have brought Abigail into the public eye.

She was quite the woman, it turns out, and Wallner’s biography really highlights her intelligence, her importance, and her revolutionary ideas.

Abigail’s egalitarian consciousness developed early, we learn, when her wealthy parents allowed only her brother to go to school. Undaunted, she educated herself by reading avidly in the family’s library and eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ conversations.

She fell in love with her husband because he was intelligent and respected her intelligence. Knowing that, in Colonial society, “her future depended on her husband,” Abigail chose John because she thought he would treat her as an equal.

As their marriage progressed, Abigail proved her mettle. She managed their large estate when John traveled, led Colonial women in boycotts of British goods, and wrote John with ideas and advice that he shared with George Washington.

John supported her through it all–except when she wrote passionately that the new nation’s constitution should include equal rights for women and freedom for slaves.

Despite his rebuff, however, she held to her principles and implemented them in her daily life. She saw her daughters fully educated, taught black servants to read and write, and continued to speak out for equal rights.

Wallner’s straightforward text and simple, folk-art-style illustrations evoke Abigail’s strong and direct nature. At the same time, they capture the salient emotions of Abigail’s life–her contentment in learning, her determination in her work, her pain at John’s rebuff, and her happiness in their well-earned retirement years.

The book shows girls that progress doesn’t always come dramatically, and not all heroines grab headlines. You don’t have to be interested in the limelight to make a very real and lasting impact. Wallner also shows that, even when progress is not all we hoped it would be, we can still find some way to make a difference here and now.

More than anything, I love the way Wallner goes behind the canonized narrative to demonstrate Abigail’s importance. It’s the kind of book that leaves girls asking, “If she was so important, and I haven’t heard much about her, who else haven’t I heard about?”

Inspiration to look behind the curtain, learn more, dig deeper–is there anything better?

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