Karen Sugar: How This Warrior Is Helping Women Find Their Voices & Choices
When you uplift a woman …
You also uplift all those she cares for, and all those she leads.
Back in 2016, I was invited to travel to Uganda on behalf of Urban Decay to work with Women’s Global Empowerment Fund alongside Founder Karen Sugar. I excitedly packed my things — camera, lenses, 5 t-shirts, a hat, loose slacks and jeans, bug spray, and an open heart — and began my 26-hour long journey.
Before making the trek to Gulu, we first arrived in Kampala, Uganda’s lively capital city, made livelier by a cultural festival that was under way as we maneuvered through the packed city streets. As we checked into our hotel, I was greeted by Karen and her undeniable light — a fervor, charisma, and resiliency that suggested years of overcoming adversities and fighting the good fight with strength and grace. That night, at dinner, she proceeded to share stories of WGEF — anecdotes from the community that sparked joy and inspiration, and I was given the crash course on the how WGEF’s work was supporting the arduous task of rebuilding and recovery after decades of civil unrest and abject poverty.
Since the early 1980’s, violence and conflict plagued Northern Uganda during the rebellions against the Ugandan government. As a result, tens of thousands of children were abducted, hundreds of thousands were killed or left homeless, and over a million were forced into camps. Reproductive health education and care were left as an afterthought, with AIDS and teen pregnancy issues running rampant. Gender-based violence was (and is still) prevalent as a result of men being left disenfranchised after the war. During the crisis, relief efforts and food donations were coordinated, and NGO’s from around the world converged in aid of the relief camps until villages were formed and back on their feet. But even after the war dust has settled, when the foundations are ripped from beneath countless communities and millions are left to rebuild their own lives from (literally) the ground up, they are inevitably left with the impending question: What now?
This is where WGEF comes in.
WGEF understands that it isn’t only during crises that we can be most helpful or impactful — but it is in those subsequent moments where we must be reborn and tackle life with new, fatigued, yet hopeful perspectives.
To open Week of Women, we are sharing Karen Sugar’s incredible story of how one person can uplift an entire community and enable them to recover from trauma and decades of civil unrest. This is how Karen saves lives every single day.
Photos by Arnelle Lozada
Q - Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what you were doing before you founded Women’s Global Empowerment Fund?
A - Like most people, especially women, I have a diverse set of life experiences. From academia to global traveler, a mother, friend, to working with homeless families, political activism, dreaming, always a free spirit, leading me to my life’s work, Women’s Global Empowerment Fund.
My body of work focuses on gender equity and social justice, I have been an activist, organizer, and one could say a provocateur (or a troublemaker), since high school, where I began questioning issues around race and gender justice. For me, I am committed to justice and human rights and that is what guides my life’s work.
Around 30 I began to work seriously with women and economic justice issues. While I had been working in and out of the political system around reproductive health issues, I began a position that would dramatically change my life, and the life of my family, forever. I worked in a homeless shelter in Atlanta, with newborn babies and their families and quickly learned the never ending struggle of being a woman, and poor in America, and that systemically it is nearly impossible to escape. Add in women of color in the South, and the challenges seemed insurmountable at times.
The most important lesson I learned is that as women we are all connected; we share common human experiences, no matter our differences, because we are women.
These are to be recognized and celebrated, realizing that when any of our sisters are in peril, we all are in peril. It is this understanding that gives me the courage to think and work globally.
Included in my most important endeavors is being a mom to two young women who have made me laugh, cry and celebrate life every day with their love and support. It was not always easy having a mom who had a non-traditional job with non-traditional perspectives. When working at Genesis Shelter, my girls had to come to work with me sometimes, they became very aware of the challenges and injustices poor people face every day at a young age. They also learned the power of love, acceptance, and respect, no matter a persons circumstance. And when working for Colorado NARAL, fighting for abortion rights, I showed up at HS carpool with a new bumper sticker: No US Intervention In Women’s Wombs! Needless to say, a bit controversial for Littleton High School car pool.
Q - What made you start WGEFund, how/why did you pick Uganda, and had you always wanted to start a nonprofit organization of your own?
In a moment of brilliance or insanity, I founded Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF) in Uganda, a country I had never been to, recovering from a long and brutal civil insurgency. I created the organization based on the belief that women are natural leaders and, when have access to meaningful opportunities, are able to rise above abject poverty with dignity, while advancing self-determination.
I was in graduate school, divorced, single mom, when sitting in a class on Gender and Development, I was introduced to the concept of microfinance (small loans to those w/o access to traditional banking services). While problematic, I found the concept compelling and had an Oprah ‘Ah Ha ‘ moment, ‘this makes sense and I could do this’ (hence temporary insanity)! The compelling aspect for me was the inclusion of social capital programs along with supporting women entrepreneurs, ie, literacy and leadership development.
My objective was to ensure women have a seat at the table!
After creating the organizational framework, with my board being other grad students and professors, I spent a year studying and created the model I felt was the best to truly empower women. The Uganda piece was one of those, in the right place, networking like crazy and taking the time to listen. I was teaching in the Political Science department at the time and one of my peers in another department was Ugandan; and introduction was made and he spent time teaching me about Uganda, Africa and the long and brutal conflict northern Uganda had experienced. It is noteworthy that I had never been to Uganda or the African continent – what mattered to me is to land WGEF where women had the most critical need for economic and social programs.
After reading massive UN reports, I decided on northern Uganda, a region just coming out of a long and brutal conflict. Many of our members are formerly abducted persons, sex slaves, and all have suffered great personal loss. The man I was dating at the time had Canadian connections which parlayed into some great networking, introductions and fundraising, enabling WGEF to get off the ground officially in 2008.
Two things that were instrumental in this endeavor:
Don’t over analyze and be willing to take great risks.
Had I over analyzed, or listened to those who thought it was nuts and dangerous (which in the beginning it kind of was), I may not have pushed through. But going into post conflict northern Uganda was singularly the wisest and most idealistic decision I had ever made.
Q - Can you tell us about the various initiatives that WGEF supports? What are some of the most impactful?
A - I created a model for microfinance and development called Credit Plus; what makes this Intervention unique is the inclusion of a political dimension. What I mean by that is to encourage women to be advocates, lobbyists, elected officials and community leaders. One of the most meaningful and impressive outcomes is currently 577 WGEF members are in leadership positions, elected and appointed, across northern Uganda, at the village, community, regional level. This is unique among interventions and changes the dynamic for women and families in the region.
To date WGEF has provided over 16,000 loans, which for me is representative of how far we have come – and confirms my exhaustion – as I remember in 2007, wiring our first $200 USD to Gulu for pilot project.
Among the most impactful and meaningful initiatives are literacy and leadership development; both are critical, and sustainable. My belief is that women must have a seat at the policy table for things to change, our LD programs, encouraging women to be activists, leaders and elected official have transformed the conversation, enable political agency for tens of thousands of women. To date we have provided literacy training for over 4600 women. Access to basic education is a human right, and necessary for a life with dignity; literacy is the first social capital initiative we added in 2008.
Our yearly drama festival, Amplifying Women’s Voices, is another unique project which uses the power of theatre and drama to address challenges and injustice. And just as importantly, it celebrates the Acholi culture and the custom of oral storytelling.
Photos by Arnelle Lozada
Women work together in groups to produces, direct, create dramas, songs and dances around a single topic chosen by our leaders and highlights a critical challenge women and the community face. Some of the issues have included: educating girls, microfinance, land and property rights, reducing teen pregnancy, reproductive and human rights. This event is not only a highly effective way of communicating in a stigma free environment, it is highly entertaining!
Our goal is empowerment, a very trendy word;
I define empowerment as, “one’s ability to access resources, make choices and determine life outcomes.”
And furthermore suggest, empowerment must include equality and liberties for all; only when all people are imbued with dignity, justice and human rights can we say that we are empowered.
Q - How do you vet and select the localized projects that you bring onto WGEF?
One common mistake made by nonprofits is mission drift, trying to solve problems outside of their stated mission; of course, ingenuity and ideas must be embraced but it often can lead to disfunction and inefficiencies.
While the cornerstone of WGEF is micro-enterprise, but we focus on 3 areas of social capital building: literacy, leadership and health initiatives. All of our programs fit into one or more of these programs.
Our latest initiative is the Healthy Periods Initiative (HPI), addressing the issue of menstrual health, and the challenges women face with regards to access, hygiene and socio-cultural stigma - improving health, creating livelihoods. We have purchased machines to produce a locally made product that is low cost and can easily be scaled. While we are not a health based NGO, it fits into our economic and health focus. HPI has become wildly successful and we have just opened our first stand alone production centre in western Uganda, driving socio-economic activity, education and access. I would invite you to learn more about this on our website: www.wgefund.org.
Q - When running a nonprofit organization, how do you go about measuring the success of the initiatives and then scaling them?
While many organizations spend tens of thousands of dollars and human resources on metrics and evaluation (M&E), numbers to impress donors, tell a story, etc, I have a different take. WGEF does in house survey to measure our outcomes, but focus on qualitative data with quantitative data as a secondary focus. The stories, personal experiences of our members are far more telling and meaningful for us. Here is an example of a journal entry from a recent trip:
“I was blind…but now I can see.” It was a short statement, but spoken slowly, with intention, directed toward me as I sat with a group of women in a rural village outside of Gulu - including participants in our program, (literacy)—we had gathered beneath the shade of a hulking jackfruit tree to discuss with our clients their challenges and the impact of our program.
I inquired what part of the program had been most important to them…several women told stories of successful business endeavors, enabling them to educated their children and then a woman stood and said the literacy program was the most important and stated “I was blind, but now I can see”. She told us that she was now able to write her name….I asked if she would share……She walked to a blackboard propped against the tree, picked up a piece of chalk, and carefully wrote her entire name across the smudged slate. I watched from a wooden bench in the dusty clearing and cried…. That tiny moment was what my life’s work is all about.
In the grand scheme of our program, it was the smallest of moments. But it was so big. It made such an impact on me as a moment of such raw honesty and joy. This is what WGEF does: It creates humanity in a space where it had once been extinguished.
When focusing on quantitative data this story would be overlooked. This is where we gain our understanding and strength to continue to serve our members and the community.
Most recently we worked with Oxford students to create, administer and evaluate the impact of literacy on microfinance recipients which was published in 2017. You can find more information about the results on our website!
Q - While running a nonprofit org must such fulfilling work, we understand that it must also be so time-consuming and at times, disheartening, because you’re constantly at the mercy of funding and the need to secure it year after year. Can you tell us about those challenges and how you’ve overcome them?
A - Well, I have not. It is a continual climb to find supporters and funders who align with your mission. For me, it’s about finding partners and individual who connect with our work and philosophy. Fundraising is complex and has many moving parts. This is where my years of working in the NP world came in handy! My brilliant Program Director, Mr. Bukenya Muusa, call us ‘professional beggars’ and sometimes it does indeed seem that way.
Q - What’s something that the general public probably wouldn’t know about running a nonprofit?
A - That it can be really creative, it can offer a lot of freedom, and depending on the nonprofit, salaries and benefits are good.
Q - What do you love about doing this kind of work? Can you tell us about one of the most touching experiences you’ve had?
A - “The resiliency of human beings is what amazed me most of all working in northern Uganda. The beauty of the human spirit can be best viewed when we are challenged, pushed in many different ways, the explained and the inexplicable”
It is an honor to do this work, and I have a million amazing stories; to work with people, who despite many challenges, face the world with courage, and sense of joy and sisterhood. I love the collective and creative spirit of working with so many different personalities, experiences, perspectives. Most days I am on fire, which is a wonderful way to live.
On my first trip to Gulu in 2008, driving across the country still recovering from a brutal civil insurgency, was harrowing; upon arrival (and crying a few times), I was greeted by a woman running across the street to greet me. She picked me up, spinning me around and thanking me for supporting her and her family. She confided in me that she could now feed her daughter who is 4, and HIV positive, lunch every day. Because of her business, and support, she could care for herself and her family.
Fast forward 9 years, Shillah is doing well and now a ‘tween’; we sat together during a festival break, Shillah and I, simply discussing her life, her likes, hopes and dreams. I learned that Shillah loves swimming, earrings, math and wants to be a doctor. It was a beautiful and brilliant afternoon, catching up with such a lovely young woman.
Shillah’s mom Grace has worked tirelessly; taking every opportunity, becoming a leader in her community and within WGEF. I always look forward to seeing her and so many other of my sisters whenever I am in Gulu.
Q - How important are volunteers? What is it that you look for in volunteers and what kinds of experiences can they expect?
A - I could not do this work without volunteers and interns. Over the years we have had such amazing volunteers who pull together with Bukenya and me, supporting and lifting up WGEF. Our college intern program is something I am most proud. Many of our esteemed interns have gone on to start nonprofits, work for social justice, are lawyers, board members and amazing global citizens. It’s that connecting thing, so important for young people to feel useful and connected in meaningful ways. My interns have also seen the good, bad and ugly, but somehow could also see the brilliance of WGEF. Always grateful for our volunteers, interns and board members.
We have had many many successful volunteer experiences in our Gulu, Uganda offices. Everything from students, working with our staff, to dental teams, providing dental care, to those searching for adventure, donors and supporters as well. We carefully curate an experience according to the needs of WGEF and the volunteer/traveler.
Q - Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into your type of work?
A - When speaking to students and others who ask this question, I suggest they volunteer. I spent many, many years throughout my life volunteering, interning, and learning. When I decided to create my own nonprofit endeavor I had a wealth of experience in the complexities of the nonprofit world. So while I have continued to learn tons, I was ready.
Equally as important, find your passion, and be willing to take great risks, personal and professional.
Q - Who are the 5 people (dead or alive) that you would invite to your dinner party?
A - Che Geuvara, Jack Sugar (my dad), Betty Friedan, Neymar Jr., and Wangari Maathai