As top professionals in any sector will tell you, continuing education is key to success. A leader who watches her industry, and others, with a keen eye, looking to emulate success but also learn from failures, is one who will take her organization to the next great height.

For a nonprofit leader, this especially means learning from those outside the sector. I was moved by a recent blog post, “Are You Stuck in a Girls’ Club?” by Whitney Johnson, a (female) founding partner of Rose Park Advisors, with an appetite to be challenged and learn.

What most struck me, and what epitomizes Rachel’s Network in many ways, is the theory of disruptive innovation. Johnson explains, “the odds of success are low when we make a frontal assault on the status quo. But when we play on the periphery, opening one mind at a time, the odds go up that we’ll push down our glass walls. Tear down those walls, and the ceiling just may come tumbling down, too.” What an indelible, vivid image! Population Action International (PAI) has long had this instinct for disruptive innovation, and I thank Johnson for so beautifully articulating a notion that has guided our work and will continue to inform our strategy in the arena of population and the environment. It’s PAI’s belief that an untapped resource— in this case, the potential of women given access to the contraceptives they desire—can help dismantle existing power structures and usher in a more sustainable era, by introducing new voices, ideas, and habits for the world’s well-being.

The Rachel’s Network Annual Meeting explored this fascinating nexus in great depth during three days of rich discussion, intense exchange, and accelerated learning. In one page, all I can hope to do is to remind and recharge your passion from the proceedings of those powerful days.

The reminder: Together, we must give a face and a voice to the women and children whose decisions impact the world’s future. Currently, women are forced to walk farther for kindling and water, work harder for the same crop yield, and make choices between their children’s education or keeping them at home to assist with the burden that environmental devastation has already caused for rural households. These impacts are not isolated to rural areas; urban areas are now burgeoning with environmental migrants whose farms could no longer produce enough income due to unpredictable rainfall and desertification.

The recharge: I recently spoke to DC EcoWomen, a community of environmentally-minded women that fosters networking, collaboration, and career-building opportunities. I encouraged these young women to determine their own defining moments in thinking about their careers. I told them to catalog their stories and figure out what got them where they are today.

I don’t know each of their stories, nor do I know each of yours. I do know, however, that each of them is a rich and complex fabric of stories—of gender, of place, of family, of resources (plenty or not), and more. One of my own defining stories: in the summer of 1993, while working at River City Landscaping in the brutal Texas heat, I had a boss who was chauvinistic and closed to change. I pushed him to think “green and sustainable” in his practices, as a way of distinguishing River City and drumming up more business. It was a real challenge: we had a clientele who would literally pay more for grass at a competitor down the road because they wouldn’t let a “girl” (me) load the pallet on their truck with a fork lift.

What’s your story and how do you talk about your passion for change, your energy for justice?

I applaud Rachel’s Network for providing a truly collaborative space where members are encouraged and supported to learn from their own stories, as well as from stories of others. I hope the undeniably positive impact that international voluntary family planning has had on the global environment can be a new story that starts conversations for each of you in the weeks and months ahead.

Suzanne Ehlers is president and CEO of Population Action International. She has worked for the last 15 years to promote women’s health, rights, and empowerment across the globe. Suzanne has carried out this work at PAI for the past decade and has led the organization since 2009.

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