Category: Gender & Justice

On May 28th and 29th, 2019, faith leaders, scientists and scholars from the humanities gathered at the Loka Symposium. The topic was faith and action for a flourishing planet, and we explored how we might build relationships and make change together.


From left to right: Roshi Joan Halifax, Jan Vertifeuille, Nana Firman, Juanita Cabrera Lopez, Dekila Chungyalpa, Venerable Damcho Diana Finnnegan, Lori DiPrete Brown, Musonda Mumba

I was so grateful for this meeting. There were so many conversations and confluences there for me. It was convened by UW-Madison, where I have been working and teaching for over 15 years. It was held at the Holy Wisdom Monastery where I am an Oblate — one of the places in this world where I feel at home. And it brought together faith, science and the humanities, inviting me to revisit the ideas that led me to pursue joint degrees in public health and theology at Harvard in the late 1980s!

This photo captured a very special moment – women of many traditions gathered after our morning mediation overlooking the prairie. We had prayed together, women and men from different traditions, sharing sacred texts and reading nature herself — the earth, air, water, the trees we have known… Gender justice was not formally on the agenda in this meeting, but it was on our minds. Ae we began to disperse someone said in a hushed tone (not because it was secret, but because we had just come out of shared mediation action) “a picture of the women” and this photo come together. I’d like to think we formed ourselves into some sort of tree for a moment — intertwined limbs from so many places.  Sharing the desire to offer sustenance, shelter, beauty and shade to our world. Remembering the unbelievable depth of roots, how they can hold the soil and the earth itself together. Not a new beginning, we know too much for that …. but perhaps a new season where we build on the wisdoms of the world, and learn to live in harmony with life and the earth herself in new ways.


Earlier this week “The Monarch” was unveiled in the Hamel Browsing Library at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union, placed there to honor the 150th anniversary of women receiving degrees from UW-Madison. What this living, woven being of metal and air will signify for us will be revealed overtime. This weekend as the Class of 2019 graduates, let the meaning making begin!

THE MONARCH. Artist: Victoria Reed. Gift of the UW-Madison Class of 2019

For me, the Monarch evokes strength, fragility, openness, and the readiness to fly. I sense the hard fought and unapologetic embrace of one’s own beauty, uniqueness, scars. I imagine resilience in the face of strong winds on what seems to be an impossibly long journey. I am reminded of how exhilarating and scary it can be to leave the places that you love. And the blessed possibility of return.

Perhaps this sculpture is speaking to me, or perhaps this incredible beauty is what I have seen in my students over the years.

Meanwhile, for all, and especially for the 2019 graduates, here is a closer look at “The Monarch.”  I hope you have a chance to sit close for a while, consider the strength, marvel at the openness, see the possibilities, and contemplate flight.


4W stands for Women and Wellbeing in Wisconsin and the World and it is UW-Madison’s higher education initiative for gender equity and wellbeing. Our mission is to make like better for women, and, in so doing, make the world better for all.  Our projects focus on women from historically marginalized groups in low-resource settings in Wisconsin and around the world.

Are we that group that is working to improve health care in Kenya? Yes! Working with artisans in Ecuador, Mexico, Nepal, and Kenya? Yes! Supporting women in science? Girls education? Gender and environment? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes, we welcome both men and women and people of all identities to work with us….

The “better for all” phrase of our mission opens a door to a broad range of issues and to the possibility of a full and truly holistic feminist praxis – including all people, all species, all places, and our planet. Grounded in human rights principles, 4W works toward equal rights for women and girls as an end in itself, while acknowledging the life-sustaining role that they play in the continuity of families, communities, civil society, local and global economies, and the earth.

Simply put, 4W works to understand, reimagine, and leverage the unique role of higher-education for global change.

When you hear about the breadth of our programs – health care, micro-enterprise, addressing sex trafficking at home and abroad, collective translation of Latin American poetry, financial literacy, you might wonder how we choose them. How do they fit together? Will we do anything???

Well, we’d like to think we can do anything, but we don’t….

4W projects must meet three criteria: 1) they address a compelling need; 2) there is a UW leader and community partner who want to work together and 3) and there is potential for scalability and significant impact. We provide strategic expertise and financial support in the start-up phase –which might take 1 to 3 years- and then we work to sustain the program with appropriate scale and funding, and a fitting institutional home. We’d like to think that, in this way, we are transforming our world, and transforming our university, at the same time.

We have also established a small grants program with support from the Wisconsin Women’s Philanthropy Council-with two faculty awards and 4 graduate student awards per year, and an internship program, with about 10 internships. These activities offer professional and intellectual growth, increased social impact, and job skills for our faculty and graduates. We hope to double the grant awards and number of awards in the coming years.

4W also hosts a robust series of events throughout the year. We have active 4W circles of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. In addition to co-hosting the 4W summit and Gender and Women Studies Conference, we also host an International Women’s Day event, and a range of research to practice fora. We are proud that a UNESCO Chair on Gender Wellbeing and a Culture of Peace was awarded to UW-Madison!

During recent months members of the 4W leadership circle have been reflecting on the work to date and looking toward the future, asking ourselves what is next…. We want to do more, we want to do better, we want to be more inclusive and diverse, and we want to work with an intensity that matches the challenges that are before us. We want to focus on voice and leadership.  Together, we’ll revisit important questions: What is feminist leadership? How can we practice it? How can we practice it better? And how can we practice it everywhere?

While there are many working definitions of feminist leadership, I’d like to recall the one offered by Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in women’s history from the University of Wisconsin. Lerner described feminist leadership as “…something that replaces and surpasses you, that has a life of its own because there are many people who will be drawn into it and who will give leadership to it … The point is that wherever we are as women, wherever we are situated in our lives, we can advance a feminist agenda if we stop thinking about how to be leaders and think rather about how to be doers.” (Lerner, 1995).

Many societal institutions are failing women right now, in fact, failing everyone. Leveraging the power of higher education for a better future, is powerful and possible and important. The 4W effort is unique at this time, but my hope is that this transformative work will become central and ordinary– business as usual – so that universities become safe places for everyone to learn, teach, grow and thrive. I’d like to see higher education lead, charting the course for real institutional change, so that other institutions can follow the example, and make life better for women, and make the world better for all.

—Lori DiPrete Brown, April 2019

Director, UW-Madison 4W Initiative

Lori DiPrete Brown

Today I am honored to be invited to comment on “Transforming Leadership in Global Health” at the CUGH pre-conference session offered by Women in Global Health. I am looking forward to meeting new people and seeing old friends! It is a great way to get ready for International Women’s Day. I’ve been given two questions to think about- so I thought I would think out loud a bit here on my blog in preparation for the session.

“What is one piece of practical advice you would give to someone starting out?”

It’s hard to pick just one – there are so many practical things to be done! Learn to drive a stick? Learn to change a tire? Learn to speak three languages? Take a self-defense class? Always carry chocolate? Maybe you should buy that quick dry underwear and have the courage to travel with just two pairs… I have not yet done all of these things, and practicality is not my strongest suit. I am more of a dreamer with practical friends…. but maybe I can narrow things down to two essential, if not always practical, pieces of advice.

First, always pack a book.

And by that I mean make time for, brake for, reading and the arts. It is important to stay curious, take the perspective of others, keep learning, and hold space for the passions of your youth. In some ways that raw young being will always be your most authentic self. Remember her. This reading is a way to honor the roads you didn’t take — maybe that of a poet, or a painter or a comedian. (I know I have a rockstar inside, and yes, I let her out now and then…). The openness that results from this practice will enable you to let wonderful things happen in life and work

Everyone feels alone at times — on a team, during field work, forty-thousand feet in the air…. and women leaders are no exception. We feel alone, divided, overwhelmed, not up to the task. We carry an extra stone or two, and most of the water. Books can be friends who love you in these difficult moments. You can lose yourself in one, or find yourself in one, or write one yourself.

Second, always be yourself.

And continue to become yourself. Be brutally honest with yourself about who you are and who you are not. Be critical about your work, and use feminist approaches to help with that – develop embodied, dialogic, subversive and truth-telling practices. Smile and laugh and sing when you want — and please be stern and scowl freely too! And then try to be very gentle with yourself — I’ll even use the word tender — and go about the business of getting the work done. That’s what leadership is. Knowing what the work is, and getting it done. Be warned — if you are pleasing everyone you might not be doing very much…. you may have lost your edge, or you may be sacrificing the difficult truths in a way that is at odds with what transformative leadership should mean. Try to cultivate humility, persistence and hope along with some fierceness or fearlessness in yourself. It will be necessary and essential if we are going to create justice for women, foster human thriving, and ensure the survival of our earth herself.

“How would you catalyze change to create a better future?”

There are so many ways to make change. I don’t think there is one right way. Rather the future depends on everyone doing what they can, from where they are, and as who they are. While all the time cultivating trust in the world, despite the odds.

For me right now, leveraging the power of higher education for a better future feels powerful and possible and important. We have started doing this in a gender-informed way at the University of Wisconsin through a campus-wide, local to global, women and wellbeing initiative that we call 4W – Women and Wellbeing in Wisconsin and the World. Our mission is to make life better for women and make the world better for all. We focus on developing leaders, and we work to bring research to practice and practice to scale. It is a great model that can be implemented at Universities of any size. I think we are unique right now, but my dream is that this would become a very ordinary kind of program -business as usual – so that universities become safe places for women and everyone to grow and thrive and lead. I’d like to see Universities lead here, so that the many societal institutions that are failing women right now, in fact, failing everyone, can follow the example, and change, and make life better for all.

Reflections on #metoo


Many women in my life are sharing stories in personal conversations and on social media, about experiences of sexual assault. So I want to respond to those women here.

I am learning, or rather re-learning with renewed force, that Institutions like family, church, school, workplaces, neighbourhoods, and sports teams are simultaneously places where you experience love and safety, and where you experience these harms, mostly kept secret for so many reasons.

I am trying to believe that the vast majority of healthy males (80% or more?) enjoy and prefer consensual and mutual satisfying sex and would not be violent even if drunk. It’s not in them.

This reality (or what I hope is true) is obscured when a very harmful minority (could be as high as 20%- but I hope it is less) are capable of being sexually violent for sport – as a performance for each other. As a way of having fun at the expense of women.

This violent minority belong to every faith and no faith, every political party and no party, every race and no race, and they are alumni of every school we have loved (including my own Yale, Harvard, and UW-Madison) and no school at all.

While many do it as they struggle with addiction, others do it stone cold sober…. and laugh about it the next morning.

Some feel entitled, some live in denial, and others carry the memories of what they have done with shame – and maybe a never again.

Then there is a larger group – the majority of males who remain silent when they see harassment (from jokes to cruel remarks) or hear verbal disrespect and violent threats. By majority I mean not a vast majority -my estimate is that they are a simple mathematical majority – the 51%.

So that leaves a bunch of men – could be 49%? – who might just feel strongly enough about respecting women and all people – as beings entitled to bodily safety in their daily activities. And they think that we have the right to be as sexually active as we want on our own terms and always consenting.

Are they are willing to put politics aside and simply say “I believe all women deserve respect.”

“I believe all women deserve respect.”

I and many others need to hear expression this basic core value at this time.

Having escaped physical violence myself and recognizing my relative privilege I don’t often speak about, or let myself count, the number of times I have been threatened with violence. But this week I have been on the edge of making that list….The near misses, times I was naive but protected by someone, times I have made a clever escape. The stress related to the constant low grade vigilance that is part of the job of being a woman. The many times I just stayed home.

Anyway, and for the record:

I believe Anita Hill. (Always did!)
I believe Chrissy Ford.
I believe Debbie Ramirez.

…… And most importantly – today and every day – I believe the women from all the places and stages of my life who have told me their stories. At a kitchen table, in the back of a car, right after it happened, or years later. Or maybe there was just a simple “me too” on Facebook.

To all of you — you are beautiful and worthy of love and respect.

To all of you — you are beautiful and worthy of love and respect. The shame and blame belong elsewhere – with the perpetrator and with all who contribute to the culture of disrespect that made him feel entitled, that made him laugh at you, and that made him, and those around him, think that sexual violence is an acceptable normal and unavoidable part of becoming a man.


Convened by the School of Human Ecology, the Global Health Institute, the Department of gender and Women’s Studies, the UW-Madison has established the campus-wide 4W initiative, which aims to make life better for women and make the world better for all. Faculty-led action research at UW-Madison will result in measurable benefits in the communities where we serve as a partner for change. The program will focus on women’s health, leadership and wellbeing in private sector, government and civil society.


To achieve measurable improvements in women’s health, wellbeing, equality and empowerment, and, in so doing, to positively impact the quality of life for families and communities.


To establish UW-Madison as a convener, catalyst and leader in advancing wellbeing and full participation of women in society. The 4W Initiative will support action research, train leaders, and provide a global platform for exchange related to research, policy and practice.


  • UW-Madison graduates from a broad range of fields will be prepared to serves as leaders in education, research and practice related to women and global wellbeing.
  • A variety of 4W programs will be realized within a holistic framework that emphasizes basic needs and human rights, thriving throughout the life cycle, leadership and empowerment, and the development of strong communities based on principles of eco-justice. These programs will develop and document best practices, and contribute to the spread of these practices through partnerships and outreach education.
  • The 4W platform for exchange will include an Annual Summit, policy forums, a website, and interactive digital engagement that will establish UW-Madison as a convener, catalyst and leader in relation to timely topics and major challenges related to women and well-being.


To date, this new program has successfully launched initiatives in: 1) health care, family planning and mental health, 2) working to end human trafficking, 3) micro-enterprise, 4) women and agriculture, 5) relationships and equality, and 6) engaging with the arts for wellbeing.

I am so proud to be leading this initiative! To learn more about 4W please visit and follow us on twitter @4WMadison. I would love to hear your thoughts about women and well being. Feel free to comment below.

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Love the intention here — However, based on 3 kids/3 years of breastfeeding experience in all kinds of places I am gonna suggest a few tweaks … Let’s put a diaper on that child. Also, you might want to lose the ultra suede — that is good for one wear and then it will be ruined by drops of breast milk or runny mustard colored ….

About the necklace — the child, very appropriately, is going to find that to be of visual and tactile interest and they are going to want to pull on it … Let’s swap that out for an attractive burp cloth. Note to new moms: it is okay if your hair is not combed.

Note to new moms: it is okay if your hair is not combed.

If you look carefully you’ll see that the baby has a hairdo? That can be done easily with vaseline I think — but definitely optional. Also sit on a comfortable chair if you can — be ready to look your baby in the eye and maybe sing a little.

Though I don’t recommend the pose in this photo, I want to reassure you that it is possible to empty the top rack of the dishwasher while breastfeeding if necessary.

Finally, and just so you know…if you look this hot when breastfeeding at home in the presence of your partner you are going to end up with another multitasking challenge on your hands…not a bad thing, but just make sure you are using contraception that allows for spontaneity so that you can space out the births in your beautiful growing family….

Breastfeeding is sacred. Amen.

On October 1, 2013, my friend Eva Villavicencio performed Maria Landó with Internationally acclaimed percussionist Juan Medrano at my home.  It was so incredibly special.  Here you can watch the video and read the english translation of this beautiful song.

María Landó (with English Translation)

La madrugada estalla como una estátua
Dawn breaks shattering like a statue
Como estátua de alas que se dispersan por la ciudad
Like a statue of wings that scatter throughout the city
Y el mediodía cánta campana de agua
And noon sings like a bell made of water
Campana de agua de oro que nos prohibe la sóledad
A bell made of golden water that keeps us from loneliness
Y la noche levanta su copa larga
And the night lifts its tall goblet
Alza su larga copa larga, luna temprana por sobre el mar
Lifts  its tall, tall goblet, early moon over the sea
Pero para María no hay madrugada,
But for Maria there is no dawn
pero para María no hay mediodía,
But for Maria there is no noon
pero para María ninguna luna,
But for Maria there is no moon
alza su copa roja sobre las aguas…
Lifting its red goblet over the waters….
María no tiene tiempo (María Landó)
Maria has no time
de alzar los ojos
not even to lift her eyes
María de alzar los ojos (María Landó)
Maria of the lifted eyes
rotos de sueño
broken by exhaustion
María rotos de sueño (María Landó)
Maria broken of exhaustion
de andar sufriendo
of living with suffering
María de andar sufriendo (María Landó)
Maria of the living suffering
sólo trabaja
she only works
María sólo trabaja, sólo trabaja, sólo trabaja
Maria only works, only works, only works
Maria sólo trabaja
Maria only works
y su trabajo es ajeno
and her work is owned by others.


Next Post

Half the Sky, the movie, just came out and can be seen at

Part 1-available till October 8th

Part 2-avalable till October 9th

Global Health Reflections

Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn  documents the hard truths about being a woman on this planet. While some of us choose our spouses, share parenting, and become doctors or astronauts, many are stuck in a cycle of poverty and suffering that includes unfulfilled potential, maternal mortality, slavery and human trafficking, prostitution and survival sex, every  kind of violence, and a lack of choice and safety in relation to their sexual and reproductive lives.  Because I work with programs that address the health of women and children, people often ask me what I think of the book.  Is all this really true?  Did they get it right?

I have read the book three times and each time I am more impressed.  In addition to portraying the lives of women with great dignity and respect, Kristof and WuDunn provide the reader with stories of resilience, cause for…

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Harvesting Maize

Dona Margarita, an indigenous woman from La Calera, Ecuador, graciously gave me permission to use this beautiful photo. University of Wisconsin students visit Magdalena’s village each year to learn about indigenous culture and work with the community. I join this field course, led by anthropologist Frank Hutchins, as a public health instructor, exploring determinants of health and well-being alongside the students, and addressing topics that range from access to water, to gardens and family nutrition, to basic first aid, to micro-enterprise for women.

This visit took place around the time of the harvest of quinoa and maiz.  Margarita and her granddaughter are shelling maiz. As she explained the local agricultural cycle to our students, one of them knelt down to help, and before we knew it we were all on our knees, working and listening.  During such moments students learn about health problems that communities face, the resilience of women like Margarita, and the efforts that the community has made to move forward.

One year students helped Margarita plant her potato field. The next year she was behind a closed door in a dark house, grieving. One of her sons, who she had worked so hard to nurture and educate, was killed while working in Quito with at risk youth.  While the details of his violent death were murky, it was clear that, in addition to facing the challenges of rural poverty, Margarita and her family live with a double burden, as they are also touched by problems associated with rapid urbanization a struggling national economy, insecurity and political unrest.

The young man in the photo is Margarita’s other son, Luis, who serves as a guide in our community work, in addition to working the land himself, he is committed to preserving his culture, and earns a living as a guide and leader in the local eco-tourism movement. Luis and his neighbors hope that they can find ways to share their culture, and at the same time create economic alternatives to destructive mining, the rise of the flower export industry, and other practices which may not be sustainable, healthy or equitable, and do not embody indigenous values.

Maragarita’s life is intimately intertwined with the life-cycle of the maize and quinoa that she grows.  Quinoa, a high-protein grain touted as a miracle food, is the staple of the indigenous food tradition in this region of Ecuador. The year this photo was taken, the quinoa crop had failed. The climate is changing, members of the community observed, and they felt sure it had something to do with how we, all of us, are living. There is a growing body of research suggesting that people like Margarita are the first to notice the effects of climate change, and perhaps can help to identify early warning signs. During their time in Ecuador, the students are encouraged to compare their environmental footprint with Margarita and the other residents of La Calera. We all return to Wisconsin with the awareness that, in addition to working side by side with Magdalena’s community to address poverty, we in Wisconsin need to change some things about how we are living.  Together we discover and rediscover the importance of learning from, standing with, and when necessary standing for, people like Margarita.  People who we are privileged to share the world with. People who are a lot like us.

Based on Remarks from UW-Madison Global Health Retreat, May 2010

Photo: Abriana Hau Barca, 2008