This month for our book club, we read The Moment of Lift of Melinda Gates. The author, who now goes by Melinda French Gates, is the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a global philanthropy organization.
The book shares stories from her journey to empower women across the world in a variety of ways. Gates came to the realization that many of the problems of poverty are intertwined and could be alleviated by helping women as a whole instead of focusing on an individual issue.
Some of the areas where she has worked include maternal and newborn health, family planning, girls’ education, preventing child marriage, promoting women in agriculture, and helping women in the workplace.
The stories she shares are heartbreaking and powerful. Many of the women in the book have suffered greatly, but there are also stories of hope and change. The programs implemented by the Gates Foundation and their partners have helped countless women and their communities grow stronger and healthier.
Keep reading to learn about our key takeaways from The Moment of Lift.
1) A rising tide lifts all boats
As I mentioned earlier, Gates eventually came to the conclusion that focusing on helping women would help eliminate the tangled web of poverty and illness. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest philanthropic organizations in the world and they have the money and manpower to make a serious difference where they focus their efforts.
Taking time to dig deeply into the issues helped the foundation realize that empowering women would have a domino effect. For example, “[s]ending girls to school leads to greater literacy, higher wages, faster income growth, and more productive farming. It reduces premarital sex, lowers the chance of early marriage, delays first births, and helps mothers plan how many children to have and when. Mothers who have an education do a better job learning about nutrition, vaccination, and other behaviors necessary for raising healthy children.”
That’s a huge impact just from focusing on educating girls! And helping girls and women helps the whole community. Educated mothers can raise healthier children, contribute more to the economy, and help create better relationships between men and women. Lifting women to an equal place in society helps lift the whole society.
“As women gain rights, families flourish, and so do societies. That connection is built on a simple truth: Whenever you include a group that’s been excluded, you benefit everyone. And when you’re working globally to include women and girls, who are half of every population, you’re working to benefit all members of every community. Gender equity lifts everyone.”
2) Learn from the people you serve
One of the big lessons in the book is to make sure you speak with and understand the lives of the people you are trying to help. As someone who works for two non-profits, this was an excellent reminder to listen to the people you serve for guidance.
Cultural barriers are a big challenge for many of the initiatives undertaken by the Gates Foundation. Since they serve communities all across the globe, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems they are trying to solve. Many of the cultures they serve have powerful social hierarchies, which makes it even more difficult to maneuver within the system.
For example, in one chapter, Gates describes their attempts to stop the spread of HIV in India. Since HIV can spread quickly from sex workers to their clients and their families, they planned a program to give condoms and providing testing for sex workers. However, when they started talking to some of the women, they learned those women would be beaten or raped by clients for insisting on using a condom or arrested for carrying a condom by police, since it proved they were a sex worker.
The immediate threat of violence was too much for them to try to focus on the long-term threat of HIV/AIDS. Gates’ team debated a solution. Preventing violence wasn’t really their mandate, but the program would be a failure if none of the women could implement it. They eventually came up with a solution by creating a system that notified a group of women when one of them was in danger and they all came running to raise a fuss and force the men to back down.
Early in the book, Gates shares some advice she got from one of their partners in India. “Vishwajeet told me, ‘Their cup is not empty; you can’t just pour your ideas into it. Their cup is already full, so you have to understand what is in their cup.’ If you don’t understand the meaning and beliefs behind a community’s practices, you won’t present your idea in the context of their values and concerns, and people won’t hear you.”
3) Inclusion brings equality
Inequality begins when we see groups of people as “others.” Whether it is based on gender, color of skin, or something else, separating people is used as an excuse to treat a group as less worthy. In many places around the world, this leads to women being treated like objects or property.
Gates talks about how the root of much of this behavior comes from insecurity and lack of empathy. “Overcoming the need to create outsiders is our greatest challenge as human beings. It is the key to ending deep inequality. We stigmatize and send to the margins people who trigger in us the feelings we want to avoid. This is why there are so many old and weak and sick and poor people on the margins of society. We tend to push out the people who have qualities we’re most afraid we will find in ourselves - and sometimes we falsely ascribe qualities we disown to certain groups, then push those groups out as a way of denying those traits in ourselves. This is what drives dominant groups to push different racial and religious groups to the margins.
Instead of pushing away, we must bring in. Bringing everyone in is what allows equality to flourish. When people are part of the “in” group, others will be there to take care of them when they are in need. Unified and inclusive communities are stronger because they care of every member of the group.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I didn’t know many details about the work the Gates Foundation does before I read the book, so it was very interesting to hear stories of their initiatives from around the world. Although many of the stories were upsetting, there was a theme of positivity and hope throughout the book.
I especially appreciated all of the personal stories that Gates shared in the book about her interactions with the women and girls she was trying to help. It would be easy for her as a wealthy white woman to simply throw money at the problem and move on, but she wanted to be on the ground meeting people and learning from them. These stories not only help her understand how she could help, but sharing them with the world can help move donors and engage more volunteers.
I want to finish this post with one last quote from the book that I found insightful.
“…[T]he starting point for human improvement is empathy. Everything flows from that. Empathy allows for listening, and listening leads to understanding. That’s how we gain a common base of knowledge. When people can’t agree, it’s often because there is no empathy, no sense of shared experience. If you feel what others feel, you’re more likely to see what they see. Then you can understand one another. Then you can move to the honest and respectful exchange of ideas that is the mark of a successful partnership. That’s the source of progress.”
Share your thoughts on The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates with us in the comments below!
Next month, we’ll be reading Rising Together by Sally Helgesen.