July 13, 2012 | Culture and Media
World Pulse: The Future Voices of Women Leaders
By Anna Louie Sussman
What if you knew you had something to say that could change the world, but just didn’t know quite how to say it?
For Jensine Larsen that feeling took the form of World Pulse, an online media site and social media hub that offers women’s stories and connects women from nearly every country in the world. But World Pulse goes beyond featuring the voices of women; with its Voices of the Future training program, it lifts and emboldens them.
“Historically, many of the women around the world have the life experience of being silenced, of being marginalized, of being left out or considered second class,” she said. “So women come at an issue with a perspective of, ‘How can we build society so that it’s more inclusive?’ And they’re often able to see, because they’re so vitally connected to family structures and community structures, how a policy or how some kind of law is going to affect the wider community.”
Since World Pulse launched in 2004, its constituent parts--a print magazine, a website, and the social media hub, PulseWire--has grown into a community of more than 50,000 women from over 190 countries. The beauty of it, Ms. Larsen says, is the connectivity it offers.
“You can log on from the Congo, and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, I can talk to someone in Burma in a heartbeat!'” she said.
World Pulse also provided a unique outlet for women’s perspectives on some of the major current events of the day. In 2007, for example, in the wake of the contested Kenyan presidential elections, women bloggers took to the site in droves. Through World Pulse, many of their stories were picked up by CNN and other mainstream media sites.
“We had this upswell of women leaders blogging about the violence: the wars, the gunfire, their taps going dry, and the starving in their homes,” she said. “It was this incredible frontline reporting. And these women were pouring out their hearts and their dreams for their country and their expectations for their leaders. It was this very powerful stuff, and we realized that the more we can give the women the tools and empower them to speak out about what’s happening in their communities, then we have the potential for an enormous source of content.”
Since 2009, World Pulse has helped 90 other women from 53 countries find their voices too. In partnership with the Global Press Institute and the Op-Ed Project, World Pulse mentors and trains women to be citizen journalists and opinion writers. Each year, groups of 30 women are selected through a crowd-sourced, online, interactive application process that itself functions as a mini-training, with applicants learning to improve their writing and communication as they go along. Last year, more than 600 women applied.
Those selected learn to write in the World Pulse style, which incorporates the writer’s personal narrative and always features a solution to the issue at hand. Over six months, they work with two assigned coaches: a “midwife” who provides detailed feedback on the work, and a mentor who offers emotional support and encouragement.
After completing the program, Ms. Larsen said, about a third go on to try their hand at professional journalism. But many more take the confidence and communication skills they’ve learned through the program and apply it to making change within their communities. One woman started an internet café in Pakistan; another wants to build a satellite tower in Congo. They also train more women in their communities, so that over a thousand women have been trained in all, something Ms. Larsen calls “a huge ripple effect.”
“The honest truth is so many of these women don’t actually want to be journalists, that’s not their main goal,” said Ms. Larsen. “They want to get their messages out to the world. They want to attract additional support for their visions. So equipping them with the ability to tap their internal authority and their wisdom to communicate it in a way that people are going to be compelled by, is one of the key benefits that the women get from the program.”
For Ms. Larsen, 37, journalism was not a natural calling. Homeschooled in rural Wisconsin, she describes herself as “very shy.” But a visit to the Ecuadorian Amazon, where she worked with indigenous women battling oil contamination, compelled her to become a journalist. She later traveled to the Thailand-Burma border, where she realized that refugee women she was meeting needed a platform of their own.
“In Burma, again there were these incredible leaders asking me to be their messenger. And I realized, at that moment, that I didn’t merely want to be a messenger but I wanted to create a media source where these women could be their own messengers and speak for themselves,” she said. “To me, that was the system change: having women define their own agendas and speak their own experiences and solutions to the world.”
Propelled by that singular motivation, she returned to the United States and began fundraising for the project. And in the process, she created not only World Pulse, but a stronger version of herself: passionate, confident, and intent on being heard.
“I always had this sense of feeling not enough or not heard, but the journey of World Pulse called me forward and helped me find my own voice,” she said.
Now, she’s a regular panelist and speaker at international conferences, where she advocates relentlessly for the importance of listening to and empowering women leaders. And to her surprise, she in turn has found the women of World Pulse empowering her, coming through for her in unexpected ways.
“There’s a women leader in Kenya who had been part of our community from the beginning, and when I would be working up late at night and being a crazy entrepreneur trying to get stuff done and feeling overwhelmed with things, she would Skype me. And I would hear the little beep on Skype, and she would say ‘Jensine, you must zoom off to bed. Don’t worry, I’ve got the flame,’ meaning the pulse.”
She has noticed a similar two-way impact on the mentors and midwives, who often report to the World Pulse staff that working with their mentees has inspired them to reinvent their own lives.
“They’re deciding to leave their jobs, to create their own businesses, because they were so inspired by the courage of their mentees,” she said. “They have formed bonds where they are literally traveling overseas now to meet those women and help them with their projects, like getting girls into school in Africa or mobile medical projects. They are deepening their relationships to the point where they are changing their lives to be in partnership with these women. One of our mentors’ 12-year-old son even did a YouTube video about how cool the program is, because he got so much out of connecting with the women leaders in our program. That’s when you know you’ve made it.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.