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The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World


The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World

The first thing that grabbed me about American philanthropist Melinda Gates’ debut book, THE MOMENT OF LIFT, happened before I even opened the cover. The subtitle on its dust jacket --- “How Empowering Women Changes the World” --- bravely proclaims a present-tense optimism that I soon realized is neither naïve nor presumptuous.

Gates might have fleshed out her poetic but non-specific main title by stating that women’s empowerment will (one day, we hope) change the world, or could (if conditions are politically and economically “just right”), change the world. Instead, she affirms that women’s empowerment is changing the world, and some 270 pages later, I can completely concur with her choice of that pivotal present tense.

Hailed by Forbes magazine as the financial world’s third most powerful woman, and well known in the media along with tech-billionaire husband Bill as one-half of the world’s largest independent philanthropic foundation, Melinda Gates first had to overcome the challenge of simply being taken seriously --- as a doer, an advocate and a writer.

To her enduring credit, THE MOMENT OF LIFT humbly and pointedly interweaves her intentional experience of a world beyond affluence and gets to the point, the places in life where “lift” happens. As she tells it with compelling candor, there are many points of engagement and numerous “moments of lift.”

One of her first big learnings as the Gates Foundation shaped its mandate and focus amid overwhelming global need was that no individual or group, even with infinite financial resources, can unilaterally “fix” anything and leave --- whether it be HIV/AIDS, infant mortality, barriers to education, genital mutilation, domestic and cultural violence, lack of birth control access, unsafe work for women, and numerous other issues that prevent so much of the world’s female population from reaching its potential.

"THE MOMENT OF LIFT should be a must-read for anyone involved in volunteer or philanthropic work of any kind. It will clear the lens through which we see the entire human family."

It isn’t news among charitable organizations that on-the-ground interaction assures more sustainable success than simply throwing money at a problem and going home again. But a big difference in THE MOMENT OF LIFT is how Gates shares her own personal and professional learning about the subtle ways in which engagement often happens, how the most mundane and unglamorous interactions among women from vastly different cultures can dissolve the “have/have not” barrier and allow genuine collaboration.

In telling stories of women all over the world, Gates took the time, effort and patience to slowly gain their trust, work with them in their daily (and often grueling) domestic tasks, and listen deeply as they revealed their fears, hopes and ambitions. In many cases, their honesty and conviction about what was most needed in their lives persuaded the Gates Foundation to change its approach. And as THE MOMENT OF LIFT affirms over and over again, when philanthropy listens to its recipients, it moves beyond patchwork charity to become long-term, sustainable social change.

If there is any single takeaway point to Gates’ decision to write her book now, instead of waiting until there are more tried-and-true “answers” to global poverty and injustice, it is that we all vastly underestimate the ability of human communities to effect social, political and even environmental change from the ground up.

Among many examples of grassroots innovation that Gates witnessed were the African village women who collectively decided that walking 12 miles a day for water was eroding their health, happiness and family well-being, as it left no time or energy for anything else.

Without conflict or anger, one persuaded her husband to get the water. Initially mocked by his peers for doing “women’s work,” he was soon joined by several more men looking for diversion. They then got themselves bicycles to make the trip faster and raised the money to dig their own village well. Encouraged by opportunities to receive health education, the village women had transformed their knowledge into what they most needed for social change --- a well, a “moment of lift.”

As in many of Gates’ firsthand stories throughout THE MOMENT OF LIFT, success has happened when age-old cycles of male-driven conflict, discrimination, patriarchy and corruption were broken by women who refused to continue with ideologies that were once accepted as cultural norms and means of “success” --- supremacy, vengeance, entrenched oppression.

With even minimal outside financing or structural support, women working together have created innovative and effective ways of rallying their collective strength. In doing so, they are overcoming longstanding mistreatment in numerous situations that once seemed overwhelming to Western philanthropists, including Gates herself.

THE MOMENT OF LIFT doesn’t claim to be a definitive guidebook for how to “do good” in the world, nor is it a self-justifying “warm fuzzy” outpouring of an entitled celeb whose name itself conveys power. If anything, readers will be struck by Gates’ humility and even vulnerability in the face of these remarkably resilient women who gave her unique, unvarnished opportunities to share the best and worst parts of their lives.

There is no question that Melinda Gates has resources beyond anything most of us could imagine. But there is also no question that her written words, eloquent as they are, form only a small facet of the ongoing global “lift” in which she sees herself not so much as a controlling instrument, but as a catalyst.

THE MOMENT OF LIFT should be a must-read for anyone involved in volunteer or philanthropic work of any kind. It will clear the lens through which we see the entire human family.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on July 19, 2019

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World
by Melinda Gates