By DIANA RUIZ
"If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavorsto live the life which he has imagined,
he will meet with success unexpected in common hours."
Henry David Thoreau
In October 2008, I arrived in the port city of Rijeka, Croatia, after a long night on a ferry. An impending storm had made it impossible to sleep; the swaying and pounding intensified the anxiety that was mounting. I had traveled down this road before. During my lifetime I had learned to trust my instincts, yet in these uncharted waters, uncertainty and fear now threatened to undermine me. Ivana, my companion and good friend from Split, spoke with Shura, our contact person in Rijeka, to confirm the details. Impressed by our agenda, Ivana repeatedly exclaimed, “Wow!” and “Dobre!" (good). My dream of establishing the Women’s Global Leadership Initiative (WGLI) in Croatia was becoming very real. After conversations with hundreds of woman in villages, city cafes, beauty salons, museums, colleges, bus stops, and markets, we were finally making progress. People wanted to know more.
It had been two and half years before, in spring 2006, when I had first stepped onto Croatian soil. It had all started when I walked into a travel agency in Rome; my only intention was a brief escape from the crowds of tourists and the heat. The following day I left for Croatia, knowing only that I would stay in a city named “Split” and also in Jelsa, on the island of Hvar.
That vacation side-trip marked the beginning of WGLI and a journey that changed my life. Years before, I had spoken of this region, saying that one day I would visit. As a young mother in college, I had studied the Balkan region, the conflicts and consequences of war, and I had interviewed a handful of immigrants. Their stories and faces had stayed with me. From time to time I looked at the photos, impressed by these brave women who had overcome so much.
My naïve idealism continued to mature as I witnessed more of Croatia. That first visit now seems so long ago. Nothing is predictable in the midst of change. Fueled by curiosity and a sense of familiarity, I returned to Hvar two more times before deciding to focus my attention on a bigger city.
In January 2007, I landed in Dubrovnik. Snow was falling---a rare occurrence. Winter in Croatia is peaceful with little tourism, and thus the culture shines. I wandered the streets, noting the old men talking energetically about politics, woman tending laundry and taking advantage of a northern wind, and adolescents moving freely about the city without any real danger. Rooted in culture and tradition, Croatia is what is meant by “The Old World,” a place and time where family, community, and hard work are the primary values.
In my family’s history, leisure meant a stroll down the esplanade, the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, a long stretch along the ocean where my parents walked when they were courting. In Croatia that esplanade is along the Adriatic Sea.
During the months I lived in Dubrovnik, I spoke with men and women who shared their dreams for the future, expressing frustrations about the economic situation, the lack of opportunities, and the obstacles to obtaining employment or advancing in a career. To get ahead it is essential to know someone. The loss of community expressed by so many people had a significant impact: neighbors feeling more alienated from each other. Mourning the past and lamenting an unknown future were common themes in everyday conversations. I heard stories from younger women who felt robbed of opportunity. Were they truly without hope or did they merely need support? Could I be of service here? I returned home from that trip full of questions.
February 2008 brought answers. I met Linda Lea, who has dedicated her life to teaching leadership to women, most recently in Africa: Kenya and Tanzania. I remember the day when Linda explained to a group of writers how she had seen young women find strength and self-reliance, improving their lives and the lives of their communities. I knew that this was my answer. Leadership offered women an opportunity to build on their individual strengths and to develop their skills through a network of women sharing experiences, both professional and personal. When Linda asked me to assist with a leadership training project in Africa, I accepted without hesitation.
While in Africa in 2007, I witnessed several beautiful transformations. Young women, at first too shy to talk, soon began speaking of things important to them. Many spoke of community concerns, telling stories that gave them conviction and courage. The feedback and encouragement they received from others helped them to understand that with support, they could realize their dreams. I realized that if this worked in Africa, it could work in the Balkans.
Leaving Africa, I went directly to Croatia, intending to share this experience and to determine the level of interest in such a program there. In Zagreb, I gave the hotel receptionist a list of numbers to call and make appointments, explaining what I was attempting to do. Smiling, she dialed each number and insisted that each person meet with me immediately. Her willingness to assist confirmed the enthusiasm and interest I had hoped to generate. In Split and Dubrovnik the possibility of formal leadership training seemed even more promising. In Split a group of women who represent women’s rights encouraged me to return and offered. I knew I would return to do research and then prepare a proposal.
Doors began to open. In California, I set out to gather people who wanted to build an organization based on principles of community, support, education, and the empowerment of women. I am humbled by the number who offered their help.
In June 2008, the vision evolved into a mission. Ruthe Browning and I put together a presentation, and with an inquiring mindset, we went to Croatia to listen to what women wanted. Many expressed the need for community representation. When asked about female role models in society, most could not name anyone in current society outside their immediate families. They told us of problems and solutions; they knew exactly what was needed but often added, ‘…but no one listens.” They spoke of wanting to contribute in order to improve their communities and the future of their children. Across the board, women demonstrated a desire to participate. Not only is the voting majority in Croatia made up of woman, but volunteerism in organizations that represent women's interests has increased dramatically in the last ten years.
In October 2008 I returned to Croatia to build support for WGLI. The cities of Rijeka and Pula had affirmed the mission of the organization, and now, my Rijeka contact, Shura, would connect me to three key sources of further support—a government representative and two women's organizations. With all three, I spoke of building leadership community and of the need for women to be involved in decision-making. Women care so deeply about community and family interests: children and elderly issues, education, health, safety, and the preservation of culture and tradition. Women make up half the population, and the need for them to mobilize in order to develop and sustain economic power for themselves and for their communities is essential for Croatia’s future.
When I presented WGLI's mission statement to a group of government officials, including a Gender Equality Representative, I was initially met with resistance. They spoke of how they had experienced opposition to new ideas and thought others might feel threatened by the WGLI’s philosophy and thus might try to hinder and control our efforts. However, in the midst of their skepticism, I sensed hope. As my eyes met those of the only man present, the contrast between hope and fear was clearly defined. These officials had fought and won a long struggle for the rights and privileges now enjoyed by the Croatian people. They had experienced repression, yet their hearts slowly opened, like rivers moving gently toward an open sea of hope. By the end of that meeting, they spoke of beginning to understand how WGLI's leadership program might work for Croatia, making suggestions and encouraging our endeavors.
The second meeting was with s group of diverse women in Rijeka, among them were a teacher of developmentally challenged children, an engineer, a professor for a young men’s trade school, and a young lady b Blanca and her boyfriend. They had practical concerns for their communities and children, and they were eager to participate. In Pula the third meeting was with progressive, dynamic group of women. The room buzzed with voices, raising suggestions and questions, sharing experiences and viewpoints. Voices electrified the air. At the end of the meeting, Shura held up her cell phone. She had recorded a part of the proceedings and now played it back. The voices resonated with an excited dialogue of possibilities and promise. All three meeting served to strengthen our purpose.
During my trips to Croatia, I have been tested many times. Resistance and criticism have sometimes fostered doubt within me. I was called crazy, a dreamer, and a host of other names that I am happy not to have understood. Sometimes, for self-protection, I resort to an old behavior of preparing for the worst, lest I be taken off-guard. Now, as I weigh the level of encouragement against the skepticism, the depth of the challenge against the need, and the desire for a solid leadership program for Croatian women, I believe whole-heartedly that my life has prepared me to help create and support this network. Now, the little voice inside my head that once had cast doubt on this vision for a World Global Leadership Initiative has been silenced. Instead I hear the familiar refrain, "Yes, we can."
My passion to serve and support women
in their dreams of a better life will take me back to Croatia again this year. In spring 2009,
I will return to continue this work.
I invite those who wish to share their experience, knowledge and skills to become part of the WGLI network. Please, don't doubt the value of what you have to share. Your life experiences and willingness to serve and share make you a WGLI asset.