5 secrets to Seattle’s success fighting global poverty

One by One, a local NGO founded by Heidi Breeze-Harris (right) to fight fistula, is one of a dozen small local organizations being honored today. (Photo courtesy SIF)

“There is something unique about Seattle,” says Michele Frix, Program Officer with the Seattle International Foundation (SIF).

“There’s a special quality here: that giving nature and that great interest in global causes.”

Want proof? Look no further than the 250 women and men filling the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom in downtown Seattle this morning.

They are here for SIF’s third annual Women in the World breakfast, honoring the work being done by local organizations for women around the world.

The breakfast has become SIF’s signature event. This year’s speakers include President of Oxfam America Raymond Offenheiser, Zimbabwean activist Glanis Changachirere, and Guatemala’s first female Attorney General, Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, (and the Globalist’s own Sarah Stuteville).

And the highlight is the announcement of seventeen grants worth a combined total of more than $200,000.

Today’s grantee organizations address issues like women’s health, literacy, finance, and leadership training. All are based in Washington; all operate on annual budgets of less than $2 million; and all work in developing countries.

So how do we do it? How does our region continue to lead the way in global aid and development? What’s the secret to these organizations’ success?

I tracked a few of the grantees down, and here’s what I found out:

1. We don’t just teach, we learn.

Ayni Education International builds girls’ schools in rural Afghanistan. The organization will use this morning’s award of $12,500 to expand their Computer Literacy Program to a third site in Mazar-e-Sharif. “The number one request we’ve had has been for keeping our computer labs open,” says Ginna Brelsford, Executive Director.

Meanwhile, Ayni is conscious of what Americans stand to learn from Afghanistan. “We started after 9/11 with the idea of building bridges of understanding…to counteract a growing prejudice on both sides,” Brelsford explains.

Ayni supports partnerships between U.S. and Afghan sister schools. “One thing that’s happening is Facebook pages,” says Brelsford. “Having kids converse on any topic is enough to sew the seeds of a different way of thinking.”

2. We focus.

“No program had picked a small enough area, put a stake in the ground, and proved it was possible to end it in that space.”

Heidi Breeze-Harris is talking about obstetric fistula, the childbearing disorder she’s set out to eradicate. One By One, co-founded by Breeze-Harris, brings all elements of fistula prevention and treatment together to form a seamless “continuum of care.”

She says that Let’s End Fistula, the pilot program in Western Kenya, has been more successful than anyone dreamed possible.

For Breeze-Harris, such focus is a double-edged sword. “Of course we want to help every women suffering from complications in childbearing. But fistula is something tangible that we can cure, it’s a very specific window through which donors are carried into a story. Through that story, gender inequity, poverty, and maternal health will all be addressed in conversations that I think will change the world.”

One By One will use $15,000 in grant funding to expand upon and evaluate their pilot initiative.

3. We innovate.

A Ghanaian family with one of Literacy Bridge’s Talking Books, which are used to spread vital health information to areas with low literacy. (Photo courtesy Literacy Bridge)

What do you do when there’s crucial information available in a community, but no way for the poorest to procure it? If you’re Cliff Schmidt, you invent new technology.

“If we can get the right information to people in their own homes, when they need it, it sticks,” states Schmidt, who formed Literacy Bridge following a visit to the least literate regions of Ghana in 2007.

In the space of two years the group developed and began distributing Talking Books. The portable, durable devices make health, wellness, and agricultural information available in audio format, so illiteracy doesn’t preclude learning.

One of their definitive features allows community members to share their own recordings with one another. Says Schmidt, “This helps us get information from, say, a nurse in a hospital to women who may never see the inside of one.” The $15,000 from SIF will go toward expanding Literacy Bridge’s Maternal and Child Health program.

4. We turn adversity to opportunity.

The inspiration for Etta Projects didn’t stem from happy circumstances. Pennye Nixon-West’s oldest daughter Etta Turner was killed in a bus accident in Bolivia while on a Rotary exchange program. When Bolivia’s local Rotary Club asked permission to name a children’s cafeteria after her daughter, Nixon-West was given an idea of just how many lives her daughter had touched while abroad. Rather than suppress painful memories, the family embraced the opportunity to help Bolivia’s most impoverished.

Ten years later, Etta Projects works with entire communities to determine which needs are most pressing.

At present, health care tops the list. “In Bolivia, each village elects a health care authority,” explains Katie Chandler, Program Director. “But these people have no idea what to do, and funds available to them go largely unused.” Today’s grant of $14,710 will train twenty-four individuals from eight communities in their roles and responsibilities as health officials, with a focus on maternal health, infant health, and sex education.

5. We work together.

Uniting these diverse organizations is a willingness to work together for women. “Seattle is a place where people are really willing to [do that],” says Ayni Education’s Ginna Brelsford. “In the international community that is huge.”

Brelsford and Breeze-Harris have collaborated previously thanks to the catalyzing effects of similar events. “Seattleites like to work on problems that haven’t been solved,” laughs Breeze-Harris. Together, “we play around with the possibilities.”

Cliff Schmidt, from Literacy Bridge adds, “These things work when you have a network of strong organizations. This breakfast is one thing that’s doing that.”


SIF’s Women in the World breakfast includes a free public event from 10-11:30 AM featuring a Q&A Session with Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz, Attorney General of Guatemala, and a Panel Discussion on women’s leadership for social change.


  1. Really great to hear about the work these organizations are doing and nice to feel confident that these grants will be used wisely for maximum benefit. Great job on another interesting article.

  2. Ladies of great minds and deeds doing great things to end fistula. Thank you and keep up the good work and the Almighty shall reward you in ways you cant imagine.

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