Conversation with Jeannie Norris
on an interview with Pamela Gerloff
that as you give intentionally over time, you embark on a
personal journey of self-actualization. This journey requires
courage, self-knowledge, and comfort with personal authority.
Of course, those are goals that all of us are moving toward
as we grow older, but in a society that sends disempowering
messages to women, that journey is very different for women
than it is for men. When we also consider the tremendous giving
capacity of women, both in earned and in inherited wealth,
we see a pretty interesting phenomenon.
For decades, women have been comfortable
giving the gift of self-caring for others and not thinking
about the value of the time that is spent in that. Usually
this is volunteer work, and that's a good thing; we all
know that if we didn't have the volunteers we have in this
country much of our social service would come to a grinding
halt. There is, though, another way to take care, to support
what you care about, and to improve people's lives, and
that is by giving funds. You can use money to make change
happen, both in small and in very big ways.
Making big change happen is certainly comfortable
for lots of women-we can all point to women who have been
bold philanthropists -but it makes other women pause. I
am reminded of the words of author Marianne Williamson:
It is not our weakness that we fear, it is our greatness.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our
deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens
us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to
be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does
not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened
about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure
around you. We are all meant to shine, as children
do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God
that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it
is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do
the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our
presence automatically liberates others."
A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles
of A Course in Miracles
, by Marianne Williamson
not all women have trouble with greatness. It is just that
many of us are not sure we can do big things, or we think
that maybe our idea is not a good one, or maybe we don't fully
understand the vehicles that we can use to turn our dream
into a reality. Learning to believe that what we think is
important-moving into that place where we are not apologetic
for who we are and what we believe-goes hand in hand with
how we use our resources.
look at endowment statistics, schools that were all boys
or all men and then went co-ed are light years ahead of
most girls' and women's institutions in the size of their
endowments. Some of that is related to the age of the institutions
and to the fact that women, historically, have had less
access to financial resources than men, but I think it is
also related to gender-based ideas of worth and value. What
do women think about the right of their schools to exist?
If it's a school for girls or a college for women, do the
alumnae believe that the world needs and benefits from the
work the institution does? Are the alumnae saying, "This
is really important, and I want to see this preserved"?
a lingering question in women about whether something that
is about "me"-that is about women and girls-is really of
value. There is a voice that asks, "Is what I support worthy
of continuing forever?" I don't think these doubts are conscious.
They are biases we grow up with. What has to do with men
and boys is really important, but if it's about girls and
women we're not so sure. It's not conscious until we make
a difference philanthropically, we need to be comfortable
with personal authority-with our right to be and to think
and to express our ideas. That's what we're trying to develop
here at Miss Hall's School with our girls.
working with Dr. Elizabeth Debold, a well-known psychologist
in adolescent girls' development. She is helping us find
out what girls can tell us about their experience with accepting
their personal authority, the conflict they feel when they
are in a relationship, and the tension they feel about staying
in a relationship through conflict. How do you say what
you need to say and still maintain the personal relationships
that are so important to you? Every woman I know knows about
these challenges; I have not yet spoken to a group of alumnae
who haven't known what I was talking about when I mention
it. It starts early in our lives. We begin to defer. We
don't say what we really mean. We are uncomfortable with
conflict, so we will do just about anything to avoid it.
That undermines the influence we can have and the change
we can make in the world. I look at every one of the girls
at our school as a person who will lead her society. Some
will be on the front page of the
New York Times
others will lead quietly in their communities, most of them
will be in families, influencing the next generation. It
is important that they learn to say what they believe; it's
important that they know that what they think about things
has value and that they can't sit back and wait for others
to take action. Society says to girls that what's important
is thinness, popularity, and beauty.
are the altars at which a girl is tempted to worship. It's
not that these things are bad, but if they run a girl's
life, they close her off from being authentic and doing
authentic work. A fourteen- year-old girl may not be able
to talk about this as I have here, but she lives it every
day. Membership in the "popularity club" is highly valued,
and girls (as well as adults) will not risk losing membership.
At Miss Hall's School we're working on how to break all
of that apart. We want to show girls another way to organize
themselves in relationship to each other.
observed that the giving process itself facilitates the
development of this sense of personal authority and authentic
self. Something is happening in an individual right up to
the time that the gift is made, and even afterward. Something
changes in us when we give, because we have had to go through
a thought process that involves, as Paul Schervish says,
who we are and where we've come from. The personal archeological
dig that we do leads us to ask, "What's really important
to me? What do I want to provide for others?" and helps
each of us to clarify who we are. We have many programs
in schools now that involve young people in community service.
But we need to do more to get them to think about their
role as philanthropists. I like to ask girls at Miss Hall's
if they are philanthropists. They're not sure. Then I ask
them, "How many of you have ever made a donation to your
United Way or your local Brownie troop or Scout drive?"
Every hand goes up. Philanthropy, as we well know, is not
the exclusive domain of the wealthy.
usually leads me to discuss the fact that everyone who has
made her way to Miss Hall's, regardless of how much her
parents have, is wealthy in comparison to her global peer
group. Even those who may be receiving full financial aid
are in the top few percent of all girls their age in terms
of the opportunity and the gift they are receiving through
this education. In our society, we don't emphasize enough
that with those gifts and rights comes responsibility. To
whom much has been given, much is expected. When I have
this conversation with girls, I say to them: "The world
expects from you not only your philanthropic support for
those things that matter to you, but your creative ideas,
your problem-solving skills, and your hard work to make
part of this world better." This is a new and big idea to
most of them. I say, "The world needs your time, your talent,
and your treasure; your wealth, your wisdom, and your work."
In the end, I am asking them, "What makes you you, and what
are you going to do with that?"
Norris, director of Miss Hall's School in Massachusetts.