What makes you rise from your bed in the morning?
What excites you?
If you close your eyes, what world do you want to see?
Rather than merely asking girls and women "What do you want to be when you grow up?" these are the kinds of thought-provoking questions Dr. Tererai Trent
wants to talk about. Don't just think outside of the box, she says. Toss it out altogether.
"I want to be asked about what I envision my world to be, given what it is today," Trent says. "What do you think your purpose is in this life and why do you think that’s your purpose?"
Trent's journey to become a Ph.D.-educated woman who helps provide educational opportunities to girls in her rural community in Zimbabwe started years ago after a worker from Heifer International asked her a similarly meaningful question: What are your dreams?
Trent will speak at the Women Helping Women Fund's 26th annual luncheon
on Tuesday, May 22, at the Spokane Convention Center, and after more than 30 hours of travel from Zimbabwe to Spokane, she was kind enough to sit down with the Inlander
Monday morning to talk about her dreams and how she sees the empowerment of women as the key to the future.
Passion and Defining Your Future
Like her mother before her, and her grandmother before that, Trent was married off as a young teen. She had four children by the time she was 18, and she wasn't given the chance to complete her education, though she badly wanted to.
"I always say that sometimes we become passionate about something because once in a while we were broken with that very thing," Trent says. "And so when we rise, we find our redemption and our healing in righting or in healing that very thing that once was part of our soul wounds."
Trent tries to focus on the positive work she's doing now, rather than anything from the past, as it's important not to let the bad things that have happened define you, she says.
"Sometimes I think we become fascinated by the ugliness of our past and forget the value that we bring," Trent says. "And as women we need to champion and be inspired by what we are doing as women and never to look at having the ugly past define us."
Her passion became earning her own education and then empowering other women and girls to choose the life they want to lead. That starts with education, knowing they don't need to rely on a man for their livelihood, and being able to choose to have as many or few children as they want, Trent says. It continues with work opportunities, mentorship and building a network of support with other women, she says.
Focusing on Dreams
When she was asked what her dreams were all those years ago, Trent's mother told her to write them down and bury them.
"I come from a culture where they believe the infant, when the baby’s umbilical cord is buried deep in the ground — the female elders, the wisdom carriers — they believe wherever this child goes, their umbilical cord will remind them of their birth place," Trent says. "So my mother said, 'These dreams will follow you wherever you go.'"
When she was about to bury her four dreams — to go to America, to get an undergraduate, a master's, and a Ph.D. — Trent's mother told her to write another.
"My mother said, 'Your dreams will have better meaning when they are tied to the betterment of your community,'" Trent says.
So she wrote a fifth: that she'd be able to come back and provide education for other girls so they wouldn't have the same experiences she'd had.
After taking eight years to earn her GED, Trent went on to Oklahoma State University and earned her bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. After the 20-year journey to achieve her first four dreams, it was time to focus on her fifth.
"Today we have more than 62 million girls worldwide that are being denied the right to an education, and we have about 700 million women today who were either married before the age of 18 or had babies before the age of 18, and I am one of them," Trent says. "That makes it a moral obligation for me to work around those issues, because that’s what pained me, that’s what hurt me, those were my soul wounds. So I find redemption in doing that."
In 2011, Oprah Winfrey had Trent on her show and donated $1.5 million to help Trent build a school in Zimbabwe. (Oprah later revealed that in 25 years of running her show, Trent was her all-time favorite guest
Now, Trent helps with 11 public schools in rural Zimbabwe. There are some kids whose families have opted to let them walk as far as 10 or 12 kilometers each way just to go to school, she says.
And it's not just the education that she's supporting.
Trent helped rally support for a canteen to feed the children lunch, because many of them come from extremely poor families and weren't getting meals before their long walk. Now, she's working on an artisan workshop to provide an employment platform for women so they can earn money to send their children on to college.
"The education of girls is tied to the empowerment of their mothers and grandmothers," Trent says. "If they are not educated and empowered themselves, how can we expect these beautiful human beings to find the resources to send their children to school?"
Change through Resources
Through increased educational opportunities, Trent is seeing real change in her community. Old men now bring their young daughters to her and ask if they too can be successful like she has been.
She's found that it's actually a lot less about shifting cultural beliefs than she once thought.
"All along, I used to think that the men did not want their daughters to go to school," Trent says. "But through this process and experience, I’ve realized, 1) it’s ignorance, 2) they never saw a role model of a woman bringing education and empowering communities, so there was no belief of women doing anything."
When she came back from her time in the U.S. and started building up the school, it came down to resources being the necessary ingredient.
"We are shifting and redefining what we used to think is culture. It’s not. It’s abject poverty," she says. "When you provide resources and empower communities, they are more likely to empower the next generation."
Pulling up Other Women
In everything she does, Trent focuses on how women at the top of the ladder can help pull up the women who are down below, due to poverty, lack of opportunities and circumstance.
She writes about her own life and what can be done to improve the lives of women in her book The Awakened Woman
, which came out in October last year.
"Can we rally to help pull these women up, so all of us are in a position where we say, 'We rise. We are awakened women,'" Trent says. "Because it is only through our collectiveness that it is going to make our world a better world."
Trent says that's why she loves the work of the Women Helping Women Fund, which focuses on providing grants to nonprofits that help women and children in ways "that remove the social, economic and educational barriers preventing women from reaching their full intellectual and vocational potential."
"I truly believe that it is going to take the collective of women to change this world," she says.