They say it’s impossible to physically detect the world moving beneath your feet. However, upon being in the presence Dr. Cora Neumann on an especially hot Thursday morning in July, I could tangibly sense a shift in the course of our planet-- or at least in global thought. Dr. Neumann holds a doctorate in international development from the University of Oxford, UK and an MPH in global public health from Columbia University. For nearly 15 years, she has collaborated with local and national leaders in over thirty countries to help them develop strategies and programs that improve the lives of women and families. I had the honor and privilege of meeting her to discuss RESET, her global series of initiatives that support a deeper connection to self, humanity, and the planet in order to inspire change.
Over the past 15 years, your work has focused on improving the lives of women and families. Can you tell me what inspired you to focus on female empowerment?
I actually never planned on working with women. I originally started my work in public health working with all refugees. I actively avoided working with women because I didn’t want to be focused only on a specific subsector. As I was working in the field in India, Africa, and Southeast Asia, I saw the state of women there. In a lot of these rural communities women do all of the farming, all of the cooking, all of the care, don’t get education, and don’t get financial support. It was something I just couldn’t look away from. The other thing that motivated me towards that was the opportunity to work with first ladies. An acquaintance of mine had been approached by a group of first ladies in Africa-- they had organized themselves-- and were looking for partnerships in the US. I had this "aha! moment" when I realized there was this group of influential women, women who could do so much for their people, that no one was really thinking about. I just wanted to help them so they could become stronger leaders.
In 2009, you co-founded the RAND African First Ladies Initiative (now the Global First Ladies Alliance). Through on-going mentoring and annual leadership education, you facilitated collaborations between first ladies (including Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama) and multiple global institutions. How did your experience connecting women around the world and aligning mindsets to generate positive impacts inspire RESET?
I started my work with first ladies in 2008, and realized there were a lot of misconceptions about them. We had first ladies like Hillary Clinton who people felt did too much and was thought of as overstepping her boundaries, and then we had other first ladies who were seen as not doing enough. It sort of felt like, “no matter what, you can’t do it right.” Our program was developed by asking them what they wanted and what they needed - and in many cases, no one had even ever asked them this before. That’s actually the reason why it became a really successful program because I didn’t set the agenda for them, I asked them what they needed and they created it. We came up with a form of leadership training for first ladies that they designed themselves. Through that work I was invited to come to the State Department to work as a senior advisor under Hillary Clinton. I was working on women’s economic empowerment and leadership, and I witnessed how women weren't taking care of themselves. They continually put themselves last. At the same time, they have to work three times, sometimes up to five times, as hard as their male colleagues to get to the same place. I watched how they felt overwhelmed, depleted and ended up not doing the things they really wanted to do. RESET was something I started thinking about back in 2013, as a set of Women’s Retreats to help women reconnect to self and purpose so that they can find the energy and the connection to what they really care about and find ways to say “no” more. I saw the need for women to learn to set boundaries across the spectrum and started to think about “RESET”...reset your system so that you can go back to your life, both personal and professional, with more energy, more clarity, more focus, and more connection to purpose.
The next thing that happened was that my brother died of an aneurysm suddenly last year. He was 42 - really young, had two kids, and we were extremely close. So I spent the last year just processing that and trying to allow that to transform me, and whatever I’m going to do in the world going forward. When you go through loss like that it’s hard to imagine going on at all, and so I took this idea - he and I had actually already been talking about doing a documentary series about amazing change-makers around the world and how they were resetting the course of human history - and decided to finally go for it. The lessons that I’ve learned through the process of loss and that I continue to learn, is a need for humanity in general to think about resetting our course, and think about how we find connection and meaning in the midst of the chaos we see around us in the world right now.
Throughout your career, you’ve influenced female empowerment globally. While you served as senior advisor (as a Franklin Fellow under Secretary Clinton in the U.S. Department of State) on women’s economic empowerment, your work affected women internationally. I notice that RESET incorporates a global aspect into its IMPACT series, as events are hosted worldwide. Why do you think it’s significant that RESET has an international outreach?
I was in the Himalayas in March working with a group of women farmer collectives that are producing oils and products to be bought on the international market, and I had been thinking a lot about what I wanted to RESET to be beyond retreats. I was sitting there meditating and staring out at the Himalayas, and just trying to wait for some answers to come to me, and I had this moment where I thought “if we want people to change their behavior and reset our course towards a more resilient future-- because the way we are heading right now is very destructive and depleting-- they should be doing what I’m doing right now...sitting in a glorious place in nature like the Himalayas and meditating.” We live on an absolutely gorgeous planet - the majestic mountains, the crystal clear oceans-- there’s so much on this earth that’s so beautiful that we’re losing because of our behavior. How do you get people to care about something that overwhelming? I believe you have to take them there. They have to connect with that place; they have to connect with the people there. Everything that we do here is impacting people all over the world-- everything that we do as humans to sustain ourselves has a global impact. If we want to save the planet and ourselves, it requires adventure into and connection to into the far reaches of the planet.
Last week, I met with a group that is working with astronauts because they want to be a part of this idea. They talked about this thing called the “overview effect”. When astronauts go into outer space, they turn around and look at the earth, and they have this “aha” moment where they recognize that “That’s it. That little ball floating in the atmosphere is all that we have and that’s our home.” It’s not about extracting and taking all that you can, it’s actually about loving it, honoring it, and sustaining it. I also think it requires taking people out of their everyday life and on a journey that helps them to gain perspective which is harder to do when you’re in your everyday routine.
RESET emphasizes the “Theory of Change” in all of its programs. What kind of change are you hoping to catalyze, and how?
The mission statement is “connecting to self, humanity, and the planet, so that we can reset our course towards a more resilient future.” I did try to capture in there the different levels of change that we hope to see. In the retreat series, it’s more focused on introspection and connecting to self and purpose for women, so that they can become the future. I think we need more women leaders. The type of leadership we’re going to need will be more related to complex emotional dynamics and new ways of identifying and addressing people’s needs. (I’m generalizing about women). I always say that nurturing is a superpower but we don’t recognize it as such. Nurturing and care-taking is as powerful as any other global force, and I think that harnessing that is very powerful and is going to be needed more and more. We’ve had great success so far.
The Impact Series will be focused on specific issues like climate change, gender issues, agriculture, and health. There will be journeys to places and each will have a relevant topic. For example, in the Himalayas, it could be about climate change because there is drought in these farming areas or about agriculture and urbanization. It’ll be a group of twenty to thirty people who have some impact or are somehow influenced by the issue and the area. You could have a World Bank official, a musician, a filmmaker-- it’ll be a very diverse crowd but they’ll all either have a role in impacting that place or a desire to do so. The goal is to create a group of more connected and enlightened leaders.
By Sydney Hartzell
Photos courtesy of Cora Neumann