There will be a lot of naysayers and people who try to break your confidence. Stay confident. Believe in yourself. Once, we were told it would be very difficult to become our own independent non-profit without everything in place to do so. You cannot build something real without starting with the dream and taking it one step at a time until it is a living structure in the world. If you breathe enough love and care into it, it sprouts wings and takes flight.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kent Davis-Packard.
Dr. Kent Davis-Packard is President & Executive Director of Women Forward International, a global platform for systemic change in international affairs education, which she launched as an initiative at the Aspen Institute in 2019. Most recently, she initiated and developed the SAIS Women Lead curricular program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), launching a practicum program that partners students with public and private organizations on research that advances women.
She taught Johns Hopkins SAIS’s first courses on global women’s issues: “Transcending Culture: Women as Agents of Change in the International Order” and “Women, Peace, and Security: Moving Beyond the Myth” as well as U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East. She is Features Editor for the Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism journal based at the London School of Economics and a member of the Advisory Board of Kallion, an organization that elevates leadership through the humanities.
Dr. Davis-Packard received her Ph.D. in international relations and Middle East studies and master’s degree in conflict management and economics from Johns Hopkins SAIS; a master’s degree in French and romance philology from Columbia University; a comparative literature Maitrise, Lettres Modernes, from the Universite of Paris VIII; and a BA in English and comparative literature summa cum laude from Cornell University. She also holds a Certificate in Management Essentials from Harvard Business School Online. As a Fulbright Scholar to Morocco, she studied the influence of returning migrants on local communities and literature.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I could not go forward in any of my other chosen career paths without attending first to that which was so prominently calling for change and disabling policymakers around me from addressing the root causes of the world’s most intractable problems. This includes poverty and inequality, and all that comes with injustices and selfishness, including conflict and warfare. I found through empirical studies and on the ground experience that what lay in the way of peace and economic prosperity always had some relationship to the status of women in a given society.
I had taken my Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) graduate students to Bangladesh and India in January 2018 for our “Power of Womenomics” study trek and we stopped for breakfast. In a strong Danish accent, the café owner explained that she did not make a tremendous profit, but her café enabled dozens of women to escape staying at home with alcoholic husbands refusing to work. We are told this situation plagues much of southern India. The café owner’s business model was based on the social good it would bring about, which had no quantifiable outcome, and yet made all the difference in the lives of those women saved from lifetimes of abuse.
As Women Forward International continues our global research projects, I see a myriad of women positively affecting their communities in ways never seen before.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When you begin to lead something new, others take notice, and, even the most supportive fans are overcome with the sense that no real change can ever occur. When they see people actually daring to make the change in the here and now, they attempt to slow the process down, or even take it away for themselves — but they soon discover they cannot be the custodians of the change without being transformed themselves! Instead, the light carries forward the mission, strewing limbs and broken claws of all those who cannot “get onboard” in its wake.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We put the wrong address of our new office on our business cards. Proofread everything carefully!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Women Forward International is making a social impact by merging credible research and influential organizations and putting them to action. We provide the funding and tools to act on the key recommendations resulting from the research. In this way, we offer an opportunity for our next generation of leaders to make real change, and, in doing so, we transform the culture of the universities, students, companies, and countries in which we operate.
WFI’s Director of Arts Partnerships, Wesley Spencer, also brings art to the forefront of international affairs education and the practice of diplomacy. Art enables our research teams and client partners to address the root causes of inequality and injustice because it gives us the opportunity to speak of taboo subjects, reveal hidden power structures, and deconstruct hierarchy.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Our student participants claim our projects are among their “best experiences in graduate school.”
Nada Odeh, a Syrian artist and poet who was the first artist to be featured by Women Forward International said our mission has inspired her to continue creating art and poetry about the women of Syria. As a refugee herself, Nada understands the importance of efforts like ours to support and uplift women worldwide.
During our 300 Days of Sun, How Many More Days of Slaves? event with our Stanford University research team, we had the pleasure of inviting a young woman and activist named Rhonelle Bruder to speak on the subject of modern day slavery. Rhonelle is a survivor and advocate for the victims of human trafficking. After the event, multiple people spoke with Wesley Spencer, WFI’s Director of Arts Partnerships, about the impact of Rhonelle’s message on their way of viewing survivors. “Often, we see victims of violence and oppression as nothing but victims, but Rhonelle brought to light that victims can become the strongest force in eradicating injustice.”
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Listen to fresh ideas of the next generation
- Set an example by embodying the principles love and compassion and looking for new leaders who embrace these principles
- Encourage an inclusive culture within your organization as its effect will ripple in your outward work in the world
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
It does not matter how you define “leadership.” This word and concept is no longer the central focal point for organizations. In the worldwide movements for social change, everyone plays a role, and we no longer require distinct leaders. It is, rather, the person who serves quietly and with care for others, whether they are a so-called “leader” or a “follower,” who we desperately need to overcome our human difficulties and challenges.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- There will be a lot of naysayers and people who try to break your confidence. Stay confident. Believe in yourself. Once, we were told it would be very difficult to become our own independent non-profit without everything in place to do so. You cannot build something real without starting with the dream and taking it one step at a time until it is a living structure in the world. If you breathe enough love and care into it, it sprouts wings and takes flight.
- How much fun this “work” is! We get to meet women from all over the world who are transforming their communities through their Art and activism. It’s like having sisters in every language — a giant, warm family that is also very powerful, with joined hands across every kind of border — geographic and metaphysical.
- You don’t have to worry or be anxious. We used to spend hours thinking about process questions that we are now adept at navigating. As our CPA says: “there is no problem in this world that cannot be overcome.” Believe that and act on it.
- You need to not think of yourself as “saving the world,” but rather the world saving you. This is because every time something “good” happens, the most rewarding experience is to simply watch it happen and see how it transforms your own faith in humanity. Transforming oneself is the best thing you can do for others.
- You grow. Don’t think that you will always think and behave in the same way. And, as the humorous saying goes, “don’t believe everything you think!” I used to feel intimidated by big board rooms. Now those board rooms are empty, and the only part of me that is left to be intimidated are thoughts based on fear of being too small or powerless to make change.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I want already exists. And it has no leader. We are moving into an age in which everyone is a “hero.” By that I mean that we are moving closer to the source of who we truly are as human beings — we are growing in our love for our fellow beings, which makes it impossible for us to do what we have done down through the ages to women, for one thing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t worry be happy.” This comes from the song by Bobby McFerrin, but he found the quote in the sayings of Avatar Meher Baba. I am far from achieving this kind of worry-free existence, but there is something so sweet that is signifies: that the core of life is benevolent, and that we are in good hands. Remembering this enables me to do things I might otherwise lack the courage or conviction to do.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Most of my dearest companions are people no longer in the body. So I would say I’d like to have breakfast or lunch with Hazrat Babajan, a woman who lived to be about 130 years old and was a saint to both Muslims and Hindus. She was a strong woman who refused marriage and escaped the taunting of a group of Indian soldiers who tried to bury her alive. The story goes that they did bury her. A few years later, they saw her in the street again, following her path. They left her alone after that!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook: Women Forward International