An international grandmothers movement is underway. Grandmothers have never worked so universally and effectively for social, economic, and political justice.
I’m honored to have been invited to participate in a blogging campaign in support of Grandmother Power. I am truly inspired by the women I know personally and those I read about or see in the media who are so passionately and so creatively and often so quietly taking actions big and small that are making our world a better place for our children and grandchildren. This powerful movement is sweeping around the world and I want very much to be a part of it. Count me in!
I thought it would be fun to post grandmother stories all week. Stories by grandmothers, stories about the unique joy of being grandmothers, and stories of amazing and brilliant grandmothers who have not only inspired me and changed my life, but are using their grandmother power to light the way for so many others.
I say we start with amazing and brilliant ~
Paola in Kenya
Photo credit – Norma Adniambo
I don’t think there could be a better way to kick-off our week of celebrating the power of grandmothers everywhere, than to share some insights, experiences and words of wisdom from Paola Gianturco – the powerful grandmother and creative force behind Grandmother Power. Paola has opened our eyes and our hearts with her beautiful photographs and powerful stories of women making a difference all over the globe. I’m excited to share Paola’s story, in her own words, of how she made the leap from exhausted executive to her brilliant and powerful Second Act as a photojournalist. She is truly an inspiration to so many of us who are still trying to figure out what’s next.
Nancy: Paola, women over 60 are a huge untapped resource in the world. For many of us, some time after 50 is when we finally begin to find our true voice and start to feel those first twinges that maybe there’s something more we are here to do. What words of wisdom and advice are you able to share as someone who felt that call and followed your heart?
Paola: After 35 years in marketing, advertising, public relations and corporate communications, I decided to teach too…and at the end of one year, I’d earned two years worth of money (bought myself a year), had one million frequent flier miles (could fly and stay virtually anywhere free), and I was exhausted!
At 55, I had been walking on Mount Tamalpais (Mill Valley, Calif.), asking myself “What next, what now?” without answers. I decided to take a year off and do only what I loved most (photography and travel in the developing world) and wanted to learn next (about women’s micro-businesses). My “one-year sabbatical” became my first book and a second career: documenting the lives of women all over the world.
Nancy: What inspired you most on this journey?
Paola: I was inspired by the strength and stories of women everywhere. At first, I worried that the women I interviewed would see me as so different from them that they wouldn’t tell me anything. But in fact, people don’t travel to listen to the women I met (who were mostly rural, mostly poor, mostly ill educated) and they told me things I would never have asked. Like all of us, they wanted to be witnessed and wanted their voices to be heard.
Sharing a laugh with women in South Africa in 1996.
Photo credit – Toby Tuttle
Nancy: How has the path unfolded for you?
Paola: Having worked in large corporations where I’d learned to set objectives, define strategies and tactics and “make it happen,” I was amazed how my life unfolded. Each step was one that I couldn’t possibly have planned. For example, the books developed out of each other. As I packed my cameras having interviewed embroiderers in the desert of Gujarat, one said, “Come back in the fall and we’ll teach you the dances we perform all night to honor the Mother God.” I did, and that experience turned into my next book, Celebrating Women.
Nancy: What kind of support did you have and how did you reach out to create a new network?
Paola: I have a husband who had two million frequent flier miles of his own, which he gave me. That made it possible to do more books. Lots of husbands wouldn’t have liked it that their wives travel alone for weeks at a time, but David cooks for himself and does his own laundry even when I’m home. When he got lonesome, he began working at a drugstore in the evenings (husbands have thought of worse things to do while their wives are away!) And he has always cheered me on. Because I was stepping into a whole new career, David was my “support-network” at the beginning.
Nancy: You left the corporate world to step back from stress and exhaustion. It looks like you have ramped up a very busy life again. Are you able to keep a good work/life balance these days or are you happiest when you are going 120 mph? I think that word “balance” is very different for each of us. What does it mean to you? What do you do just for fun?
Paola: Busy is not necessarily the same as stressful. if you’re doing something you feel passionate about, you can go 120 mph without even noticing it! (People ask why I don’t have an assistant, but I can’t imagine giving away such fun.) I recognize that my life is not for everyone, and my idea of fun is unique.
I love traveling to places most people don’t go and sitting on the floor of huts listening to interesting people. It is creatively challenging to photograph them well; I am always learning and growing. For each book, I may travel over three years, taking a number of 3-5 week working trips. I shoot in the early morning and late afternoon when the light is good, interview mid-day, and write after dinner. By now, I’ve worked in 55 countries.
Paola with Iranian Students in 2008
Photo Credit – Nancy Williams
Drafting each book takes a year and during that time, I am a hermit. I get up, go to the computer, get up and go to bed. My “break” is to watch the rainbows that spin from the prism in my office window every afternoon and I marvel at how lucky I am to get to do challenging, difficult, important work.
The last few months before a book is released are very demanding: working with the editor and designer, writing the website and working with the web designer, creating direct mail pieces, arranging book tour details, creating slide presentations, planning press with the PR people. In the midst of that crunch, I always vow that I will figure out a calmer way to handle those four months next time. But I haven’t yet.
Promoting the book is a different kind of fun. My books are all philanthropic projects so selling books means raising money for causes I care about: 100% of my author royalties from Grandmother Power go to African grandmothers raising children orphaned by AIDs. My work has meaning and purpose.
For relaxation? I read. I watch movies with my husband. I play with my Grand Girls. Swim. Go to the gym (without which, at age 73, I’m convinced that none of the rest would be possible).
Nancy: Did becoming a grandmother create a new lens through which you see the world? How so? Were your grandchildren the inspiration for your latest book? What do you hope this book will achieve?
Grandmother Power – Paola at home with her girls
Paola: Because I am a grandmother, I wondered what grandmothers were doing other places. I discovered an unheralded, international activist grandmother movement, full of women who thought (as do I) that this troubled world is just not good enough for anybody’s grandchildren.
Grandmother Power, was inspired by African grandmothers who were raising children orphaned by AIDS. I met so many of them when I was working there in 2006 that I left convinced that grandmothers hold the future of the continent in their hands.
Grandmothers today are younger, better educated, healthier and (in the Global North) more career-experienced than they have ever been. As Boomers become Grands, they (who came of age in the 1960’s) know they can change the world because they did. In other words, the days of the “knitting, tatting, rocking-chair-ridden grandmother” are long gone.
But many grandmothers in the US are not yet part of the international activist grandmother’s movement, perhaps because they don’t know about it. And that’s a waste of a lot of urgently needed talent.
Nancy: I want to be part of the Grandmother Power Movement and I am sure lots of women reading your story will as well. How can we get involved?
Paola: I hope Grandmother Power will inspire those who are not yet engaged to collaborate to make the world a better place. To start, join, support and network with grandmother groups. I’m convinced it will take all of us, Grandmothers and GrandOthers, working together, to create hope and possibility for our world.
Nancy: In your book, Grandmother Power, you photographed and interviewed grandmother groups all over the world. What is your process for locating your subjects, making contact, establishing rapport and getting to the heart of their story?
Paola: I do preliminary research on as many as 70 different groups, then select 15 that, together, present a balanced variety of issues, ethnicities and geographies. (I make sure the groups are on the United Airlines routes so I can fly there free!)
I email the head of each group, describe my concept, and ask if the organization would like to participate. When I arrive, my interpreter and I meet with the group’s leader, and decide whom I will interview and when. My interpreters are almost always local women; their English may not be perfect, but bringing in a well-educated “city woman” as interpreter is a nonstarter; no one will talk.
I begin every interview by showing pictures of my family and showing my books so the woman will understand who I am and what she’s getting into. I never take pictures until after she has talked for at least an hour and I have a sense of who she is and what pictures might reveal her world. The interviews feel like conversations, although I explore areas I’ve defined carefully in advance. At the end, I always invite the woman to ask whatever she wants to ask me. Turn about is fair play!
Because it’s important to me to represent the women well, I send every chapter draft to the interpreter to read to each woman so she can correct any factual inaccuracies.
Nancy: Do you develop lasting friendships with some of the women you interview or follow up on their lives after your time together? I’m sure each meeting touched you in different ways. Have you seen any direct impact of your stories on their lives?
Paola: Yes, I stay in touch with many of the leaders of the groups that are featured in my books, and feel blessed by their friendship.
Paola with Yasmina in Panama in 1997
Photo Credit – TobyTuttle
And yes, I have been astonished and awed, to see the direct impact of my books on women’s lives. For example, I went back to India to work not long after a catastrophic earthquake and saw all the women in one village rebuilding their huts with funds wired by a reader of my first book. I was so touched that I wept.
Nancy: What’s next? Do you have more stories to tell through your photographs and books or do you have other visions to conquer and roads to explore?
Paola: I always have a file of ideas of what to do next. I won’t open that file until January 2014. Until then, Grandmother Power is where the action is. For example, The Grand Rapids Public Museum in Michigan will present a Grandmother Power exhibit from September through December 2013.
Nancy: And, I finally a much more lighthearted question – If you were a pair of shoes, what kind would you be and why?
Paola: “Strappy black sandals, flats. I’m comfortable being casual and being fancy—and summer is my favorite time of the year.”
Thank you, Paola. Your purpose and passion have inspired me once again. My mind is buzzing with ideas!