Girl Power to Granny Power: A Conversation with Paola Gianturco

Grandmother Power

Photo from Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon by Paola Gianturco, published by powerHouse Books.

Paola Gianturco has traveled the world documenting the lives of women through photographs and text. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters and the United Nations headquarters in New York City, and in museums including the Field Museum in Chicago and the International Museum of Women in San Francisco. Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon is Gianturco’s fifth book with publisher powerHouse Books, following In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World (2004), Celebrating Women (2004), Viva Colores! A Salute to the Indomitable People of Guatemala (2006), and Women Who Light the Dark (2007). She lives in California.

In August, Gianturco, a grandmother herself and longtime GoodWeave donor, spoke with us about her work with activist grandmothers around the world, why grandmothers are becoming a strong collective force, and why she hopes she’ll inspire her readers to become engaged with organizations like GoodWeave that work to improve the conditions of people everywhere.

GoodWeave: Tell us a little bit about your work, and how it has evolved and changed you.

Paola Gianturco: The first book was called In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World. I went to 12 countries and interviewed women artisans who were sending their children to school by making all kinds of handicrafts. That book came after I had spent 35 years in business. I thought I was just taking a sabbatical to do what I loved, which was photography and travel. I was so overwhelmed by what I saw that I never went back to business.

It did change my life—it inspired a whole second career that I had never imagined. But as I continue to do books about women in many countries and the inspiring work that they’re doing on virtually every intractable problem that exists, I meet these women as my peers and sisters and colleagues. I leave them feeling that they are my heroines. Their work is inspiring and impressive and important. So I am spending my life helping to make their voices heard, I hope.

GoodWeave: How did you begin to get involved with grandmothers?

Paola Gianturco: I was interviewing women involved in a water project in Kenya. All the women were sitting in a circle, and I was getting to know these women. I asked a question that I often ask to give us common ground, "How many children do you have?" Much to my astonishment, those women all answered the same way: Two and six adopted. Five and fifteen adopted. Three and ten adopted. As they went around the circle, I realized the word "adopted" was kind of code for I am raising my grandchildren because my children died of AIDS. I saw so much sadness there.

Finally one woman said, "God is helping us because we are here to help the children with AIDS." What an extraordinary attitude. I began to realize how strong these grandmothers were. This was 2006, and I went all over Africa and met grandmothers like this and I realized that the future of the continent rests on the grandmothers.

I went home and did research and found activist grandmother groups in 30 countries. I was amazed that no one is focusing on the new role of grandmothers and the work that they’re doing. No one had looked, as far as I could tell, across oceans and borders to see what grandmothers are doing.

GoodWeave: Why do you think no one was talking about and recognizing powerful grandmothers?

Paola Gianturco: I think there is a fairly powerful predilection to think of grandmothers as stereotypical, rocking-chair ridden. Also, the phenomenon of younger, healthier, more engaged grandmothers is relatively new. Half of the grandmothers in the United States are between the ages of 47 and 64. They’re too young to retire. There have never been so many grandmothers in the history of the world.

In western culture there have never been so many professionally experienced women who have real skill to bring to bear. As one woman said to me, what was I going to do, put all that education and experience in a box? That sentiment was often shared. And these grandmothers have their roots in the 1960s so they know they can change the world—they’ve done it before.

GoodWeave: As you know, GoodWeave works to end child labor in the carpet industry and put rescued children in school. Our newsletter theme is focused on girls and the importance of empowering and educating girls. How can adult women, who may not have had these same opportunities, help to ensure these changes?

Paola Gianturco: I have no single chapter [in the new book] in which all of the issues you’re tackling are wrapped up, but I have chapters about women who are weavers and grandmothers familiar with abuse. Here are a few stories.

At the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco, in Peru, the founder Nilda Callanaupa had been concerned that traditional Inca weaving had been virtually lost. She realized that it was only the grandmothers who might conceivably understand what their own grandmothers’ weaving might have involved. She saw grandmothers as the key to recapturing traditional weaving. So she arranged with the local high schools for students to get credit for interviewing grandmothers about their grandmothers’ weaving, and thus began reconstituting weaving in the past. They have gone from a situation in the late 1970s and ’80s when none of the people wore traditional clothing to a time where now everyone is wearing and making traditional clothing again. The grandmothers and Center are teaching the children and the men how to do the traditional textiles and they are now selling beautiful fine textiles and wearing them. The clothing has become the moral equivalent of the kind of ethnic pride that used to be represented in this country by the Black is Beautiful movement. It’s allowed them to reconstitute their identity in a way that hadn’t existed before.

In Thailand, I interviewed women in the northeast part of the country who weave organic cotton. Women’s engagement with weaving cotton had been a longstanding way to earn money. One of the first people I interviewed looks up at a beautiful mountain as she weaves, but on the other side of this mountain a mining company is extracting gold. She was terribly worried about heavy metal and cyanide contamination in the rivers there. It was no longer safe for these people, who had always raised their own food, to farm.

The organic cotton weavers decided to allocate a portion of their revenue to help their neighbors over the mountain who were in such dire straits. They also wrote to the government to protest the presence of this mining company and traveled to meet officials in Bangkok, using an argument based on morality and compassion, which I think must be a uniquely Buddhist approach. I have just read that the government has refused to renew the lease of the mining company.

GoodWeave: How are grandmothers engaging in human rights issues?

Paola Gianturco: I visited Jalapa, Guatemala, where grandmothers are running a child abuse hotline. They told me that there are villages in that area where the fathers believe that it’s their right to be the first ones to have sex with their daughters. There are pockets of such child abuse in their area. The grandmothers decided it wasn’t enough to just run the hotline, but that it was important for them to go throughout the province and teach good parenting to try to stem these problems at the beginning. It was they who had the time to listen to these stories and the patience to hear them out, but also to know what to recommend and the initiative to report cases, when appropriate, to the police or get children to the hospital. I went with them into the villages. Many of the villagers are indigent and illiterate. They teach them through games, songs and stories, the kind of engagement that isn’t traditional education. Those women are thunder! An 80-year-old woman told me that one of the abusive fathers came at her with a machete, and she stood him down, gave him a brochure and told him he needed help.

In the Philippines I interviewed and photographed women who had been “"comfort women," or sex slaves, in World War II. The Japanese army recruited one woman for every 100 soldiers, and they abducted young girls, under 20 at the time, who are now in their 80s and 90s. Throughout their lives, these women lived a very shameful experience. No one in their families was likely to know what had befallen them.

One day in the early 1990s one of the comfort women came out on television and told her story, and invited the others to join her and fight for their rights. These women who had had these devastating experiences began coming out and together they sued the Japanese government for reparation and apology and a place in the history books, because they were convinced that otherwise the next generation wouldn’t know better and would repeat it. They collaborated with former comfort women throughout Asia so they were working strategically in a synchronized way. Their lawsuit was denied after 10 years of progressing through the Japanese legal system, but these women are not giving up and even those at the very oldest ages are demonstrating in the streets and mounting an international movement to protect girls and women against sexual violence. They are committed to this fight. One told me, "I’m 86, my mother lived to be 96, and for the next 10 years I am going to fight on."

GoodWeave: How much change can be effected through individual action and philanthropy and how much must come from government and institutional change?

Paola Gianturco: Both. It takes both. In the case of the Phillipine grandmothers, they’ve been very effective in getting declarations passed in support of their cause, so they’ve been strategically savvy enough to go outside of their own relatively limited power purview. They are not in any way naïve about the amount they can do on the ground, and have been quite sophisticated about how they engage other people. The Japanese government has been insistent that their obligation was complete and they had paid reparation. On the other hand the Japanese people have been very supportive of the comfort women activities. It was the citizens who bought a bungalow in Manila where the women meet.

So the answer is it takes all levels of activity; it takes working at many levels.

GoodWeave: Do you still see weavers and other textile artisans as an important part of creating opportunities for women around the world? Is it important for women to expand to higher-paying, traditionally male enterprise?

Paola Gianturco: It’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about the weavers in Thailand who were saddened to see their daughters go off to the cities to work, where they make more money. In that particular instance, they simply hoped that their daughters would return and take up weaving. However, all were aware that in order to send their own children to school their daughters needed to make more money than they could traditionally earn at weaving. There has been this tension between the next generation’s need to earn money and the traditional crafts. There are only a few places where the weavers are actually making enough money, more money, by escalating the quality of the work and marketing it well that they can hope to engage the next generation in what is a lucrative way to support their families. There really is a tension between the ability to make money and the need to sustain craft skills.

GoodWeave: Perhaps organizations like GoodWeave can help by working for better labor conditions and pay.

Paola Gianturco: Yes, definitely.

GoodWeave: What do you most want people in the West to know and engage with about the girls, women and grandmothers you’ve met?

Paola Gianturco: My great dream about all of my work is that my books will help people understand each other more completely, and that understanding is the precursor of taking action. So my hope is my books will inspire people to engage with organizations like GoodWeave that are doing such important work but really need the support and involvement of all of us who are in a position to help.

GoodWeave: What’s next for you?

Paola Gianturco: All of my books are philanthropic projects. Author royalties from Grandmother Power will go to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The project came from a meeting that Stephen Lewis convened between African and Canadian grandmothers to see if they could tackle some of the problems of AIDS in Africa. The African women said they were afraid of being charity cases and the Canadian women were afraid of just being the bank. So they set up a process whereby the African women would make very specific requests and the Canadians would fund exactly that request.

It was clear that what was needed was a continuous flow of small cash infusions. Today there are 240 groups of grandmothers all over Canada involved with this project, and they will do anything to raise money for their African sisters. In the course of the last six years they have raised $13.5 million that’s been sent to grandmothers in 15 African countries.

So for the next few months I will be [working with them] in Canada and then back in the United States presenting this book. I always have a file with more project ideas!

More articles on this subject:

Girls Matter: A Conversation with Ann Warner

Difficult but Not Impossible: GoodWeave in Afghanistan

Motorcycle Girls: From Child Laborers to Shop Owners in Nepal

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