A few weeks ago I was at a women’s leadership event in Fresno. I was asked to say a few words about when I realized that I was a leader.
As the youngest of six children, I had to exert my leadership early just to be seen and heard in my family. But I think I really discovered my potential as a leader when I was a teenager.
We were living in Islamabad, in Pakistan, where I was born, and my mother began noticing that the kids who passed by our house everyday on their way to school looked malnourished. They were emaciated with runny noses and open sores on their tiny bodies. They were in elementary school and ranged in age from about five to nine years old.
So my mother began inviting them into our driveway and offering them lunch. Maybe a scoop of lentils or masala served atop a naan (see photo). The first day one or two kids hesitantly took the food. And the next day a few more, and a few more after that until the driveway was full with forty or fifty children everyday. Within a couple of weeks they started looking healthier. The open sores went away and they put on a bit of weight. They started looking bright-eyed and cheerful. “See how little it takes to give someone a chance in the world?” my mother would say.
My mother planned the menu so they would get all the basic food groups in a week. Naan everyday, with a scoop of dal for protein, or vegetable masala another day, and meat the next day or maybe rice pudding with milk and fruit. “This way they get protein and carbohydrates,” she explained. “And we don’t need to use plates since we put the food right on the bread.”
My mother would put a scoop of food on top of the naan for the kids.
Because the kids were shy and hesitant to come in at first, my mother asked my sister and me to invite them in while she reached out to their mothers. She asked my sister and me to sit with the kids while they ate. “I don’t want them thinking we’re treating them like poor children,” she said. “They should feel like they’re eating with a member of the family.”
My mother had only one rule. The kids had to eat at the house. “No take aways,” she said. “I want to be sure that they eat the food.”
My mother knew that just feeding the kids wouldn’t solve the problem, so she formed a committee, deciding that working through the government-run schools would be the best way to help families living in poverty. The World Food Bank was giving nutritious food to Afghan children, and my mother thought they should expand the program for Pakistani school children as well. She knew that addressing the systemic problem would be the only solution.
She worked with the village mothers as well, trying to get them involved in advocating for the schools to feed kids. “This will increase family income as well,” my mother explained, “because then families will spend less money on food.”
Through my mother’s generosity and approach to solving a problem at a systemic level, I knew that I could develop my own leadership potential to solve problems. I learned that the most effective way to do this is by seeking guidance and involvement from those most affected by problems in their communities and by getting to the root cause of the problem. That’s the way we approach our work at the Women’s Foundation, and that’s why I love it.