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Suzanne Ehlers speaking with a DC EcoWomen member.

Eco Hour Blog – January Speaker Suzanne Ehlers, President and CEO of Population Action International
By Terrie Clifford

The impact of climate change on the developing world is great and it disproportionately affects women. That’s the message Suzanne Ehlers, President and CEO of Population Action International brought to DC Eco Women’s January Eco-Hour. ‘Two-thirds of all market goods in the world are physically carried there by women. Ninety percent of the world’s rice is grown by women. If a woman has to go farther for water due to climate change she is going to encounter more danger. Women in the developing world don’t have time to go to a family planning clinic one day and a climate change meeting the next. They are extremely busy making ends meet’ Ehlers said. Her organization connects women’s reproductive choices to environmental sustainability.

Ehlers realizes that parts of her mission can be interpreted as controversial. ‘The language around what we do is important because of the abortion debate and we pay close attention to it. Sometimes a conversation about women’s reproductive choices is not an easy one to have but it’s impossible not to discuss it’, she said. Population Action International is about a whole range of reproductive choices, according Ehlers. ‘Our model is totally demand driven. There are 215 million women in developing countries who wish they had a pill or an IUD to space their children’s births. I’ve met 19 year-old women on their fourth pregnancy. Some people wonder why these women are not working or contributing more to their communities. It’s because they can’t find a pill pack to save their lives.’ She shared her organization’s belief that increasing voluntary action to contraception saves women’s lives and gives them an opportunity to improve the futures of their families.
Ehlers is a busy mother in addition to her executive position. She recounted being hired at PAI while pregnant. Proof, she notes ‘that you can still grow a family and have serious professional ambition. ‘Her dedication to life of pursuing women’s justice came through a series of ‘defining moments’. On her first paid job at a landscaping company in her native Texas, she operated a forklift and male customers drove away rather than allow her to load their trucks. Later in her youth, she played the part of Jesus in a religious passion play which sent some male members of the congregation out of the church.

She urged the Eco Women’s audience to determine some of their own defining moments in thinking about their careers. ‘Catalogue your stories, she advised. ‘Figure out what from your past got you where you are today and share that. Force yourself to raise your hand in a meeting and make an intervention. Take the mike. Network like crazy. Get on policy makers radar screens.’

‘Keep an open channel, she said. The idea that you can always connect the dots in your career is b.s. Take a chance, try something new. Temp work is not a dead end. I got my job at the Wallace Foundation through a temp agency. I started as a very proud executive assistant.’ The temp job led her to become an Associate Program Officer at the Wallace Global Fund where she broke new ground in the fields of sustainable forestry and the reform of international financial institutions. The position also allowed her to shape the early foundation for philanthropic engagement on climate change. She recommends a book about women’s leadership: How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life by Joanna Barsh, Susie Cranston and Geoffrey Lewis.

Ehlers final piece of advice? ‘Even if you are not in charge you are leading in different realms. There is no other way to get to greatness if you don’t aspire to it. Start aspiring today.’

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