Grassroots Women International Academy

It has always appeared necessary to me to put the world from standing on its head back onto its feet in regard to the official concepts of “qualification” and “education”.  This impression started early, already in my experience of the German school system, where I was not so convinced of the practical use of many of the items of the curriculum, nor of the way they were taught. I noticed that what was actually tested and examined to get good grades and receive diplomas, was not real knowledge or the capacity to think or to know how to get information, but the capacity for short-term memorising and short-term concentration. I happened to be good at those, but many of my co-students, who were at least as -if not more- intelligent than me, were not. The whole system of who got good grades and who did not, was not congruent with my experience of talent and intelligence.

My studies later at university during the turbulent student movement times took place mainly as “out of classroom learning” (see section Student Movement). And indeed, European studies now confirm that 70% of what is actually used in life, including professional life, stems from informal learning settings.

Formal qualification systems rely heavily on theoretical knowledge. You rank as more highly qualified, the further away from practical application you are. Practical and applied knowledge is devalued accordingly. Technology ranks higher than working with people.

In my involvement in the Mother Center Movement, it became clear that one of the key issues parents are struggling with, is the lack of social acknowledgment of the practical knowledge they gain through their day to day dealings with children and parenting. You can learn best about parenting by being able to listen to and being totally open towards children. Of course not all parents are able to practice this all the time, but many parents gain a lot of knowledge by interacting with their children. This knowledge is not acknowledged as qualification. In the Mother Center movement recognising parents as “practical experts” and the centers as “Academies of Parenthood” are central advocacy issues.

The feminist movement in Germany, had a difficult time recognising the Mother Center movement. It proved easier to find allies in grassroots women’s groups from other parts of the world. This led to affiliation with international grassroots women’s networks. Twenty women from German Mother Centers travelled to the UN conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. There, they made the experience that their work was welcomed enthusiastically by grassroots women’s groups around the world. They joined many further exchanges and grassroots women’s conferences. When the World Exhibition Expo 2000 came to Germany in the year 2000 it was a logical step to find a way to welcome and highlight grassroots women’s groups from the world at the MC Salzgitter, that had become exponent of the Expo. We convinced the German Department for Family and Social Policy, that profiling the Mother Centers in connection with an international focus of grassroots women’s achievements, would be worthwhile to fund.

I developed the concept of the Grassroots Women’s International Academy (GWIA) to this end (see GWIA Handbook) and organised six GWIA events as part of the Expo 2000, two in preparation for the Expo with grassroots women’s groups from Western and Eastern Europe and four truly international GWIA conferences during the summer of the Expo 2000. The experience and results of the GWIAs confirmed what we had experienced in the Mother Center movement, that there is immense expertise on the ground which does not enter the formal knowledge, qualification and decision making systems. This constitutes a tremendous waste of resources. Often public decision making and public expenditures go wrong because this level of knowledge, of what works in practice, is not incorporated.

GWIA is developed as an instrument to highlight, evaluate and recognise the knowledge of grassroots self help projects and movements. GWIA  has since been replicated, transferred and applied many times by many grassroots groups worldwide. GWIA won the Dubai International Award for the Transfer of Best Practices and has been accredited by the UN as a valid instrument for the exchange and recognition of grassroots knowledge.

Society’s qualification systems, with their focus on specialisation, are often based on a very narrow basis and often also on a lot of bluff. People are judged on what certificates they can display rather than on what they really are capable of. Looking at what constitutes true knowledge and how to make knowledge gained from life experience and from informal learning settings more visible, certified and acknowledged in society, is a thread I kept a continuous interest in. After I moved to The Netherlands, my partner and I founded the Nest! Foundation, which has the aim to support grassroots knowledge to enter mainstream education and decision making. The Nest! Foundation holds the archives of the Grassroots Women’s International Academy and is also the entity coordinating the use of the Competence Audit in The Netherlands (see section Competence Audit).