Project Rewrite: A conversation on building online spaces for women’s global power with Jensine Larsen
Project Rewrite, an initiative from the Wikimedia Foundation, is calling attention to gender gaps in the information landscape (the universe of resources we turn to for knowledge), and calling on everyone to help close them. Every organization and person can help to amplify women’s stories. As part of Project Rewrite, we are sharing conversations with inspiring women leaders we want you to know about. In turn, their organizations are profiling women in their fields to help elevate them in the wider information landscape.
Jensine Larsen is the founder of World Pulse, a multilingual social network connecting tens of thousands of women from 190 countries and giving them a platform to build movements, launch businesses, and challenge harmful traditions. In addition to hosting its global online community WorldPulse.com, World Pulse crowdsources stories and organizes digital empowerment training for frontline women change makers.
Read our interview with Jensine below, and check out WorldPulse’s profile of Sally Mboumien, the general coordinator for the Southwest/Northwest Women’s Taskforce, a coalition of women leaders and women-led organizations working to ensure women’s meaningful participation and decision-making in resolving the Anglophone conflict.
Q: You founded World Pulse when you were still in your twenties. How did you get the idea to start the organization?
I grew up very shy and homeschooled in the rural countryside in the [U.S.] Midwest. I had a feeling of my voice being stifled. I knew I wanted to learn from women around the world, so I started as a journalist at 19, working in the Amazon and later the Burma-Thai border with incredible women leaders.
In the Amazon, these women had messages about the oil contamination on their traditional lands, where children were dying of cancers. In Burma, it was ethnic cleansing, which as we know continues on today. While I was on the [Burma-Thai] border, on this hot and sticky night, I started feeling heavy and hopeless with the stories I had heard, asking myself who was going to care. I could publish these stories but would the world really listen? When I looked up at the stars pulsing, I saw this pulsing light of women’s voices unlocking and connecting across the planet.
It’s hard to describe, but I knew that I was being shown the solution, and that solution was connected voices: that it was essential I no longer be a messenger for these extraordinary women, but to step back so they could have a communication platform and speak for themselves in their own words. Since then, we’ve been building over the last decade a process of participation and deep listening to women on the ground, to shape what World Pulse is.
“I knew that I was being shown the solution, and that solution was connected voices.”
Q: You described being shy growing up. What was the journey of leading World Pulse like for you personally, going from that to believing in the vision you saw and sharing it with the world?
It’s funny how your life quest becomes the thing that’s most challenging for you, your greatest area of growth. I’m still a very shy person. I’ve had to learn to be a spokesperson, to step into the light, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. For me, it happened talk by talk. I met Jane Goodall; she’s one of World Pulse’s early supporters, and when I met her, I was feeling like I couldn’t keep delivering speeches. I felt, “it’s not about me, so I don’t want to accept these speaking invitations.” She said, “I’d rather be in the jungle with the gorillas, but I speak 350 days a year. That is the calling, and the world needs to hear your voice.”
To me, the success of WorldPulse is that it’s this ecosystem of leaders: the board, advisory network, community, leadership staff, and thousands of community leaders out there representing World Pulse.
Today, for me, it’s about passing the microphone and growing more microphones, as well as building out a truly community-led organizational structure. We’ve created a multi-stakeholder decision-making body with online community, staff, and board representatives called “Powershift Inclusive Excellence.” This body is guiding our evolution to shift power to the most underrepresented voices and to examine a potential community ownership model, such as a platform cooperative. In that model, the platform itself is owned by those who value it the most and use it the most, breaking out of a traditional non-profit or for-profit model and legal structure.
“…it’s about passing the microphone and growing more microphones, as well as building out a truly community-led organizational structure.”
Q: Can you tell us more about World Pulse’s participatory process of listening and community feedback?
We have community feedback loops built into every aspect of World Pulse, from technology and platform design to the kinds of programs we roll out. Today, WorldPulse’s core programs are around community storytelling and training. Those evolved because when we first launched the WorldPulse social networking website in 2008, our new community wanted us to suggest topics to write about and channel their voices to arenas where they could be heard, so we started storytelling programs. Then, they told us they wanted more digital skills training. There are so many voices that are joining World Pulse from rural areas, conflict areas, or areas with less internet access, sometimes getting online for the first time and not as comfortable or confident with how to use the web. So we launched digital storytelling and change-maker programs, which grew our community and content more.
We also crowdsourced our community guidelines from the very beginning. For instance, our community said we want to be inclusive [of men on the platform], we need to have dialogue, but at the end of the day women need to set the culture, and lay down the rules. For the first few years, we ensured there would be very thorough moderation on the platform. Our community always knew that if we allowed harmful or hateful or intimidating language or patronizing language that it would be very silencing for our network. We have community input into that moderation process. I can’t think of an online community that has the same gold standard of psychological safety that World Pulse has that enables women to freely express themselves.
Q: You’ve heard stories from women around the world. Can you share one or two that especially stand out or resonate with you?
We are a treasure trove of stories; every single week there are so many stories of change. One that really stands out to me is that starting in 2011, we had members from our community in Cameroon coming onto the [World Pulse] platform who started to speak out about the practice of breast ironing, which affects 3 to 4 million women and girls across the country. The world hadn’t really heard about the practice.
Even in Cameroon, people didn’t talk about it themselves, it was just a thing your mother or grandmother did to adolescent girls, pulverizing breast tissue with heated stones in an attempt to prevent their bodies from developing and drawing unwanted and dangerous attention. We had members starting to speak out about it, and we pushed those stories to different media outlets. The women who spoke out were the forerunners of this now being a well-known issue. They’re cited and researched, but not only that, they started organizing because of the visibility they got online, received some awards, and invested that in building movements on the ground. You had 50,000 women and girls being trained about their health, signing pledges to end the practice across Cameroon, in churches and hair salons, through women sharing their stories of what happened to them and the health impacts, it just spread.
When armed conflict in Cameroon started to happen, and the internet was being blocked intermittently, women leaders were taking buses for hours and hours outside of the Anglophone areas to use cyber centers. World Pulse became an important place where women of Cameroon were speaking out about internet suppression and the civil war. They started building peace movements on top of the infrastructure they had developed for organizing against breast ironing and sexual violence. These women are undaunted: they’re getting their peace movement on the record. They’re getting it on the web, in forums, and they’re using online communities and platforms to strengthen their mobilization. To me that’s so exciting. These movements are speaking for themselves, defining their agenda — we’re an amplifier.
Q: The world has been changed immeasurably in the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. How has it impacted the World Pulse community?
Before COVID-19, World Pulse had been building this network of digital ambassadors that our community had asked for, on-the-ground trainers who are introducing women and girls to bring their voices online. They are out there leading culturally sensitive trainings, building on-ramps to the online world for some of the most unheard in their communities, including those with disabilities, indigenous women and girls, widows, and those who were not as connected to the web.
When COVID-19 began, we saw that those online connections for communities became lifelines. Digital ambassadors became real advocates for connections to government services, resources to combat domestic violence, food resources, and mobile-digital financial payments. They became pillars of orienting their communities to the web. They themselves have been enduring enormous stresses because their organizing work already was very tough; they were experiencing harassment and a lack of resources. With COVID-19, they were almost at the point of breakdown. But they connected online through World Pulse and started hosting Thriving Thursdays online every week, coming together to teach each other about inclusive facilitation, and self-care. It’s a very community-led initiative that I think shows how women are using technology to build webs of collective care. COVID-19 is showing us that [collective care] is the future, that tech has to be a platform for the most vulnerable and excluded to take up space, have a voice, and support each other.
“When COVID-19 began, we saw that those online connections for communities became lifelines.”
Q: What might a gender equitable world look like? How can we get there?
I want both the women’s and digital rights movements to recognize the power of deliberately building tech platforms and online communities that can literally unlock the voices and leadership of billions of women and girls that are still too buried by oppression and social norms and stigma. That it’s possible to design tech as a healing space.
[To journalists], I would say spaces like WorldPulse exist as a resource; you can go and seek out leads that we’ve surfaced, they’re ready for your call and they’re going to share a perspective that you may not have seen.
We need greater awareness, attention, investment, and we need powerful technology and influential forums and decision-makers to open up their ears. People always say that we need to raise the voices of women and girls. World Pulse is doing that and women and girls have their voices. They’re speaking, they’re shouting, and we need those with power and resources to actually grow ears.
You can learn more about Jensine’s work at WorldPulse.com.
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We invite you to learn more about Wikipedia’s gender gap and help us close the divide by joining Project Rewrite today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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