Lifting up Tibet's women
UC Davis grad finds herself -- and a life's work
Monday, February 5, 2007
On Thursday night, Michelle Kleisath will return to the Walnut Creek high school that she graduated from almost eight years ago. She will talk about how to start a yak-lending program and how to bring solar electricity to nomads, and she'll probably mention that the Tibetan word for woman means "born low."
Being exceedingly modest, she probably won't discuss something that will become obvious very fast: One tenacious and caring individual can make an enormous difference in many people's lives.
Kleisath resides in a part of the world that some people call China and others call Tibet, depending on their politics. That's where the money from her Las Lomas High fundraiser will end up. Even a tiny amount will transform lives -- a subject Kleisath knows something about at this point, starting with herself.
"My perspective changed radically when I took a gender studies class at UC Davis," said Kleisath, who turned 26 last month. "I was actually a cheerleader in high school."
She is co-founder and executive director of the Shem Women's Group, a nonprofit organization in Xining, China (or the old Ando province of Tibet), that relies on small-scale, grassroots development to make life better for impoverished Tibetans.
"It is truly about women," said Vincanne Adams, a medical anthropologist at UCSF Medical Center who has worked in the Himalayas since 1982. "They are doing projects that directly benefit women in rural Tibet. They're not coming in with poverty alleviation schemes where the agenda comes down from the top. These are one project at a time, one village at a time. By example, they're showing what women can do."
The residents of Heluoshi village have received 110 solar cookers. A concrete bridge in Me Re Ma Township makes it easier to cross the Ra Chu River. Sixty milking yaks provide the elders of the Jemda area with a steady income. Thirty aluminum milk churners in Fudi village have replaced old wooden ones.
"The wooden churns are really inconvenient to move when we change our grazing grassland," said Samtsogye, 24, who like most Tibetans uses one name, in an e-mail interview from China. "And the wooden churns are very difficult to replace, since now the wood is so expensive. To solve these problems and to create a leisure time for the village women and let them make a high income, I did this project."
Other changes have been less tangible but just as lasting.
"When I was growing up, there were more boy students than girls," said Pagbatso, 23, by phone from Portland, Ore., where she is a sophomore at Reed College. "There's still an idea that it's not important for girls to get an education. Tibetan girls are really shy, but I started to speak up in gender studies class and then I felt a little more comfortable to speak up in other classes."
Pagbatso grew up in a nomadic family in Gansu province and won a competition that took her to Qinghai Normal University, where Kleisath was teaching.
Although Kleisath's childhood in Contra Costa County was vastly different from Pagbatso's in the Gannan autonomous Tibetan prefecture, gender studies had the same cataclysmic effect on both of them.
"Before, I always don't believe in myself," said Pagbatso. "Afterward, I wanted to look for chances. I started to pursue my education rather than receiving whatever was given to me."
Kleisath, recalling the class she took during her first year at UC Davis, said, "I felt like I woke up, and that I'd been asleep my whole life. I could see how many ways I had held myself back because I was a woman."
She majored in Spanish and gender studies, spent her junior year in Madrid and resolved to try something new and different when she graduated from college in June 2003. Two months later, she moved to China, joining the Volunteers in Asia program.
"That's what I learned in gender studies," Kleisath said. "You can really learn a lot about yourself by exploring the unfamiliar."
To make a living, she taught English and sociology at the Qinghai Normal University and then proposed a new course as well -- an all-female gender studies class.
"Most of my students would have their heads down, staring at their shoes. You could barely hear them," Kleisath said. "Once I started teaching the gender class, teachers reported it was making a huge difference. Their confidence skyrockets -- it's not what I'm teaching them, it's the space we create."
After the first year, Kleisath started to get complaints.
"They felt like they needed to do something to show women were capable," she said. "They asked if I could show them how to do it. It wasn't enough to just talk about it."
Kleisath didn't know a thing about small-scale development, but she did research and put together a workshop. Sixty women came to the first meeting -- way too many for Kleisath's 800-square-foot apartment. For the next four months, Kleisath showed 15 of them how to write proposals that would appeal to donors.
It was "incredibly successful," she said. The Shem Women's Group was born -- shem means "charity" or "compassion," and as a bonus has the word "she" in it.
The women came up with projects, donors supplied money and new workshops were held. So far, $130,000 has been raised. Sixteen projects have been completed and 10 are proposed -- including rebuilding the prayer hall of a nunnery, buying threshing machines and teaching Tibetan to children to keep the language from dying. Donors have included the Canada Fund, British Embassy, Shambala Connection and Royal Netherlands Embassy, with grants ranging from $2,000 to $18,000.
For Kleisath, the hardest part of her endeavor has involved cultural differences in communication.
"It's pretty much unacceptable for them to tell me they're unhappy with something I've done," she said. "I've learned how to read their body language. It's this amazing dance of guesswork."
Home during winter break, she sat in the kitchen of the Walnut Creek home where she grew up. Her white boxer, Kobi, wore a Tibetan dog collar made of yarn that is the envy of Contra Costa canines, or rather their owners. Her mother, Monica Daigle-Kleisath, baked brownies. She has visited her daughter and stayed with rural Tibetan families.
"They would starve before they would not provide for me," Daigle-Kleisath said.
During breaks in the school year, her daughter goes to the villages where the women in the Shem Group were raised and where their projects are taking shape.
"Some live only five hours away and some five days away," Kleisath said. "My journey is by train, bus, horse, motorcycle and foot."
She intended to stay in China only two years. When she leaves in September, it will have been four. Kleisath hopes to get a doctorate in anthropology and focus on development elsewhere, but she plans to keep working with Shem -- where she volunteers her time -- for the rest of her life.
Kleisath wanted the organization to be self-sufficient someday, and that point has arrived.
"I pay attention more to the women I see now," said Chugpilhamo, 23, Shem's development program director, in a phone interview from China. "And before, I didn't pay attention to how society looked at us."
One of her colleagues, 24-year-old Shem program director Lhamotso, said that she, too, has changed.
"I have realized that women, no matter how young or old, can do something as important and as valuable as men," she said via e-mail. "Also, I have learned how to think critically, not just accept everything others say."
A fundraiser will be held at the Performing Arts Center at Las Lomas High School, 1460 S. Main St., Walnut Creek, on Thursday at 7 p.m. Tibetan items will be auctioned and Michelle Kleisath will speak about the Shem Women's Group, show slides and answer questions. For more information on the organization, see www.shemgroup.org.
E-mail Patricia Yollin at firstname.lastname@example.org.