Inspirational Woman Interview: Xanthe Ackerman

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Xanthe Ackerman, Ph.D is the Executive Director of the Fuller Project for International Reporting, an independent organization reporting women in the US and around the world, with multi-media journalism published in the world’s leading outlets. She is also the Founder of Advancing Girls’ Education in Africa (AGE Africa), a non-profit that equips girls in Malawi with secondary school scholarships, mentoring and leadership training. Xanthe is a former scholar at the United States Institute of Peace and the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education, where she published a series of reports on girls’ education. Throughout her life, Xanthe has worked in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and the US and with diverse organizations including The United NationsThe World BankCAREDC Public Education FundArabella Advisors, and Save the Children.

You are currently at the The Fuller Project for International Reporting, where you report on women. Can you tell us about your experiences with The Fuller Project?

Xanthe Ackerman: In 2014, I’d been in Washington DC (my hometown) for 5 years. I was in search of that sense of purpose that drove my early career, and knew I would find it again abroad. I moved to Istanbul and was reporting freelance when I met Christina Asquith, the founder of the Fuller Project for International Reporting. She told me her vision of a media organization that would report on women around the world, and in so doing, start to close the gender gap in news.

We talked about the need to more fulsomely include women’s voices in news and in policy discussions. Women are on the frontlines everywhere around the world, whether as citizens, peacemakers, mothers or small business entrepreneurs. And women often advance solutions that will make the world better, but without getting the attention they deserve.

Christina and I teamed up with her leading our editorial work as Editor-in-Chief and me to growing the organization as Executive Director. Now, The Fuller Project’s network of journalists report on women around the world and in the U.S., bringing in a solutions-oriented lens and drawing deeply on research and data to produce hard-hitting, independent multi-media reports. We work with dozens of partner publishing outlets–everything from the New York Times to Foreign Affairs to Glamour to VICE–to make sure our reporting gets out to a broad audience.

Can you tell us about some of the work you did before The Fuller Project?

Xanthe Ackerman: Like most of us, I am a lot of different things: a journalist, a social entrepreneur, an executive, a researcher… but I started my career working in international development. Argentina, and their path from dictatorship to populist democracy, against the backdrop of crushing foreign debt, fascinated me. I went there my junior year, fell in love with Latin America, and later returned to work for the World Bank in Peru.

Later, it was while I was a graduate student at The Fletcher School that my career in global education took flight. I spent the summer between my two years of grad school working with CARE Malawi. A friend at the Christian Science Monitor asked me to write an article about “life on a dollar a day,” and so I interviewed one of the women CARE had helped. She’d become the main breadwinner in her family, but with only enough money to send one child to school, she and her husband chose her 11th grade son, while her daughter Anesi, dropped out of 8th grade. The readers of my article were incensed when they learned that families all over Malawi prioritize boys’ education over girls’. They asked me to take their pledges of support and go back to Anesi and her whole village and help the girls stay in school.

That was the beginning of a decade advocating for education. I founded Advancing Girls’ Education in Africa and did doctoral research on education in post-conflict Africa. Meanwhile, I worked in many other places on related issues affecting children and youth–from the UN in Sudan, to DC’s public education system and most recently as the deputy of a center at Brookings for global education policy.

What did you learn from founding AGE Africa?  

Xanthe Ackerman: AGE Africa has been in operation for 11 years. In the beginning I was told, “after one year you’ll be frustrated. But after 10 years, you won’t believe what you’ve done.” It’s true; good work takes time and a long-term vision. AGE Africa has now supported hundreds of girls through high school and each year we reach over a thousand girls with our mentoring program, CHATS.

I was fortunate that early in my career, forces conspired to show me what my contribution could be. I didn’t go to Malawi with the idea of starting a nonprofit, or even a background in education. But dozens of Christian Science Monitor readers sent me letters, imploring me to address a problem I’d shared with them. I didn’t feel I had a choice, I had to act. And what happens to girls in Malawi is so unfair; people wanted to get involved.

How did your experiences with AGE Africa help you build The Fuller Project?

Xanthe Ackerman: When I heard the vision of The Fuller Project, I had the same feeling of urgency. I knew from talking to women around the world that they are too often cut out of narratives. By working quickly and with determination, it was clear to me that The Fuller Project would be able to change the conversations abroad and in the U.S. by raising women’s voices.

What are some of your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to education, women’s empowerment, and international development?

Xanthe Ackerman: 6The Fuller Project is named for Margaret Fuller, America’s first female foreign correspondent. Megan Marshall wrote her biography and won a Pulitzer, honoring this trailblazing journalist.

The Fuller Project is producing a feature length film on the activists in Turkey who are fighting domestic violence. It’s called Dying to Divorce, and follows three women whose husbands literally almost murdered them because they asked for a divorce. It’s an incredible story of strength in the face of a dangerously patriarchal system. Check out our journalism on our webpage (www.fullerproject.com) and via our Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Anyone interested in issues affecting young women in America should watch The Hunting Ground. It’s a frightening look at rape on college campus, and how universities act to preserve their reputation, rather than stand by victims. On this issue, I also admire ProPublica and the Marshall Project’s powerful series on rape.

As far as other resources on women, there’s a wealth of webpages and research groups, here’s a few: Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, Foreign Policy Interrupted, WomenStats Project, World Bank Women Business and the Law, to name a few.

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