Tag Archives: activism

Making Changes: Block by Block

New Grantee: The BLK ProjeK


Although the Hunts Point Cooperative Market in the South Bronx is one of the largest food distribution centers in the world, many of its neighbors are without access to quality, healthy food. The median annual income in the South Bronx is $19,113, and good groceries are sparse.

The BLK ProjeK was born out of the frustrations of one such inhabitant: Tanya Fields. Tanya was a poor, single mother who moved to the South Bronx and found her asthmatic child struggling with the pollution generated by the hundreds of thousands of semis that deliver food to Hunts Point every year.

The struggles of her son led Tanya to think increasingly more about environmental justice. She began drawing connections between the unhealthy urban environments in which poor people lived, and the unhealthy food available to them. She also, naturally, began drawing connections between the unhealthy food available to poor urban communities, and the women who serve that food to their families. Tanya realized that poverty has a feminine face.

In order to tackle the insufficient access to healthy food in the South Bronx, Tanya consequently turned to mothers. She starting small, facilitating “Mommy & Me” classes in order to educate mothers about nutrition. In 2009, her efforts expanded beyond the classroom to the garden, and the BLK ProjeK was born.

The women of BLK ProjeK were guerilla gardeners from the outset. They broke into abandoned lots in the South Bronx and planted vegetables. They created a groundswell, compelling more than 200 residents to petition and telephone the Housing Preservation and Development of NYC, demanding that the city allow the BLK ProjeK to turn one of those lots into an urban farm. Eventually their demands were heard, and that lot became the Libertad Urban Farm. In order to deliver produce from the Libertad Urban Farm to their community, the women of the BLK ProjeK then renovated an old school bus, turning it into a beautiful mobile market running exclusively on used vegetable oil.

But Tanya and the BLK ProjeK have their sights set higher still. They want the South Bronx to be able to feed itself. They want to change the economic and political landscape of the community by creating local jobs and promoting municipal participation. And women remain the catalyst in all this. The BLK ProjeK is driven by its firm belief in the “girl effect” – the notion that investing in women and women-led efforts is the most effective way to promote social change. Women plant the seeds of physical and fiscal health in every community.

In order to support the BLK ProjeK, the Spark grant will:

  • Provide funds for the growth and sale of produce from the Libertad Urban Farm
  • Provide stipends for volunteer farmers
  • Promote community outreach in order to encourage participation in the Libertad Urban Farm, as well as the farm’s CSA

And source the following Pro Bono needs:

  • Web Design

If you would like to support Spark’s fundraising efforts for The BLK ProjeK, you can make a donation on Spark’s website. If you are interested in providing pro bono services for them, please email programs@sparksf.org.

We are thrilled to support this wonderful organization. Visit BLK ProjeK’s website to learn more.

Spotlight on Caitlin Heising, Honorary Host of Spark’s Black & Pink Ball

Spark loves Millennials who are committed to philanthropy and actively making our world a more just and equitable place for all. Black & Pink Ball Honorary Host and Spark Member, Caitlin Heising epitomizes our ideals. Caitlin is actively committed to engaging young people in human rights and empowering women and girls. As an inspiration to us and the next generation of philanthropists, we wanted to learn more. We sat down with Caitlin to learn more about her journey and passions including starting the Young Professionals Network of Human Rights Watch, joining the board of her family’s foundation, and learning to fly.

Caitlin Heisign

Caitlin Heising – Honorary Host of Spark’s 10th Anniversary Black & Pink Ball

What has led you on this journey of philanthropy and social impact? 

Growing up, I watched my mom spend time volunteering in my school and tutoring underserved children in our community. During high school and college, I also tutored and mentored children from refugee families who had recently resettled in the U.S. Meeting them and hearing their stories made the problems and conflicts I’d learn about in class seem much more real and human. In college, I tried to understand how best to empower (as opposed to simply aid) individuals and communities who had been dealt an unfair hand in the world. Also around that time, my parents started our family’s foundation, which intrigued me from the start. I knew one day I would want to be deeply involved in philanthropy and social impact because I could see the improvements it was making in our community at home. Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to deepen our impact by exploring different strategies, including funding national policy work, and that’s the other element of this work that I love – you can always do and give better, and there is always more to learn.

Why did you decide to leave the corporate world to join the board of your family’s foundation (The Heising-Simons Foundation) and learn about philanthropy?

After working for a couple years in tech PR and corporate communications consulting, I felt like I had learned a lot and wanted to pivot to a career with more social impact. I had the opportunity to join the board of the foundation and build out grantmaking focused on human rights, and the timing felt right. I know I’m still young, but I also know it’s never too early to be making an impact on the world, and I felt like working with the foundation was my best opportunity to do that. It’s also been great to spend more time with my parents (who I have to say are awesome) and learn more about their values and vision for the future.

What causes are you most passionate about and why?

I’m passionate about human rights, especially here in the U.S. According to a national study, the average American citizen, journalist and politician is unaware that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights exists. The language of human rights simply isn’t widely known in our mainstream culture. We’re seeing the effects of this apathy and long-standing systemic inequities dangerously play out all the time lately with racial profiling, police misconduct, and other violent and unjust acts making front-page news every week. And with more than two million people in prisons and jails, the U.S. has the most imprisoned people in the world. As a country that espouses freedom and human rights internationally, we have the power to influence policies in other countries as well. For the U.S. to truly assume the mantle of human rights leadership, however, we will have to practice more thoroughly at home what we preach abroad.

I’m also passionate about empowering women and girls around the world. It’s scary to think about how much still needs to be done to improve health, education, and economic opportunities for women and girls, but it’s clear that these types of investments go a long way in improving lives and communities.

Tell us more about the Human Rights Watch Young Professionals Network you launched in March?  

My friend (and fellow Spark member) Erika Gomez and I started the group to support Human Rights Watch and engage young people in human rights. We’re now a dedicated group of volunteers in the Bay Area who support HRW through outreach, advocacy, and fundraising. We work to promote awareness of human rights issues through public education events and strategic advocacy campaigns, and also nurture the next generation of philanthropists by hosting events to generate support for the organization and its mission. We’re having our inaugural art auction and cocktail party, called A Night for Human Rights, on October 16th in San Francisco – you should come!

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I’d like for us to be continuing the human rights grantmaking at the foundation and I’d like to have completed an MBA program focused on social impact. I’d also like to be in a position to advise other young people and families on next gen and human rights-based philanthropy. I’m a California girl at heart, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was still living in the Bay Area.

What advice do you have for other millennials interested in making social impact? 

Firstly, I’d commend their interest and passion! Then I would say to take time to reflect on your goals and study the issue you want to change. Meet everyone you can who is also working on that problem – including, most importantly, the people who are directly affected by it. There are a lot of trends and “shiny new things” vying for attention in the social sector. The challenge can be figuring out which approaches will have deep, lasting impact and which will only skim the surface.

What talent (or superpower!) would you like to have?


What is the quality you most like in a fellow human being?

Sense of humor and humility.

What is your favorite journey?

 This is a tough one. I love going to new places. Most recently I went to the fjords in Norway, which was absolutely beautiful. I also am nostalgic and love the drive to Tahoe for Christmas, which for many years we celebrated in my grandparents’ cabin in the woods.

Who are your heroes in real life?

I’m lucky to have three amazing grandmothers who are each very different, but all share the qualities of poise, purpose, and passion. For that and more, I aspire to live a life full of love and adventure like they have.

SparkSF Fellow Profile: Linn Hellerstrom

 Linn Hellerstrom is an undergraduate Political SparkSF Fellow profile Linn HellerstromScience student with a passion for women’s rights and representation in policy. She co-created a sexual and reproductive rights advocacy group on campus, as well as, a network for young women interesting in politics.

In addition to her studies, Linn is a Spark Fellow. When not working or studying, Linn loves leaving the city for epic hikes, eating her way through food-bloggers favorite restaurants, and writing. 

Linn’s Spark Story:

When moving to San Francisco, I searched for organizations supporting women’s rights. It didn’t take long to find Spark. I instantly felt like it was the perfect fit. Six months in, being a Spark Fellow has been simply amazing. Meeting the fantastic network of passionate members, getting insight into the work Spark is doing for thousands of women globally, and feeling the power of change that collective passion can create.

Who is your favorite grantee?
Roots of Health. Based in the Philippines, this amazing organization provides clinical services and sexual education to young people in one of the poorest provinces of the country.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Arriving at the airport on the way to start a fun trip. The feeling of happiness and excitement of not knowing what adventures lie ahead of you.

What talent (or superpower!) would you like to have?
Being able to learn a new language in a week. I love languages but lack the patience to learn them.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Outgoingness. I love making new connections and going after amazing opportunities that lay before me.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
The President of the European Council. Or if that doesn’t work out– a lazy cat.

What is the quality you most like in a fellow human being?
Making other people laugh and feel comfortable.

What is your favorite journey?
Without doubt, my solo around- the- world trip a couple of years ago. Traveling independently for seven months allowed me to discover so many extraordinary places and meet amazing, inspiring people, some of whom I’m still in contact with today.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Strong women, dedicated to real change-making power.

The Hillary Project, Moonwalking in Pink and a Lemon Heroine

The Hillary Project, Moonwalking in Pink and a Lemon Heroine. This is your Spark News Digest.

Read, Discuss, Share.

Authored By Spark Fellow: Linn Hellerstrom


Vivienne Harr, Make A Stand, Lemon-Aid

 ENTREPRENEURSHIP: When life give you lemons, start a social enterprise. 

9 year-old philanthropist Vivienne Harr, founder of Start A Lemon-Aid Stand, doesn’t wait for summer to change the world. 365 days a year she sits curbside, selling lemonade to raise money to abolish child slavery. In just 6 months of operation, she raised over $100,000. This year she registered as a B Corp.

Read The Full Story


U.S POLITICS: Violence gets political

“The Hillary Project”, a new animated game goading the player to slap the former Secretary of State, is a bad joke – funded by a conservative Super Pac. It also reflects a bigger issue concerning the justification of violence against women. Violence against women is no laughing matter.

Read The Full Story


WOMENS RIGHTS: Gender Equality – the cheapest, fastest way to get food on the table

What’s the most cost-effective way to combat hunger? Gender Equality. Women play a big role in food production and small-scale farming around the world. When obstacles like gender discriminatory land and labor laws make it harder for women to farm, it impacts food security. Equal opportunity will end hunger.

Read The Full Story


BUSINESS: Moonwalking in heels – “Mars Explorer Barbie”

Still pink. Still disproportionate. Check out NASA’s Barbie.

Read The Full Story


GLOBAL: The “Virginity Institute” upholding the purity myth in Georgia  

Recent human rights report reveals that Georgia’s National Forensics Bureau performs as many as 200 “virginity inspections” a year. While some are used for evidence in rape and abuse cases, many families will paid up to $200 for receive a certificate confirming their daughter’s “purity”. Protesters using social media and the streets are demanding the government to end the archaic practice. In response, a member of Georgia’s gender-equality council stated, “If there’s a demand for this service, the government can’t forbid it”. 

Read The Full Story

Talk it out, Brit Love Fest & Afghanistan’s Sheryl Sandberg

Talk it out, Brit Love Fest & Afghanistan’s Sheryl Sandberg . This is your Spark News Digest.

Read, Discuss, Share.

Authored By Spark Fellow: Linn Hellerstrom


Roya Mahboob Afghan Citadel Software Co

ENTREPRENEURSHIP: Afghanistan’s Sheryl Sandberg

Roya Mahboob, Afghan tech entrepreneur, is shattering the concrete ceiling. Her company, Afghan Citadel Software Co., has become the foundation for social change. In a country, where women’s literacy hovers at 15%, this business leader is using her acumen to change the state of education in her country. You can see why Time Magazine calls her one of their 100 Most Influential People.

Read The Full Story


POLITICS: Love is legal in England and Wales

The royal baby isn’t the only thing to celebrate. Same-sex couples will be able to get married in England and Wales after a new measure became law. Tally Ho!

Read The Full Story


U.S NEWS:  Violation of women’s rights within prison walls

Shockingly, 150 female inmates were sterilized in California prisons between 2006 to 2010. Hundreds more have been sterilized since 2000. This outrageous act is an unwanted reminder of the 70’s brutally forced sterilizations.

Read The Full Story


POLITICS: Q: What do Boris Johnson and the Princeton Mom have in common?

A: Both are sexist and ridiculous. First, the Princeton Mom pens an open letter about the importance of finding a husband during college, then, Boris Johnson makes the same irresponsible suggestion. Boris and the Princeton mom should be sent to the Principle’s office to think about their comments.

Read The Full Story 


GLOBAL:  Communication Never Gets Old

Let’s talk it out. In deeply rooted cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), change making is difficult. When determined to do something about the widespread problem, a pro-women group in an Ethiopian village made remarkable achievements. Read about how their strategy of  “community conversations” led to effectively ending female genital cutting in their home village.

 Read the full story 

Good Advice?

By SHANNON FARLEY, Spark Executive Director

Early this morning I received a call from a college student in Alabama. For her safety, I will call her Ana. She is spearheading an effort to bring her fellow students to Savannah, Georgia in June to participate in a SlutWalk. SlutWalk was founded earlier this year in Toronto after a local police officer told a crowd of students at Osgoode Hall Law School, “I’m not supposed to say this [but to prevent being sexually assaulted] avoid dressing like sluts.” Two months later, over 3,000 outraged young people took to the streets to protest victim-blaming rhetoric and policies. Since April, Slutwalks have been organized all over the world. This response to sexual violence is resonating with a large community of young people. It is also controversial.

Photo Credit: Pamela Westoby

Ana wasn’t calling about the controversy. She was calling for advice. The Savannah SlutWalk has been postponed—possibly indefinitely—because the young women organizing the event received death threats for their participation. Ana called Spark because she and her fellow organizers still planned to protest and wanted to know how to go about it.

I advised against it. I told Ana that her safety and that of her peers was paramount. If the organizers believed that there was a credible threat, there probably was and it is not worth the sacrifice. I suggested that Ana organize a service day at local rape crisis centers and women’s shelters. She and her peers should pamphlet campus, informing students about SlutWalk, the death threats and their non-violent response. I told her that the threat of violence should not stop the political action but it should shift the strategy. I hung up the phone feeling pretty good.

Then, I got a Google alert about Freedom Riders, a documentary featuring the students who fought to desegregate bus lines in the Southeastern,United States in the summer of 1961. It is premièring tonight on PBS. It is a stunning film—a story that is not well known that happened not long ago. 400 courageous and tenacious young people were vilified, tortured and imprisoned for sitting on a bus. One of the arcs of the film chronicles civil rights leaders begging the students to postpone the second phase of the rides. Robert F. Kennedy sent his staffer John Seigenthaler to convince the riders that certain martyrdom would not achieve racial equality. The students rode the bus anyway. The Freedom Riders were fed up. They would not permit the injustice of Jim Crow to continue. So, they rode the bus. 400 young people changed the face of the country for the better.

This morning I told Ana to think of herself first and the cause second. There is plenty of important work to be done to stop violence against women that won’t compromise her safety. I believe the advice I gave Ana was good, but I don’t know if it was right.

What do you think?

Progress Interupted

BY SARAH MIERS, Spark Fellow

Two weeks ago, Amnesty International requested that Spark remove the name of an upcoming speaker from searchable websites and databases. The speaker is from Zimbabwe, and due to the recent police harassment of political dissidents, her advocacy for human rights has made her a potential target. Spark immediately removed her name and that of her organization from our website, but as Spark members and women around the world unite and participate in various International Women’s Day celebrations, events in Zimbabwe remind us that there is still significant progress to be made.

Here is what happened yesterday in Zimbabwe:

In Bulawayo, police interrupted meetings and marches celebrating International Women’s Day. They detained 16 members of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, despite a court order permitting their peaceful demonstration, and a speaker at the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights’ meeting in the suburbs of the city.  Although the Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khuphe reprimanded police for these actions, contentious arrests like these have populated Zimbabwean headlines for weeks.

In late February, President Robert Mugabe’s police forces interrupted an International Socialist Organization meeting and arrested 45 students, trade unionists and activists for watching BBC and Al Jazeera reports on the protests in Egypt and Tunisia.  The individuals (11 female and 34 male) were arrested on the suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Mugabe government. 39 were released on Monday, but the remaining 6 (1 female and 5 male) now face treason charges in the High Court, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The New York Times reports: “As Mr. Mugabe’s party pushes for elections this year in a drive to reclaim sole power, human rights groups have warned that the police and youth militia aligned with Mr. Mugabe’s party have intensified harassment, beatings and arrests of Mr. Mugabe’s political opponents”.

Such police behavior is alarming and generates particular concern for Zimbabwean women. Women’s Enews reported yesterday on a study outlining the treatment of Zimbabwean women protesters that 78% reported political threats, 64% reported degrading treatment, 42% reported torture and sexual abuse and 33% reported torture.

As we observe International Women’s Day throughout the month of March, we cannot ignore the potential implications of these detentions and must continue to fight for and protect women’s rights – including the basic human right to peaceful demonstration.

Please join Spark in an intimate discussion related to these recent events at its upcoming Speaker Series on March 19, 2011. Our speaker is the founder of a non-violent human rights movement in Zimbabwe and is at the forefront of the struggle for peace and human rights for women and all Zimbabweans.