We’ve learned so much about human rights organizations around the world from our Travel Mirror columnist, Natalie Jesionka. But this week, we’re turning the tables, and asking Natalie to tell us more about her organization the PRIZM Project.
The first human rights education organization for young women, Natalie founded PRIZM Project in 2004 as a way to equip young women with the skills and resources they need to be global leaders in human rights. From its beginnings with simple all-women retreats hosted at universities, PRIZM has evolved into a place where any young woman can seek a mentor and talk about the global issues she’s passionate about.
Learn more about PRIZM’s background and its inspiring current work.
Where did the idea for PRIZM come from?
I remember being interested in human rights, global affairs, and diplomacy as a young woman, but few people in my middle school and high school shared my enthusiasm. And while I still pursued my passions, I often wished I had a group of colleagues or friends who would understand and support my work. Even though smartphones didn’t yet exist (only rather rudimentary Blackberries) and the Internet was still clunking out of the days of slow connections, I knew I had to create a way to bring together women who had a similar vision for the world.
So in 2004, while still an undergrad at Rutgers, I decided to create a space where high school and college-aged women could get together to talk about global issues—and the PRIZM Project was born.
Over the last seven years, PRIZM has evolved as an organization—what did it look like at the beginning?
Initially, PRIZM served as a retreat space for high school-aged girls in the Northeast. Our first PRIZM retreat was held in 2005, over three days in a small conference center on Douglass College at Rutgers University. During this time, the girls met with professional women working on human rights issues and focused on their own social action goals. Participants would coordinate and design projects focused on their interests—everything from HIV/AIDS awareness to water rights. PRIZM staff would then guide the girls through the process of making their projects reality through funding, advocacy, and implementation. Examples of projects include benefit concerts, awareness campaigns, and launching human rights clubs in local schools.
A year later, my colleagues Ria Das Gupta and Sumia Ibrahiam joined the team, and we decided to spread our model. The idea was that women could enter as individuals and emerge with a spectrum of ideas to spur them to action, much as light refracts through a prism. By growing our network, a PRIZM participant in New York could call up another PRIZM participant in Kenya and get a unique lens into women’s and human rights in that country.
Where did you take the organization next?
We loved facilitating our local retreats so much that we thought it would be a great idea to go global—and fast. We had a program in Kenya and thought we’d quickly be able to conquer the world, but we weren’t sure how to spread our model. It wasn’t easy with college careers, other jobs, and outside activities to distract us. Our goals were big and idealistic, and we realized that going global meant spreading ourselves thin. Growing too big, too fast simply wasn’t sustainable, especially during the 2008 NGO financial crisis when we could not do enough fundraising to sustain ourselves.
It wasn’t until we partnered with another organization, Student World Assembly, that we were able to stay afloat. We joined SWA as the women’s initiative of its chapters around the world, and that enabled us to keep our mission alive while we regrouped.
What did regrouping entail? What are you doing now?
Our staff spent lots of time abroad to get hands-on community experience. After settling back in America, we wanted to get back to the roots that PRIZM started with while being accessible to all people. So we brought PRIZM online. To make accessibility even easier, we revamped our website to make it compatible with even the slowest of Internet connections (which many countries around the world still face).
We then began our mentorship network through the Woman of the Week feature. Woman of the Week features amazing, powerful, 20-something women from around the world who are willing to serve as mentors and guides to younger women. We interview them about their goals and how they are reaching toward their dreams. Woman of the Week allows us to show that there is no real “finish line” for careers: Women are constantly striving to meet their goals and get ahead.
In the future, we plan to get back to our old retreat format. Our current partners include field organizers in Pakistan and Thailand, and we will continue to stay true to our goal as long as there is a need for young women’s networks.
How do you respect different cultural understandings of women’s issues at home and abroad?
PRIZM was never about going into a community and saying “do it like this.” It’s about learning to respect culture (whether at home or abroad) and creating a safe space for women to pursue their goals. We work with local field organizers to avoid any cross-cultural miscommunication. Those organizers guide the retreats to ensure they fit community standards. In this way, women around the world are able to talk about the issues most important to their lives, including their own career goals and dreams in a culturally relevant and empowering way.
PRIZM was the first network for women and human rights education—are there more now?
When we started, there were few organizations that really focused on young women’s networks, and even fewer that focused on human rights for women. Those things have certainly changed; now a plethora of organizations serve a similar need. Still, we find that PRIZM’s work and mentorship network continues to inspire young women. And PRIZM remains one of the few organizations focused on human rights education for teenagers.
We hope that our work with PRIZM and our revived and growing network reveals that you can start something amazing no matter what your age, and that young women should stop at nothing to pursue their dreams (and help each other get there!).
Are you interested in getting involved with PRIZM or being featured as a Woman of the Week? Visit us at prizmproject.org.