The International Elevate Award Goes to Women’s Network for Sustainable Development in Africa

Every year the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria, awards its International Elevate Award to an exemplary project of commoners, a recognition that comes with a 2,500 euro prize.  Elevate is a rare event that brings together cutting-edge music with leading thinkers about the commons and politics.  What a combo!  I had the privilege to attend four years ago, which led to some collaborations on the commons that continue to this day.

The Elevate Awards don't just recognize past achievements, but also future promise.  As the name "elevate" implies, the awards seek to recognize under-recognized but strong, innovative projects that take account of "the environmental and cultural commons of our planet." 

The 2012 winner of the Elevate Award has just been announced:  the Women’s Network for Sustainable Development in Africa, or REFDAF. The Senegal-based organization is a network of hundreds of grassroots women’s associations in the southern regions of West Africa.  It’s dedicated to the empowerment of women to establish their own livelihoods through sustainable regional production. A live-stream of the awards show on October 28 will be shown here.

REFDAF's projects include one to help women sell their agricultural produce; craft and semi-industrial processing and packaging businesses; employment training programs; and a large social housing project for women and their families.  By helping women manage natural resources directly, and to empower women to participate directly in the decisions about production, training, recycling and environmental protection, REFDAF is pioneering a new model for women’s economic and social emancipation. 

The Director of REFDAF is Madjiguéne Cissé, an activist who achieved some prominence in Paris in the 1990s when she started the Sans-Papiers movement (“without papers”) to stop deportations of migrant workers and immigrants, and to press for the right to “papers for all.”  Cissé and others occupied churches in Paris, and brought together immigrants, asylum seekers, students, migrants and others denied the right to stay of forty different nationalities. Ms. Cisse later wrote the Sans Papiers: A Woman Draws the First Lessons, which described how she came to organize the Sans-Papiers movement and why the autonomy of the movement from both men and established human rights organizations and political parties was important.

There were some other remarkable finalists for the Elevate Award this year that deserve attention as well. They include Cultures of Resistance, a feature documentary and activist network in Brazil; Greeleaf, an urban agriculture project in Colorado; the Inga Foundation, a project to stop the slash-and-burn techniques of tropical deforestation; the New Mexico Acequia Association, a project to defend water as a community resource; and Nyeleni, the food sovereignty movement in Europe. More about the finalists here.