How a Minnesota woman gave wings to women

I’m attempting to fly an airplane to the northeast today for a weekend wedding so I won’t be posting today. But since this is a pledge drive week at MPR, I guess I’ll do what my radio colleagues do and bring back some old “shows” you might’ve missed. These are some of my favorites and if it inspires you to tell me about similar people whom I should write about, all the better. bcollins@mpr.org

(January 5, 2012)

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Mary Steiner made her early trips to Uganda and Kenya to meet poverty. Then she met people.

Steiner founded Give Us Wings, a Twin Cities-based organization of volunteers who travel to Uganda and Kenya to help people eradicate poverty and become more self sufficient.

She was nominated for NewsCut’s The People You Should Meet series by Clare Brumback of Eden Prairie:


Mary Steiner was raised in St. Paul, now lives in Minneapolis. Raised a lovely family. Twelve years ago she traveled to Africa as a volunteer for a organization. She realized there the needs of the rural villages were immense, not just because of basic resources, but because the world had not heard the stories of the people. The world could not come to these villages in Kenya and Uganda if she did not start to share their stories. After 12 years of sharing these stories, Mary has developed a unique model of international development and formed a non-profit called Give Us Wings. This unique organization is based on collaborative leadership, respect and listening deeply for understanding. Rare in the international aid world of “we know what’s best, we will help you and move on”.Mary is a published writer,a educator, a advocate for those who need a voice, a friend. The fabric of her life is very interwoven with others and while she is the consumate listener and will tell stories about others, I wish her story could be told.She is amazing and while a tireless advocate for Give Us Wings and the people of Uganda and Kenya, the Mary Steiner story is work telling.

Steiner was the managing editor at Red Leaf Press in 1997, when she asked for a leave of absence to visit Uganda and Kenya. “We were going to go for nine months. Red Leaf said ‘no,’ and I said, ‘then I quit,'” she told me this week.

She loved the job, she says, but a long-time advocacy for social justice and an interest in civil rights and the role of women called her to go.

“I’d never been to a developing country before,” she said. “We were staying in a village in Uganda. There was all this wailing, which meant someone had died. It was the last man in the village. They were all dying of AIDS. Women and children were left. The intensity of the poverty was something.”

She also found the organization she had signed on with for the trip was corrupt, but she and her daughter stayed in the countries.

“We went from Kenya to Uganda and met a dynamite atheist, socialist, Ugandan development guy who took us out for 18 hours a day to meet these women and these groups,” she said. “There were no cellphones. We didn’t have computers, and a lot of people had never seen Westerners before. We were on the back of a pickup truck singing and I said, ‘this is it. I don’t know why this is it, but this is it.’ I loved it.”

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She returned to Minnesota, intending to put together a book of stories written by the people she met, but realized she needed to learn more about the cultures. So she went back to learn more stories and the meanings behind them.

“Their stories were the same as our stories. And the feelings of people are the same. If a mother loses seven babies out of eight, she grieves for every one of those babies the same way as I would grieve for my baby,” she said.

“We met this group in Nyagoga, Kenya,” she recalled. “We sat in a dark room and they wouldn’t look us in the eye. They hung their heads and talked. They said, ‘Women die here every day. In every hut you see there is a sick woman. We need health care. We need a clinic here.’ We went ‘gulp.’ It was their awareness of what needed to come first. The wisdom of the people. It was the beginning of learning that the wisdom has to come from the people. We really needed to listen to people.”

Here are some of those women, standing on the foundation of what would soon be their medical clinic.

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Steiner specialized in listening and transformed from a full-time author and editor, to full-time humanitarian, raising money to form a grassroots organization — Give Us Wings — which got its name because she was listening when someone said “it’s nice if you give us money once in awhile, but we need access to information and education. We need wings.”

“Could we have gone and said, ‘Worldvision come in?’ I don’t know, but that’s not how we responded,” she said. “We brought these stories home and we called our friends and we had a silent auction in our living room. We made $6,000 and we cried all day. We went back to Africa with this $6,000 and just started to figure out what to do, and we kept learning and learning and learning.”

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Steiner is a native Minnesotan. She grew up in Saint Paul’s Midway neighborhood and seems apologetic when acknowledging her family’s own poverty, as measured by American standards.

“Is it more likely that people who have had poverty in their life ‘get it?’ I don’t know, but I could understand more when I heard those stories because I’ve been closer to what that feels like.”

Her mother’s mantra was “you can learn from everybody and every person has value.” Her own children obviously learned it, too. Her daughter became a nurse to help out in Africa, her son also traveled there and works for social justice in the Twin Cities. Another daughter teaches autistic children in New York.

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Steiner is retiring from Give Us Wings, and considering new challenges. “You have to move on. It’s not good for founding people to stay around too long. It takes a lot of energy. I become the focus. I’m the one who comes back every time and there are hundreds and thousands here who make it happen. I’ve become the symbol of the whole thing. It gets a little too entrenched,” she said.

Has she made her last trip to Kenya and Uganda? “I don’t think so,” she said quickly.

But she thought she had when she journeyed back to Tororo, Uganda in January 2011. And so did a woman there named Rose.

“We met two groups. She was one of them, mostly women who moved from northern Uganda because of war and famine. Four or five of them started wandering, their husbands had been killed. They were looking for food and found other women who were wandering. They end up at this nasty slum, trying to make it. Homebrew everywhere. They’d sell their bodies sometime. They do what they’ve got to do.

“We’re fairly organized . We had $100. We bought rice and flour and they’d say, ‘My husband won’t beat me tonight; I’m bringing home rice.’

“We couldn’t come and say, ‘Oh, I think you need a school here; let’s build one.’ It was ‘We got a little bit of money, we need to hear what would make a difference for you.’ We’d hear they needed houses or a clinic. This group’s dream was housing . They just wanted some land.

“It took us seven years. We did buy the land. Thirty-two women built their own houses. They got organic farming training first, had some land for farming.

“Rose is married to a man who headed another group we started working with. He was corrupt. He was stealing from disabled people. She had seven children and this man was a tyrant and beat her all the time. He threatened to kill us because the deal was the women were going to own these houses. They had to write a will that willed these houses to the next woman in line.

“Rose was very tentative because she was afraid. We had many walks, she and I. ‘I don’t think I can do it, Mary.’ So she didn’t right away. She didn’t move into the house.

“I said, ‘You don’t deserve to be beaten up. I love you and I don’t want to put you in a position that gets you beaten up.’

“Eventually, he had a stroke and he went back to his village and she left to take care of him. She was gone several years. I came back in January and it was allegedly my last trip, and Rose was there. She was just standing there. She was very quiet. I couldn’t even cry. I said, ‘Rose, you’re here.’

“She said, ‘I came last week because people told me this was your last time and I needed to come, and leave him and be safe, because if you could keep coming, I needed to be stronger and I needed to let my daughters know that they could have another life. And I needed you to know that.’ So she’s there now. She left him.”

Meet Rose

“That was the day, I just cried and said, ‘I cannot thank you enough for what you’ve done for me.’ It was such a gift, such an honor.”