Written by Shala Hainer Friday, July 22 2011
Snapshot: Harriett Jane Olson
Serving in leadership roles with the United Methodist Church for more than 30 years, Harriett Jane Olson has been the deputy general secretary of the women's division since 2007. She oversees the administration and policymaking for the United Methodist Women, the largest denominational faith organization for women in the United States. The organization advocates for women and children locally and around the world.
After graduating from Harvard University, Olson worked as an attorney and partner in a real estate and environmental law firm in New Jersey. She began serving as the director of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship in 1988. In 1996, Olson served as vice president for publishing for the United Methodist Publishing House, leading a staff of nearly 150.
She recently has led the women's division through restructuring and strategic planning, outlining five areas that will help keep the organization focused on its vision. These areas are spiritual growth, leadership development, education, service and advocacy, and organizational development. She says focusing the organization's work in these areas will allow it to grow and serve more women and children worldwide.
Womenetics: You talk about how powerfully women serve in missionary capacities. What do you believe makes women uniquely qualified to serve in missions?
Harriett Jane Olson: It is important to notice how powerfully women serve in missionary capacities because their stories are so often not told. Just like the presence of women in the biblical text, we sometimes have to excavate their stories from the construct of institutional history and of leading men before we can see how effectively the women who serve poor and marginalized people have affected the lives of those they serve. Though moved by commanding spiritual forces and by the desire to share what God has done, women missionaries have seldom been drawn to the institution of the church itself. Our history shows them serving as doctors, nurses, and educators, running community centers and training programs, even seminaries, but seldom organizing and administering congregations. This has to do with expectations for women when the Methodist women’s movement began taking shape, but it results in women engaging deeply in communities (in the United States and around the world), focused particularly on women and children.
While qualities that make the work of these leading women notable – empathy, investing in the rising generation, and building relationships of shared authority with the community being served – can be found in leading men as well, they are valued very highly in the socialization of women.
Womenetics: What do you believe is the biggest change the United Methodist Women has influenced or impact the United Methodist Women has had in the United States or worldwide?
Olson: United Methodist Women has been involved in every social movement affecting women and children of their era. From working against foot binding in China to participating in the anti-lynching movement in the United States, women took risky stances before the opinion polls were favorable.
Moving our 1942 Assembly from segregated accommodations in St. Louis to Cincinnati, where all our members could stay in the same hotel led the organization to develop a Charter for Racial Justice that has since been adopted by The United Methodist Church. We continue to work on racial justice, women’s rights, and protection from violence, including advocating for state laws on human trafficking, like the new statute that has been adopted in Ohio with the support of local women. We also actively advocated the funding of children’s health insurance a few years ago at the federal level.
One of the core values we uphold is to make sure that the right people are at the table. We advocated strongly for admission of the African states to the United Nations in the immediate postcolonial period and are very committed to making sure that women from countries around the world have access to their leaders at the United Nations during sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women and in other venues.
Our delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women this year included 20 women from around the world who helped set the agenda for the Ecumenical Women organization to present to the U.N. representatives. We are very concerned right now about the absence of effective women’s participation in designing the U.N. response to Haiti and on the U.N. Global Fund, and we are working to find ways to raise concerns of women (for access to support and to security) to the attention of those designing and implementing action.
Womenetics: United Methodist Women strongly supports the rights of indigenous people around the world. How has this tied in with your recent study of Native American culture closer to home?
Olson: Our work for rights of indigenous people at the U.N. has a long history. One of the expressions of that commitment was to study Native American peoples in the United States for the past two years. We study a series of issues through our Schools of Christian Mission, and it is important to us to study issues that touch our members directly as well as those that have importance around the world. We have Native American members of United Methodist Women, and we serve some Native American people through our community centers and schools, so it is a study of “us” rather than “them,” and this perspective is also important.
We expect that participants in the study will value Native American culture and see some of the commitments that Native American traditions express that are critically important in our contemporary setting. I’m thinking of commitment to the environment. It is also important for us to know that the Spanish, French, and English colonial powers as well as the United States and its neighbors today have a terrible record of abuse of Native American rights, and the church and church institutions were as much creatures of their time as representatives of the gospel. We hope and expect that a clearer understanding of this history throughout the organization will shape the ways we work with indigenous peoples on into the future.
Womenetics: United Methodist Women recently created a 10-year strategic plan. Which of the five factors that make up your mission do you believe is the most essential to the success of your plan, and why?
Olson: This question made me smile — we worked very hard to narrow our list down to only five factors. Perhaps I would say that growing spiritually, participating in education that transforms us and others, and developing women leaders in our members and in the world are what build our capacity to be engaged in the work. The effort itself is to deeply connect our work on policy with our work on service so that we are feeding hungry children in our town as well as asking why there are hungry children in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Compassionate service should result in passionate advocacy. While the fifth aspect of the plan – a growing, financially strong, and flexible organization – is almost a byproduct of the first four, it must be nurtured as well.
Womenetics: How does the United Methodist Women continue to maintain its focus on personal relationships with a membership topping 800,000 women?
Olson: If faith and the needs of women, children, and youth are the energy that moves us forward, relationship is what smooths the way. Working together we can accomplish so much more than when we work separately, and we grow so much more.
I think one of the things that happens is that studying the Bible together, praying together, raising money together, and tackling important issues in church, community, nation, and world develop these relationships. We talk about Ubuntu theology – it’s a Zulu word meaning “I am because you are,” and it speaks about how we see the folks we serve and with whom we advocate (like women in Haiti).
We’ve grown because our sisters have challenged and supported us. Those relationships develop out of everything we do together. We work on continually extending the network of shared experience and commitment to more women of every age and across any barriers of language, physical ability, race, and class.
Womenetics: Do you believe the United Methodist Women struggles more to stop violence against women globally or in the United States, and why?
Olson: We support U.N. efforts like the work on U.N. resolutions dealing with women and violence as well as violence close to home. It would be hard to say which we work on more because the settings are so very different. Rape as a tool of war is an historic matter, but it occurs every day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today, and it only “makes the news” when men are also raped. This is a travesty. However, it is also a travesty when a body is found at an out of the way place in Long Island, and the dead woman is dismissed because she is described as a “prostitute.” Only when a second body was found did the media shift from implicitly blaming the victim to the realization that this was the work of a serial killer.
Violence of different kinds, calling for different kinds of media monitoring and different kinds of solutions all raise this question: When are women treated as being human and when are they treated as an object? The same thing is at play where U.S. domestic violence laws require women to pursue charges against their partners rather than requiring law enforcement to treat the violence as a crime. Beating up another family member so that they require hospitalization would be a crime, so why is it not a crime when it involves spouses?
In many ways our work to stop violence against women globally is connected to our work to stop violence against women in the United States. In training a group of women to address human trafficking who have trained others all over the country, we are dealing with an international system that traps women, exporting and importing them like chattel. To highlight this interconnection we are planning an Ubuntu journey to Brazil where our members will work with women in Brazil to address human trafficking.
Womenetics: The United Methodist Women advocates for and against many well-known issues, such as domestic violence. Why is it important to support lesser-known projects, such as community gardens?
Olson: Our vision statement, that “United Methodist Women is turning faith, hope, and love into action on behalf of women, children, and youth around the world,” points to the fact that together we are living out our faith. That means how we live from day to day, as well as how we serve. Healthy habits and healthy communities are part of that. Community gardens are not only healthy for the workers and for the people who eat the food, but they also reduce the carbon footprint of every tomato, eggplant, and zucchini that isn’t trucked in from a faraway farm. Recycling, reducing waste, and living simply are natural expressions of our commitment to invest ourselves in making the world a better place.
Based near Atlanta, Shala Hainer has been writing and copyediting since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, she most recently wrote and edited articles for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a bachelor’s in communications from Jacksonville State University.