Story by Jacqueline Fellows / Photos by Matt Brown
IN A small art gallery north of Dallas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn walks slowly through a maze of 5,000 pairs of baby booties that hang from floor to ceiling on clear plastic rods. The tiny shoes are like confetti: small, brightly colored and everywhere.
There are booties with small bells and beads that jingle. Others, like the ones from Uganda, are a soft brown color. Up close, the texture is rough and thin. They are made from tree bark.
WuDunn stops to admire the handiwork. Each pair is handmade, most of them stitched together by female sewing cooperatives in 30 countries.
The Gendercide Awareness Project (Gendap), a nonprofit and nonpartisan Dallas-based organization, curated the exhibit to raise awareness of 117 million missing women. The figure is plucked from a 2012 United Nations report that cited various reasons for the high number of missing females in the world, including neglect, female infanticide, maternal death and sex-selective abortion.
The exhibit WuDunn explores is only a fraction of what will be a larger installation in Dallas later in 2016, says June Chow, vice president of Gendap. “Our full exhibit has 11,700 pairs of booties,” Chow says. “Each pair honors 10,000 missing females. We cannot hang 117 million booties, but we can represent them.”
It’s not unusual for art to take on a somber tone, but WuDunn doesn’t flinch. The issue of global female disempowerment is something she knows well. She and her husband, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, have written two books that detail myriad ways women and girls are harmed, from sex trafficking to corporate discrimination.
Their first book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, was a New York Times bestseller that inspired a four-hour documentary series. Their most recent book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, inspired another PBS documentary series that premiered in 2015. Both films and books highlight the struggles and triumphs of women, but A Path Appears takes their message of female education and equality a step further, giving readers a list of more than 100 organizations they believe steer resources toward real-world solutions for individual women.
“You can’t do them all,” WuDunn says. “You just have to say, ‘Where does my passion lie?’ That’s really important because if you want to keep at it, find something that’s interesting to you, find something that speaks to you.”
WuDunn also says passion for activism doesn’t have to consume every waking moment. Even though she dedicates a lot of time and energy to improve opportunities for females around the world, she still has a day job. WuDunn is a senior managing director for Mid-Market Securities, a boutique investment bank in New York City.
Though she’s no longer at a newspaper, WuDunn says the seeds of her activism today were sown 27 years ago when she was in China reporting on the 1989 democratic movement that was crushed by the government in Tiananmen. She and Kristof covered the events for The New York Times, winning the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
The prize represented two firsts for WuDunn. She was the first Asian American to win a Pulitzer, and she and Kristof were the first husband-and-wife team to win one. WuDunn went on to hold executive positions at the the Times, in circulation sales and strategic planning, but eventually moved into finance. She has a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University and says her business background helps her show nonprofit organizations, such as Gendap, how to be sustainable.
“When we were writing Half the Sky and A Path Appears, we were looking at organizations and asking, ‘How do you keep it sustainable? Are there things you can sell?’ ” she says. “For instance, these booties, if [they’re] constantly having people make them, then [they] can sell them after exhibiting them.”
WuDunn also wants to develop sustainable business models to help the women who are represented by well-meaning nonprofits. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, she says. “Everything has to be tailored to a local solution, the local conditions,” WuDunn says. “But, the nut of it is you need to empower women and give them training and tools so that they can actually fend for themselves. They don’t want handouts all the time.”