An Interview with Brita Fernandez-Schmidt

When Brita Fernandez Schmidt first got the call from Women for Women, she had read founder Zainab Salbi’s autobiography a couple of years prior and hoped that she’d at least get to meet the author she so admired…

Brita Fernandez-Schmidt, by Holly Whittaker
When Brita Fernandez-Schmidt first got the call from Women for Women, she had read founder Zainab Salbi’s autobiography a couple of years prior and hoped that she’d at least get to meet the author she so admired. Now, having been with the charity for close to a decade, Brita is thriving as Executive Director, inspiring and energising the women around her – from the women the charity works so hard to support, to her team and her two daughters.

Here, Brita speaks with us about leadership, independence and inspiring change.

Q: Tell me about Women for Women?

It’s an organisation that was set up about 23 years ago, by Zainab Salbi. She’s Iraqi, and when she was 19 she moved to America, where she learnt about the Holocaust and the Never Again movement, which had been censored in Iraq. At the same time, she was reading about and watching coverage of the genocide in Bosnia.

She knew what it was like to grow up in a country impacted by conflict, and how you feel like the world has forgotten you. She thought that women in Bosnia must feel abandoned, and she wanted to do something, to go and tell them “the world has not forgotten you”.

She went to Sarajevo, travelling with a press pass because it was under siege and you could only enter on a special plane. Zainab told women there that when she returned to America, she would find women who would write to them and support them. She would create human connections, across divides and across borders. And she did, she went back to America and found 30 American women to sponsor 30 Bosnian women. They wrote letters and gave money, and she went back to Bosnia to deliver them, and that’s really how Women for Women was created.

As the war ended, it was clear that in order to help women rebuild their lives and allow them to be part of the rebuilding of the country, they needed support. That’s when, and how, we developed what is now called the Life Skills Training Programme, which is a year long programme with four key outcomes. The first is that women are well, we teach them about health and give them practical information about how to look after themselves; the second is that they know their rights, we encourage them to be decision makers and have their voices heard; the third is that they need and can form safety nets and networks, which we achieve through bringing women together in classes of 25, breaking their isolation and creating a space to form lifelong friendships; and the fourth is about finding and sustaining an income. We teach practical skills that enable them to set up a business, join or establish associations or co-ops, find a job or a placement. For example, in Rwanda—where I’m going with my daughters and a group of our donors in July—we are working with the Marriott Hotel, who have employed women from our programme who have trained to work in the hospitality sector.

We don’t talk about what we do as charity, it’s about creating human connections and solidarity, it’s an investment. We want to make sure that the women we work with aren’t dependent on the help they receive from Women for Women, and that our achievement is providing them with knowledge.

Q: That’s what’s so interesting about Women for Women, often charitable infrastructures can lead to a state of dependency, but Women for Women focusses on giving women agency.

That’s exactly right, and it’s not an easy thing to do, it’s not easy for any of us. I fundamentally believe that you can’t empower someone else, you can only empower yourself, but what you can do is provide a support network.

I have all sorts of things that help me to constantly develop myself, and with knowledge you have the opportunity to stretch your boundaries, to empower yourself. And that’s really what Women for Women does, we require commitment from the women who enrol on our programme, they have to attend regular sessions and be engaged. We even make them sign a social contract, of course it’s not legally binding but it’s a way of encouraging them to commit.

Q: Requiring that level of commitment, it shows respect for the women involved.

Exactly, we all have agency. Our approach is:“It’s your decision, if you want to do this, this is what we can offer you, this is our goal.” I think that’s really important.

In return, we ensure that we respond to their needs and achievements. We offer additional business training and mentoring for women who are particularly entrepreneurial, and they will often go on to employ lots of other women from their community. We also have focus groups of women who have graduated from our programme, who speak with us about what they are coming up against, and how we can help.

Q: Tell me about the #sheinspiresme movement?

We came up with it because so many of the stories we hear are so hard and so upsetting, and yet these women are so positive and inspiring. It’s always been about how they move from being victims to surviving and being active citizens, that positivity is key for us.
It opens up the potential for change, if you’re always downtrodden it can seem impossible; and it gives us the opportunity to celebrate women all over the world.

Q: You have an MA in women’s studies from Sussex University, when was it that you knew that this is the work you wanted to do?

I’m actually writing a book at the moment, which is really exciting. I’ve been thinking about this, looking back and reflecting on how when you look back, you rewrite your own history to make sense of where you are now and where you want to go.

My version of my history is this: When I was 13, we moved to Venezuela from Germany, where it had never occurred to me that I had any disadvantages as a girl. Both my parents are teachers, we are a middle class family, very academic, and moving to Venezuela was a total shock. I’d never seen poverty in that way, and I continued to see how women are disproportionately affected by that poverty, I didn’t have the language for it at that time but I just knew that there was a problem. I think I must have been born with a strong sense of justice, I didn’t see the same level of outrage in other people.

My parents wanted me to study in Europe, which I did but I enrolled in Latin American studies. It didn’t work out very well, many of the teachers couldn’t speak Spanish and the way it was taught felt kind of imperialistic. I changed to literature and in my second year I met an amazing professor—you know how there are people in your life who have just influenced you so much—Elaine Jordan, she is incredible. She was teaching a feminist literary criticism course and I remember thinking “This is it!” I took the course and I suddenly felt like I had a language for all these things I’d been observing, thinking and feeling. I loved it so much, so I went on to do an MA in women’s studies and then I just found my way.

It had always been my passion, my drive, to work in women’s equality in countries where it’s even more challenging, because you also have poverty. Gender inequality affects us all, but when it’s interlaced with poverty and war it has another dimension.

Q: How have you approached writing the book?

I don’t think that having the confidence to write a book is something that just comes to you, it’s a journey. There’ll be a lot of stories from my life, but it’s not an autobiography. It’s focussed on my work, the power of inspiration, how we can follow that and find our authentic selves. I’m interested in leadership, questioning our contemporary understanding of it, and considering innovative ways of running teams that embrace the standards of an organisation. The way we’ve grown reflects what we stand for, we work on partnerships rather than marketing, people come to us with ideas and we say yes to them.

I think the current approach to leadership is quite masculine, it’s restrictive to everyone and not very inspiring. It’s not sustainable, and the more I become aware of it, the more I want to say “Stop! Let’s see if this actually works for us, because if it doesn’t, let’s change it.”

June, 2017

All text originally published by All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.