Juliet Cutler: Activist, Educator, Award Winning Designer & Author, "Among the Maasai"

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 10.31.10 AM.png

My Native Admission Statement: In the late 1990s, I spent two years teaching at the first school for Maasai girls in East Africa. Historically, the Maasai have herded cattle and goats in Tanzania’s Great Rift Valley, but changes to land and water rights, as well as globalization, have brought many challenges to the Maasai. For the last 20 years, I’ve supported education for at-risk girls in Tanzania, many of whom face staggering poverty, early forced marriages, female genital cutting, and other forms of gender-based violence. I’ve witnessed the transformative power of education for women and girls who live on the margins. Education is improving not just their lives, but the lives of entire families and communities. My book, “Among the Maasai,” tells this story and also reveals the value I’ve found in engaging in community across culture.

Bio: Juliet Cutler is a writer, an educator, and a designer of award-winning exhibits for museums, parks, and cultural centers throughout the world. Her teaching career began in Tanzania in 1999, and since that time she has been an activist for girls’ education worldwide. Cutler’s literary and professional publications now number more than two dozen, and she has taught writing in many settings including as adjunct faculty for the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota. Selections from her memoir, Among the Maasai, have appeared in English and in Dutch translation in the Netherlands. In 2009, she was selected by Orion Magazine to participate in their annual writing workshop, and in 2013, she participated in a writer’s residency at La Muse in Labastide-Esparbairenque, France. In 2019, The Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture, and the Environment will honor Cutler as a Serenbe Fellow—a distinction given to nationally recognized thought leaders, scholars, and artists. Cutler holds an MA in English from Colorado State University and a BS in education from the University of North Dakota. She currently lives near Atlanta.

How did you get into the industry?

In 1996, I heard about the Maasai Secondary School for Girls while working as a camp counselor and backpack guide in Montana. I was intrigued and moved by the stories of girls who so desperately wanted to go to school that they would run away from home, walk vast distance, and beg for one of only a few places at a school they knew could transform their lives. At the time, I had to finish my student teaching, and then I’d be a certified teacher. I inquired about a volunteer teaching position at the school and was invited to take a two-year post after I finished my last semester. I’d always wanted to study abroad in college but had never done it. This seemed like an amazing opportunity to experience the world and also to help girls in need. Little did I know this would begin a life-long commitment to empowering girls through education.

Any emerging industry trends?

The school has operated long enough now that its graduates are taking on leadership roles not only in the education field, but also across many fields in Tanzania. Twenty-five years ago, the school was founded by a few forward-thinking Maasai men who saw that their people would face many challenges in the 21st century. They knew meeting these challenges would require a different kind of leadership from both men and women, so they started this school for girls. Before that time, there really was no place for Maasai girls to go to school. Now, several staff members at the school are former graduates. Some have started their own schools. Graduates are also doctors, nurses, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, business women, and accountants, as well as mothers, wives, and community leaders. Really, Maasai women are entering every field. They are shaping their communities and redefining what it means to be a Maasai woman. Their leadership is exciting to watch.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

When I lived in Tanzania 20 years ago, we did not have telephone service and electricity was intermittent. Today, mobile phones and the internet have fully arrived. There are exciting opportunities for media and technology to improve education, which remains largely based on rote learning and inherited post-colonial curricula. Efforts to implement technology-based learning will require investments in infrastructure, coupled with measures to expand teacher competencies, which is no small task. However, technology is here to stay, and Tanzanian kids should benefit from it and gain the skills to effectively use it.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

I’ve witnessed firsthand the ways violence can cut short a young woman’s education. Safety remains a huge issue for Maasai girls, who are frequently married at that age of 12-14 to men significantly older than them. Estimates for the rate of female genital cutting among the Maasai remain high at between 60 to nearly 100 percent. The number is difficult to capture as Maasai women rarely report what has happened to them. On top of this, rape is not uncommon, and domestic violence remains a problem. To address issues of safety, I’ve partnered with local leaders on The Safe Initiative, which aims to address the root causes of disempowerment for Maasai girls, while also providing much needed immediate support to at-risk girls. The initiative provides:

Teacher training on the safety issues many students face, child protection measures, and student counseling techniques

Community-based training with mothers and daughters to foster discussions about the problems that most affect women and girls and potential solutions to these problems

Direct assistance to at-risk girls who face imminent danger of sexual violence, genital cutting, and early marriage. The initiative provides housing, incidentals, counseling, formal education, and/or technical training to these girls.

We know that if girls don’t feel safe, they are less like to go to school and even less likely to succeed there. The Safe Initiative is working to create safe spaces for girls at schools across Tanzania. All proceeds from the sale of my book, “Among the Maasai,” will go to support this initiative, as well as scholarships for Maasai girls.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

We are looking to expand The Safe Initiative to more schools and to provide scholarships for more Maasai girls to attend school.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

It has been important to me to support local, grassroots efforts in Tanzania. I always seek to partner with the vast and deep network of Maasai leaders and Tanzanian educators already working on the front lines to improve conditions for their own children. These leaders, who now include some of my former students, understand the complex constellation of issues behind their problems, and they are already working to address them. I seek their guidance, listen to their wisdom, and then follow their lead, support their work, and help them find the resources they need to solve their own problems. I’ve learned that effective and sustainable development comes not from the outside in, but from the inside out—in other words, sustainable change is only possible if it comes from within the community. For this reason, my work has always been in partnership with local nongovernmental organizations in Tanzania that drive the work from there.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

In Tanzania, there is a government policy that requires schools to permanently expels pregnant girls. I am deeply opposed to this policy, which penalizes girls that often have little control over their own reproductive health and fails to account for all-too-frequent instances of violence against women. I’ve faced the difficult task of walking the path with girls who want nothing more than to go to school, but find themselves pregnant and unable to continue. The Safe Initiative aims to help these girls find other forms of training, and some secondary schools will quietly re-admit these girls, but there are many instances of girls with no options being forced to return to places of violence because of a discriminatory government policy.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

It is difficult for me to adequately convey the genuine and heartfelt appreciation my Tanzanian colleagues have for the partnership of donors in the United States and elsewhere. In Swahili, we talk about working “bega kwa bega,” or shoulder to shoulder. There is a recognition on both sides that the work isn’t possible without partnership, which isn’t always easy. Working together is complex, and it’s shaped by a long legacy of colonialism and western aid, but it’s worth it. These girls would have few opportunities without everyone working bega kwa bega—rolling up our sleeves, getting to work, transcending our differences, and listening to and learning from each other.

How do you motivate others?

I hope that readers will find my book inspiring. I wrote it because I firmly believe in the power of storytelling to shape who we are individually and who we are becoming collectively. All of my work in Tanzania is done in my spare time, on a volunteer basis. My more formal career is still in education, but no longer in a traditional classroom. I develop educational exhibits for museums, visitor centers, and other cultural destinations around the world. This work has taught me that storytelling can profoundly shape people’s perceptions, ideas, and even actions. Most of the exhibits I develop are aimed at conserving beautiful natural landscapes, teaching important historical lessons, and revealing the meaning in culture. Research tells us that visitors remember stories long after they’ve forgotten facts, so I always seek to create exhibits that tell stories in three dimensions. This is true when I talk about empowering girls in Tanzania too. Stories matter. As humans, we’ve always told stories to convey meaning, teach lessons, rally support, and define who we are.

Career advice to those in your industry?

“Voluntourism” is a growing industry and “gap years” are popular among young people as well as mid-career professionals. Many people are interested in traveling and doing good in the world, which is a noble and necessary thing. That said, I believe it is critically important that those of us working across cultural and economic boundaries understand the contexts in which we seek to help. Our work in communities outside our own really needs to be directed and led by local leaders. When we come in with our own agendas and fail to listen to local people, we can do more harm than good. I think it’s important to honestly assess the degree to which our intentions are altruistic and the degree to which they are self-serving, as we consider if and how our help is needed. I also know from experience that truly sustainable work takes time and deep engagement, which rarely comes from a quick week or two in a foreign place. That is why empowering local leaders is essential. They will be there long after we’ve left. If our work can help them in some way, then it’s always worth it.

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 10.31.29 AM.png

What do I do best?

I’m a good writer and communicator. I also have the ability to see connections and partnerships that frequently represent big picture, outside-of-the-box thinking.

What makes me the best version of myself?

My empathy and compassion drive almost everything I do. It is both my strength and sometimes my weakness. I feel the emotional reverberations of things more than most people.

What are my aspirations?

I’d like to raise so much money that every Maasai girl who wants to go to school can do it. As part of this, I’d like to create The Safe Initiative as a regional center for addressing the safety issues that most affect Maasai girls.

My Biggest Success?

I’ve lived outside the United States for eight years—two years in Tanzania and six years in The Netherlands. I’ve also lived in seven U.S. states from Montana to Minnesota, and Louisiana to Georgia. I’m proud that I’ve been able to successfully navigate all of these diverse places and find something of value and to love about each of them. I also started my own exhibit design consulting business while living in Amsterdam. Starting a business is always challenge and especially so in a foreign country.

My Most Challenging Moment?

In my book, I write about finding a boy on the side of the road in Tanzania who had been hit by a car. As someone who names empathy and compassion as a core strength, this experience is one that will never leave me. I won’t tell the whole story here. Instead, I invite you to read about it in my book.

My Motto?

Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

My Favorite People/Role Models?

I write about Dr. Seth Msinjili in my book. He is the founder of The Safe Initiative and a man for whom I have a deep and abiding respect. He has mentored hundreds of young men and women, including me and is one of the wisest, humblest people I know.

My Favorite Places/Destinations?

This is a tough question for me as I have traveled all over the world. However, I would name south-central Montana as the place I will always know as home, which has been a somewhat elusive concept for me. The landscape of my childhood always calls me back—Montana, with its wildflower meadows, bubbling mountain creeks, big sky, and sweeping rugged views, will always be home.

My favorite destination is probably Tarangire National Park. I could watch the elephants in this park for a lifetime—the ways they relate to one another displaying complex social and emotional behaviors. I love elephants, and Tarangire is one of the best places in the world to see them in the wild.

My Favorite Products/Objects?

I love good coffee, and while I can live without my Nespresso machine, it is difficult.

My Current Passions?

This year I read Ryder Carroll’s book, “The Bullet Journal Method.” I’ve become fanatical about the approach, and truly, it has transformed my life from a series of disparate sticky notes, to an organized and focused set of goal-oriented “to do” lists.

My Daily Thoughts:

Goal of the Day: Be grateful

Thought of the Day: Finished is better than perfect.

Action of the Day: Get outside, drink more water

Deed of the Day: Do something kind

Tip of the Day: Focus on the present

A Day in My Life:

What do you love most about Your City?

I live in Serenbe, a small community just outside Atlanta focused on arts, culture, and the environment. We live in a forest adjacent to an organic farm. We host artists in residence and have our own outdoor playhouse. Best of all, Serenbe is all about intentional community, so I know all my neighbors and have made some wonderful friends where I live.

Favorite breakfast meal & restaurant?

I love a traditional breakfast of bacon and eggs with hash browns and good coffee. There is a cool breakfast joint in Amsterdam not far from where I used to live called Staring at Jacob. They have the best brunch IN THE WORLD, at least according to me.

What are you doing at:

6:00 AM – Waking up

10:00 AM – Working . . . probably writing exhibit text for a museum somewhere.

12:00 PM - Favorite Lunch spot/meal?

Halsa, a Scandinavian-inspired vegetable-forward restaurant, right in my neighborhood

7:00 PM - Drinking a glass of wine and cooking dinner

11:00 PM - Sleeping

What drink do you need to get through the day and at the end (and how many)?

Two cups of STRONG coffee in the AM, and a glass or two of wine in the PM

Most used App/Favorite Instagram Account?

I love Paprika. It allows me to organize my recipes, menus, and grocery list.

What should everyone try at least once?

Traveling to a place completely out of their comfort zone.

Where do you enjoy getting lost?

In a foreign city with charming restaurants and shops

My Pic of the Day:

These two pictures—one of Grace as a baby and one of her graduation—capture the lifespan of a young woman who was born when I lived in Tanzania in 2000. Last October, she graduated from the Maasai Secondary School for Girls becoming the first in her family to complete secondary school. She is currently continuing her studies and hopes to become a nurse. Her father works as a guard and has become a good friend over the years.

Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 10.31.53 AM.png
Screenshot 2019-09-10 at 10.34.51 AM.png

What Else to Know?

Upcoming Events

SERENBE FELLOWS PROGRAM

Date: September 14, 2019

Time: 4 PM

Location: The Inn at Serenbe, Oak Room, Chattahoochee Hills, GA

READING: BILLINGS PUBLIC LIBRARY

Date: September 26, 2019

Time: 7 PM

Location: 510 N Broadway, Billings, MT

READING: COUNTRY BOOKSHELF

Date: September 29, 2019

Time: 4:00 PM

Location: 28 W Main St, Bozeman, MT

HEALING VOICES SPEAKER SERIES

Date: October 20, 2019

Location: St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Newnan, GA

POVERTY & THE POWER OF EDUCATION

Date: October 27, 2019

Time: 10 AM

Location: Dunwoody United Methodist, Atlanta

WOMEN’S VOICES BOOK CLUB

Date: November 13, 2019

Time: 7 PM

Location: Hills & Hamlets Bookshop, Chattahoochee Hills, GA