I’ll be rushing around in the morning getting breakfast ready for my kids or standing in front of a classroom of expectant students — and all of a sudden it hits me. I have somehow morphed into a parental figure, a person with some kind of authority. How did this happen?
I am not sure why I sometimes find this shocking. Maybe it’s because I’m the baby in my family, the youngest of four. Or maybe it’s because I chose to become an immigrant — a detour on my march to full adulthood — where I was faced with learning a whole new set of rules, let alone language, of what it means to become a competent adult in Israel.
Yet, for all of us, there does seem to come a time in life when you realize that everyone else is winging it too, that they are also surprised to find themselves as the designated grown up in the room, not sure how they moved from being an amateur to being an expert. You can view this with great concern, or better yet, you can be empowered with this realization. I watched in admiration as many women, with this new awareness, decided that they were no longer willing to sit on the sidelines — to wait for the ‘responsible’ adults to take charge.
Many nonprofits in Israel are here to support women who find themselves exactly at this juncture. One example is an organization that offers women an entrée into community activism at the local level. Over 15 years ago, Adva Center, a research and advocacy institute (a “think and do tank”), brought to Israel the novel idea of analyzing local and national budgets from a gender perspective. As part of their efforts to advance this idea, they created community action groups at the local level, and began teaching women around the country how to examine the operation of public services and how to read and analyze municipal budgets. And one of the best parts is that these groups, with diverse women from over thirty communities around the country, have been able to meet over the years, compare notes and get inspired.
Why is learning how to read budgets empowering? The answer is that municipal budgets determine a great deal of daily life for our local communities, everything from public space to community centers and access to public transportation. And guess what? You learn a lot when you consider how seemingly ‘neutral’ budget allocations affect men and women, boys and girls differently. Once public budgets are viewed from the perspective of various populations, you understand how allocations and policies can be changed to become more equitable and responsive to everyone’s needs.
Oh, what is that you say? That you don’t take municipal budgets to bed for nighttime reading? Words like ‘gender audit’ are not part of your daily vocabulary? If you asked many of the women leading change at the local level, they would have likely had the same response prior to their involvement in these community action groups. And yet we can see now that, armed with this information, these groups were able to show municipalities how public services should be and could be utilized by different populations.
It is worth keeping in mind that Israel’s tradition around activism is very distinct from countries such as the United States. It is not by chance that words like “advocacy” or “lobby” are simply used as is, taken straight from English. For many years, activism tended to be exclusively centered around party politics. Moreover, the idea of women engaging in these topics is also considered quite revolutionary in certain communities. Nurturing a shift of mindset and giving a toolkit to advocate for change is especially notable for participants in these community action groups such as ultra-Orthodox Jewish women or Arab Palestinian women who are moving from the sidelines and into the public sphere for the first time. And you are likely to hear more about many of these activists, who have since decided to become involved in local electoral politics.
So what does this look like in practice for these community action groups? Here are a few recent examples:
In Rechovot, the group mapped public transportation and community needs, and showed a lack of easy bus access to the main health services, educational institutions and other public services. Following this process, the municipality subsequently allocated funds for an additional bus line.
In Kfar Kassem, the group identified the lack of outdoor recreational space for families to gather and for physical exercise. Together with the municipality, land was developed to meet this unmet need (which included walking trails and playgrounds), thereby providing a service to the wider community and marking a precedent for many Arab villages.
In Bat Yam and in the Mateh Asher Regional Council, the groups worked together with public officials to conduct ‘gender audits’ of the localities’ sports budgets. As a result, women’s and girls’ sports teams received more equitable funding.
Grassroots efforts like the examples above, have been complemented by the advocacy efforts of the Adva Center in applying a ‘gender lens’ to budgeting and other aspects of public policy. Back in 2004, Adva established the Women’s Budget Forum, a coalition of thirty- five Arab and Jewish women’s organizations, to focus on this topic.
Years of effort eventually paid off, when in 2014, the government began requiring every national ministry to analyze its annual budget from a gender perspective.
Over time, the idea of examining the use of public services and the allocation of budgets from the point of view of diverse population needs has become more accepted in public discourse and in policymaking.
So while you might not yet read a municipal budget for fun, you should be aware that there is untapped power hidden between the lines of numbers. If you happen to notice that you’ve become the adult in the room, like the women impacted by the Adva Center, feel free to step up, read carefully, and ask for equity.