Our diversity allows us to be so brilliant & shine brightly: Jennifer Jones

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The future of Rotary is what you have created here… the kind of technological leap Rotarians across the world have made in the last 10 months. To be able to assemble a group like this and be together in a such a fantastic shared experience is the future. All of you were able to jump onto this kind of virtual platform so quickly and make it a global community,” RIPN Jennifer Jones said, while addressing two different meetings on virtual platforms, created by the Rotary Club of Madras, RID 3232, and the Synergy Rotary Friendship Alliance. The latter has been created and fostered by PDG Sunil Zacharia, RID 3201, with membership across 11 Asian countries.

She said it was wonderful to see such a huge participation at both the events; while at the RCM meet, 525 participants from 25 countries logged in, at the Synergy meet 390 participated from all over the world, including three past RI directors, six district governors, 14 DGEs, and 10 DGNs and 35 past governors participated.

To commemorate her virtual visit, RCM donated two dialysis machines to the ACS- RCM Dialysis Centre that the club has set up at a hospital near Chennai. “This increases the number of dialysis machines available for patients with renal failure to seven,” said club president Kapil Chitale.

He added that club members had also planted 117 more fruit-bearing trees on its 35-acre plot that houses the RCM Boys Town Society, a flagship project of the club. The number of trees mark the 117th year of Rotary starting in July, 2022, when she will assume the office of RI president.

Jones said that Rotary’s international passport has never been so relevant as now. To be able to connect so easily and remove borders and boundaries is something that Rotary has done for decades and decades. “But to put that global stamp on our passport as we are able to traverse the world through these virtual meets is wonderful.”

The onus is on each of us to check on our club members on how they are doing with their mental health. There are so many stories of people struggling… losing money, jobs, etc.

While during the Covid pandemic, she had been on so many such virtual meets, and made new friends across the world, “which is incredible, but man, I am looking forward to the day we can all meet in person. But to have made so many new friends, isn’t that incredible? It shows that Rotary’s future is incredibly bright. Thank you for the leadership you have shown. When we come out of this, and we will, this will remain because of the kind of synergy you are going to establish in the weeks and months ahead, before the ‘normal’ returns,” she told the Synergy meet.

On Rotary’s future, she said that each of the Rotarians who had made it “a priority to stay engaged and connected like this “is the future of Rotary”. But a challenge before all Rotarians was to look around their clubs and ensure that others too were having similar experiences, and were involved with group meetings, not feeling left behind, felt cared for, nurtured. “When we connect, even though we might be locked down, people get the assurance that they are traversing through these challenging times together. We see on the ­horizon hope, dangling in front of us as vaccines are here.”

That these Covid-19 vaccines had been manufactured and in the hands of people in less than a year was “magical. Till those vaccines open up to us, we cannot really travel the way we used to. The video you showed of Kerala makes me itch to travel, it is on my bucket list, and has been for some time,” she told the Synergy meet. She also hopes to make it in person for the Zone institute to be organised by RIDE A S Venkatesh in December 2021 at Mahabalipuram in Chennai.

But right now, the onus was on each and every Rotarian to think of their fellow members at the club levels, as this is an important ethos of Rotary — after inviting a person into Rotary, “ask them what they want out of that experience and then deliver it.”

I was pleased, humbled ad excited by the opportunity to be nominated RI president. But I was not selected because of my gender but because of my qualifications.

Jones said often more attention was given to people who join and leave Rotary, than “focusing on those who stay behind and what their expectations are. The answer is quite easy; research tells us that they join for friendship and service. We all want to get our hands into something that makes a difference in our world, and our vision statement tell us that we join together with people to create lasting change.”

But most important of all is the change that Rotary gives as an opportunity to its members to bring within themselves.  “Isn’t the opportunity to improve our leadership capabilities and attain personal growth, a gift we can offer others, to join us in friendship and service,” she asked.

She advised Rotarians to check in on their club members to “to see how they are doing with their mental health. There are so many stories of people struggling, whether it is losing money, jobs, or food and other issues.” It was imperative to check that other Rotarians were not grappling with isolation or mental health issues, “so that people understand that even in the darkest hours there is hope.”

In a Q&A session moderated by PDG Shyamashree Sen, RID 3291, Jones said that in the coming times, e-clubs will have a bigger role, “they will thrive, survive and grow. Assembly of people from different parts of a country and even different nations will only grow. Actually, the pandemic has moved us ahead by 5–10 years as we have been forced to come out of our comfort zones and go into technological innovations and newer platforms.”

Answering another question, she said “diversity, equity and inclusion” will continue to get much more focus in Rotary. In her year, she would give this a priority “in a voice of authority. We will be viewing all three through different lens of gender, age, race, religion, culture and sexual orientation. I will be challenging Rotarians to have some of these difficult conversations and ensure that we are a true reflection of what our community represents. In some parts of the world that dialogue might be of age, in other parts, of gender and culture.”

But even though this dialogue will differ in different regions, the end result will be the same, “making sure that we are a true reflection of our communities. It is the diverse and unique perspective each of us brings to our club that helps us tackle and solve some of the most difficult problems that our community or country faces. Because we come at it from different angles, we are able to challenge each other and give our very best. If we all looked at the problems through the same lens, we would not be so brilliant, shine so brightly and provide hope,” she said.

The RIPN congratulated RC Madras members for “playing such a crucial role in throwing out polio from India. Commending the club members “for the wonderful service projects that you do”, she added she was greatly touched by the two projects they had launched in her honour and said she would use the first opportunity to visit both in person.

Get ready for vaccination advocacy 

We’ve been through many dark days in the last several months and there isn’t a man, woman or child who hasn’t been touched by this global pandemic. But in a unique way, this pandemic has galvanised us, and proving that we are people of action, we quickly realised the need to remain united, connected and together in shared service. You’ve all jumped onto virtual platforms and perfected them, as you’ve done today to bring along so many participants from several countries.”

The new year had begun with hope, and “one-by-one we are going to get vaccinated. And we are going to speak about it to our neighbours and friends because we are the vaccination people. We stood up and said polio could be eradicated. And we now need to use our voices for those who have vaccine hesitancy and let them know this is a safe procedure which will prevent them from getting infected.”

Jones wondered if, as a Rotary leader had once told Rotarians in her region, “we had told Rotarians 30 years ago that we need you to immunise three billion children against the polio virus and raise more than $2.1 billion and it will take us over 30 years to eradicate this disease, would we have done it?”  The likely answer is a ‘No’ because it would have been seen as an impossible task.

But thanks to polio immunisation, Rotary now has a public health infrastructure, formed along with its partners such as the UNICEF, WHO, the Gates Foundation, etc in over 70 countries, which was ready to tackle both polio and PolioPlus, the ‘plus’ in that would now be Covid, apart from malaria, tuberculosis, etc.

Jones added Rotarians were distressed to know that from March 2020, when the world went into a lockdown, we’ve had to take a pause in polio vaccination. “But just imagine, those frontline workers were able to pivot and go from being polio to Covid frontline workers. While they had to pause on polio vaccination, they didn’t pause on doing surveillance and contact tracing, to identify where Covid exists, so we could shut it down. This infrastructure also helped to shut down Ebola and we should be so proud of their efforts.”


Promoting youth and women’s membership 

RIPN Jennifer Jones (R) with PDG Shyamashree Sen (file photo).
RIPN Jennifer Jones (R) with PDG Shyamashree Sen (file photo).

At both the RC Madras and Synergy Alliance meets, RIPN Jennifer Jones was asked about promoting younger and women members in Rotary and how she had managed to break through the “glass ceiling” and reach the topmost position in RI.

Jones said that for “the better part of the decade we at Rotary have been trying to attract women and younger people under 40. This has been a priority, but quite candidly, the needle has moved in a negligible fashion in those two categories. Women and younger people who are looking for a leadership experience have to see that opportunity in Rotary.” She hoped that with the focus now being on “diversity at the highest level of our organisation, and with a woman president, this will hopefully inspire many female and younger members to join Rotary. I do hope this will challenge and be an inspiration to women to take on leadership positions, beginning at the club and then district levels. Showcasing the best practices of inclusion will foster growth.”

She said that even though Rotary needed “young thinkers, having a prescribed age group is not the way forward.” All of us, she added had surely met a 25-year-old who thought like an older person, as well as an 85-year-old whose thinking and perspective were akin to a young person. “What we need is progressive thinking to take us forward.”

On bridging the gender gap, Jones advised Rotarians to take up this issue from a “business perspective. If in our company we were looking at a market share that was underperforming, what would we do?”

For instance, female membership in Rotary was only 24 per cent women, though it was higher in some areas — in North America it was about 35 per cent and in the ­Caribbean region between 48–52 per cent. “We would tweak our business plan. Similarly, let’s take the opportunity to bring a gender balance in Rotary.”

RI Director Valerie Wafer chairing RI’s new diversity, equity and inclusion taskforce said, “we need these challenging conversations in our own clubs.”

But she cautioned Rotarians that they would need to focus at “the best and brightest in both men and women. At RI, over a year ago we embraced and adopted a new diversity, equity and inclusion statement, and this is happening in governments, NGOs and companies around the world as well. So let us take a close look at how do we create a diverse perspective in our clubs. That will help us solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. It’s because we are able to look at things from a different perspective, and bring together a mosaic of people from different regions, cultures, age groups and backgrounds, we’re able to solve some of the problems of the world.”

On women Rotarians overcoming the glass ceiling and getting mentorship for leadership positions is “something we need to be more mindful of when it comes to nurturing our members, both male and female and giving them leadership opportunities.” One way to achieve this was by ensuring that “the same people are not doing the tasks again and again; tap new leadership opportunities, give them these roles, along with the wings to fly. “We have to look for the best and the brightest, fresh ideas, and give opportunities to the new leadership to blossom and grow. The seniors and veterans should do that.”

As for reaching the top RI position, Jones said: “I did it just like my male colleagues have done; we have all filled different positions in leadership roles from the club president to the DG level, then serving on the RI board, one of the requirements for becoming an RI president. And I was also fortunate to be able to serve as a TRF Trustee and in different leadership positions participate in conversations with world leaders.”

Adding that there was an “opportunity for all of us, both men and women, to increase our leadership role in Rotary”, she said: “I was pleased, humbled ad excited by the opportunity to be nominated RI president, and this is a positive move forward for Rotary too. But I firmly believe I was not selected because of my gender but because of my qualifications.”

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