UVA Today Speaks about Gretchen's Course on Conscious Social Change

The most pressing concern for Seraphine Hacimana and a group of women in her Rwandan village was ending the sexual exploitation of disabled women who could not easily collect clean water near their home on their own. When they solved that problem with the help of Global Grassroots, a non-profit organization that University of Virginia alumna Gretchen Steidle created 12 years ago, it had a ripple effect that has helped with several other important community issues and spread to more villages in the area.

It is just one of the programs transforming the lives and opportunities of tens of thousands of people in several African countries since Steidle founded Global Grassroots. The organization has catalyzed more than 650 women and girls to become leaders of conscious social change in their communities, mostly in Rwanda and Uganda. They have started 130 ventures with goals ranging from fighting violence against women to helping girls stay in school to providing clean, accessible water.“I have always been interested in how ideas spread, and why they often don’t spread as quickly as they’re needed,” said Steidle, who graduated from UVA with a B.A. in foreign affairs in 1996. She went to work for a small firm that financed international projects and earned her M.B.A. at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business in 2001.

Having been a Jefferson Scholar at UVA, Steidle said, “The program led me to question, ‘How do I create change?’” She found the values on which the Jefferson Scholars Program is based – citizenship, scholarship and leadership – inspiring and long-lasting.

It would take several years and experiences to map the curriculum that would transform the life of Hacimana and her village.


The Seeds of Global Grassroots

Steidle said she had an “Aha!” moment in 2004 after listening to a woman named Zolecka Ntuli. “I was on a research trip to South Africa, part of trying to convince businesses to invest in social entrepreneurship, and I met with a woman in a shack in a township outside Cape Town,”.

Steidle realized that, even with limited resources and facing sexual violence, Ntuli was working “creatively and courageously” to deal with the spread of HIV/AIDS. Steidle thought if she could partner with women’s groups like Ntuli’s, working on the local level, and if they had training and resources that would support their ability to advance their own solutions, together they could create global change.