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Talking human and animal welfare: the stand of advocate, writer Laura Portalupi

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Laura Portalupi grew up outside of Akron, Ohio and the country of Luxembourg. Since then, she has been to South Africa, Peru, Haiti and many places in between. This is the first in a two-part series in honor of International Women’s Day being celebrated around the globe this year on March 8. Beyond travel, one of Portalupi’s greatest passions is exploring the intersection of human and animal welfare, as well as the cultural dimensions of human-animal relationships. So if animal welfare is your passion too, you’ll enjoy Portalupi’s story.

Portalupi received Bachelor of Arts degrees in creative writing and French from Miami University in 2002. Her professional experience includes writing and editing for an educational publishing service, a stint in South Africa with the Peace Corps, and coordinating educational travel experiences for students with disabilities for No Barriers. It is a little hard to imagine this young woman with “down time,” but when she has it, you’ll find Portalupi reading, writing, taking peaceful hikes, enjoying vegan cooking and baking, and photographing the world around her.

Portalupi is currently a graduate student intern with Project WISE, a women’s empowerment nonprofit in Denver. This is where I met Portalupi and what follows is my interview with her today.

What made you want to study social work at the University of Denver?

Ever since learning about founder of social work Jane Addams in a high school history class, I’ve been drawn to the social justice values of social work. I decided to apply to the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work because at the time, its certificate in animal-assisted therapy program was expanding to include a broader human-animal relationship perspective. I felt the curriculum would equip me with the knowledge and skills to tackle injustices experienced by all living creatures—not just people.

How did you become an advocate for the intersection of human and animal welfare?

One day when I was 11, I sat outside in our backyard and practiced flute. All the cows in the neighboring pasture came and stood at the fence, simply watching and listening. It was an incredible moment. I was 12 when I started to research industries like factory farming and circuses and immediately began to identify as an animal welfare advocate. My 9th grade persuasive speech was on animal rights and I still have the notecards I used for my presentation! Around that same time, I began to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, as well as an agency called Open M. As I learned more about the injustice and oppression affecting people, I felt compelled to move toward these issues instead of away from them. I identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP)—a fascinating concept that has helped me understand why I engage with the world the way I do.

Up until recently, I viewed animal welfare and human welfare as two separate issues—now I recognize that this way of thinking is simply a byproduct of our culture. I believe wholeheartedly that humans and animals are part of the same systems of injustice and oppression, and there is no place in which caring for animals or caring for people is mutually exclusive.

Recently you were named the volunteer chair of the board of directors of a girls’ empowerment nonprofit based in Senegal. Can you tell us more about this organization and what makes you passionate about its mission?

Friends of Guéoul is a small nonprofit with a big impact in the community of Guéoul, Senegal. The organization has a mission to underwrite and support education of the poorest girls in Guéoul. We’ve kept 134 girls in school by providing $100/year to their families. This scholarship makes keeping a female child in school more lucrative than keeping her home to help with chores. We also provide support to the scholarship recipients and other students in the community through additional educational programming. Friends of Guéoul has an agreement with the Université Gaston Berger that upon successful completion of secondary school, every scholarship recipient will be guaranteed admission to the university.

The United Nations highlights the value of equality of education in their third Millennium Development Goal to promote gender equality and empower women. Friends of Guéoul is giving girls access to knowledge beyond primary school, which has far-reaching benefits.

Next month in March, you were considering traveling back to South Africa as a volunteer and researcher. What is your past experience with the country of South Africa? What were you hoping to accomplish this spring there?

I was hoping to spend a few weeks in Soweto, South Africa this year as part of a research team studying the rather extraordinary work of a nonprofit called Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW, http://www.claw-sa.org/). Unfortunately, in the community where CLAW is located there have been protests over a private development company’s evictions and an unfulfilled government promise for housing. The study has been postponed for now, but when it does take place, we will be exploring how an organization that began as a free and low-cost veterinary service has organically evolved to provide social services to community members as well. Community Led Animal Welfare offers incredible support to both people and companion animals.

I have a particular interest in this study because I lived in South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, not too far from Soweto. I saw firsthand the implications of poverty for people and animals. For those who doubt the relevance of animals’ well-being amidst human suffering, consider this: A donkey pulling a cart carrying water, is going to be far more productive if he is properly nourished and his sides aren’t infected from lashings. In turn, the person whose income depends on water delivery can earn more in less time, enabling his family to eat a healthier meal or pay for needed medicine, for example. We are all connected.

What makes you passionate as a woman about helping other women and girls in our world?

I grew up with two sisters and no brothers. I remember asking my father one day as a teenager, “Are you disappointed that you don’t have any sons?” His response was “Not at all.” And that’s certainly the experience I had within my family—I didn’t begin to perceive gender inequality until college, I’d say.

Since then, my awareness of male privilege and discrimination against women has grown steadily. Of course, there is the illusion that women in the U.S. do not experience oppression, especially when compared to countries where severe discrimination and even cruelty are enforced by those in power. The reality is that globally women and girls are at a disadvantage. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a book-turned-documentary by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, provides insight into horrific mistreatment of women and girls around the world. I’m driven by personal experiences of dismissive treatment as well as my underlying belief in the intersectionality of oppression.

Animal-assisted social work

According to the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, their Animal-Assisted Social Work (AASW) Certificate gives one the opportunity to “learn how to create, implement and evaluate AASW programs in which an animal becomes a teacher, therapist, facilitator and companion.” To explore more about the Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate, the first of its kind in the nation, at the University of Denver, click here.

Women, social work and poverty

Portalupi says, “Educated women educate others, including their children. Maternal mortality rates are lower, and families are healthier. Poverty is reduced, and economic growth occurs. Educating girls makes sense no matter which way you look at it.”

It is a smart, savvy perspective and substantiated in much of the research about poverty, including the Stone Center at Wellesley. To check out their blog, visit http://www.wcwonline.org/WCW-Blog/Latest

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