Mary Lyon Award Winner, Emily Usher Shrair ’08

Emily Usher Shrair 08Emily Usher Shrair ’08 is the recipient of this year’s Mary Lyon Award. The award honors an alumna who graduated no more than fifteen years ago and who has demonstrated sustained achievement in her life and career consistent with the humane values that Mary Lyon exemplified and inspired in others. As a devoted advocate for social justice and women’s rights, Emily has worked with victims of domestic violence in Argentina; founded feminist grant-writing collective, Girl Got Grants, and international job search site, Feminist Job Board; and is now pursuing a master’s in gender and development at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex in the UK.

» Learn more about the alumnae award program.

—By Lauren Kodiak

You recently received a Fulbright Award to continue your studies. What is your current educational focus?

My research examines barriers to the participation of socially marginalized women in the process of slum-upgrading. My work focuses on analyzing and comparing current practices in gender-sensitive participatory urban development in order to identify best practices and disseminate this information throughout the gender and development community. I am especially interested in looking at the role that women-led community-based organizations have played in successful urban development processes and projects.

How did your majors at Mount Holyoke—gender studies and international relations—prepare you for the work you do today?

My Mount Holyoke education has enabled every step of my professional journey. Today, I am able to gain employment on the basis of skills I was required to learn for classes in international relations and gender studies from as early on as my first semester. For example: web design, which I had to learn for World Politics; advocacy and campaign design, which was part of my assessment for Global Feminisms; videography, which I picked up in Black Feminisms; and policy analysis, which was required for my course on Development Economics. My most recent professional role, communications manager for the international non-governmental organization (NGO) Women’s Refugee Commission, required and utilized all of these technical skills.

My Mount Holyoke education has enabled every step of my professional journey. Today, I am able to gain employment on the basis of skills I was required to learn for classes in international relations and gender studies from as early on as my first semester.

What do you hope to accomplish going forward?What inspired you to found Girl Got Grants?

I had been working as grant writer for different women’s organizations in the South Bronx for about two years and began to feel like all that donors cared about were numbers. It often felt like the only way to get funding was by pandering or telling stories that presented our participants as victims, which went against the very nature of what we were trying to accomplish. I realized that I needed to radically shift the way in which I approached fundraising and grant writing, so in 2012 I decided to found Girl Got Grants, a feminist fundraising collective. Our mission is to connect small- to medium-sized mission-driven organizations with donors who share their values.

Upon graduating from my master’s program, I hope to work with international NGOs or multilateral organizations and their government and civil society partner organizations in the development of gender policies and strategies relating to urban development. By bridging the gap between women’s empowerment on the ground and gender equality on the level of government policy, I hope to foster the mutual trust and understanding that is necessary to change the world for women and girls.

In the next five years, I hope to grow Girl Got Grants and my other small company, Feminist Job Board. I enjoy developing platforms for learning and collaboration that can grow and change organically in service of the people who use them. I am looking forward to seeing what my companies become and how they adapt over time. Ultimately, I hope to start an international women’s organization that fosters participatory urban policy-making through dialogue between local women, policy-makers, donors, and other stakeholders.

How did your time spent at MHC shape who you are today?

My four years at Mount Holyoke were the most challenging, transformational, and sweetest years of my life. I came to Mount Holyoke thinking that I had a fairly good understanding of who I was and what I was passionate about, but over the course of my education, everything that I thought I knew was challenged. As I undertook my studies in international relations, I learned about the devastating inequalities that my country’s foreign policies perpetuated every day. From Joan Cocks and other exceptional professors, I learned about the intersection of gender oppression, racism, and classism. But it was my peers—the fierce, brilliant, outspoken women I called my classmates—who brought these lessons home.

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