Spotlight on Alumni: EWC Alumna Ann Dunham— Mother to President Obama and Champion of Women’s Rights and Economic Justice

S. Ann Dunham (Soetoro) as an EWC degree fellow in 1975.



At the recent EWC/EWCA International Conference in Bali, Indonesia, many gathered to share personal memories and gain a glimpse into the life and work of an East-West Center legacy – the late EWC alumna S. Ann Dunham (Soetoro).  As mother of President Barack Obama, she has become the focus of a great deal of media attention, especially as she had played such an influential role in shaping his world outlook and approach towards problem-solving and service to humanity. In the preface to his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he wrote: “I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.” Tragically her life was cut short in 1995 due to cancer, but her spirit and determination to champion women's rights and economic justice in Asia continues to serve as a source of inspiration.


Dunham, originally from Kansas and proud of her part-Cherokee ancestry, joined the Center’s Technology and Development Institute as a degree fellow grantee in 1973 due to her keen interest in the entrepreneurship program.  According to Mendl Djunaidy, Associate Dean of the EWC Education Program, Dunham had a different East-West Center experience, as she lived off-campus with Barack and her daughter Maya, and spent her social time primarily with the Indonesian country group. She pursued her master’s and doctorate degrees in anthropology with a focus on social and economic development in Indonesia.  She later went on to publish “Women’s Work in Village Industries on Java” in 1982 and her Ph.D. research culminated in 1992 with a 1,000 page dissertation on “Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia : Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds,” which has recently been published in Indonesian as well.  At the EWC conference panel presentation in Bali, Kay Ikranagara, a personal friend of Dunham from Indonesia, explained that Dunham’s research was significant since “she illustrated with peasant blacksmithing that village industry was important and enduring.”


Dunham’s research and consulting work took her around the world. She became a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development on setting up village credit programs, then a Ford Foundation program officer in Jakarta championing women’s issues, and later in 1986 she served in Pakistan as a consultant to the Asian Development Bank focusing on women's welfare. In 1988, she joined Bank Rakyat Indonesia, Indonesia’s oldest bank, and helped develop the world’s largest sustainable microfinance program, creating services like credit and savings for the poor, which enabled people from rural areas to engage in cottage industries and emerge from poverty. As a pioneer in the field of microfinance, her anthropological research helped shape the policies set by the Bank. At present the Bank’s microfinance program is the world leader in terms of savers, with an average of 31 million members, according to MIX (Microfinance Information eXchange Inc.). “Ann was a reformer,” noted Julia Suryakusuma, journalist and close friend of Dunham, during the EWC panel presentation. “Whether you agreed with her or not she always did things with the intent of changing and improving the situation.” 


Mary Zurbuchen, a colleague of Dunham’s at the Ford Foundation in the 1980s and currently the director of the Foundation’s Asia Russia Program, spoke about Dunham’s professional contributions, “Ann was someone who. . .had big ideas and a deep concern with social change and social justice,” Zurbuchen reflected. “She felt that the Ford Foundation's grant making in Indonesia should embody those ideals and motivations more than it perhaps was currently doing in her view.” She mentioned how Ann pushed the envelope at the Foundation, challenging the status quo in order to help cultivate the potential of several non-profit organizations that were beyond the scope of the government approvedinstitutions. “It was a time when outside organizations, like the Ford Foundation, could be scrutinized for assistance that was given to people or institutions that the fairly firm control of the central government in Jakarta did not favor,” explained Zurbuchen.   


One such organization, the East Javanese Women's Central Cooperative ( Puskowan-Jati), served as an incubator for several economic empowerment programs for low income urban and rural women in East Java with microfinance schemes, loan programs, and small business assistance.  This cooperative has since flourished and today has an enormous capital base.  “She believed in the importance of improving women's welfare. . .and was interested in all aspects of the lives of village women and saw microfinance as a way to support their lives,” Ikranagara pointed out.  “She believed that women should be able to support themselves. . .(and) she believed she had to be a fighter. . .”


“There's a certain amount of courage and audacity that was required for the kind of work that Ann was doing,” stated Terry Bigalke, Director of the EWC Education Program and former co-worker with Dunham at the Ford Foundation.


“There is no question that she was ahead of her time,” commented Suryakusuma. “She looked beyond her shores and the choices she made, even the story of her life, attest to it – her cross cultural marriages, her fields of study and work.  She was farsighted and strove hard to achieve her goals, including those she had for her children.” 


“Her grant making came from her concern about how to better understand women's labor and productivity and the legal kinds of factors affecting their position in a rapidly changing and industrializing macro-economy,” stated Zurbuchen. “This concern I think came a lot from. . .what she had seen in Java among women in villages and small towns and the economic roles that they played, the multiple burdens they shouldered in the family – providing meals, trying to scrape money together to send kids to school, going to the market at 3 a.m. to carry on their own small business. . .” She was driven to gain a deeper understanding of these processes at the national level as Indonesia was beginning to set up factories that employed more female labor in the formal labor force.  Dunham in turn worked with the Indonesian Federation of Labor Unions and connected with a number of women labor activists whom she sent abroad for training and whose associations she followed very closely.


Dunham also gave a grant for the Indonesian translation of "Women's Role in Economic Development," a seminal book written by Danish economist and feminist Ester Boserup in the 1970s, which was one of the first works to clarify the role of women in the process of social and economic change in developing countries.  Dunham felt that the ideas in the book could be very beneficial in helping to shape critical development work in the country.  This project later became a catalyst for the development of women’s studies programs in several Indonesian universities.


Dunham also worked with the Indonesian organization, The Institute for Consultation and Legal Aid for Women and Families, as she was concerned with family law, legal counseling and aid for women dealing with marriage or divorce issues. She examined how Islamic law impacted on the lives of Indonesian women. “In this work she insisted that understanding women's roles and experiences with a gender perspective was key,” Zurbuchen pointed out. “Nobody talked about gender perspective at that time; it was not the language of the day. . .She was actually a trailblazer in a lot of ways.”


“While being idealistic, Ann was also very grounded,” recounted Suryakusuma. “I see Obama's victory in many ways as a reflection of his mother's life and a vindication of the hardships that my friend Ann had to go through in a tragically curtailed life that was lived so fully with passion and compassion, yet intelligently, principled, and imbued with a steadfast conviction.” 


For more on the life of Ann Dunham and her family, see the following articles:


A Portrait of Change: In First Family, a Nation’s Many Faces by Jodi Kantor


The Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Amanda Ripley


Free-Spirited Wanderer Who Set Obama’s Path by Janny Scott


Strong Women Led Obama by Susan Essoyan


A Woman of the People by Susan Essoyan

(Posted on December 9, 2008)