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Jennet Robinson Alterman

Jennet Robinson Alterman

Women's rights advocate Jennet Robinson Alterman has been around the world. From Afghanistan to Swaziland to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, she has found that gender inequality is not an isolated issue. Read on to learn how she overcame the naysayers early on in her career, and what she's doing to fight for women's rights both overseas and back home.

Introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us who you are and what you are currently focused on.

I am a women's rights advocate in Charleston, South Carolina, and currently involved with several organizations. As a member of the Charleston County Housing Authority Board I am working to find more low income housing for our clients. Charleston is a huge destination with more than 40 people a day moving to the area. Affordable housing is very limited which makes low income housing an even greater challenge. My interest stems from the fact the majority of our clients are single mothers trying to make a living and a life on minimum wage. I am also the Chairman of the Board of a new statewide organization that is tackling the issue of teen pregnancy. In a very red state any discussion of sex ed or reproductive health is extremely difficult and our elected officials shy away from these topics as much as possible. I am committed to doing all I can to give young girls in this state the opportunity to succeed.

How would you define your professional mission?

My mission from an early age has been to work for women to promote equality, pay equity, access to reproductive health care, reduce domestic violence and all of the other myriad of issues that are inter related.

What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?

Patience, listening skills and courage.

What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?

When I served as the director the Center for Women in Charleston (2001-2013) I was able to grow the organization into the largest and most comprehensive women's development center in South Carolina with over 1,000 members. Our organization brought women's economic issues to the community table and raised awareness around the state and the region. We started the difficult conversations and people listened and acted.

We’d love to hear more about your career path. What led you to where you are today?

I grew up in the deep South in a very traditional town. Girls were taught to never brag about themselves and to never discuss money. Early on I realized that you had to be able to do both with confidence to succeed. I helped to co-educate a very traditional men's college, and worked as a TV news reporter and anchor until I found out that I was being paid far less than my colleagues. I asked for a raise and was told, "You will always be a secondary income and your husband will take care of you." I was single. I quit. It was very scary. I joined the Peace Corps and upon my return from Afghanistan I took a job as the press secretary to the Lt. Governor of South Carolina, the first woman ever elected statewide. I went back to the Peace Corps and served as the County Director in Swaziland for 3 years. In Afghanistan I had been appalled at the treatment of women; they had no rights to vote, to be educated, to choose their spouse or the number of children they had. To add insult to injury they were also required to wear a head to toe garment that had a small mesh window to allow them to see and was in reality the most heinous of all the required garments for women found elsewhere in the world. In Swaziland there was an annual festival where bare breasted maidens danced before the king. Dressed or not, the women had no rights either. Upon returning to the U.S. I worked on the Peace Corps senior staff putting together collaborative projects in more than 40 countries, focusing on women and micro-enterprise. It was amazing to travel the world and understand the differences and the similarities. One lesson was constant: When you empower a woman financially, the whole family benefits. I returned to South Carolina and found that so many of the issues I saw overseas existed in my home state. Building the Center for Women was one way I could contribute. I now work with nonprofits and am also a regular voice when it comes to raising awareness among younger women in particular. Our job is not done.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The opportunity to mentor young women who have the drive and the passion but lack the necessary skills to succeed in life, including how to negotiate, how to deal with difficult people, how to advocate for yourself and how to be stalwart and proud in uncomfortable situations.

What would you say your personal superpower is?

My ability to explain complex things in a hearer-friendly manner. Public speaking is one of my passions and I think my ability to communicate effectively has been an asset during my career. (Of course kissing the Blarney stone might have helped a bit.)

Is work-life balance a problem for you? What is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?

I find my balance by understanding that my plan on any day will, in all probability, go differently, and I have learned the importance of "not getting my knickers in a knot" by living by my mantra. Very simply, one can call a situation “overwhelming” when life or limb are at stake. Anything else is only “whelming.” Helps to make those tougher decisions.

What is the best career advice you ever received?

Never tell the poor that they are poor. That is your value judgment. An old family friend told me this when I was getting ready to go to Afghanistan in the late '70s as a Peace Corps volunteer. It held me in good stead as I worked with women in rural areas whose lives were severely restricted and who had no control over anything from health care to education to marriage. They taught me a lot about grace and integrity in spite of their circumstances. In their eyes they were far from poor. I grew to understand that and it has stayed with me ever since.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.

Community Discussion

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Vette Wolf

I am in awe and admire your spirit about your accomplishments. Great advice as well. Thank you for sharing!

October 18, 2018

Dianne Celuch

Very inspiring. I love your story and what you have chosen to do in life.

October 3, 2018

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