Mary Jane Wagle – A Committed Volunteer

Mary Jane was born in 1950 – a post-World War II baby boom child – in the small town of Beloit, Wisconsin in the United States. Although her permanent home is now in Los Angeles, California, she is currently enjoying a two year stay in Addis Ababa.

Mary Jane was born in 1950 – a post-World War II baby boom child – in the small town of Beloit, Wisconsin in the United States. Although her permanent home is now in Los Angeles, California, she is currently enjoying a two year stay in Addis Ababa.

A retiree, May Jane is now working on a volunteer basis in partnership with the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Associations (NEWA), sharing her writing, strategic planning and fundraising skills. She expresses how thrilled she is to have the chance to get to know Saba Gebremedhin (NEWA Executive Director) and the talented men and women involved in NEWA– amazing people passionately dedicated to advancing women’s rights and women’s equality here in Ethiopia.  In collaboration with NEWA, she has been working with a group of prominent women and a team of young women graduate students to document the life stories and achievements of accomplished Ethiopian women, aiming to get their stories to young women and girls growing up in Ethiopia to serve as role models for them and to inspire them to believe that they too can achieve whatever they dream.  So far, the two phase project Mary Jane is directing has documented the stories of over 70 amazing women, both contemporary and historical, from across all kinds of professions.  Their stories are featured on the website: Mary Jane notes that this is just the beginning and that the hope is to build the number to more than 200 over time.  The second phase is to produce a book, in English and Amharic, featuring a selected number of the stories, to distribute among girls growing up throughout the country, most of whom do not have access to the internet.

On a daily basis, Mary Jane says she gets to meet amazing women and talk to them about their life stories, what has motivated and influenced them, what their hopes and dreams are and what they might want to share with young women growing up in Ethiopia. She notes “the stories are so varied and the paths women have followed range from a straight line to success to a meandering journey;  what most of them seem to have in common though is respect for education, determination and hard work, as well as critical encouragement from someone along the way, most often family.  I also get to work with wonderful young women who are graduate students in law, political science or international studies; they do many of the interviews and they are so inspired by the women they meet.  From what I’ve seen, the young women in this country are bright, passionate and determined to make a difference in this country.”

Mary Jane’s former career started in India in 1972 in the garment manufacturing and export business, working with her then husband and mother-in-law in a family company. When sheand her husband moved back to the United States with their daughters in 1977, after completing a masters degree in Urban Planning, she began working in community development, developing housing of various kinds. Amongst the community development projects was the development of apartment housing complexes affordable to low-income families with community service centers and community gardens. She did this through a company she founded with three women partners called ONE Company (Opportunities for Neighborhood Empowerment Company), and later with a nonprofit organization they founded called WORKS (Women Organizing Resources Knowledge and Services).

Thereafter, Mary Jane was engaged in the issue of women’s reproductive health, working with and leading one of the affiliates of the hundred-year-old non-profit organization called Planned Parenthood in the United States. She ran the Los Angeles County branch, called Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, which provided women’s health services, sex education for young people and adults, and advocated for women’s reproductive rights and funding for reproductive health care with state and federal government.  She spent a year after that leading the international reproductive health arm of the national Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which provided funding and technical support to programs in Latin and South America and in Africa, including in Ethiopia. In 2010, Mary Jane retired from Planned Parenthood and moved to Ethiopia “for this wonderful planned two-year period in order to have the great good fortune of learning about a world different from my own and using my skills to help in some way.”

AWiB asked MJ, as she is affectionately known, how else do you give back to the community? She shares, “I have always seen my life’s work as helping to solve problems that face communities and I have been lucky enough to make that a criteria for choosing or creating the jobs I held. I have always been an advocate for women’s equality and women’s advancement as a key part of building better communities and a better world – and I am delighted that my work here in Ethiopia may contribute something in that arena as well.”

We also asked what her most important accomplishment is and MJ shared that the work she was able to do at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles is at the top of the list in how through the project the number of women who received health care services doubled from 50,000 a year to 100,000 a year. Additionally, she expresses that instituting a demonstration project in high schools to show what kind of program can really work to reduce teen pregnancy and keep girls in school had the most impact.  MJ feels that she is not done yet giving back to the community and expresses that upon completion of her service in Ethiopia, she hopes to work in the field of education upon returning to the United States.

Mary Jane shares that she has learned throughout her life that it takes hard work and focus to get anything done. She continues, “more than anything else, if you really want to achieve a goal, you have to persevere; keep asking again and again for what you need, and if the answer you receive is ultimately “no”, find another way.  Appreciate the people you meet and learn from them; your ideas get better when you share them and are open to hearing other people’s points of view. Spend time with older people and gather their wisdom; they may not know themselves what it is about them that will help you, but you will gain perspective by listening to how their lives evolved.”

She is more grateful for her parents and wonderful daughters, son-in-law, grandchildrenand the beauty of nature. She expresses that her good fortune is being born an optimistic person and a woman.

Mary Jane shares that if it’s possible, she really encourages everyone to put themselves in unfamiliar situations, as she has been lucky enough to do so throughout her life. “You learn so much about yourself and about life and about the wide open opportunities the world has to offer; and you develop skills to find your way and confidence that you can handle yourself in any situation.  I have lived in four different countries in my life – the United States, England, India and now Ethiopia.  Each new experience gave me new and deeper perspective on the places I’d lived before and on how I had thought life should be lived and what kinds of ways of being were available to me.  You don’t have to move to a different country to learn; you just have to go somewhere where people’s worldviews and ways of living are not what you’ve been used to.  Go and learn from others.”

Mary Jane enjoys reading, drinking delicious Ethiopian macchiato, and spending time talking with and learning from the people she meets.

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