Local to Global: A #GrassrootsLegacy in Brooklyn

PHOTO CREDIT St. Nicks Alliance

Jan Peterson is the Chair of the Huairou Commission Board of Directors. She is a community organizer and movement builder. She is a grandmother, a mentor, a friend. And she has created a legacy all her own.


Taking our story back to the 1970s, when the women’s rights movement made many important gains, Jan recognized that space was missing for poor and working-class women. Grassroots women depended on a family and community approach to development; in response, Jan and colleagues founded the National Congress of Neighborhood Women in 1975, based in New York. The idea was that women of all ethnicities could study and work within their own communities, effecting place-based change across the United States for the neighborhoods and cities they called home.


Ten years later, GROOTS International was formed, meant to function as a movement of grassroots women leaders organizing around the circumstances of their lives and building change. The strong link discovered between poor women in the United States and women in developing countries continued to grow, leading to the historic “Grassroots Tent” in Huairou, China, outside of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It is there we were “commissioned” as a global coalition to empower grassroots women in development.


Over 20 years later, having stepped down from Executive Director, Jan remains a driving force in our work. As she takes on new adventures, we are happy to review a sampling of awards that she has received over the last years, in recognition of a lifetime of work supporting grassroots leaders and their organizations in strengthening their communities.

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March 2014: In celebrations for Women’s History Month, Jan is honored doubly by leaders of New York City. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams recognized Jan as one of the borough’s “She-roes,” whose lifetime of service has improved the quality of life in Williamsburg. Later in the month, her second honor was bestowed at the City Council’s #WOMENLEAD celebration, hosted by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, Chair of the Women’s Issues Committee.


April 2015: Jan is honored at the UN-Habitat Global Land Tools Network (GLTN) Partner’s Meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, for her role in founding and building the network. GLTN is an innovative alliance of partners at the global, regional, and national levels, working together to alleviate poverty through land reform and the promotion of pro-poor and gender-sensitive land tools.


June 2016: For her lifelong work to build a coalition for improving women’s lives globally, Jan received the Soroptimist International NYC (SINYC) Ruby Award for Women Helping Women. Soroptimist International is a volunteer and service organization dedicated to supporting women and children.


October 2016: The Huairou Commission delegation surprised Jan with recognition and a deluge of gifts at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador. Jan truly made her mark on the global scene 20 years earlier at the Habitat II Conference held in Istanbul, Turkey.


“I want to thank you for always making space and treating me like an equal, and for teaching me so much. I hope that you feel proud, because look at all you’ve done.” –Kathryn Travers, Women in Cities International


November 2016: For their commitment to community development in Brooklyn as well as worldwide, Jan and Huairou are honored at the St. Nicks Alliance 41st Annual Awards Benefit. As New York State Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol stated when presenting the award, “It is a monumental task to try and change the world, but we have an organization in the Huairou Commission, championed by the two women sitting here, Jan Peterson and [Executive Director] Maureen Friar.”

With inspiration from Jan’s #GrassrootsLegacy, we at the Huairou Commission have begun 2017 with a fresh determination to scale up our global and local initiatives that advance resilient development and women’s empowerment in communities worldwide.