CHENNAI: It was as long ago as 1905 that Rotary club was found in Chicago. Despite over a century of work towards healthcare, childcare, environmental sustainability and more, 1.4 million-plus members and presence in over 200 countries, they are now celebrating a first — the introduction of Rtn Jennifer E Jones as the first female president, for the term 2022-23. A member of the Rotary Club of Windsor-Roseland, Ontario, she has had quite a journey in over two decades with the club. From not being able to join because of her gender to now taking over the role of president, she unfolds memories of the past and plans for the future in an interview with CE.
It has been 26 years since you joined Rotary. What has the journey been like and how has the organisation changed since then?
I first became aware of Rotary back in the late 80s. I was a young, rookie reporter then and covering Rotary meetings. At the time, women were not allowed to join the organisation so I would be the only woman in the room hearing what was going on. Then, a decade later, I was invited to join a club after a US Supreme Court verdict that allowed women to do so. So, in 1996, I walked in and it felt like I found my home. With people I really respected in my community, I felt very like-minded. We all wanted to do different projects in our own community and around the world. I am very grateful for the journey.
What would you like to focus on as president in your term?
There are many initiatives I would like to focus on. A big focus on telling our stories. I have been talking with our members about the power of talking about what we do so our community and the world knows of the impact of our sustainable, large-scale programmes in every corner of the world. Also a big focus on diversity, equality and inclusivity (DEI), knocking down barriers and certainly, as our first female president, it gives me an opportunity to showcase something that looks a little bit different. And that, hopefully, would inspire other women, men of all ages to say “if she can do it, perhaps I can too.”
Could you talk about the importance of involving more female leadership and the youth and how you think it would impact the work at Rotary.
We have a goal to increase female leadership by 30 per cent by 2023. And, to be candid, I think what we are looking for, whether it is men or women, are the best leaders. We have an opportunity since there are 50 per cent of women in the world. So, it is, I believe, the right time in our history to be able to do bring people in. As business people, we know that if we have an underperforming market share, we should do something about it. So, I look at it through a business lens and bringing in more women just makes business sense.
Since women were not allowed to join at one point, how have things changed now regarding gender and programmes?
One of our projects it’s our number one corporate initiative — is the eradication of polio. And it’s been a 30-plus years of journey in doing this. One of the incredible parts of this programme is the gender strategy behind it and a large part is the female healthworker network. The mum-to-mum, the door-to-door relationship in immunising children and garnering trust to be able to do that, ensuring every child is immunised against this dreaded disease. We know that it’s going to take more time, effort and money to cross the finish line, but we have made a promise to the children of the world and we plan to keep our promise.
You also mentioned that the ability to adapt during Covid was very important and impactful for Rotary. Could you talk about the that?
When the pandemic hit… I have said many times, “When the world stepped down, we stepped up.” Our organisation took the opportunity to embrace — in an odd way — what was happening. Because of the large network we have across the globe, our members understood how to reach out through virtual platforms to stay connected and take care of each other, take care of our community and neighbours. So, we formed a huge alliance based on our public health infrastructure in more than 70 countries where we were able to pivot our polio frontline health workers into Covid frontline health workers and consequently, we were able to take care of a lot of contact tracing and surveillance at a time when no one else in government was able to handle this kind of task.
Could you explain your theme ‘Imagine’ and the DEI aspect of it?
The word ‘Imagine’ is something that really resonates with me and so, sort of mobilising our membership behind that is the theme this year. It’s an opportunity, in my mind’s eye, to dream. To dream your wildest dreams and through membership in our organisation, it gives us the opportunity to join with other like-minded people, do good work in the world and so, collectively and collaboratively, we have the opportunity to imagine our future.
In the city
RI director (2021-2023)
AS Venkatesh sheds light on the works of the organisation in Chennai
Could you talk a little about Rotary’s work in Chennai and Tamil Nadu?
Tamil Nadu has about 40,000 members. The kind of work we do in Tamil Nadu — from Nagercoil and Kanniyakumari, where we have breastfeeding stations at bus stops so women can breastfeed without being pried on to Miyawaki forests in Cuddalore, Puducherry, Thanjavur, and Chidambaram, to work in Chennai (is varied). Here, in only one year, Rotary provided 125 dialysis machines for free dialysis for those who cannot afford it. We also own our own hospital in Ambattur and a blood bank in Taramani. When it comes to basic education, we support Corporation and government schools. We have provided e-learning equipment in these schools, in addition to teaching educators how to use them. Now, we have also started a mangroves project in Pichavaram. So, we do work on all possible areas of focus so much so, that membership in Chennai has doubled in five years; you can imagine the attraction and impact.
What is the need of the hour in Chennai?
We are now focussing on raising the groundwater table of Chennai. As per the surveys, Chennai is in danger of running out of water if we do not do something now. Sensing that need, we at Rotary in Chennai are working to raising groundwater by various means. One is conserving water, we are creating awareness for it. Two, we are restoring lakes that have gone dry. Recently, we restored a lake in Chittalapakkam — 265 acres of it. The groundwater table in the area has gone up by several feet now. We have restored lakes in Madhavaram and several temple tanks to raise groundwater levels. We feel that this is the need of the hour and will benefit the entire city.