In Conversation: Ann Bancroft and Ethelind Kaba

Ann Bancroft became the first woman to cross the ice to the North Pole when, as an unknown Minneapolis Public Schools teacher, she was named to Will Steger’s 1986 polar expedition. Then, in 1993, the St. Paul native became the first woman to reach both poles. In 2001, she became the first woman to reach the South Pole on foot. And the firsts never stopped. Bancroft has so many firsts, in fact, that many of us relate to her more as an encyclopedia entry than a real person. She has so many firsts that you could get the wrong idea: that, somehow, she did all this alone. But for 25 years now, her organization, the Ann Bancroft Foundation, has fought against the idea that anybody can achieve such legendary stuff all by themselves.

“I would not have come up with any of this on my own,” she says from her home in Marine on St. Croix via Zoom. “You don’t do anything alone in this world which of course is how the foundation structures its grant giving as well.”

In that spirit of cooperation and community, Bancroft is joined on the call by the Ann Bancroft Foundation’s executive director, Ethelind Kaba, who is coming up on her one-year anniversary in the role.

The board just said, ‘You’re the first woman to cross the ice to both poles. You can’t be all things to all kids.’”

— Ann Bancroft

“My friend told me, ‘I think I just found your dream job,’” Kaba remembers. “Because my passion is supporting young girls to grow up to be powerful women—because powerful women transform communities.”

Kaba explains the idea at the core of the foundation’s work, supporting girls in grades K–12, is to offer $500 microgrants regardless of financial need.

“We wanted to be predominantly a ‘yes’ in a sea of ‘nos’ that oftentimes girls are getting in their lives, even at an early age,” Kaba says. “You come up with your dream, articulate why, what you want, and explain the mentorship component.”

The pandemic disrupted the foundation’s ability to execute for two years, but the ABF is back and on solid ground—it will offer twice as many grants this year as last, and its scope is expanding, with a new trailblazer program that will give previous microgrant recipients a chance to dream even bigger, with select experiences funded at $2,500.

“What’s really important for the leaders in our community to understand is the voices of young girls are oftentimes not part of the conversation,” Kaba says. “But they are very opinionated, and they are close to almost every issue. Their voices need to be amplified.”

Three things about Ann Bancroft and Ethelind Kaba

  1. From the time Kaba was 6 months old, she was raised by her grandmother in Ghana. “I grew up watching my grandma be the caretaker, the farmer, and the breadwinner.”
  2. Bancroft never met the other Anne Bancroft, the Hollywood star, but when the LA Times conflated their two identities in the 1980s, it gave them the opportunity to become pen pals.
  3. Kaba immigrated to the U.S. alone at age 17 and was pregnant with her first daughter at 19. “With a child, it took me 15 years to earn my bachelor’s degree!”

Your old expedition partner Will Steger famously drew up plans for his center’s building on the back of a napkin in his tent on the Antarctic ice in 1990. When did your idea for a foundation that would inspire young girls come to you?

Bancroft: I’m not as visionary as Will. I wasn’t thinking of starting a foundation. I was aware that I had a platform to do things that I cared deeply about, but I needed my inner circle, this group of talented, wonderful, diverse people to help shape some of my ideas. The board just said, ‘You’re the first woman to cross the ice to both poles. You can’t be all things to all kids. You need to narrow your focus.’ From that moment, it was really drilling down to how could we empower girls to live out their potential, to be courageous, to step into places that maybe they never even envisioned. We sort of modeled it loosely after my childhood of having experiences that really shaped my life when I was a 10-year-old girl.

Who’s in your inner circle?

Bancroft: As a strange kid who wanted to do offbeat things, I learned long ago that I had to find people that believed in me. My support system radiates out from my family—my mom, who gave me adventure books as a kid—and then it goes to this strong cadre of friends. They don’t get what I do, necessarily, but they know that I need to do it, and they support me. When I’m percolating on something, I go to that strong group. Because I want to do this for the rest of my life, I don’t want to be foolhardy, and I want people that help me listen to my heart and where I need to go, rather than listening to the general public. Because every time you do a successful expedition, everybody’s got an idea of what’s next for you.

Even though you have a group of people you trust, it’s ultimately most important to listen to yourself?

Bancroft: What’s lovely about the expeditions for me is if you don’t listen to yourself and if you aren’t fully honest, the ice will kick you and you won’t come home. It’s such a challenging environment because it pushes you to be authentic and in the moment. It’s become a lesson that’s been woven into all the fabrics of my life.

Ethelind, how did you first hear of Ann, and then how did you come to the organization?

Kaba: I grew up in Ghana, West Africa, and moved here in 1998. I had known about Ann for a while—Ann the trailblazer, Ann the explorer, not so much Ann the foundation. I was raised by strong women, went to an all-girls boarding school, surrounded by women who are the smartest kids of the class, the fastest runners. We did it all.

This was in Ghana?

Kaba: Yeah. And when I moved here, same thing. I’ve always looked for women trailblazers, and being in Minnesota, you cannot not know of Ann Bancroft. And while I really have no dreams or desire to go on an expedition, Ann symbolizes this notion that we all have a wilderness, right?

Have you let Ann take you camping yet?

Kaba: No, she has not taken me camping yet. I think it’ll be hilarious, but I’m up for it.

Bancroft: I don’t want her to go away, so we’ll save that for maybe later.

Maybe summer camping before winter camping?

Kaba: I am willing to try anything. I am so game about this. Ann and I joke about it all the time. It’s like, I don’t like bugs and Ann is out there in the woods every single day taking pictures of snakes and all that. I think we just need to start with a walk through your woods, right?

Bancroft: We’ll start slow.

At 66 and 42, respectively, there’s a 20-year age gap. What’s your relationship like? How do you navigate each other’s different experience levels and different realms of experience?

Kaba: That’s a great question. Ann, do you have an answer?

Bancroft: I do.

Kaba: OK. You can start.

Bancroft: Well, I think I have an answer. Ethelind is hugely collaborative, so she’s driving the ship with her vision and her ideas of what to strengthen and what to try out. I view my role, right now anyway—and we probably need to define it better for the board and everyone else—is as cheerleader and, as the founder, to give Ethelind permission to continue to be bold and brave. I mean, an explorer likes to go to places that haven’t been experienced, and I want us to be a leader, not a follower. I see the value in what my firsts have been able to bring me and how it can broaden my work, and I want that for ABF.

Do you think women in our society need a different kind of encouragement or support to be brave?

Kaba: I would say that differently. I have a son and two girls, and my youngest girl is 12. And every day she reminds me that women have always been brave. I think what women need is the partnership to talk about our experiences and have that freedom and space to be joyful and to take risks. That’s where I see a gap, even when we talk about youth, right? Boys are allowed to take risks, whereas girls, sometimes there’s a hold back. So, we need to encourage young girls and women to continually take risks, because that’s where the creativity and innovation happen.

How do the two of you create the risk-taking space within your own relationship?

Kaba: When I first started, she said, “I don’t think I have founder’s syndrome.” And I agreed. Because she is such a thought partner—my secret weapon. She’s been involved with the organization for 25 years, so she can say, “We tried it this way.” It gives me that autonomy and that freedom to say, “This is what we’re going to do.”

How do you diagnose founder’s syndrome?

Bancroft: Getting in the way.

Kaba: I think—

Bancroft: I think—well, go ahead.

Kaba: I was going to say, founder’s syndrome tends to be very hands-on and not allowing space for other ideas, right? Whereas—you heard Ann when she started talking, not wanting to take credit for the foundation.

Bancroft: In a nutshell, I think founder’s syndrome is that inability to let go. Every organization has to evolve, and the health of an organization is allowing lots of different ideas and diversity of thought, diversity of people. You can have the idea, but you’ve got to let go. And that is hard sometimes—those early years of a foundation, it’s an entrepreneurial exercise. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears. And so it is kind of your baby, and it is hard to let go. I never wanted to be the executive director, and that makes it easier, but I am opinionated. And I just remind Ethelind that what I really love is the pushback. I will move my position if you make your case.

What are some of the most exciting projects this year?

Kaba: We’re asking, “What is your wilderness?” For some, it’s a writing camp, an expedition, or precollege travel. I love talking about Maya, who wanted to document her family’s heritage from Vietnam. Anushka created an app to reduce litter and wanted the grants to market it. You’ve got the 6-year-old who wanted to play the accordion. We’ve got girls who want to dance. It’s across the board, honestly.

Is any part of your mission to encourage or empower people who don’t have money or are members of communities that don’t find it so easy to go camping or wilderness exploring?

Bancroft: The foundation isn’t just about exploring where my passion is. It’s trying to help girls find the things that make their hearts beat faster. You have to dive into life to understand where you intersect and where you’re hungry. I wouldn’t say we have nothing to do with camping. But that’s not a big piece of it at all.

Kaba: We’re very aware of the inequities and disparities—from education to wilderness to health. We’re aware of how it affects early childhood and adolescent girls. Part of our strategic planning is knowing that we cannot do it all, right? There’s a lane we hold, which is we want to champion the values of girls, whatever they want to do. How do we partner with organizations like Wilderness Inquiry so they can experience all these different things?

Ann, are you planning on any new expeditions yourself?

Bancroft: Well, I’m a dreamer, so that’s an occupational hazard for me. I’ve been traveling with a Norwegian woman, Liv Arnesen, for 22-plus years—we’re like sisters. She is a former teacher as well, so we share a sense of purpose. We’re dusting off where the pandemic left us. We were in the middle of an initiative around fresh water, the element that links us all as human beings. It allows you to talk about women’s issues and global warming. We were about to paddle two rivers in New Zealand that have been given the designation of human rights. One of our team members is a Maori woman, so we’ll weave in the Indigenous issues on that island as we paddle down the waterways. If all goes well, it will happen next year. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Source link

Latest articles

Related articles