"Nothing can be achieved by single individuals on the societal level, that’s why I’ve gravitated towards these kinds of communities"

Working for fairness and the power of cooperation form the thread running through the career of Marianne Heikkilä, secretary general of the Martha Organization.

Many people achieve a great deal in their lives, but Marianne Heikkilä seems to have had time to do more than most.

The secretary general of the Martha Organization has worked as a model, journalist and pastor – and, for the past 10 years or so, as head of the aforementioned organisation.

At the same time, she has served on the boards of a number of foundations and advisory bodies, including the Consumers’ Union of Finland, the Finnish Blue Ribbon and Autism Foundation Finland. Last autumn, she headed a project preparing a national strategy for children at the invitation of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

What her career and other professional choices have in common is the desire to make a difference and work together with others.

– I’m an initiator, a visionary and an innovator, says Heikkilä at the Martha Organization office.

– I want to be part of creating something new that engenders permanent change in people’s lives, something that promotes wellbeing, fairness and equality.

– Nothing can be achieved by single individuals on the societal level, that’s why I’ve gravitated towards these kinds of communities.

Working for fairness

Heikkilä says that, already as a child, she possessed a strong sense of justice. In a family of entrepreneurs, all kinds of setbacks and fates were part of life.

Heikkilä’s mother was an active philanthropist, while her father took the children to donate clothes collected from their wardrobes to the homeless at Christmas.

– The underlying idea was that if you were successful, you had an obligation to help your fellow human beings.

Again, it was her sense of justice that propelled Heikkilä to study theology.

Questions concerning human rights and fairness have also played an important part in Heikkilä’s career. Under her watch, the Martha Organization has been increasingly highlighting equality issues and even taken part in the Pride parade.

– Everyone has the right to a good everyday life.

Values are important to whatever Heikkilä is involved in.

As her key tenet, Heikkilä points to Martin Luther King’s message, according to which the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that of the good people.

Heikkilä believes that misconduct should not be hushed up. Only through dialogue, listening and encounters will there be understanding and room for diversity.

– I don’t want to be part of a society that only focuses on improving the standard of living, a society where a good life can only be achieved by accumulating wealth. Society must be based on values.

Aiming for inclusion

The birth rate has been a hot topic in Finland. With the help of researchers, municipalities, organisations, businesses as well as children and adolescents, the project headed by Heikkilä preparing a national strategy for children looked into how to reinforce a child- and family-friendly society.

Heikkilä was surprised by the fragmented nature of Finnish family policy, which should be better managed and coordinated by public administration.

– We need a strong vision, and cooperation should be conducted across sectoral boundaries and government terms.

Heikkilä thinks having children should not be forced upon people. Instead, the achievement of the desired number of children per family should be promoted. Those wishing to have children should be provided with more flexibility and support, for example, in professional life.

A change in attitudes is also needed.

– Our society is very much centred on the individual, maybe even egoistic, Heikkilä says.

– Measuring the value of people by what they are able to produce in their work leads to pretty bleak thinking about children being a burden and nothing but an obstacle on the way to fulfilling your personal needs and self-expression.

Heikkilä would like to see people’s link to the community and the transgenerational chain strengthen.

– We have lost our connection with each other. Having or not having children has become an individual project. We should be turning this whole discussion upside down: you’re not alone when you have a child, the community is there for you, as are the underlying structures.

Learning does not stop at graduation

How do you make sure you are continuously learning something new?
"You must keep an open mind at all times. I read as broadly as possible: research articles, specialist literature and other things. I’ve also wanted to learn from people, join communities where there are individuals who are much more skilled and multidisciplinary than I am.”

A situation where you have learnt something important
“In 2006, I made my first development cooperation trip to Uganda. The encounters I had there were earth-shattering. During the trip, Bishop Eero Huovinen’s words crystallised for me: to see close enough, you must also look far enough. I wish all people had the capacity to leave their personal bubbles. That will shake you up. Don’t be lulled by mediocrity, by truisms or by safety and security. Dare to take a step further.”