This Woman’s Work: Blueprints for Being an Activist

Article for Bronze Magazine Anniversary Issue, November/December 2011

a woman sleeps as if
tomorrow a war will begin” –Vera Pavlova

For the 1st anniversary of Bronze Magazine (http://bronzemagonline.com), I wrote this article about the activism of women locally and internationally.  It highlights the involvement and investment of women in efforts spanning environmental issues, AIDS awareness, exposing governmental tyranny, educational advocacy, self- defense, and helping adolescents plan and prepare for the future.  But the writing of the article extends beyond telling about the impact of others.  I wrote it to also make a space for women to tell about the work they too are doing here and abroad.  To create an open space to share what each of us is doing to make a difference, move others from margin to center, contemplate a new world, and speak truth to power. 

I invite you to share at the end of this article the ways YOU are making a difference.

 

This morning I began drafting a blog about inspirational women, meditating on the living examples of goodness they harbor and promote.  Sister friends like Carla, Lisa, Kim, Karen, and Tonya balancing being employed while raising children, pursuing personal passions, and nurturing relationships. Deceased kindred such as my mother, aunt, and Eastern Star sisters who by bloodline and example exemplify what can become possible.  Their dreams pulse now in my blood.  Writers like Audre Lorde who used words as tools to instigate and liberate, playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy who pushed the envelope of drama by tooling it to shed light into our darknesses.

Yet, I indulge the guilty pleasure of watching the “Basketball Wives” and “Real Housewives” franchises, with a fascination of what will happen next.  Who will be the next woman to get a drink and then a fist thrown at her, a knife of venomous words plunged into her back, a secret put on blast, a reputation that gets her thrown under the bus?  But the actions and outcomes are cyclical.  After repetitiously seeing the cattiness, two-facedness, duplicitous fidelity, diabolical planning, sinister backstabbing, escalating emotional bullying and downright physical assault, a command for different is radiating from inside. I think I reached the saturation point of witnessing the broadcast of the basest aspect of womanhood, and the affirmation such shows get in the forms of high viewership and popularity.  But at the end of the hour, what can be culled as inspiration, a lesson, experience, strategy or new outlook that we can glean from watching women on “reality” shows to then employ and emulate in our life’s work?  There’s nothing new to learn.  So why are such shows so popular, despite the nullifying examples of trailblazing women like Suzanne Malveaux, Shirley Chisholm, Cathy Hughes, Rolonda Watts, Malkia Amala Cyril, Shirley Ceasar, Ursula Burns, Cicely Tyson, Carol Jenkins, Donna Brazile, and Oprah Winfrey?

I’ve reached critical mass.  A new reaction beside distaste and criticism has to occur.  Taking my own thoughts off the video editing floor, I am taking some time to reflect on the tenacity, resilience, spirituality, talent, sacrifice, perseverance, benevolence, insight, intelligence, ferocity, savvy, surrender and serenity harbored and offered by the phenomenal women who use breath other than to bait kindred for public entertainment.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

Marypat Hector, in her recent blog “Enough with the Basketball Wives, Let’s Talk About Girl Power!” identifies several young women under the age of 30 whose lives, while not regularly broadcast on a weekly show, demonstrate contributions that confirm what our hands can produce when devoted to creating change instead of slapping a woman in the face and decimating her worth.[1]  Through her efforts as Executive Director of the National Action Network and contributing writer to NewsOne, Tamika D. Mallory uses her life and access to media outlets to bring to light issues of violence within the African-American community. [2] Dominique Sharpton, Director of Membership for the National Action Network and thespian, employs her talents resulting in the near tripling of the organization’s membership from since 2008, producing her father’s syndicated radio show, organizing marches and rallies, and creating several venues and outlets for youth to express their artistic talents.[3]  CNN Hero, activist,  author, college student and black belt martial artist Dallas Jessup, after seeing in the news the abduction of a young girl, uses her life to train girls and women in self defense through self-produced training videos, and facilitating activism within communities worldwide through her non-profit organization Just Yell Fire.[4] Environmental activist and author Jordan Howard, after being a Green Ambassador at Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, employs her learning of the environment to galvanize others, using films to educate the masses about sustainable living, leading and organizing the Rise Above Plastics “Student Speaker Series” that trains fellow young adults in how to promote environmental awareness within their communities, and participating in various political and social forums to raise awareness.[5]  AIDS activist and living testimony Hydeia Broadbent devotes her life experience of being born with HIV to inform the consciousness of the world, doing so through several national television and radio shows, educational institutions, panel discussions as well as international forums.[6]

And I’d also like to add three friends who are phenomenal agents of change. Angela Romans, currently Senior Advisor on Education to the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has worked in several community-based organizations, public schools, institutions of higher education, and political capacities to avail post-secondary opportunities to under-represented youth. [7] Tiffany Gardner is founder and Executive Director of One World Foundation, whose mission is to “develop and place young leaders (18 to 25) from poor and under-represented backgrounds in human rights and development service projects and prepare them for leadership in both the public and private sectors.”[8]  Finally, school social worker and aspiring graduate student Tonetta Collins works tirelessly in her job and within the organization CEOKids of Atlanta,[9] describing her work within the organization as helping “middle schoolers connect what they are learning in school to real world professions . . . to realize their gifts and strengths at a time when their need for social acceptance becomes important and connect them to the possibilities.”

One-sentence descriptions of the activists mentioned here is an injustice to their selfless intentions and the impact of their work.  But, the point of naming each of these women and their contributions is to reclaim space polluted with exaggerated and bifurcating depictions of women:  we have media suggesting the “best” of women that is “worthy” of extensive broadcast is the banality of the actions of a select few.   Such is the purpose, nature, and success of the beast of media. These depictions are a concerted effort toward what Martha Lauzen in the documentary “Miss Representation” associates with symbolic annihilation.  Such depictions kill off a consciousness of what we are and can be other than what is harmfully exaggerated, intentionally manufactured and massively promulgated.  “You can’t be what you can’t see,” admonishes Marian Wright Edelman, which is the point of why some media images of women prevail over others.  Ask any of us to rattle off the names of “Basketball Wives” or “Real Housewives” cast women and it can be done in a heartbeat.  Ask us to name several contemporary female activists and HOW they pave roads for change, and we become mute, having first to do some research.

The women activists in this text counter such toxic messaging.  They are mirrors for us to see an affirmative reflection of ourselves, a counter portrayal illustrating purposeful uses of our breath in harnessing and improving others’ lives.  Mirrors that empower by deflecting the media’s transmission and instead position us to learn blueprints for making a difference locally and abroad.  The “reality show” wives are not extraordinary, nor are the scope and mission of these activists outside your own reach.

The message?  Contemplate how you ARE doing something to make the lives of others better.  Why is such reflection essential to our personal and collective existence?  Because the stakes are really high.  Consider the following statistics from the documentary “Miss Representation” that illustrates the disparity in the portrayal of women, and their actual presence in important media and political junctures:[10]

  • Only 16% of protagonists in films are female
  • Women comprise only 16% of all film writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors
  • Women own only 5.8% of all television stations and 6% of radio stations
  • Only 7% of directors and 10% of film writers are women
  • Women make up 51% of the U.S. population but only 17% of Congress
  • 34 women have ever served as governors in the United States, compared to 2,319 men
  • 67 countries worldwide have had female presidents or prime ministers, of which the United States is not one of them

In examining yourself, what are the ways YOU make a difference in households, schools, communities, and board rooms, regardless if the cameras are on our off?  And are you broadcasting how you make a difference in the lives of others?  Who knows the work you are doing, and using YOU as an exemplar to learn how to replicate and reproduce it?

Broadening the scope of women’s work worldwide, we recently received news of three remarkable women who do not spend their time pointing out flaws and blasting the past of cast members.  Instead, they present palms and hearts to other women as allies to prove themselves embraceable.  Use their voices for the protection of others. Offer themselves as sister kindred to create chains of solidarity.  Harness and promote others’ potential.  Their lives are proffered as a sacrificial proof of commitment.  While their stories have taken time to traverse the oceans (regrettably), Leymah Gbowee mobilizes Liberian women to save their country from 14 years of civil strife, Yemenite Tawakkul Karman protests for the rights of journalists and an end to governmental corruption, and  Liberian President Ellie Johnson Sirleaf works in private and public sectors to rebuild her beloved country.  They have, now with the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, arrived on the shores of our minds, and I hope garnering a growing consciousness for what WE can do as women across borders physical and mental.

Leymah Gbowee is no stranger to the afflictions of war.  She was no stranger to children conscripted as toy soldiers and catalysts for a war they did not create but would be responsible for exploitatively executing (literally).  Young girls and women’s bodies were commoditized and brutally raped as the spoils of war.  Hunger became the crown and shroud of too many Liberians, with starved children dropping as new food for flies.  Liberia’s history of strife between warmongering avaricious warlords and a corrupt political regime, and its consequences, were regrettably familiar.  Having had enough, she prayed for peace. While pregnant with her third child, she incubated perseverance and persistence, birthing them into a mobilization of women to “pray the devil back to hell.”[11]

Leymah’s first work was transcending assumptions of religious difference, moving beyond fears of diluting or soiling each another’s religious dispositions.  Armed with conviction, and with fellow women compatriots, she mobilized Liberian Christian and Muslim women to unite in the commerce of peace, forging a collective effort to pressure religious leaders to advocate for them.   These “Market Women,” the fodder for what would later become WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network), initially began protesting in white garments along roadsides of the presidential convoy so their need for peace would glare against the tinted windows.  Despite refusals of an audience, they continued to peacefully protest until gaining an audience with President Charles Taylor on April 23, 2003.  Stepping on fear and into faith, Leymah vocalized their position statement, presenting their entreaty for peace within their nation.

Following this presentation, peace talks between then President Taylor and warring factions convened in Accra, Ghana.  Assembling with Liberian women refugees already in Accra, together with the women of WIPNET they stood guard, daily vigilant to the need for peace in their country and attentively watching the warlords and President make progress to this end. After almost two months of posturing and jockeying for position, and seeing these men enjoy comforts of hospitality they did not enjoy while in the bushes, the women were fed up, and on July 21, 2003, they locked arms around the building where the talks were being held, asserting they will not allow the men to leave until the peace talks were taken seriously, and a treaty was reached.  Subsequently the talks changed in tone, content, and direction, and with eyes and pressure offered from the international world (the threat of funding to be cut off), change came.  Taylor was exiled to Nigeria, and a transitional government was installed.  WIPNET under Leymah’s efforts, knowing that the struggle for peace just began, returned working in their communities to promote the reconciliation of Liberia (such as forgiving the rebel soldiers), as well as educating their people about the candidates, laying the fodder for sister Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 to become the first woman elected President of Liberia.

I write about Leymah’s work in detail because I had never heard of her, this radical mission or the incredible accomplishments of these Liberia women, until the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize and then watching the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” in October.  Given this event occurred in 2003, not knowing this women’s work until eight years later sheds a glaring spotlight on my own myopia.  Saturated with too many colonizing lies.   You may have experienced the same.  The rallying of women who were stripped of all things but belief, makes the rallying of women over futile gossip and fabricated drama pale in comparison.  On the “Racialicious” Blog, a blog about the intersections of race and pop culture, guest contributor RVCBard writes about such colonization in his post “Fandom and its Hatred of Black Women Characters.”[12]  Both the author and several dozen respondents commiserated that the syndicated depictions of women of color lack multi-dimensionality, yet fans’ responses have been vitriol.  To this observation, RVCBard comments that “what gets overlooked is that the way these characters are hated [referencing such characters as Martha Jones, Tara Thornton, Guinevere, and Mercedes Jones] happens in a particularly racialized and gendered way that echoes a lot of stereotypes about Black women.”[13] I would add to this mix “reality” shows as well.  Why aren’t there reality shows about women activists?  It has to go beyond simply the suppositions of low ratings and lack of interest.

Again, this is why it is so important that the work you do to make change be made known, not for kudos, but as catalysts and models for others illustrating what can be done, and how.  It took an announcement for such work to get a blip on my radar.  I am sure I am not alone.  Imagine if we pipelined the work we were each doing to improve the community and world, this information would not be exceptional.  Maybe I/we need to develop better pipelines to disseminate such information and role models to one another, instead of allowing the media to spoon-feed us stereotypes and caricatures.

Speaking of pipelines, Leymah’s work was the precedent and ground-laying foundation for another of the Nobel Peace Prize sisters.  Kindred recipient and countrywoman Ellie Johnson Sirleaf, veteran in finance and political sectors, has grounded her life’s work in nation building. Out of ashes of political strife and economic exploitation, she has been instrumental in helping the phoenix of Liberia resurrect itself.  She has served in several professional and political capacities and women’s groups.  Over the span of four decades, she served as one of the founding members  of  the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership Liberia’s Minister of Finance, President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), Vice President of CITICORP’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank, Vice President for Equator Bank, and under the auspice of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) served as Assistant Administrator and Director of its Regional Bureau of Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.[14]   Even in exile she continued to work on initiatives to prosper Liberia, such as the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation, a venture capital vehicle for African entrepreneurs, and Measuagoon, a Liberian non-profit community development organization that helps war-devastated rural communities rebuild themselves (doing such things as in 2002 bringing improved sanitation to the Budumbura Camp, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana), and later subsidizing young girls’ education.[15]  In 2003, when Charles Taylor was exiled and the National Transitional Government of Liberia was formed, she served as Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission, later culminating in her unprecedented inauguration on January 16, 2006 as the first female President of Liberia.  In this role, she continued her work to build her country by fostering relationships with regional partners and the international community, and attracting resources to rebuild Liberia’s infrastructure.  She has served on several peace-oriented, women-empowerment, transcontinental and international initiatives, and several advisory boards.

The Nobel Peace Prize trinity of transformation and advocacy is completed by Yemenite Tawakkul Karman.  Journalist and human rights advocate, she has taken the tools of her voice and beliefs to collect and rally her people.   The catalyst for her activism was the refusal of the government to intervene in the intentional displacement of 30 families expelled from their village so the land could be given to a tribal leader close to the president. [16]   To quote Karman, “They never responded to one of our demands.  It made it clear to me that this regime must fall.” Engaged in weekly protests since 2007, she established with compatriots a tent camp called “Change Square” in the heart of the capital city of Sanaa.[17] [18] Tawakkul’s work has been advocating for the rights of free press, heading such groups as “Women Journalists Without Chains.”  Additional advocacy entails demanding the release of political prisoners, unabashed protest against granting immunity to corrupt government officials of the current political regime, and being a parliament member of Al-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform).[19]  She is both the first Yemenite and Arab woman to receive the award.

An intersection shared by all three NPP peacemakers is that they are all mothers.  They harness motherhood as motivation for their activism, an impetus for improving the lives of all, especially children, so they may inherit a better world.   Interestingly enough, motherhood is also a commonality shared with their “reality wives” counterparts.  The difference? The former spend no time labeling potential comrades in struggle as “worthless,” “jumpoffs,” or “crazy.”  They do not use voice or venom to garner and manufacture divisiveness, alienate or create pariahs from potential allies.  These activists employ their energies and talents to fling fists not at one another over fabricated squabbles, but to the brick and mortar of oppression.  They use their talents to channel and forge new pathways and possibilities.  They neither agitate already festering wounds, nor manufacture confrontations that last across episodes and legacies.  Leymah demonstrates cunning ability to transcend potential religious barriers to unite Christian and Muslim women in a united front.  Tawakkul transcends religious, political, and gender barriers to unite the voices of Yemeni people into one.  President Sirleaf integrates various initiatives to unite a people torn by war into a country of prosperity.

We don’t have to act like Pavlovian dogs conditioned to respond as “trained” by the media. We can bolster and build instead of berate or resign ourselves to pre-determined corners.  Our national sheroes and three Nobel Peace Prize Women Warriors offer alternative routes and models for how to use our energies and resources to magnify ours’ and other’s talents to promote and harness them all for the greater good of both gender and world. “Miss Representation” closes with offering suggestions for how we can do such work . . .

  • Stop scrutinizing each other
  • Support media that champions accomplished women
  • Boycott media that objectifies and degrades women
  • Write your own stores and create your own media about powerful women in non-traditional roles
  • Be a mentor to others
  • May we all make empowering other women and girls a priority

I am hoping at the end of this blog you will take a moment to write and post the ways you ARE an agent of change.  This could be the pipeline that activates change in others.  Please share your blueprints, and pass them down to us.  After reading a draft of this article, my friend/brother/mentor John Jenkins shared with me its impact on him:

“I am inspired to use my mouth and mind to spread good positive stories of impact so that others gain the authority to do the same. And in this way we will begin to create the counter-narrative of who we are, who women are in this world.”

In tribute to the women mentioned, and to you, I share an original poem about the fortitude of women activists and the lessons they pass down.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

****************************************


 

The North Star (for All Women Warriors)

Women/compose the North Star/

visions from their minds endow its shine,

spin its beams wide from dreams, and give it

pulsation from ripening affirmations/

transmitting from the transcended to the transcending.

 

Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

clasped my hand,

hastening through muck and

dark with steeled steering

commanding, “Follow the North Star!”

 

They relay my hand to Ida B. Wells

who deposits pen into palm

to record and remind the world of

the law of lynching and lynching of the law

decreeing, “Write the North Star!”

 

She brought me to meet

Mary McCloud Bethune

who conferred my other hand with a degree/

with mind elevated, emancipated by education

declaring, “Teach others of the North Star!”

 

Then Zora Neale Hurston

visited on campus/

witnessing pen and degree advised

“Now chile, youz got th’ degree fo’ da mind,

Now ya need th’ degree of da spirit!”

Took me down to the muck,

shaking me all through

the Everglades, New Orleans, and the islands,

sprinkling dialects and roots on me,

and unleashing, “Conjure with the North Star!”

 

Then Septima Clark came forging through/

recruiting/opening Citizenship schools that

farm the word and grow the vote/

took me into crowded back rooms with adult kin

compelling, “Build a bridge for others to the North Star!”

 

She carried me West to Angela Davis

who on sidewalk and in classroom

vivified the intersections of politics, activism and

the responsibility of change/

escorting me from California to Cuba,

showing me light in prison of industry and prism of mind/

shot my arm straight into the sky

demanding, “Protest in the name of the North Star!”

 

Then we traipsed to the dance festival where

Judith Jamison and the troupe

were summoning the spirits.

The Black Swan, as principal, in principle

pulled me to her stage,

and sauntered, careened, strutted, sundered

my body into chanting limbs

proclaiming, “Dance in the name of the North Star!”

 

I pirouetted cross country back to the East

where Ntozake Shange recognized

who I was to be/

put a stage in my mouth/

sat me over roses to menstruate/

performing surgery on the art of me/

expunging mayhem/so it emote milk/

uttering, “Make language/for the North Star!”

 

Then my mother,

forger of road from heaven to earth

put her hand to her stomach

feeling for my hand back,

beckoning, “Now, come. Be the North Star!”

© TMY 2011

****************************************

It’s my sincere hope that this article/blogpost serve as a launching pad for others to become inspired by learning and familiarizing themselves about the work YOU do, to use YOU as a role model, and to contact YOU to contribute. If this blogpost does this, then the mission of writing this article has been fulfilled. To post your response, click the red “Response” button at the end of this blogpost.  A box will appear where you can type in your response.

Write a response in which you share about what organization (or movement)  you support, what communities you work within and support, the work you do, the impact you are trying to make, and contact information for more details.  Whether in your home or across the world, whether large or small scale, telling what you do MATTERS.  Amplifying your contributions to the audience hear helps us learn and grow.

Finally, please also support Bronze Magazine by purchasing a print or digital copy of the anniversary issue.  The founder and editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, created the magazine to invigorate and affirm fellow women and their work.  It is replete with information, insight, and inspiration. The site is  http://bit.ly/vtX9U6.

To read others’ responses, or to write your own, please click the red button below.  

To read previous posts scroll to bottom right side of page and click on title of choice.


[11] “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary profiling Ms. Gbowee and the work of several women to bring peace to Liberia. http://praythedevilbacktohell.com/

Advertisements

6 Comments

  1. Becoming a Feminist
    Barbara J. Berg, Ph.D.

    How do we evolve into the people we are? What shapes our thoughts? Motivates us to action? Fixes our moral compass? Many would answer these questions by describing significant people in their lives, books they’ve read, inspiring classes they took, each building on the other. But for me, there was one defining moment responsible for pointing me on the path I have followed my entire professional life.

    It was a cold, wind-swept day in late February. I came home from elementary school to find my mother sitting in her bedroom crying. “I wish it were me, I wish it were me.”

    I was afraid and confused. What my mother told me was terrible. My forty-six year old father had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For several weeks I’d been alerted to “something” going on. I’d walked in on gloomy whispering between my parents and muffled evening telephone conversations. In the way of children I assumed that whatever it was would resolve. How could our lives not continue along the same smooth lines? But when my mother described the devastating symptoms of my father’s illness, the naiveté of my earlier hopes fell away. Still, I didn’t understand. Why in the world did she want to be the sick one?

    “Because Daddy would be able to take care of me and the family,” she explained. “I have no job, no income. How will I be able to get him the best treatment? How will I support us?”

    Then she looked at me gravely and said, “You must always be able to work. Do you hear what I’m telling you? Do you hear me?”

    And I did.

    It would be many years before I would learn the word “feminist.” But on that miserable winter afternoon I became one.

    At first it was hard to grasp why my mother was so worried about finding a job. I thought that she was amazing. The child of immigrant parents whose income fluctuated with my grandfather’s factory work, she’d put herself through Barnard College working nights and weekends at Macy’s Department store. I didn’t yet know about the cultural noose around women’s necks¬—the workplace discrimination, ghettoized jobs, and paltry pay strangling us into self-doubt. But I became determined to find out. And as I did I committed myself fully to helping women become independent, autonomous beings.

    Not long ago I participated in a documentary, Miss Representative– an unflinching look at the way the media under and misrepresents women. Whenever I speak about the movie many people in the audience will tell me that watching it changed the way they look at popular culture and how they are influenced by it. In a similar vein, that conversation with my mother became the lens through which I experienced my life and the lives of other women.

    Whether it was working at a coffee shop as a waitress while in college and organizing a strike to protest the gender pay gap, or during the years when I was getting my doctorate in history, finding safe havens for my female students desperate to escape from violence at home, or serving on the Board of the New York Correctional Association fighting for the rights of incarcerated women or the Mount Sinai Hospital Community Board ensuring quality healthcare to underserved women, I have tried to make the betterment of girls and women my focus.

    Whatever activities I’d been involved in, I came quickly to realize that for me, the best way to reach the largest audience was through writing. So along with my teaching women’s history at various universities I’ve written numerous books and articles about the privations and challenges that different groups of women have faced and, sorrowfully, continue to face. I wrote my most recent book, Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future as a wakeup call, meant to pierce the complacent myth that we are a postfeminist society.
    Throughout our history, the struggles for social justice—for workers, minorities, women, and gays and lesbians—were successful because they were genuine movements made up of outpourings of courageous, committed people determined to make things happen.

    Everyone who believes in gender equality—women and girls, men and boys, whether they call themselves feminists or shun the label—must join together to push for progressive policies that will enhance all of our lives. A truly workable universal healthcare policy, inclusion of women and minorities in medical research and analysis, national standards for affordable childcare and elder care, and equal educational opportunities for our children. We must work to rescind the current limitations on Title IX that constrain girls’ athletic programs, and to eliminate workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and outmoded institutional structures that still draw from the male wage earner/ female wage earner model. We must put in place paid family leave and paid sick days in every state. And strike out at the gender wage gap and wage penalty women face when they take time off, make flexible and part-time hours more available to all workers, and reinstate the collection of data on women in the labor force with has been deleted from government records.

    We need to ensure the rights of lesbians and bisexual women and bolster programs protecting our servicewomen from sexual assault and enhancing their medical care. And its within out power to urge lawmakers to expand funding for the protection and treatment of HIV/AIDS, strengthen the Violence Against Women Act and increase supports for single mothers.

    We must also try to counteract the extreme misogyny in our popular culture and find ways to engage and empower young women so that they’ll see themselves in a mirror or their own making. And we have to help our daughters to see one another as friends, not adversaries and competitors. We can encourage all our children to become active participants in their own lives. And to remember: the narrative of the next decade is yet to be written.

    I realize that this is a long list. But with apologies to Robert Browning: A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp.

    We all can imagine a fairer more equitable world than the one we are living in.

    Now we have to make it happen.

    Like

  2. Tanya, thank you for this inspiring website and encouraging us to write about our activism! Here is my story:

    I wake up in the morning eager to get to work, inspired by the knowledge that there is an endless amount of social justice work to be done. The unending hunger, violence, discrimination, and hatred in this world used to be overwhelming and depressing, but I have learned to focus my efforts on smaller, tangible outcomes. My personal mission statement is to “live the change I want to see in the world for women — particularly poor women and women of color — through radical political actions, student inspiration, mentoring, public education, never by-standing, and loving well.” My activist tools of choice are research, teaching, media work, mentoring, and organization building.

    My activism often takes the form of research and teaching that centers around non-meritorious systems of power – racism, classism, sexism, etc., in the U.S. political context. I co-edited a book, Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House? (2007) that exposes sexism in presidential elections and notions of leadership more generally. My research also focuses on how women are portrayed in media and the negative effects of being raised in a society where the objectification of women is seen as “normal.” Additionally, I teach a course on Hurricane Katrina that delves into longstanding systems of racism and classism that led many New Orleanians to lose their lives as a result of the human-made disaster of the levees breaching. I make sure that my work extends beyond the university through active blogging (www.carolineheldman.wordpress.org, Ms. Blog, Soc Images blog) and public speaking about systems of power.

    Another tool in my activist chest is media work. I produced and directed the documentary, “Aftermath: New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina” (2005), a film that documents the predictable, preventable tragedy of the drowning of New Orleans. More recently, I served as the advisor to “Miss Representation” (2011), a film that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network that describes how media portrayals of girls/women in popular culture prevent us from being seen as competent professionals and leaders. In addition to film work, I am a commentator on Fox News, Fox Business News, RT-America, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera English. While I don’t get to choose the topics I discuss, I often work in systems of power critiques that align with my personal mission statement.

    Mentoring is another tool I use to promote social justice. Beyond being a professor, I am also a martial arts instructor and a heavy metal singer, pursuits with very few women. I am constantly dismissed by male peers or subordinates in all three of these “masculine” domains, and I make sure to respond in fearless ways to let other women know that intimidation isn’t an option. My goal is not to elevate traditionally masculine activities, but to show that no activity is off limits.

    The last activist tool I use is organization building. I co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter after Katrina to provide a resource-rich, safe space that promotes personal empowerment for needy women and children. This organization is now managed by Dawn Fletcher, an amazing woman who daily inspires the shelter residents to achieve their personal goals.

    I am presently working on two new projects: the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum and the Community Inspiration Center. The purpose of the Living Museum is to remember the rich culture and histories of the Lower Ninth Ward as only 1-in-5 residents in this neighborhood have been able to return. This is a place for local residents to tell their stories. The Community Inspiration Center, managed by my good friend Miss Elizabeth, is a space where community members run free life-affirming programs: support groups, tutoring, AA meetings, resume development, ESL, etc. We are still in the planning and fundraising stages of both projects, but will have them up and running within a year.

    My activism is driven by a (selfish) desire to have meaning in every waking moment of my short life. My activism is an attempt to restore my humanity as someone who inherently upholds unjust social systems.

    Like

  3. Let me begin by offering, or I should say adding, my congratulations to Tanya for the work you are doing on your blog. It takes some courage to put one’s thoughts (heart and soul) out for public consumption. I join with you in the hope that your work will provide an avenue for women, especially African American women, to learn of and from each other.

    My belief and style has always been to let my work speak for me, so I have not often taken steps to promote the me side of it. However, I thank you for the opportunity to share and my hope is that the few words I provide will allow someone else to have an “ah-ha” moment of broader visions. Having said that, let me share the following…

    I began my professional career as a special education teacher and wanted to work with those students considered by many to be the underdogs, the most cast out and most difficult. I taught students who were classified as learning disabled, hearing impaired/deaf, visually impaired/blind and multiplied handicapped. To work with the students, it was also imperative that I work with their parents who were often made to feel “less than”….less fortunate than many, less important than other parents and less than welcome. In working with parents it became obvious to me that they needed to be the focus so I conducted workshops for parents in how best to support their children’s learning – things that could be done inexpensively at home, strategies to assist with behavior management, structures at home that would create a consistent learning environment.

    Something in me propelled me to reach more kids, so I moved into educational positions where decisions were made that would effect greater numbers of students and their families. I believed that people at the policy levels needed to be more grounded in the realities of the interface between policy and practice. What looks good on paper may or may not be effective in practice and ultimately when a policy fails, it hurts the most vulnerable – the children. In working in a variety of leadership positions at the New York State Education Department for a number of years, I was able to have an impact on statewide practices related to special education, school improvement and the operation of the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). Each of these areas are areas that touch the lives of thousands of students of color, students who are poor and students who often considered unreachable.

    In 1998-99 when the state legislature enacted the charter schools act, I was esctatic. I thought charter schools would be an area where I could have the greatest ability to utilize all of my experience and expertise to directly effect positive changes in the education of thousands of students who had few, if any, advocates and to ensure that they had access to high quality education programs. So from 2001 until I retired in 2010 as the Senior Vice President of the Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York (SUNY) all of my work was driven by the desire to ensure that every student attending a SUNY-authorized charter school was afforded an education based on research and best practices that resulted in increased student learning.

    Now that I am retired I have had the opportunity to touch charter and traditional schools in some of the larger metropolitan districts, i,.e. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as well as a few charter authorizers, i.e. Ball State and Baltimore, in relation to the quality of practices and programs and student learning.

    There are a myriad of possbilities for continuing to effect positive changes in the field of education, but my focus will always remain on those students who tend to get the short end of the deal. They are not to be undersold for within their ranks are future leaders who are yet unpolished stones. It’s our job to collect, cultivate and produce brilliant contributors to society.

    Charter schools are part of the American education fabric. They are here to stay and offer many opportunities to students and their families. If you want to support them, go to your state’s charter school association, contact local charter schools to see where your help is needed, or go online to identify charter organizations you can support. Go now. Each day counts for kids.

    Like

  4. I am loving the fact that you are compelled to share your gifting with the world. Thank you for including me in that. I am awed and humbled.

    First of all, I truly give God all of the credit. This is the line of work and interest that I had no intention of following, but am grateful for. Working to enrich the lives of others is what I was born to do. As a school social worker I see much of the dysfunction that the lives of adults have on children. Students moving from one location to another because they do not get along with parents, students taking anti-psychotic drugs at levels unheard of due to mental illness, students who have no hope and see no use of actually ‘trying’ in school, students so disgruntled with the systems in their lives that they no longer believe in dreams….The possibilities of impossibilities…Students who can not see their worlds beyond where they live.

    As a solution to all of what I see I felt compelled to intervene when the opportunity to merge my loves – youth, leadership, business strategy & having fun – came about. God saw fit to bring this opportunity my way…CEO Kids of Atlanta is a franchise, so to speak, of the CEO Kids of Washington, DC program. It is primarily a summer program where we expose middle schoolers to the world of work, by helping them connect what they are learning in school to what it takes to succeed in professional careers. They learn their strengths and identify their talents to see where they can fit into the world. They are taught through team building exercises to uplift one another and challenge those around them. Lastly, it gives the parents insight into their child’s world and strategies to help them both grow during the middle school transition.

    This past summer we had a ‘backstage’ pass to watch a CNN show from conception to completion, we visited with an actual stuntman who showed us some moves, among many other visits and ended the summer in Washington, DC at the White House. The success (i.e. positive impact) of the summer program caused the parents to ask for more; sooooo…we established an academic year program, CEO Goes to School, where we focus on leadership and personal development. There are challenges…yes, but the joys of seeing kids emerge more confident and hopeful than when they started…priceless !

    Like

  5. Tanya, I applaud you for writing such a thought-provoking and empowering article, I am more than honored that you allowed me to share your work with the readers of my magazine. I wouldn’t describe myself as an activist but I can most definitely say that I am an agent of change in the empowerment of women, particularly African-American women. I chose to use my voice through my online inspirational and lifestyle magazine called Bronze, where I serve as Editor-In-Chief. Bronze Magazine celebrates, empowers and inspires women of color by highlighting the works, accomplishments and contributions of individuals in the arts, business, community and entertainment. Bronze Magazine also contains various articles that inspire and inform through beauty, fashion and lifestyle topics.

    There aren’t many media forums that African-American women can turn to to find ourselves represented in a positive light. We are constantly placed into these one-dimensional characterizations that are depicted in negative (even demeaning) ways. This has been very disturbing to me because I know that there are many great women (as well as men) of color who are out in the world taking great strides, making great achievements and important contributions but have very little spotlight and recognition. Bronze Magazine is the platform for those women’s voices.

    My hopes are that one day Bronze Magazine will become an important fabric within the African American community for inspiring change about the overall way that the African American culture/community is viewed as well as how we as African Americans view ourselves and one another.

    If you would like to share your important achievement or contribution for an opportunity to be featured in Bronze Magazine, please do not hesitate to contact me at editor@bronzemagonline.com.

    Like

  6. Great piece, Tanya! I was just saying to my female friends the other day that on TV I constantly see women at one another’s throats, fighting, disrespecting one another, and generally showing the very worst sides of themselves. Meanwhile, my friends are nothing but supportive and loving. We encourage one another to be our best selves and to put that kind of energy into the world. My friend Diane just ran the NYC marathon, and we could not have been prouder of her achievement. Her success felt like a victory for us all.

    I don’t know if I would consider myself an activist on the same level as the women you mentioned in this post, but I’m a firm believer that every little bit helps. We can each use whatever talents and time we have in a positive way. For me, that includes writing. I have now had seven children’s books published, which is a dream come true. But what I’m most proud of is the effect the books have had on the readers–most of whom are young girls.

    The Your Life series (Your Life, but Better; Your Life, but Cooler; and Your Life, but Sweeter) are choose-your-adventure stories in which the reader is the main character. But instead of getting to the end of a chapter and just making a random choice, the reader must take a personality quiz to see what she would really do if faced with the situation she just read. In this way, she begins to figure out what kind of person she is: brave or cowardly, a follower or a leader, romantic or practical, jealous or supportive. As in life, not all of the outcomes in the book are good. And the reader soon learns that every choice she makes–who she befriends, how she chooses to treat people, how she reacts to problems–has a consequence. I hope to empower girls to know who they really are and to embrace that; to make their own decisions, and accept responsibility for those choices, instead of just going along with whatever their friends want.

    A few months ago, I received an email from two eleven-year-old girls from NYC. One of them told me that the books had given her the confidence to stand up to some bullies in her school and that she was happy now. I can’t even tell you how good that made me feel. I’m grateful that over the past year or two, I’ve gotten to visit bookstores and libraries, and attend festivals–meeting a lot of young readers in person, many of whom want to be writers themselves. And here I am, a Puerto Rican girl born in the Bronx, who went on to college and achieved her dream of becoming a writer. If I could do it, that means they can too.

    Aside from writing, though, I enjoy volunteering and helping in whatever small way I can. Every year I organize a team to participate in AIDS Walk NY. This year my team raised more than $2,000. I’ve volunteered with NY Cares, helping to clean up schools and parks. I signed up with the Red Cross after 9/11 to feed the rescue workers at Ground Zero. For two years I participated in the Everybody Wins! Power Lunch program, spending one lunch hour a week reading with a child. I’ve donated books to Adele Taylor’s literacy program, and food to City Harvest. My point is that, while none of these things may have been earth shattering, if my actions helped even one person, then I made a difference. And as a woman, I feel it is especially important to show girls that they have power and can use it to effect real change–in their own lives and in the world.

    Like

Please share your responses, reactions and ideas in the space provided below. Thanks so much.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s