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. 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.  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. 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. 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. 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.
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.  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.” Finally, school social worker and aspiring graduate student Tonetta Collins works tirelessly in her job and within the organization CEOKids of Atlanta, 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:
- 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.”
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.” 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.” 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. 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. 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.  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.  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). 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.
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