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                  The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power. – Toni Morrison

Angelina Perri Birney

With women’s movements around the world on the rise, one must ask a fundamental question: What’s missing from our political, economic, social and educational systems that needs fixing? As the author of this blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, I have interviewed many prominent women — Marie C. Wilson of The White House Project, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau of eTalk, Almas Jiwani of UN Women Canada, and Madeline Di Nonno of the Geena Davis Institute, among them — who have all expressed the obvious. The lack of women in leadership roles means a waste of talent, skill, and insight.

I would like to deepen this perspective a bit further. Feminine power has been disregarded and that negligence has led to the imbalance we’re collectively experiencing. We see it everywhere — in religious institutions, government policies, business sectors and peace initiatives. Somewhere along the line we have gotten confused, believing that a masculine approach is stronger and will guarantee the attainment of our goals. But experience informs us otherwise. Many so-called “victories” have been short-lived and we find ourselves in fruitless cycles, using some form of aggression or dominance to resolve our difficulties. Without properly regarding the feminine we ultimately lose, no matter how often or how hard we fight. It’s only when the masculine and the feminine work together that we can reach any sane or lasting solutions. That’s why it’s so important for men, as well as women, to accept, respect and confirm that which is feminine in themselves so the issue of feminine power doesn’t become a women vs. men type of thing, but rather a blending that is beneficial to both. With that perspective, the uplifting of women around the globe is not a threatening issue, but one that is empowering to all.

In my novel, PURE VISION, feminine power is revealed as the driving force necessary to change the world and balance out the more masculine energies we’ve been predominantly working with. The book has a unique storyline, weaving myth, history, and political intrigue. It also introduces a strong and powerful female character, Maggie Seline, who is persecuted for of her beliefs. My husband, Lawrence, and I began writing the book ten years ago, and it metamorphosized dramatically along the way. There’s plenty of unexpected twists to the plot, so it’s entertaining, and yet at the same time, it really inspires you to think and envision something greater. PURE VISION sets you on an adventure — women from all over the world march toward creating an international peace zone — so plenty of action against a backdrop of current and historical events.

I’ve also been asked what inspired me to write this particular story. So much of the conflict we’re seeing around the world makes you stop and think about how we can all make a difference. When I hear about and see people hurt by the ravages of war, there’s a part of me that knows I can’t just bury my head in the sand. In my own case, I know I can communicate a story in an entertaining way and be able to reach a wide audience. So that’s how it started. I felt the need to express powerful ideals in a way that gave everyone room to think. When I actually began writing, I was inspired by the stories of great leaders — men and women such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia — who stood against all odds because they had a vision of peace and decency.

There’s also a real need in the world for strong women characters, both in everyday life and in fiction. I believe PURE VISION fulfills that need by providing an intelligent, resourceful, larger-than-life female protagonist who is a force to be reckoned with. On a grander scale, I believe the novel recognizes that feminine energy must to be embraced — whether we’re male or female — in order to create a more balanced world. The story also creates a space where we can look at our problems in a new light. Instead of using old, worn-out methods like political divides and military force to attain resolution, we need to include spiritual or higher-minded means in our efforts.

Art is such a powerful tool and artists are always using it to create change. My hope is that PURE VISION makes its mark and transforms readers, inspiring them to support an ideal beyond division and blame — a vision of peace.

PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation

If you thrive on unraveling mysteries and discovering threatening secrets like those found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code, then Pure Vision is a must read. The novel’s additional ingredient of social conscience and an ending that stimulates readers to create a new paradigm makes it all the more powerful and explosive — a contemporary statement meant to move you out of your mind and onto the street.

Available from: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple iTunes

Author’s Website: perribirney.com

Genre:  Fiction, Action/Adventure, Thriller

Reviews:

“A thrill ride in the vein of The Da Vinci Code but with a much larger vision for all of us. The alchemy is part historic fiction, part spiritual adventure, and a variety of interfaith metaphysics that metamorphosize into a golden vision of world peace . . . a page turner.” — Paul Hertel, Whole Living

Presents a fascinating story full of intrigue and history. Birney’s fiction seamlessly blends science and religion into a tale worthy of Indiana Jones . . . The book left this reader confident that idealism is not dead and that, sometimes, it can be the road map by which we might save ourselves. — Cynthia Warren, Daily Freeman

Birney infuses this epic novel with feminine echoes of The Da Vinci Code and The Red Tent, with her eyes on the prize of world peace. Reporter Maggie Seline courts controversy by championing an international Jerusalem . . . when she disappears women around the globe march for peace . . . powerful men vie for two ancient artifacts.” — Chronogram

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With a Master’s degree in English Education from NYU and a B.A. in Writing and Communications, Angelina Perri Birney has also been trained in the Tibetan Buddhist lama tradition and completed a three-year retreat. While traveling extensively throughout Tibet, Nepal and India, she experienced the rich cultures and spiritual traditions practiced in these lands. She received teachings on the various myths explored within Pure Vision, in particular that of Shambhala, from several eminent teachers including the Dalai Lama. Angelina is also an alumna of the White House Project, an organization which promotes women’s advancement and leadership. In addition to her blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, Angelina’s work has also been published in the McGraw-Hill anthology, Women: Images and Realities (2011).
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                 “. . . recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
                     —Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Sam Cook

Sitting with Sam Cook in a café in downtown Manhattan, in the financial district no less, to speak about human rights seems downright ironic. Formerly the Project Director of PeaceWomen, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Sam is now Director of Communications and Research at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). IGLHRC’s mission is to “advance human rights for everyone, everywhere and to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

A woman of peace and  fairness, Sam has dedicated her life to human rights advocacy. She reflects on the evolution of the process. “I didn’t have a plan to get either this or that type of job. It was just as my life unfolded, the choices came. I had always been attracted to law as a way to bring justice and a system that everybody was accountable to. So I went to the University of Cape Town law school, not because I wanted to practice, but because I wanted the skills—things like learning how to draft a good contract. Also, I had always been drawn to doing work around gender equality. While getting my law degree, I was interested in writing papers around sexual violence and/or around socio-economic rights. It was like an instinct thing, not really planned.”

Although she may not have had a specific plan in mind, Sam’s perspective naturally lends to giving to others while remaining aware she also has much to gain. “Basically, I wanted to do something that felt like a positive contribution to human beings,” she says, “all the while never being under any kind of illusion that I was going to make any great difference. My approach was more like ‘we all put in something, but we take a lot out.’ Still, I wanted the thing that I put in to be a positive thing.”

Growing up during apartheid in South Africa had its own effects. “On the one hand, of course, being born white, I was privileged in apartheid South Africa. But I grew up with a father who made me aware of the injustices of apartheid and of the privilege that I had because of my race. I cannot pinpoint what parts of my work or my life’s approach are a result of what. I have a low tolerance for injustice in the world, but is that a result of exploring aspects of what it means to be human, or is it a result of seeing massive injustice? Perhaps seeing racial discrimination so blatantly manifested and up close—although not as close as those who lived the discrimination—made me more acutely aware of what discrimination was about. Maybe experiencing the emergence from apartheid and grappling with its effects, both in terms of suffering and privilege, made it easier for me to talk about race more explicitly—something many in the U.S. seem afraid to do. I’m not sure, but overall I believe it is impossible to grow up in such a situation without being profoundly affected at some level.”

With respect to the impact apartheid had on African women in particular, Sam is distinct in stating, “I cannot nor do I want to speak for black women in South Africa. [As a side note, Sam adds that that the term African is not necessarily a helpful one outside of the U.S., and African is also an identity claimed by some beyond those who were racially discriminated against for being black.] But, there are certainly clear examples of how being black and a woman meant a compounded experience of discrimination. As I’m sure many women in the United States who are of African descent or who are black would say, experiencing the intertwined systems of racism and patriarchy is to experience double discrimination and injustice.”

Currently that level of discrimination exists for the LGBT community as well, and shedding light on the difficulties so the public is aware is always a concern. Supporting LGBT equality and empowering those individuals who are working as advocates, Sam explains her role at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission as “trying to find the best way to communicate our work to others, not just to the media.”

Sometimes the venue for that is reflected through how IGLHRC works with advocacy groups around the world. The commission looks at each group’s concerns and really follows the agenda of local activists. “One of the simplest thing we do,” Sam enumerates, “is give a voice to the situation. If activists are working on a particular issue in X or Y part of the world, as a Human Rights organization based in the U.S. and because we’re also near the U.N., we have a voice that policymakers look upon as one of pressure which local activists might not have. We also have more of a voice in the sense that we have a website, we have a mailing list that goes out to thousands of people that can then spread the message of these local activists. So we’re like a megaphone. But at the same time, we’re not a megaphone that will just project any message.”

Sam explains that besides listening to activists’ concerns, IGLHRC makes a real attempt to let people know what’s occurring at the ground level while still trying to follow some strategic global vision. “I think that’s part of the difficulty we face regarding our strategy. Do you come up with a strategic vision that you determine is the best one and then identify the work of local activists which supports that vision, or rather do you listen to all the local voices and then say, ‘Okay, listening to all of this, it seems that the common thread is X or Y, and so how do we do bigger projects that meet those issues?’ I think that figuring out the best way to be a partner and respect the work of local activists while operating under a particular theory of how change happens is something that the organization grapples with very seriously. It’s just a continual process, especially since for a long time the work has centered around the emergency response aspect—like providing limited grants and emergency funds to assist people when they need to get out of a town and get to a safe house, for example. Also, in cases like when gay men are being arrested in Senegal, or there are laws on the books in Malawi where a couple celebrating an engagement ceremony is put in jail, or when a lesbian/gay political party in the Philippines is refused registration, we then assist in responding to that.”

Letter-writing campaigns are another effective but more traditional measure used to create public support. “Basically, we utilize our larger constituency to act as a voice,” Sam explains. “These days a lot goes by e-mail. People get to send a letter to the Human Rights Commission of Philippines or wherever to create some sort of pressure for the decision makers to change the policies. That’s good, of course, but the campaigns do other things. They creates a sense that there is a movement out there as well as generate a sense of support for those who are sitting in jail, like in the AMNESTY model. There’s a consciousness created that you’ve got people on your side. So we are helping people to be more protected. The more people who know about somebody sitting in jail, the less likely that person’s going to disappear or be tortured or abused.”

As far as educating the public about human rights violations or about the discrimination of persons due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the easiest place to reach an audience is in the United States, but it’s not necessarily the place that needs it the most. “Although there are violations everywhere, including in the U.S.,” Sam emphasizes, “many of the really serious violations are actually happening outside the United States. Torture, sitting in jail, massive killings. These are mostly happening in other countries.”

Clanking coffee cups underscore Sam’s remark. Sitting around us in the café, male and female corporate execs sip their lattes and espressos—the environment acting as a reminder of how much we as westerners take for granted in our corner of the world. Even gay and lesbian issues in America can, for those who have seen far more serious consequences, take on a note of frivolity. Whereas, internationally, there are those who are losing their lives merely by the fact that they are gay, here in the U.S., issues such as allowing gays and lesbians to marry and have families, although serious, are nowhere as lethal as the violations occuring in certain areas of Africa and the Middle East. As Sam indicates, “difficulties like losing your job, or not being able to get married because of your gender identity or orientation may be seen more as concentrating on ‘luxuries’ to activists in other parts of the world.”

It does appear, though, that no matter what the particular contention is surrounding the sexual orientation debate, religious posturing has definitely fueled the fire. Although some religious leaders have diffused prejudice, many have helped create the difficulties and have encouraged human rights violations.

“The immediate thing I noticed,” Sam states, “is that a lot of the work against the human rights of the LGBT community is very much linked to conservative religious forces—religious fundamentalists.”

The Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, introduced last October 2009 is an example. The bill targets lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, as well as those who support them in any way. Not only does it uphold criminalizing homosexuality, it calls for imprisonment for life for anyone convicted of the “offense,” proposing the death penalty for those who repeatedly engage in same-sex relations. The bill is a human rights nightmare, allowing for the annihilation of those of non-mainstream sexual orientation, as well as wedging another discriminatory block for HIV patients in dire need of proper care.

On the U.S. front, Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a resolution (H. RES. 1064) calling on members of the Ugandan Parliament to reject the Bill as well as any standing or newly presented laws that criminalize homosexuality. The resolution was passed in the Senate and is now moving through the House of Representatives.

The Ugandan Bill, Sam notes, has been driven by U.S. Christian Fundamentalists. “They have gone there and cultivated relationships with leaders, getting people to promote their conservative Christian agenda. It’s not only in Uganda. They have cultivated relationships with leaders around the world. Conservatives, in general, have pumped their ideas into the human rights field, including women’s rights and LGBT rights.”

Yet, there are also religious leaders who are fighting against this. “There are still many wonderful people,” Sam says. “Even most religious entities who are against recognizing the rights of lesbians and gays to have families or to get married will not sanction people’s lives being criminalized and will not sanction torture of human beings on the basis of their sexuality. The Vatican coming out during an event at the U.N. last December (2009) and saying that they did not condone torture or criminalizing people’s lives was really, really powerful. While they are still negative in a number of other ways, that was really positive. In general, this event helped to bring to the surface and show the support at this basic level.”

Sam’s statement appears true. When the atrocities are exposed, the sheer horror of them can activate people’s compassion and sense of decency. How far are you willing to go to condemn another?  Those previously lending their voice to judgment may find themselves speaking out against governments that torture their citizens based on sexual orientation discrimination.

But shouldn’t this all be falling under the umbrella of human rights? The concept emphasizes that fundamental rights and freedoms belong to every human being merely by reason of being born. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, sets the assertion in writing.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

—Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission utilizes the declaration as a cornerstone for their activity. “I think the Universal Declaration and basic human rights laws are very foundational in this kind of work and are used all the time,” Sam asserts. “For example, when we do a letter to a government that has violated certain rights we can say, ‘Everybody has the right to X or Y, and you are actually discriminating against your citizens by denying them these rights.’ So the declaration is deployed often.”

Putting the rights in a document form gives people something solid they can refer to. “Many people don’t believe in doing things unless they are obliged by something that they see as a legal document,” Sam states. “Sometimes even people who are activists don’t believe they have the right to stand up unless they have the form there—not just because they know that governments won’t respond without it, but because they mistrust their own sense of justice and their own sense of what it is to be human. They are insecure about their own claims.”

So being human is the starting point and, as Sam indicates, IGLHRC begins there as well. “Rather than saying ‘I have a certain kind of right because I am a gay man or a lesbian, our tagline is HUMAN RIGHTS FOR EVERYONE. EVERYWHERE. And that is where we begin. It is so much more powerful because we do have many governments that signed the Charter and accepted the various covenants. We can show that what we’re asking for is an obligation that arises from accepting the document.”

Still, how do you make the concerns of people who are being subjected to sexual identity and sexual orientation discrimination the concerns of the majority?

“Looking at the discrimination of women and how it is detrimental may be easier to do,” Sam says. “When we point things out to men regarding this issue, they may be able to see how it will affect their home and families. But bringing out the discrimination against gays and lesbians or those who are transsexual or bisexual is harder since the majority, not only men, don’t feel personally affected by it as much.”

Could any of this be tied to another aspect of the power structure—the role of women in human rights advocacy? Could more women in leadership roles make a difference including within the arena of LGBT rights?.

“I believe that just being a woman is not enough to balance anything,” Sam states. “I think their have been too many Golda Meirs and Margaret Thatchers who have been militant. Yet, I do feel that women for the most part tend to have an approach to things that will more likely result in social justice. At the same time, qualities that are considered feminine which may be seen as powerful and positive by some people, might be regarded as weak by others. So I think the difficulty with regard to presenting the concept of more women in leadership as actually being an asset in human rights issues throughout the world is in how we talk about it. What are the actual qualities that women may have in more abundance that can help?”

All in all, Sam does say she believes that women in more leadership roles would be helpful. “What I struggle with is how to figure this into the power structures that exist—how to shift what people think of as powerful and impactful and what might be able to bring about human flourishing, without turning it into a competition between the genders, which is what many men have succeeded in doing. It doesn’t have to be that way. I know it would be difficult to talk to a man about women being perhaps more in tune with their nurturing side. So how do I talk about it without forsaking my beliefs, because I don’t want to model that old form of power.”

Yet, by her own example, Sam proves she’s already cast aside the mold. Thoughtful and conscientious, her approach to her own advocacy work is a far cry from the patriarchal model. “I don’t require for my own satisfaction that I be the personal author of things,” Sam states. “I don’t need to see my name on change. I think you have to be that way in order to do work in big political arenas because no individual is responsible for the changes.”

That may be the case, but as Sam reflects, the larger picture still takes its personal toll. “If you do human rights work and you find yourself not crying every now and then or not get angry every once in a while, you need to take a break because letting things touch your soul is part of what drives you.”

Maybe detachment and cynicism are the diseases infecting most of us. Human rights issues are wearisome. We would rather find an escape from the daily grind of suffering, something that entertainment venues like American Idol or Cash Cab offer us. Certainly nothing wrong with that, as long as we pinch ourselves every once in a while and, like Sam, realize we “need a reality check here.”

You know . . . let human suffering touch our souls. Perhaps even let it drive us toward inclusion. 

HUMAN RIGHTS FOR EVERYONE. EVERYWHERE.

 

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Kathleen Durham

Entering the grounds of Val-Kill, one realizes its historic potency. The Hyde Park, NY home of the legendary and much admired “first lady of the world,” Val-Kill seems to resound with Eleanor Roosevelt’s nature . . . staunch, quiet, stately . . . a formidable presence.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Center, located on the site, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to Eleanor’s ideals, preserving and fostering her tenets of compassionate leadership dedicated to social change, justice and human dignity. Kathleen Durham, Executive Director, is its current guardian, making certain that Eleanor’s voice remains heard and her vision active.

Kathleen herself has walked her own evolutionary road which finally led to her current position at the center. She grew up in Richmond, Virginia and attended Howard University. “In my time, many women went to college to find a husband who was a doctor or a lawyer . . . and I didn’t find one. So I kind of took a circuitous route which eventually evolved into actually becoming a lawyer and having a family. I say that because I went to law school after I’d been out of college for twenty years . . . and the other interesting part of it is when I left Howard University, I still needed fifteen hours to complete my degree.”

But as it turned out, life provided Kathleen with the experiences that would literally bring her full circle.

“I was working as Director of Labor Relations for the U.S. Customs Service. People kept saying, ‘You should be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer.’ Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, I thought, ‘Well, okay, let me just try this.’ I was in my late thirties. I got into all the law schools I applied to and wound up going to Pepperdine in California. I was able to get in by making up the fifteen hours I never completed in college by writing this essay about using my life experiences. When I was graduating, someone said, ‘Come see me, and I’ll help you to become a producer.’ But there were others who told me, ‘Now you’ve got your license, so now you’ve got to go practice.’ The truth of it is my life’s passion would have been producing, but when you look at it, all of life is about producing something, just like I’m doing here at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. Here I have the opportunity to do that constantly.”

Although after moving to the Hudson Valley in 1988 Kathleen learned  more about Eleanor Roosevelt, her intrigue with the former First Lady really began to grow in 1995.  “I started reading about Eleanor and I thought ‘I have a lot in common with this woman’. I just kept reading and reading and fell in love with her ideals. Eventually I got involved in doing talks here at ERVK for organizations and various trainings. In time, I moved away to Savanna but eventually came back to the area in 2006. In 2008, someone asked me to be on the ERVK Board. Shortly after, I became Interim Director of the center and then Director. So what really drew me here? Well this may sound crazy, but it’s kind of like the universe leads you. You don’ quite know why things are leading in a certain direction. You just kind of move along and sometimes you listen and sometimes you don’t, but when you really do, you may wind up where you’re supposed to be, and that’s what kind of happened to me.”

Inspired by her work and ERVK’s mission, Kathleen feels that the center can really make a difference. “I believe we are Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice and are channeling her ideals so to speak.”

And so it appears. Immersed in Eleanor’s vision and working at ERVK on a daily basis, Kathleen has seen a change in herself—in how she relates to people, how she listens to people, and how she’s more willing to shift her thinking. She takes note that Eleanor’s manner in handling life and work has definitely influenced her.

“When I’m really passionate about something, I go ahead and speak about it and let it be out there. Another important aspect for me is just the fact that Eleanor was able to overcome so many of the obstacles she faced. If I can’t do something like that, then what? She had much bigger obstacles during her time.”

Nonetheless, women today are still facing their hurdles. It’s programs like ERVK’s Girls’ Leadership Workshop that are providing young women with the support and nurturance they need to become leaders. “We’re developing little Eleanor’s,” Kathleen states. “The reason why we even have the workshop is because of Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Everybody talks about what Franklin accomplished, but behind Franklin was Eleanor. Had Eleanor not been there, honestly, I don’t believe Franklin would have done all that he did. Not to denigrate what he did do, but I think her consciousness, her thinking, was powerful. We want to give young people that type of strength to take out into society so they don’t just become consumers of what’s in the world, but they actually contribute to its well-being. And we see that occurring through the eight hundred girls we’ve brought through the program. We hear from them about what’s happening in their lives. One example is this fifteen-year old girl who started her own non-profit called Kids for Causes, where they’re passionate about helping the children of Haiti. At fifteen, was I thinking of anything like that?”

Nourishing and awakening ideas that may have otherwise remained dormant, the Girls’ Leadership Workshop provides not only the training and foundation for the girls to use in their personal growth, but a framework for how to use their confidence to move out into the world. “It’s a personal learning time that evolves into action based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s principles of leadership,” Kathleen explains. “And now we’re even expanding the idea of responsible leadership to include boys. The program is reaching out further.”

Yet, Kathleen agrees, it’s still important to support women’s leadership roles in particular,  whether those are in government, politics, business, education or religion—in all walks of life. “We have more of a history to overcome. Women were not traditionally looked upon as leaders. Even today, I don’t think we’re quite there, even though we have managed to make our way very close to that glass ceiling. Therefore, it’s important that women see themselves as leaders. So whatever can be done to help nurture that, to build their confidence, matters. Women need to be able to say to each other, ‘Yes, you can be a leader.’ And by leadership it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a CEO of a company. Women can provide that leadership in their families as well. As wives and mothers, they’re influencing all the time, and that influence extends to the men and boys in their lives.”

Recently, the achievements of influential women throughout history were honored during the International Women’s Day luncheon (March 8th) at the White House. Praising the extraordinary accomplishments of those such as Dorothy Height [a leader in the African-American and women’s rights movements who passed away the day following this interview at the age of 98], President Obama extolled the great achievements of the many admirable women who offered their gifts to create political, social and economic reform. As an attendee, Kathleen recalls what she learned and how she was moved by the experience.

“I heard a woman from Afghanistan tell a story about how the women in her village were really horribly abused and that out of the experience, she wrote this song which conveyed their determination. Some of the words were something like ‘we will never give up’ and she sang it for us. I could really feel the power of it. Also, in that room there were three hundred women—thirty of them were young women in high school who had gotten the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Michelle Obama. It was just the thirty of them and Michelle. To see these women together from different countries and from all over the U.S. was amazing. During that luncheon, we learned that what might be considered a major issue regarding women’s leadership here in this country may be looked upon quite differently in Afghanistan. So how we as women could learn from each other’s experiences was important. It reminds me of a young woman who came to the Girls’ Workshop whose family had fled from Iraq to Jordan. While here in America, she was learning for the first time that people have human rights. Keeping this in mind, special days like the International Women’s Day are definitely a good thing.”

Although it’s certainly important that we’ve designated a day—International Women’s Day—as a mark of global appreciation for women and their achievements, there is still a long way to go in creating a more balanced paradigm where women are able to offer their talents. Following this current of thought, Kathleen takes a look at how and why more female leadership can strengthen our chances of really achieving and securing human rights.

“I think women are better mediators. Women, in general, are more willing to lay down the ego and look for solutions. They’re caregivers. Great multitaskers. More sensitive to people’s needs. I think they come more from a place where they can step into someone else’s shoes and see what’s going on for them and give up that sort of it’s gotta be this way kind of mentality,” she says, pounding on the table sternly. “I think women can see conciliation. They can be more conciliatory without thinking they’re giving up their you know what.”

And the proof of that exists globally as we connect that conciliation from human rights to the economic field. As more women become financed all over the world with micro loans to start their own businesses, they become assets in the creation and stabilization of peace and security throughout their native countries.

“Women who are developing their micro-businesses are actually strengthening their households,” Kathleen asserts. “They’re earning money. They’re learning how to take care of themselves. It may not necessarily be that they are becoming the head of that household, but because they are able to offer their skills, they are actually contributing to their households. They are empowering themselves and the more they do that, they are bringing a different kind of feeling into the home. At least that’s what people who work on these projects say. As the women become stronger in starting  their businesses, they’ve noticed the men being more supportive of them.”

Kathleen believes this phenomenon is actually helping to create more stabilization and security. “If you think about it, people are the meanest or most hostile when they are faced with needs that they think will never be filled, or that someone else is going to get something that they need as a matter of life and death.”

Throughout all the delicate balancing, and as the dynamics of gender equality swings the pendulum toward more fair and just-minded resolutions, Kathleen indicates women are maturing toward a new level in the process. Once women have built their own confidence more and have brought their voices forward, they’ve got to become inclusive, encourage men to actually enter into the picture. Otherwise it becomes a man vs. woman phenomenon. “And it shouldn’t be that way because what does that do? That’s not a peaceful resolution for anything. If you have great peace in a women’s group and great peace in a men’s group, but you aren’t really getting them together, then where’s the peace in that?”

In short, growth and confidence begin the process but the goal is inclusion and unity. “You’ve got to have that personal awareness first before you can reach out there to make any difference,” Kathleen explain, “and it’s that kind of foundation which many women  haven’t had. So what needs to be developed is the personal awareness that you can do anything. You can. You really, really can. The more that’s inside of you, the stronger you become and then you can take that out into the world. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what  we do with our girls.  To create it in here,” Kathleen says, pointing to her heart. “Because if you got it in here and you channel it in the right direction, you can do the right thing out there.”

Building that strong foundation in women is the key. Then once they are fortified, then it’s back to inclusion. “It should always be about the inclusion thing,” Kathleen exhorts. “Men and women—everyone working together. It’s not just a me thing. The me thing doesn’t get you very far.”

That reflection underscores Eleanor Roosevelt’s core message. Wisdom, vision, leadership. Men and women working toward a peaceful world. Deeply underlying Eleanor’s achievements was a powerful spiritual foundation that fueled her practical applications. As chairperson for the Human Rights Commission, she helped foster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which sets the highest standard for human dignity and freedom. A political document, the Declaration has a profound spiritual basis. “I guess that spiritual foundation comes from just the basic premise, at least from Eleanor’s perspective, that you don’t have to earn human rights,” Kathleen explains. “They are inherently yours by the nature of your being born. So if you think of yourself being born into this universe, that is the spiritual connection right there—just by the fact that you are a child of God, you inherently have these human rights. And God, or whatever you wish to call [the divine], doesn’t withhold anything from anyone. It’s a giving presence, not a holding back presence. Now, man may give these rights to you in the form of a document, but if you could wake up in the morning and understand: I was born and I’m here. I’m a human being here as a gift from the universe, then that’s the spiritual foundation that I see behind the document.”

It is that very premise which historically always reasserts itself. After years and years of political or military solutions offered and put into practice, human consciousness often makes a leap. Spiritual movements such as those initiated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King invested in a vision that actually propelled humankind forward. Kathleen remarks that “while we’re certainly concerned about all the wars that are occurring, there may be growth that could eventually come out of all of it—there could be some forward movement. Perhaps we’ll get to a point where we will say, ‘Well, I don’t like the war, but what can come out of it now?’ As for the political aspect, you don’t have to view politics as a bad thing, even though it’s come to be seen that way these days. There may be good reason for that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Eleanor Roosevelt was an amazingly astute political person. These days we’ve come to make political mean something bad. But if we think that being political could be a good thing, then that might move us to the place where we want to be. I can envision that happening.”

That’s what Eleanor was doing—taking the political and infusing it more with the spiritual, taking a look at how we govern and integrating it with humane values, not with a particular religious view, but with a spiritual one. “Somehow we’ve made spiritual and religious the same and they’re not,” Kathleen comments, “so there’s the fight about well there’s religion and state. But it’s not like that. There’s really the spirituality of it which is how you relate in this universe to another human being. If that could be the basis for your political statement, what a beautiful world that would be.”

It’s just that kind of statement that makes Eleanor’s message relevant to all of us—men and women alike.

“Take a look around you,” Kathleen states “The same things that Eleanor talked about so many years ago are still right here. So sometimes I say, ‘Well, let me go back and look at what Eleanor was thinking about this.’ Let’s say health care for example. What was she thinking about that? What was she thinking about unemployment? What was she thinking about women? How was she dealing with those issues and how are we dealing with them now? What can we learn from her about it all? She still stands out as being very much a relevant figure even though so many years have passed. She was a transformative person, and I think when you’re transformative, then your ideas have no relationship to time.”

Eleanor’s quotes seem timeless as well. In an era where fear-based dialogue jabbers its way through our political venues, both in government and in our society at large, Kathleen offers one of Eleanor’s quotes that seems especially pertinent:

He who builds with alarm never builds anything.

“If you think about things right now,” Kathleen enumerates, “the conversation in the world is all about,  ‘Oh my God, this is happening. That’s happening. We can’t do this. We don’t have that.’ Well, if that’s your conversation and you’re  scared of what’s going on around you, then how are you going to build anything. How are you going to do it?”

Kathleen indicates the foundation is already faulty. “When you’re starting from fear to build anything, it’s going to crumble. You’re not really putting courage or persistence or persuasiveness into it. You’re not fueling the situation properly.”

Some sage counsel, but there’s more to come. Kathleen offers yet another of Eleanor’s quotes she holds dear.

Do one thing everyday that scares you.

“That one has a lot of power for me,” Kathleen divulges. “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”

A little sound guidance coming through the ages from the steward of Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy .

“It kind of gives me some joy to just think about it,” Kathleen says with a smile. “Okay, what’s one thing I can do today that scares me?”

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to ask.

****

The Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill is a nonprofit organization that fully embraces Eleanor Roosevelt’s call to build a better world through far-reaching programs that touch people worldwide – to be her heart, hand, and voice in realizing that better world.

Visit the ERVK site to find out more about their programs and upcoming events.


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Here we finally are! After years of research and writing, our novel (written with my husband) is finally up and running!

NEW YORK TIMES reporter Maggie Seline has written an explosive book that offers a controversial solution to the Middle East crisis. During a live radio interview, a kidnapping attempt is made and Maggie vanishes. Her disappearance sets in motion a worldwide women’s march toward Jerusalem that threatens the status quo and parallels a frantic race to possess ancient talismans. (more…)

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