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     Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that. Aretha Franklin

Belinda Brady

Belinda Brady knows the power of voice. A two time Juno Nominee for her hit singles “Flex” and “Gifted Man” she has also won the Canadian Urban Music Award for “Too Late” (1999) for best R&B single. The singer-songwriter has proven to be a woman who has designed her own course. Presently, the world’s the stage as far as Belinda is concerned, and she is ready and able to deliver her music onto a global platform.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, her artistry was influenced right from the start by parents who were deeply involved in the music business.

“My father, Carl Brady, was one of the founding members of a very famous calypso soca band by the name of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires,” Belinda states. “So I grew up being around the band and around the music. My mom was actually a dancer and traveled across the Caribbean and all across the world with them. Her name was Madame Wasp. My parents inspired me tremendously in terms of wanting to be a recording artist and wanting to be involved in the music business. I just loved the excitement and loved going up on stage seeing my mom and dad. I was always in awe when I saw my dad performing.”

Belinda eventually joined the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company where she was able to hone her craft as a singer, dancer and as an actress.

“I learned a lot from the theatre, but my first professional gig was with soca queen Denyse Plummer from Trinidad,” Belinda recalls. “I think I was seventeen years old at the time, and she asked me to come and sing and dance with her. That was really fascinating. The first show I did was one of the biggest festivals in Jamaica called Reggae Sunsplash. They’re no longer around, but it was one of the most prestigious festivals, and I had the opportunity to perform there.”

Her career beginning to blossom, Belinda graduated from Hillel Academy, an international school in Jamaica. “That was another great experience. At school we had a lot of foreign students, and it was a very diverse environment. We were interacting with people from all over the world, so that alone was setting up the stage for my launch outside of Jamaica.”

As Belinda explains, her mother also made a pivotal decision at that time — a choice that catapulted Belinda into a new world. “I’m the youngest out of eight. So wherever my mom went, I thought ‘I’ve gotta go.’ She decided to move to Canada to start a new life, and after I graduated from Hillel I decided to go there.” Belinda remarks how she wanted to get her OEC as well as attend York University. “I had it all planned out.”

But life, Belinda muses, doesn’t always go exactly as intended. To her surprise, new doors began to open. “You have to just go with the flow or with the path that has chosen you as opposed to the path that you’ve chosen. I was offered an opportunity to work with a very famous recording artist by the name of Shaggy. I traveled the world with him — to Asia, to the UK, and we did promotional shows in the States.”

Belinda remembers her travels with Shaggy vividly. “I’d be dancing on the stage in front of 10,000 people, telling them to wave their hands left to right. It was such a powerful, inspiring and enlightening experience. And I never forgot how that was an Aha moment in my life — about the power that one has in front of all those people and what you can do with that power, good or bad.”

Along with the ecstatic moments, Belinda has faced her own struggles as a musician. Like many female artists, she’s encountered difficulties in an industry that is still male-oriented and tends to package female singers by sexualizing them. Belinda clearly recognized the pitfalls and relates how she had to make some life-changing decisions in order to steer clear of the “sex object” trap.

“I must say that in the beginning, I had no clue. I was so naïve, and everything was being handed to me on a silver platter until the point that I decided to leave the Shaggy core to become a solo artist.” With a strong desire to strike out on her own, Belinda envisioned herself making it to the top, performing in Spain and Paris and many of the places she had previously visited with Shaggy. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reality. I had a lot of challenges as a female with wanting producers to take me seriously. I’m not saying with all of them, but with many. In Jamaica, unfortunately, the music industry is very male-dominated.”

Some producers Belinda encountered didn’t toe the professional line, but instead wanted to pursue a relationship. “It became like you work with me, but we also have to get involved intimately, and that wasn’t the direction I wanted to take. My parents showed me a life where I didn’t need to make that choice, so I walked away. I walked away from many opportunities.”

Belinda also notes she confronted similar issues even in Canada — producers and other music business professionals who did not want to speak to the artist directly, and in the case of female musicians, who wanted to strike up a more intimate relationship with them while working. “That was always the issue. There was no longevity in terms of doing a project from start to finish.”

What Belinda describes is quite a common experience for female artists. Many still deal with outdated concepts about which instruments are acceptable for them to play. They still confront not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. And, big surprise, they’re still portrayed as sex objects.

So the next step, as Belinda describes, was to take matters into her own hands. “At this point in my career, I decided I’m not going to knock on a producer’s or a manager’s door and ask him to work with me. As an independent artist, I’m going to fund my own projects.” Belinda conveys a strong stance. “You have to take control of your situation as opposed to allowing other people to take it for you or to bring you to the finishing line, because if you do, you’ll be waiting forever.”

Belinda also gives credit to her former manager, Canadian Idol judge Farley Flex, for ushering her to the next plateau in her career. “Although he’s no longer my manager, he took me to a level where I developed the strength within to say, ‘You know, I’ve done some great work.’ He gave me the platform to be myself, which is a diverse artist.”

Independent and steering her own path, Belinda found investing in herself key to her professional development. “That’s one thing I’d like to put out there for any artist. This is a business, and you’ve got to invest in your craft. And yes, you will lose but you will also win. There’s fulfillment within it if you plan it right. So now here I am as an independent artist, and as a woman, feeling very fulfilled with the choices that I’ve made and the team that I’ve created around me.”

Belinda’s unique vision also includes being true to herself with regard to her musical style. She flows easily between the genres — Rock, Pop, R&B, Folk and Reggae — influenced by artists such as Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, India Arie and Alanis Morissette. Her musical canvas is broad, and Belinda likes it that way. As she notes, being eclectic provides her the freedom to connect to a wide audience.

“I think I write for everybody,” Belinda states, “and it’s from the heart. Coming from Jamaica, people think, ‘Oh she’s just reggae, just reggae.’ But no, the first song that I wrote was a folk song. I was in England . . . and I wrote a folk song! I didn’t even know how to write reggae, and I had to be trained how to do that. I  loved heavy metal, and I also loved Salt-N-Pepa.”

A versatile artist, Belinda’s music doesn’t lend itself to being neatly categorized. “The album I had done with Farley Flex was very diverse. I had reggae on it. I had rock and folk, and I had R&B. Unfortunately, the music industry had no idea what to do with it,” she reflects. “It’s about the marketing and the target market, and they don’t believe that certain markets can cross over. But I think they’re absolutely wrong because there are artists out there that have done it. What I think they’re saying is that you have to be established in the beginning and grow a fan base and then you can cross over like, for example, Shania Twain or Whitney Houston. So I was always the artist that was developing and they were always saying Stay here, no stay here.”

But Belinda was not about to stay here for too long. She enjoys diversity. It’s who she is. “I think I was ahead of myself, so they say,” Belinda reflects, “at least in theory.”

But perhaps she’s no longer ahead of her time, but right on game. What the music industry could not wrap its collective head around in the past may be what will change it for the better today. A little renovation is due. It may be time to alter the music scene, change the playing field if you will, so musicians, women as well as men, can express their art without being bound by the same old rules. Could adding more women leaders to the music industry make a difference?

“I think we need more role models — women who are successful in the music business — to inspire the younger generation, to help them understand that there are different ways other than getting intimate with a producer or selling your body to do this. You can use your mind and educate yourself. That’s why role models are important. We can go out and we can educate the younger generation to feel inspired, to know that as a recording artist you can be respected, and as a business professional in the music industry you can be successful. We can also let them know there are other avenues within the industry where you can actually make a good income as well.”

As Belinda moves forward, performing at forums such as Amazing Woman’s Day and more recently on International Women’s Day as well as at the UN Women Canada event at CBC, Progress of the World’s Women, she highlights her commitment to humanitarian issues, including women’s empowerment.

“Well, I have to tell you that my life changed when I performed at Amazing Woman’s Day when I saw three hundred women standing up, crying and clapping and feeling so inspired. I thought, ‘This is the reason why my God wants me to do this. I need to be here on this earth to inspire people, and not just women. I am a vehicle, and as a vehicle I’m going to spread a positive message. I’m going to touch the soul.’ And I touched souls that day. I realized that is my path, that is my purpose, and that is my journey. So when I was invited by UN Women Canada to sing, I said ‘Absolutely, yes. I would love to be a part of your forum.’ I would love to serve my purpose — as a woman, as a messenger, and as a vehicle through song.”

And there’s no doubt that Belinda is definitely inspiring women to feel their own sense of power.

“I really feel that when I perform, I’m helping women feel empowered and know that they can do whatever they want to do. When it comes to the message I bring and the words I sing, I really want them to feel it. I want them to hear it. I want them to know that they can live it,” Belinda asserts. “I want to hit home for people and help them feel empowered and enlightened and know that they have the strength within to accomplish whatever dream they may have — whether that’s to be happy, whether it’s to find the right career, or whether it’s to live this life with contentment. My goal is to touch them so they can feel the light within.”

Yet, as many of us know, being in touch with that light is only part of the journey. Belinda offers some words of encouragement about pursuing your dreams and being yourself, no matter what.

“I think it all starts with self and I had to learn that,” she relates. “I went to self-development courses. I read A New Earth and The Power of Now (by Eckhart Tolle) and also Tony Robbins’ work. I hadn’t the confidence in myself to know that I could have this internal strength, that I could see the light and be enlightened as to what my purpose was on this earth. So it all starts in the core with finding the truth of who you are, accepting that truth, feeling joy, and moving on from the joy to executing what you truly want in this life.”

Listening to Belinda, one can’t help but feel her enthusiasm. She not only talks the talk but is determined to go the distance, expressing excitement about the new album she’s currently developing. “FACTOR (The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) is an agency that allows Canadian artists to pursue their dreams and they funded me. My project manager, Aisha Wickham Thomas, wrote a grant proposal, and we received a grant to do the album as well as to execute a marketing plan. So because of the funding assistance from this organization, I’m in the position to go into the studio to do a pop-electro album. It’s going to be really exciting because of all the positive things that are going to come out of it. I can’t wait to share it with the world. I really can’t.”

And just what are the themes that are moving Belinda’s music these days?

“I’m in a place where I don’t want to write about negativity,” Belinda states matter-of-factly. “I think this album’s direction should be about enlightenment and empowerment. It doesn’t matter through what type of music – it could be reggae, it could be folk – I’ve chosen pop-electro for this one. The message will be parallel in every song. It’s going to be positive and it’s going to be powerful. How do you feel within? It’s going to drive that light from inside. I’m so excited just talking about it. I’m going to be writing a lot this year, and that will be the common thread — positive music, positive lyrics.”

Belinda mentions a particular song she wrote, You’re So Amazing, that highlights her own state of mind as well as connects to the sense of inner power she wishes to evoke in her audience. “I was inspired by my mother who is my hero. To see how she’s gone through her challenges and her triumphs in life just inspired me to write this song. Here’s a few lines I wanted to share that a lot of women can relate to:

She’s a mother, a teacher, a healer too.

She’s not perfect, but she’s always true.

She’s a hero I see in you.

The higher she climbs, the further she soars . . .

“You see,” Belinda mentions, “the higher she climbs, the further she soars. That is the life of my mother. And a lot of women can absolutely relate to that. The higher you climb, the further you soar. Just don’t give up.”

Traveling her own path as a singer and songwriter, Belinda has chosen not to take the easy road to success, and giving up was never an option. Along the way, she’s recognized that to be truly clear about your purpose, a woman has to discover her authentic self.

“Go back to the core and really work on that,” Belinda emphasizes. “If it’s through inspirational books or inspirational tapes, if it’s by praying and giving total gratitude to a higher power, whoever your higher power is, you’ll find the answer. I promise you that. When we continually give gratitude for even the little opportunities in life, it will erase the fear. It will open the door to the light for us to understand our true self.”

And, as Belinda affirms,”We can then plan an enlightened life, an empowered life. That is the message.”

******
Find out more about the artist and her music at BelindaBrady.com
All photos used by permission.

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               The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.                                     — Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is literally a force of nature. She brings a heart-centered approach to every arena of her life, from her marriage to Justin Trudeau, a liberal member of the Canadian Parliament and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to raising her two children, to being a social activist, right through to her position as Quebec correspondent for eTalk, Canada’s most-watched entertainment news program.

Listening to her speak, one can’t help but think she has a natural flair for connecting with people, especially to women and girls, who readily respond to the openness and transparency she offers. Sophie immediately demonstrates her willingness to be straightforward, speaking about her struggles as well as what brought her to the different aspects of her path as an advocate and a reporter.

“To make a long story short, I’m an only child,” Sophie states. “I was brought up in a very loving family and I was fortunate to have a privileged upbringing. We weren’t millionaires, not at all, but we never lacked anything and we led a good life. My parents sent me to camp and paid for my travels and studies, so and I was very well cared for. I’m still very close to them, and they’re also amazing grandparents. Yet, obviously, everyone has their own struggles and I had mine. In my teenage years, I was faced with dealing with an eating disorder, which of course was an illness, but it was also a symptom of greater wounds. And as any other teenager who is dealing with building a notion of self, I was having difficulty building mine when it came to who I was, why I was here, and what my place was in this world.”

As an only child, Sophie mentions feeling a special kind of pressure. “You are trying to answer to so many things that are asked of you and you’re trying to perform. I know I wanted to be good at everything. I did well in school and sports and tended to be a perfectionist. Actually, I was asking way too much of myself.”

Sophie notes that adolescence is a time, especially for girls, when bonding and intimate relationships are at the core of building self esteem. She recognizes that her desire to excel compensated for a deeper need to connect. “It’s very important to have a good social network. When I struggled for years with an eating disorder, I knew very well what I was suffering from. Every time I was into binging and purging, I was really feeling isolated in my mind and deep down somewhere in my soul. Today, as a thirty-six year old woman, and now a mother of two, I understand that I was looking for something deeper back then — for my place in the world. I had wanted to pack my bags, and just travel and explore,” she says laughing, “but obviously, you have to go to school, and there are rules to follow. But what I really wanted to do was connect with human beings.”

Raised by parents who were always sensitive to the suffering of others had its effect. Sophie mentions that even at a young age she naturally extended herself to children who were lonely or being taunted. “My parents always said I had a tender heart. And today, I’m married to someone who’s like that, too. My husband, Justin, and I are both moved easily. We know how fortunate we are, and that it comes with a responsibility. I also felt at a young age — although I couldn’t put my finger it — that I had to do something greater. Not just for me,” Sophie says, pausing to reassess, “but you know, actually it was for me — for me to become the person that I wanted to become. But when you’re a teenager, that’s all blurry, which is normal.”

After studying Commerce at McGill University and attaining a BA in Communications from the Université de Montréal, Sophie worked in advertising and sales for several years before deciding to redirect her course. “I was not finding my place in that world, and I wasn’t feeling happy in my jobs. At one point, I decided to go to radio and television school because I had a gift for sharing information and for speaking to people. So I went to school and did very well. I landed my first job as a journalist in a newsroom, writing the ticker — the news you see at the bottom of the screen. I worked night shifts and it was actually a cool job. Being in the newsroom was exciting — you’re in touch with what’s happening around the world so it was all very interesting. And then, a couple of months later, there was an opening for a cultural entertainment reporter on the same channel. I was called in to audition, and I got the job.”

Being a media personality provided Sophie with an additional opportunity to connect with people, but now on a much grander scale. Literally having a voice that could reach millions of viewers, Sophie disclosed she had struggled with an eating disorder. “I remembered journalists asking me, ‘Have you ever had a problem with your body image?’ When I actually told the Quebec and the Canadian public that I had suffered from an eating disorder, the response was so amazing. At first, some people would ask, ‘Were you completely insane when you came out with that? Didn’t you wonder what people would think?’ And to be honest with you, No. Because I knew that so many of my friends and so many girls that I didn’t know were suffering. And from that point, it became a snowball effect. I started giving speeches and being invited to host events. And as more time passed, I really started to invest myself in women’s issues.”

As Sophie notes, she moved into advocacy work as a matter of course. “I didn’t wake up one morning saying, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do this.’ It just came naturally. I started to get more and more requests to speak. What really struck me was the response I received when I met people after a speech, and how the women — mothers, aunts, grandmothers — came up to me with tears in their eyes and shared their stories. It just all made sense. The message became loud and clear: This is what you have to do.

Telling her own story was just the beginning. The open doorway Sophie provided, allowing people insight into her personal struggles, proved to be the passage she used to venture out into the world, acting as a voice for women and children in need.

One journey that was especially moving for Sophie was the trip she took to Ethiopia in 2006 with her mother-in-law Margaret Trudeau, Honorary President of WaterCan, a leading Canadian charity dedicated to fighting global poverty by helping the world’s poorest people gain access to clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene education. Their life-changing venture was captured in the CTV documentary, A Window Opens: Margaret and Sophie in Ethiopia.

As Sophie explains, the trip to Ethiopia with WaterCangave her further insight into the difficulties people were facing. “I had been to Africa and had seen suffering,” Sophie remarks, “but not in the way that I did in Ethiopia. We traveled through the country with WaterCan, an organization which among other things, builds wells and brings clean water to remote regions in Africa. When we were traveling, we stayed with families for many hours during the day, and we saw that women were actually victims of the water problem more than men. That’s because they’re the ones who usually fetch the water and put their lives in danger, walking miles and miles and sometimes meeting up with violence. Little children are also walking way too far and are involved in accidents. So once again, when it comes to basic human rights, women and children are often the first ones to pay.”

Sophie has also lent her voice to a number of other initiatives, including being a spokesperson for Shield of Athena, an organization which operates therapeutic services for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse and violence. Among their services, they provide emergency housing and offer a safe and empowering environment, employing social workers, educators and cultural intermediaries who offer multilingual services. In addition, Sophie encourages girls’ activism through Girls for the Cure, a student-led initiative of young girls from six independent Montreal-area schools — Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s School, Queen of Angels Academy, Sacred Heart School of Montreal, The Study, Trafalgar School for Girls and Villa Maria — who work together to make a difference in their communities. They offer a Student Scholarship Program which allows young women of participating schools the opportunity to develop projects focused on philanthropy, volunteerism and education. “In September, Girls for the Cure [watch the 2010 CTV video] will be doing an amazing event where thousands of girls will be uniting on Mount Royal Summit in Montreal,” Sophie informs. “They’ll be walking to raise awareness for women-related cancers and research.”

As Sophie clearly indicates, women’s issues are of primary importance to her, both in Canada and around the globe. She points out that even today, in 2011, over sixty million girls cannot lay claim to basic human rights, including access to education or personal safety. “When you think deeply about it, women today are being raped, violated, coerced into the sex trade, and humiliated for one reason — and for one reason only — because they’re women. That is unacceptable. And we’re paying the price worldwide since nations are becoming impoverished because women cannot fully participate. Obviously, there are some regions in the world where this problem is extreme, like in China and India, where we’re talking gendercide and infanticide with regard to girls. The situation is quite alarming. If you read the facts and know what’s going on out there, there’s no way that you’re not going to be touched by all of this, especially if you’re a woman.”

At the same time, Sophie acknowledges the importance of men’s participation regarding women’s rights. Respecting women and focusing on their empowerment does not represent a ‘women against men’ issue, but rather only helps to create a balanced approach to human rights in all sectors of life. “Each time I get to address an audience, and I see the men that attend these events, I always thank them because without them, without all of us holding hands together, where are we going to go with all this?”

As Sophie indicates, more men need to advocate for girls and women in order to turn the tide. “Unfortunately, when we talk about these problems, about gendercide and crimes against girls and women, especially within some regions of the world, these extreme actions have often been led by men. Obviously, there have been some instances, especially with regard to female genital mutilation, where it’s a vicious cycle. Women who have not known anything else actually encourage young girls and other women to get that sort of thing done.”

Nonetheless, the pendulum has been stuck on the side of patriarchy a bit too long. There’s no doubt that it’s an unbalanced paradigm, with disregard for the feminine creating its own deficit problem.

“I truly believe humanity is facing a huge imbalance between the male and female energies,” Sophie asserts. “We have disrespected, in such a deep way, the womb of humanity — women — and we are paying the price right now on all levels. We’re even seeing it in our pop culture. It’s so in our faces that it’s kind of hidden at the same time, because we’ve become accepting of it. Talking with young girls, I realize that there’s a culture of self-hatred that really has been rampant, and it’s actually normal to hate yourself when you’re a teenager today. That’s unacceptable. That is why we have to address these issues, and we have to do it locally, one baby step at a time.”

And those baby steps have led to much bigger strides. As Sophie travels have informed her, more and more women are coming to the fore around the globe, supporting one another and advocating for their basic human rights. “There are women’s movements all over the world, including in the poorest regions and places where women have not had a political voice,” Sophie states. “I think that’s because we’re in an era of information. These women now have more of the facts and they realize this is not right. So as much as in Canada as abroad, I think that these little cells of women, of energy, are feeling one another. I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but there’s definitely something remarkable happening and more and more men are beginning to address the situation. And fortunately enough, I’m with a man who shares my values and thoughts, and obviously part of his battle will be dealing this issue as well.”

Adding more women to the mix seems not only rational, but essential. Sophie emphasizes the importance of women’s roles as leaders, whether in politics, education, or any other sector of society, noting that women bring certain qualities to the table that benefit the whole.

“You know, there’s a reason why there are more women in volunteer work,” Sophie remarks. “There’s a reason why there are more women in social work. The reason is because in times of struggle, we tend to open our arms and build a social network, to come out with our problems and to talk about them because we need to. Also, women leaders have been shown to be more compassionate colleagues. Generally speaking, that’s been demonstrated. Of course, many women are occupying amazing roles in society, but there’s still a huge gap in the financial world and the political world.”

Sophie indicates it’s really about our future. Her panoramic view takes in the larger sphere of the human family where additional women in leadership means a more balanced paradigm, one that would help us take the next step as a noble humanity. That includes peace resolution work as well.

“You know, I don’t want to fall into a cliché because there are clichés out there,” Sophie notes, “but yes, I do believe that women have certain qualities — especially when you’ve become a mother or you go through your own struggles — that have allowed us to build a larger tribe to face our problems. And once again, if I go back to volunteer work, social work, health care, or nursing, I think there are a lot more women doing these types of things because some part of our bodies, not just our minds, are meant to create peace around us and to foster democracy and justice.”

Philosophically speaking, Sophie notes that we all have masculine and feminine qualities, and our internal dynamics have often set the stage for the larger societal problems we face. “When it comes to talking about gender discrimination, I think that the first thing you have to ask yourself if you’re a woman is how do I treat the man in me? And if you’re a man, it would be how do I treat the woman in me? I think that’s the first question you need to ask yourself, and the answer probably indicates how, as a human being, you interact with your environment as well as how you perceive others and the world around you.”

Sophie also enhances awareness of gender discrimination in her role as national ambassador for Plan Canada.

Plan International’s Because I am a Girl initiative is a social movement to unleash the power of girls and women to claim a brighter future for girls in the developing world.

And just why is focusing on girls’ empowerment so important?

“Helping young girls throughout this world is really at the core of the issue,” Sophie asserts. “First of all, we need to stand up for the millions of girls around the world who face barriers to their survival, basic rights and their ability to develop simply because they are young women. And when we invest in them we are directly reducing global poverty and suffering for the whole, for all of society. It’s incredible that right now, over sixty-five million girls are being denied even a basic education.”

          Girls and women are particularly affected by poverty. This is partly because they have less power to fight it, less access to the means to overcome it, or their entire families are suffering in poverty. Being born underweight, given little or poor-quality food and having little or no education can prevent girls from developing properly. Poverty can also force girls to work or get married at young age instead of going to school.        Plan Canada

“Plan Canada really believes in the Because I am a Girl project. We really want all young Canadian women to be aware of what’s happening because we feel that we have the power, the tools and the democracy to create movements that can help abroad and bring about social change.”

Girls advocating, giving public talks, driving transformative agendas . . . Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl clubs and speakers bureau engage girls to do just that, empowering and supporting their efforts to stand up for girls’ rights at home and abroad. “The girls give speeches and are really creating a social movement with others their age. There are website blogs and fundraisers and there’s also been a documentary made. So they’re using different kinds of media to really get out there and reach out to each other.”

With regard to Plan International’s other initiatives, Sophie explains there are current projects such as the one in Bangladesh, which supports human rights, including the protections of women and girls. She also mentions the Early Girl Child Marriage Project in Kenya which works to protect girls from this illegal practice. “There have been some documented impacts,” Sophie indicates, “and they have seen a reduction in teenage pregnancies and marriages. Also, in Burkina Faso, there’s a program called BRIGHT — Burkinabé Response to Improve Girls Chances to Succeed. So once again, it’s about education. Obviously, when you get to girls, you’re also getting to young boys and their families. So we’re trying to change parental views on girls’ education as well. That’s where it starts. If a girl is not educated you’re losing her whole soul and heart and mind. Not being educated means a girl isn’t able to fully participate in society, and the nation will be paying the price for that on every level.”

Plan Canada has also championed the presentation of a motion which was passed by the Canadian Parliament, proposing the creation of a UN Resolution proclaiming September 22nd as the International Day of the Girl.

“I think that because of the privileges we have here in Canada, we need to be leading the way on this matter,” Sophie states. Spearheading the initiative, Canada has now established the groundwork for a global movement. In fact, the call for the International Day of the Girl is imminent and can also be supported by signing the Girl Petition.

As Sophie reflects on her own advocacy work dealing with women and children’s issues, she remarks pointedly that no matter who she meets or what type of position they may hold, there’s are certain type of person that inspires and impresses her. “Women following their own passion. Their message and their energy are completely contagious.”

As eTalk’s Quebec correspondent, Sophie is also in a unique position to not only inform but to do her own brand of inspiring. “This job is an amazing tool and a window for me to connect with youth because so many of them watch the show. Besides doing interviews, I also talk a lot about the responsibility of public personas and stars to use their voices for something important because young people look up to them so much. And there are some people in the entertainment industry who are doing amazing things. I would say that celebrities like Angelina and Brad are putting it out there that it’s important to do things to make this world a better place. I also know many other celebrities who have started fundraisers and foundations and who are doing great work.”

Sophie also mentions finding inspiration through many adventurous avenues. She plays flute and guitar, composes songs, and loves to sing (perhaps we’ll hear her sing at an event one day).

“I also get inspired a lot from my yoga practice,” she reveals. “I think that it brings me to that little person inside of me that’s the same as in everyone else. As yoga philosophy mentions, that person is in a continuous state of gratitude and peace . . . a person that’s both male and female — the perfect balance between the two. Then there’s the feeling yoga gives me of being connected to everyone — from the people in my class to every human being on this planet. It’s a feeling that really pushes me on a deep, deep level. Also, in yoga practice, there’s always this little voice that comes across in its own language and vibration that makes me feel that everything is going to be okay. That good does prevail.”

Idealistic and passionate, Sophie inspires in a way that is both personal and touching. Even as she reflects on the advice she would give her own children, one can’t help but think that, on a universal level, the message is meant for all of us.

“If I were to say one thing to my little ones, I think I would tell them that the only word to live by is love . . . self love and love for humanity.”

As a reporter, an advocate, a wife and a mother, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is a woman whose struggles have awakened her heart to the world, allowing compassion and tenderness to direct her course . . . a woman who understands that the light of courage is far more powerful than any darkness.

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Photo Credits:  Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau headshot – Courtesy of CTV, Bell Media. Photo of Margaret Trudeau and Sophie in Ethiopia – Peter Bregg, 2006. Photo of Mutsumi Takahashi of CTV News, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and Elena Kratsios – Courtesy of Girls for the Cure. Because I am a Girl Ambassador photo – Courtesy of Plan Canada.

Article written by Angelina Perri Birney, author of the blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, dedicated to women’s influence on world affairs. Angelina is also coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, available in print and as an eBook on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.

 

      When you give women power, you are assuring the progress of humanity.                         — Former Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean   

Almas Jiwani

Jumpstarting the progression of women’s rights throughout the world is no easy task. Gender equality is a cool and clinical term for a fundamental and essential right –- the right for women and girls worldwide to live free of discrimination, violence and poverty. Championing the challenge, UN Women has been in the forefront working throughout the world to secure women’s equality and empowerment.

The National Committee for UN Women Canada is an independent, non-governmental entity that supports the mission of UN Women. The organization is definitely making landmark strides in supporting the United Nations in its efforts, not only in Canada, but throughout the world. Almas Jiwani, President of UN Women Canada, exemplifies inspiration in action. A renowned humanitarian and enterprising entrepreneur, she is dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights at home and throughout the world.

As Almas relates, her resourcefulness and desire to serve a greater good developed early in her life. “I immigrated to Canada with my family in my early teens from Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We were leaving a region where political, humanitarian, and democratic institutions were collapsing. Arriving in Canada, we began rebuilding our lives, learning to navigate Canadian culture and practices and to integrate our own culture and faith.”

Almas also mentions that as newcomers and minorities, her family faced challenges but also experienced great opportunities. “At that time of my life, I realized that many communities in the developing world were apathetic towards women and did not allow them an environment for their social and intellectual growth. I also realized the importance of making a difference in the lives of the underprivileged, alleviating poverty, and uplifting women in society. This realization inspired me to begin volunteering with initiatives to promote women and advocate for their empowerment. I then became very involved with the Aga Khan Council for Canada with their various projects and portfolios. As a young teenager, facing the challenges of integrating into a new community, I made a commitment to do all in my capacity to ensure that women live as equals.”

Eventually, when Almas was making a presentation to community members in Vancouver, the president of a corporate company approached her and asked, Did you know that you have a hidden selling talent? “I felt offended, believe it or not, and he was actually trying to compliment me,” she remarks. “Then he called me a trooper—I didn’t know the meaning of the word trooper at the time—and introduced me to someone who was involved in a multimedia business. I remember being told, ‘You know what Almas, you will knock on ten doors—cold calls are extremely difficult—but eventually a door will open.’ I always remembered that message and use it in my speeches with regard to empowering women. Even if you’ve knocked on ten doors, don’t give up because the eleventh door may open for you.”

Still in all, Almas’ initial media endeavor didn’t last too long. “Being young, and having no clue . . . My dad passed away when I was eleven years old . . . I was like a one woman show. I had no idea who to talk to or who to confide in. I was doing everything on my own. It was a huge risk.” But being a risk-taker is Almas’ forte. She then ventured into international trading for a while until turning down her current road — President and CEO of Frontier Canada Inc., a corporate communications company.

Accomplished in both business and in the humanitarian field, Almas has also offered her volunteer efforts at the international level for the past nine years. “As I mentioned, I was involved with the Aga Khan Council and one of our mandates was to settle Afghan Ismaili refugees who were arriving in Canada and help the people integrate into the community and society. I was the national settlement vice chair. During the course of this, I had to attend a couple of government meetings and I guess people began to notice me. Eventually I was elected to be a member of the Board of Directors of UNIFEM Canada, and after several years, I undertook leadership in June 2009.”

Almas Jiwani and Michaëlle Jean

The efforts of both Almas and the Board has taken UN Women Canada into new territories, expanding their efforts to promote gender equality in more sections of Canada than at any other time in the organization’s eighteen year history. Almas especially notes that in 2010, a year after becoming president, she had the honor of presenting the prestigious UNIFEM CANADA Award to Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean during her term as Governor General of Canada . . . the ideal candidate because of her extensive involvement in advancing the issue of gender equality in various capacities around the world.

And just as Almas reorganized the National Committee in Canada, the United Nations also restructured its efforts to establish women’s rights around the globe by creating a new, overarching entity:  UN Women.

“UN Women — United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — is charged with advancing gender equality,” Almas states. “It was established by a General Assembly Resolution in 2010, and became operational on January 1, 2011. We had our first official launch on February 24th in New York. Now, UN Women is operating under the auspices of Under-Secretary-General Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile).”

As Almas notes, the creation of UN Women came about as part of the UN reform agenda. Its main objective is to connect resources and mandates for greater overall impact and to accelerate progress towards the goal of gender equality. This includes increasing women’s economic empowerment and leadership as well as bringing women to the center of peace and security issues. UN Women is the result of the cohesive merging of four previously distinct parts of the UN system:

  • Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)
  • International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW)
  • Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI)
  • United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

“UN Women’s work today builds on the strong foundation of these four parts and represents a movement to put gender equality on par with other development priorities,” Almas explains. “It represents a stronger voice for women in the United Nations and a greater advocate for larger financial investments to support gender equality initiatives. UN Women will serve as a dynamic and strong champion for women and girls and we will provide them with a powerful voice at the global, regional, and local levels.”

As one of UN Women’s independent, non-governmental National Committees, UN WOMEN CANADA (previously UNIFEM Canada), founded in 1993, is a volunteer-driven organization. As Almas explains, UN Women Canada’s key strategies of advocacy, awareness and fundraising are implemented through the following initiatives:

  • Executing advocacy and media campaigns
  • An annual Award Fundraising Gala
  • Collaborating with public education platforms
  • Public speaking opportunities
  • Building membership drives and campaigns
  • Partnering with private and public sector funding
  • A Youth Development Conference

“This year, we have hosted five successful launches in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Papineau, QC, and Winnipeg to raise awareness of UN Women, and more launches are planned,” Almas informs. “We are also putting together a prestigious black tie fundraising gala and a youth conference to engage and empower young Canadians in actions that will advance the gender equality mission. The bottom line is we want to raise awareness and ensure that everyone knows what UN Women is all about and what our goals are.”

One of these goals, women’s economic empowerment, is of primary importance to Almas. Without it, many women continuously face a vicious cycle. “Women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty,” Almas asserts. “Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment and control of assets. Poverty implications are widespread for women, leaving many without even basic rights such as access to clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and decent employment. Being poor can also mean that they have little protection from violence and have no role, absolutely no role, in decision making.”

According to some estimates, women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. They are often paid less than men for their work, with the average wage gap in 2008 being 17 percent. “Women face persistent discrimination,” Almas remarks, “not only in developing countries but also in the developed world when they apply for credit for business or self-employment. They are also often concentrated in insecure, unsafe and low-wage work.”

And just how does the present economic crisis affect women in the work arena? What special difficulties does it present?

“The current financial crisis is likely to affect women particularly severely,” Almas maintains. “In many developing countries where women work in export-led factories, or in countries where migrant women workers are the backbone of service industries, women’s jobs have taken the greatest hit. When there’s a recession, women are the first to be laid off.”

And the proof is in the statistics. In 2009, the International Labour Organization estimated that the economic downturn could lead to somewhere around 22 million more unemployed women, jeopardizing the gains made in the last few decades in women’s empowerment. In addition, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) forecasted that women’s unemployment would accelerate at a faster rate than men’s throughout 2010 as the crisis continued to affect female-dominated industries such as manufacturing and tourism.

So that leaves us with getting down to the basics: A fundamental ingredient to advancing women’s human rights and economic stability lay in obtaining monies for the endeavour, as well as initiating awareness that investing in women creates a win-win situation. “Financing for gender equality is more than just securing resources and funding for institutions such as national women’s organizations and gender equality projects,” Almas recognizes. “To accomplish sustainable and deep-rooted changes, financing for gender equality must recognize women as active economic agents that are central to a vibrant economy.”

Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.

Almas explains that gender-responsive budgeting can make a huge difference in how governments allocate funds. “A budget is the most comprehensive statement of a government’s social and economic plans and priorities. In tracking where the money comes from and where it goes, budgets determine how public funds are raised, how they are used, and who benefits from them.”

Although women’s empowerment is the focus, Almas emphasizes that gender-responsive budgeting is not about creating separate budgets for women. “I believe a gender-responsive budget should recognize the ways which women contribute to society and the economy,” Almas adds, “including through their unpaid labor in bearing and rearing children and caring for the people in the country—that’s my perception. I also feel it’s important that people see the benefits that can be derived from supporting gender-based budgeting. Seeing the benefits will encourage further support.”

Yet, it appears the most lucrative changes will occur when those power brokers steering the world economy start practicing as well as implementing changes to purge a system beset by imbalance and corruption. Nothing short of corporate catharsis will do the trick. Those sitting on top of the economic stockpile need a dose of gender equity to help provide balance in how, where, and how much funds are allocated and if women’s rights are part of the picture.

To that end, Almas relates that when making a presentation at the World Bank, she was confronted with a question regarding the prevalence of corruption within governments worldwide. “I answered by saying, ‘Let me present a counter question: How many women are sitting on your Board making decisions?’ They were silent. ‘Zero . . . that’s the answer. You want to prevent corruption, have more women on the Board. Give them the power to influence the policies and you’ll see the difference.”

In addition to supporting gender-responsive budgeting initiatives, UN Women also works to strengthen women’s rights to land and inheritance. Almas describes the struggles women face when these rights are denied.

“In many countries around the world, women’s property rights are limited by social norms, customs and at times legislation,” Almas states, “hampering their economic status and opportunities to overcome poverty. Even in countries where women constitute the majority of small farmers and do more than 75 percent of the agricultural work, they are routinely denied the right to own the land they cultivate and which they are dependent upon to raise their families. Ownership of land and property empowers women and provides income and security. Without resources such as land, women have limited say in household decision-making, and no recourse to the assets during a crisis. This often relates to other vulnerabilities such as domestic violence, HIV and AIDS.”

In other words, in most countries in the world, property rights provide protection and security. Often denied these rights, women fall victim to rejection and destitution. “In regions of conflict, the impact of unequal land rights has particularly serious consequences for women — often the only survivors,” Almas notes. “In conflict and post-conflict situations, the number of women-headed households often increases sharply as many men have either been killed or are absent. Without their husbands, brothers or fathers — in whose name land and property titles are traditionally held — they find themselves denied access to their homes and fields by male family members, former in-laws or neighbors. Without the security of a home or income, women and their families fall into poverty traps and struggle for livelihoods, education, sanitation, health care, and other basic rights.”

International agreements already underscore the importance of women’s land and property rights. The Beijing Platform for Action affirms that women’s right to inheritance and ownership of land and property should be recognized. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has addressed it as well regarding rural women’s rights to equal treatment in land and agrarian reform processes. In addition, women’s property rights are essential to realizing the Millennium Development Goals, specifically the goals of eradicating extreme poverty and achieving gender equality.

Almas also describes how globalization has contributed to an increasing flow of migrant workers from countries with limited economic opportunities. Women migrant workers, whose numbers have been increasing, now constitute 50 percent or more of the migrant workforce in Asia and Latin America.

“By creating new economic opportunities, migration can promote economic independence and status for women workers, who are often sustaining communities at home,” Almas states. “Studies indicate that migrant women workers contribute to the development of both sending and receiving countries — remittances from their incomes account for as much as 10 percent of the GDP in some countries. In 2008, remittances were estimated by the World Bank at US $305 billion. These monetary investments — used for food, housing, education and medical services — along with newly acquired skills of returnees, can potentially contribute significantly to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals.”

But migration is also a risky endeavor for women, many of whom end up at the lower end of the job market. “Female migrants often work as domestic workers and entertainers — a euphemism for sex workers — in unregulated informal sectors that do not fall under national labor laws,” Almas states. “Migrant women routinely lack access to social services and legal protection and are subjected to abuses such as harsh working and living conditions, low wages, illegal withholding of wages and premature termination of employment. The worst abuses force women into sexual slavery.”

For these reasons, UN Women focuses on promoting safe migration for women around the world. It works with governments and civil society to eliminate trafficking and establish laws that protect the human rights of women migrants as well as strengthen migrants’ organizations. Since due to economic stress, women are venturing all the more to obtain livelihoods in countries other than their own, national poverty reduction programs in their homeland, including the advancement of women’s rights and ability to procure a decent living would be actions well worth pursuing to remedy the problem.

So it appears that for lasting change to take hold concepts of women’s economic viability need to change. How are women’s equality and their economic empowerment connected to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals?

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet visiting with the women of Panama

“The statistical data at the UN reveals that the majority of Millennium Development Goals such as literacy, alleviation of poverty, access to maternal health care, reduction of childhood mortality, environmental sustainability, and the eradication of HIV/ AIDS and Malaria are all inextricably tied to gender equality and women’s empowerment,” Almas declares. “I believe that the investment in gender equality is an essential characteristic of secure and efficient societies. Presently, women and girls make up more than half of the world’s population. Yet most women are discriminated against, mistreated and deprived of their basic human rights. For this reason, gender equality needs to be regarded as a moral imperative and an urgent priority in all regions. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, consistently emphasizes the necessity for the empowerment of women. The notion of gender-based budgeting and investment in international development projects is no longer a concession but a compulsion.”

In addition, Almas emphasizes that in societies where women have equal access to economic assets, decent livelihoods and a voice in decision-making, the economies are stronger, maternal mortality rate drops, and child nutrition improves. “Therefore, gender equality lies at the core of this issue,” she stresses. “If we want to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, we need to mainstream gender equality in developing countries. Without accomplishing this on a global scale, we will continue to ignore the plight of almost half the world’s population.”

There also appears to be a direct link between women’s economic security and an individual country’s peace and security issues. “We can clearly notice that in countries where gender equality has been mainstreamed into economic, political, social, educational, and literary arenas, such as in the USA, UK, and Canada, the economic progress of those countries increased by significant margins. Also, case-studies that include Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda reveal that when women are empowered economically, the country’s economy and state structure flourish. Yet, we also can see that when war and insecurity plagues these countries, any reforms or gains toward gender equality deteriorates . . . and the abuse of women’s human rights increases immensely.”

With regard to post-conflict situations, Almas notes that in Rwanda, women now make up more than 70% of the Parliamentarians. In that climate, the status of women’s economic opportunities rose. “After the resolution of the Hutu-Tutsi tribal violence in Rwanda, the United Nations and the Rwandan Government worked together to ensure gender equality, and the proper representation of women. Thus, in this time of peace, we observe a significant presence of lucrative economic opportunities for women.”

Throughout all the losses and gains, women’s groups large and small have been coming to the fore around the world in amazing numbers. Almas takes a look at the phenomenon and its effect on the progression of women’s rights. “Years of advocacy by the global women’s movement have been instrumental in the creation of UN Women,” Almas recognizes. “Civil society, in particular women’s organizations, play a vital role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Strong relationships between UN Women and partners from all over the world are crucial in working towards achieving these goals. So together, we can become a much stronger voice and make a more powerful impact.”

Almas refers to the current predominance of women’s rights groups flourishing around the world as a “ripple effect.” In many places, whether in the developing world such as in South or Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, or in the developed Western countries, the issues of gender equality and the progress being made in the realm of women’s rights has really struck a chord with most women.

“As a result, we have noticed exponential growth in women’s grassroots movements on the ground in the developing world,” Almas informs, “whether it’s regarding a battle for land rights, access to health-care, alleviation of poverty or a host of other social justice issues. And in the developed world, where we have overcome the core issues such as poverty and land rights, the women’s rights movement is more focused on parity between women and men in the workforce, women’s access to education, and eradicating the issues of domestic abuse . . . So I personally think that this rippling of women’s equality movements in large numbers is a positive sign. These movements also indicate that more and more women in contemporary society have the opportunity to mobilize together and champion their rights for equality.”

Throughout the years, whether volunteering or in her present sphere as President of UN Women Canada, Almas has found inspiration through her spiritual beliefs as an Ismaili Muslim, as well as from those prominent individuals who have influenced her work.

His Highness the Aga Khan

His Highness the Aga Khan

“I’ve gained much inspiration over the years from many individuals and entities that drive me forward and make me who I am as a leader,” Almas conveys. “Since my childhood, His Highness Aga Khan IV, the Ismaili spiritual leader and humanitarian, has been a huge inspirational source for me. His humanitarian ideals for empowering the underprivileged, educating women, and using civil society as a force for positive change and international development in order to foster an ‘enabling environment’ for those less fortunate is the catalyst that humbles and motivates me to serve the unprivileged women and girls of the world.”

Almas mentions other influential figures that have affected her leadership. “Emily Murphy of the Famous Five and the out-going Governor General of Canada, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean are exemplary women that I have consistently looked up to for inspiration. These visionaries inspire me with the legacy of women’s equality present in their public service work.”

In addition, Almas also recognizes the Government of Canada and its consistent devotion to the cause of gender equality, as well as UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet and Outreach and Business Development Advisor, Mr. Antoine De Jong as important sources of encouragement. “When I see that our hard work, our time, and our knowledge is impacting and making a difference in the world, it just encourages and inspires me to do more. I want to be that drop in the ocean that makes a big difference.”

Certainly her contributions are worthy of admiration. Almas has brought her whole self to the task, including her spiritual beliefs, her culture, and a CAN DO philosophy that’s extraordinary in measure. In short, Almas Jiwani has recognized that uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. Her fearless drive has served to motivate others in their own work toward women’s empowerment.

That personal stance is reflected in a quote from the poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost which Almas finds especially meaningful.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less travelled by.

“I’m a firm believer in taking the road less travelled,” Almas conveys. “Many career women today face a number of obstacles while trying to shatter the glass ceiling. In lieu of these challenges, some women lose hope through the realization of there being no ‘easy’ way out. However, it is only through the trials and tribulations faced on the road not taken that my own inspiration and success has been nurtured. And so, I urge all women and young girls to also embark on this journey. As a result of an innovative and non-traditional approach to life, beset with challenges, I’ve become a stronger woman.”

Of that, we have no doubt.

A number of years ago in Nairobi, at an international business conference where she was a speaker, Almas addressed the audience with words which ring just as true today, embodying the spirit of her approach to life, business and the women’s movement.

“It turned out that I was the only Indian woman speaking at the conference,” Almas relates. “There were seven speakers and I was the last one. I listened to all the other presenters before me and when my time came to talk, I told the audience, I’ve decided I will not read my speech today. I will speak to you guys from my heart. I will tell you how I got myself where I am today — about my challenges and experiences, and with no background education in the field that I’m in. With no training, no guidance, and nobody to tell me what to do. Today, I am here because of perseverance . . because of this passion . . . because I want to make a difference. If I can do it, you guys can do it.’’

The story of her life is the story of her leadership.

Perhaps we can find our own strength by taking those words of encouragement to heart. For those of us questioning whether we have the power to act, we can stop wondering. Just take the plunge, as Almas did, and give it all you’ve got.

********

All photos used by permission.

front cover.inddArticle written by Angelina Perri Birney, author of the blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, dedicated to women’s influence on world affairs. Angelina is also coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, available in print and as an eBook on Amazon, Amazon (Canada) Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.


               In 2004, Geena Davis sat with her pre-school age daughter watching TV and movies, and they began to notice something: a lack of female characters. Davis thought, if my daughter notices, then what message does this send to all children?

Madeline Di Nonno

Since that discovery, acclaimed actress and activist Geena Davis has made it her business to evoke change in the entertainment industry. But just how does one turn the heads of media moguls and content creators, influencing them to recognize the need for gender balance in film and television, especially regarding content shown to children?

The answer: Show them the evidence.

In order to highlight the disparity, Geena dedicated herself to raising funds for the largest research project ever undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment. Disturbed by the findings of the studies, including the fact that men outnumbered women in top-grossing, G-rated films by a three-to-one ratio, she went on to establish the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM).

Madeline Di Nonno, the Executive Director of the Institute and its programming arm, SEE JANE, brings over twenty-five years of experience in media, marketing and business development to the task. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Madeline found herself drawn into the world of media at a young age. She speaks about her own evolution through the entertainment industry as well as her current role in promoting the Institute’s vision.

“Well, my passion and interest in entertainment actually started when I was about seventeen,” Madeline mentions. “I had an opportunity to intern at ABC, and I fell in love with it. I stayed there all the way through college, and also my first job out of Boston University was at ABC. So that was my foray into media communications and television. Interestingly enough, Geena also attended Boston University and was there at the same time, but we didn’t know each other back then.”

Madeline’s extensive background includes working for Lancôme, the Luxury Products division of L’Oreal where she entered the arena of consumer packaged goods, as well as eventually working for some boutique marketing agencies. “But then I decided that my first love was really entertainment and media, and I wanted to return to that. To make a very long story short, Universal Home Entertainment recruited me and I relocated to California. I actually helped start the marketing group there for the Home Entertainment division and then subsequently was recruited to help launch the Hallmark network with a number of other executives. Then from there, I worked with a number of independent film companies, essentially driving marketing, business development and digital media.”

So how did Madeline find herself venturing down the road of philanthropic service, eventually landing in the arena of children’s media?

“It was more of an epiphany,” she reveals, “like the time I made the decision in my career to return to entertainment. After garnering a lot of accomplishments and a lot of success, I came to that point in my life where I felt compelled to use my power for social good. The challenge for me was to balance my professional career with my passion for philanthropy, something I’ve always been involved in from the standpoint of volunteering or sitting on Boards. I began to think, maybe there’s a way to put these two together. I want to stay in my field, but how can I make a deeper contribution?”

Meanwhile, Madeline relays Geena Davis, who had been devoting her time to developing the Institute, reached a formative juncture. “Geena had made some very smart strategic decisions. She then decided that she wanted a business and entertainment executive to run the organization in order to essentially take it to the next level, and she found me. It was one of those kismet moments—just the right time and the right place.” Utilizing Madeline’s expertise, that next level involves the development of both advocacy and educational tools that will further drive the Institute’s aim for programming that targets kids eleven and under: To dramatically increase the representation of females as well as to reduce the gender stereotyping of both boys and girls.

             The Institute is a resource for the entertainment industry (media companies, animators, writers, producers, and others), the next generation of content-creators, and the public. We outreach to these individuals and companies towards supporting positive change in media, so young girls and young boys can grow up treating each other as equals.  — The Geena Davis Institute

“The Kaiser Family Foundation did a media usage report back in 2009 which states that essentially, today’s children are engaging with some type of media upwards of ten hours a day,” Madeline notes. “And that’s more time than is spent on sleeping or any other activity. So when you think about the consumption and the accessibility of media—whether good or bad—it can play a great role in having a deep and profound influence on children. The three areas that we’ve noticed are social-cultural behaviors and beliefs, self-esteem, and career aspirations and occupations. So if children, and particularly girls, aren’t seeing themselves represented, or the way that they do see themselves conveyed is marginalized, objectified, or in a very hypersexual way, then what kind of message are we sending them? And likewise, if boys don’t see girls doing interesting things, or if girls are hypersexualized, then what’s the message we’re sending to our boys who are tomorrow’s leaders, fathers and policy-makers? Also when you think about it, women comprise over fifty percent of the population, so what’s being portrayed doesn’t actually reflect the real world.”

In terms of the Institute’s theory of change as represented in the SEE JANE program, Madeline refers to Geena Davis’ strategy of targeting children eleven and under as brilliant. “That’s because when you think about the women’s movement and where we are today, and if you look at different business sectors, women fill about 17 or 18 percent of the positions. There are some exceptions here and there, but we really haven’t reached that so-called tipping point. One of our strategies is to address what our youngest children are seeing so that we can stop enculturating the next generation of content creators, policy makers, and parents with this type of gender stereotyping and messaging.”

               SEE JANE is a program of the Institute that utilizes research, education and advocacy to engage the entertainment industry and recognize the need for gender balance and varied portrayals of females and male characters into movies, TV, and other media aimed at children 11 and under. We work cooperatively and collaboratively with entertainment creators to encourage them to be leaders in creating positive change.

Fundamentally, one of the ideas behind the Geena Davis Institute is to take a comprehensive look at the media field and to influence how it’s seeded—more female characters and more women and girls portrayed in roles that enhance their view of themselves and what they can achieve—basically breaking the hold of restrictive stereotypes. The Institute presents an innovative approach, through research, education and engagement with media executives and creators, to revamp the programming content kids are viewing.

“When children get to be about ten or eleven, you have a lot of organizations doing wonderful, on the ground work,” Madeline indicates, “but they’re dealing with the effects. We want to nip the problem in the bud, so to speak. So based on that, our goal has been to work within the entertainment industry—with the leading content creators across the media sectors—and to influence how they’re shaping their content. The other founding dynamic that Geena decided upon was that we would be a research-driven institute because it’s really with the empirical data that we can make an impact and actually garner attention.”

As Madeline suggests, opinion and theory are not going to weigh heavily when dealing with business leaders who are running multi-billion dollar industries. “That’s why, first and foremost, we approach making change by using our research to present the issue to leading content creators and producers, since for the most part no one is particularly aware of the issue. It’s just been the way we’ve been seeing content for years. We also work with them to determine what their particular concerns and challenges are, and then we will make suggestions in a very collaborative way.  We’ll then come back to them six months to a year later with our new research and also to find out what’s been happening for them. Right now, anecdotally, we’re getting a lot of feedback about things that have taken place. So we believe that when we do our next quantitative analysis for 2015, we’ll actually see the needle move. We’ve only been presenting the research for a few years, so when you think about that and the fact that there are about five hundreds films alone that come out every year, including animation projects that could take four years or even ten years to make, well you can imagine . . . you have to go through a very long cycle before you can really make an impact and see the results.

In the meantime, as Madeline explains, surveys can at least give some initial data that offers insights as well as encouragement. “One of our flagship events is the Gender in Media Symposium which we do every two years. At the second one, which was held in December of 2010, we did a follow-up survey through Survey Monkey. We polled three hundred executives who were there. Our first question was, ‘Based on what you have learned, will this information influence how you perceive gender balance and stereotypes in your body of work?’ Over 90% said yes. We then asked, ‘Will you share and utilize this information with your peers?’ They responded with 98% saying yes. So that’s a way we were able to measure the effectiveness of that symposium. Another question was, ‘Would you be interested in attending the next symposium?’ It turned out that 100% said yes.”

Although the industry response is encouraging, the lack of female representation in media as well as the stereotyping and viewing of women and girls as “eye candy” has taken its toll. This substance deficiency, both in numbers and in character portrayals—often conveying women and girls as no more than romantic fanatics more interested in chasing a guy rather than a career—can’t be inspiring much confidence. In fact, we’re teaching girls and boys alike not to expect too much from a female. And since children as well as adults can’t be what they can’t see, and what they are viewing portrays women and girls as less valuable, it’s no wonder that these portrayals have been linked to depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

“Although we don’t have empirical data that states media’s impact directly, we know that there are a lot of correlations in terms of media making an imprint on children,” Madeline states. “In fact, that’s one of the next studies we want to do—media’s impact specifically on self-esteem, on social-cultural behaviors and beliefs, and on career choices. There are a lot of connections that can be made, especially when you look at adolescents and the perceptions they have of their body images. Also, by the time a girl reaches eighth grade, she’s fallen out of subjects like Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Now, you can’t blame all of that on media, but it can be a great contributing force.”

GUESS WHO Video

And just how is the Geena Davis Institute turning the STEM issue on its head, giving credence to the idea that girls can enjoy, demonstrate proficiency in and master the sciences? Educational videos are proving to be a solid start. Guess Who: The Mathematician and the Baker, a video created by Hot House Productions (Boston University’s student-run video production unit) and commissioned by the Institute, stimulates awareness in both children and educators.

“The goal was to create a learning video for children to teach them about gender stereotypes in an interesting way,” Madeline states,  “as well as to sensitize and educate the next generation of content creators about our work. So we went to our alma mater, Boston University, and to Professor Garland Waller, to present the challenge for this pilot project. We told the students what we wanted to do, gave them all of our research, and basically asked them to come up with some ideas. We selected the best one, which was Guess Who. We later received e-mails from educators who saw the video who mentioned they really liked it, so it’s been very positive. Now we’re fundraising because we’d like to do more educational videos and commission them as college projects.”

Along those lines, Madeline indicates that the Institute is also allying with the Sarasota Film Festival to develop media training workshops for middle and high school students within the SFF’s educational division. “We formed a partnership with them to do an educational outreach program whereby students are going to create videos about gender stereotypes, female portrayals, and gender equality. We’re actually going to show those videos at the 2012 Sarasota Film Festival.”

Geena Davis and Deborah Taylor Tate with Girl Scouts

Also among its initiatives, the Geena Davis Institute is working with young girls directly to address the issues, linking up with them at the advocacy level. “We’re very proud of our partnership with the Girl Scouts,” Madeline remarks. “For one, our research is included in their Healthy Media for Youth Act. Also, Geena and Deborah Taylor Tate, the former FCC Commissioner, are co-chairing Healthy Media: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls which we kicked off in DC about a month ago. We’re really excited about that. So the Girl Scouts has been a big partner for us in the girls’ movement.

               The Healthy Media for Youth Act takes a three-pronged approach to promote healthy media messages about girls and women. First, the bill creates a competitive grant program to encourage and support media literacy programs and youth empowerment groups. The bill also facilitates research on how depictions of women and girls in the media affect youth. Finally, it establishes a National Task Force on Women and Girls in the Media, which will develop voluntary standards that promote healthy, balanced, and positive images of girls and women in the media for the benefit of all youth.

“There are other organizations that we’re involved with as well, such as SPARK, which was created by Deborah Tolman who is a wonderful colleague and a brilliant researcher,” Madeline mentions. “In essence, we look to partner with organizations that are on the ground and reaching young girls.”

Madeline’s passion and enthusiasm for the Institute’s work and her drive to promote gender equity in children’s programming prompts the question: Has she ever personally confronted some of the issues she’s working with today? How did she handle entering the world of entertainment media during a time when it had to have been much more of a man’s world?

“Well, one of the things I did was to always look for women business leaders that I could model myself after,” Madeline conveys. “I literally would track people’s careers the way people would track celebrities. In fact, they were my celebrities. Actually, it was interesting for me. When I was seventeen, I started interning at ABC for several executives, mostly men. A few of them really shaped how I modeled myself, one actually being Bob Iger, who is now the president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. I found that he had such a wonderful management style—the way that he interacted with people, how he treated them, his decorum—he was someone who really influenced me. Also, one of my first bosses at ABC, a woman by the name of Anne Marie Riccitelli, was one of the most dynamic women I had ever met. She was not only a great mentor to me then, she still is now. So I was really fortunate to be able to find some people who were exceptional.”

Madeline also mentions that good mentoring can make a tremendous difference in how women handle the process. “In the earlier generations that came before me, the strategy was to be better than the men or to be like them. And that made it really hard for the following generation of women to get mentoring. During my generation and for those who’ve come after, there’s been more of an openness and willingness to mentor and really bring women along. Personally, one of the things that I’ve done with people that I’ve hired is to keep in mind both their professional goals and objectives and their personal goals and objectives. I’ve always made sure that while they were performing their duties, I was also bringing them along from a personal development standpoint.”

Although her own experiences were by and large positive, Madeline credits self-confidence and the ability to create options as helpful in confronting circumstances tinged by gender bias or stereotyping. “I definitely encountered situations—certainly I’ve come across some during the interviewing process or with a coworker—where there were issues,” Madeline remarks. “But I happen to have a very strong personality and come from a background where both my parents had careers. So I had a lot of self esteem and a very strong sense of self. I was able to deal with that type of thing by creating options.”

Madeline’s natural confidence and ability to take the big picture into account keeps her optimistic about the industry’s accountability. She believes that those in the entertainment arena are open to seeing and discussing real evidence which supports the need for change, especially when it affects children’s perceptions of themselves and their world.

“First of all, most of these industry people are parents,” Madeline states. “So they’re shocked by the data. It’s not something they’ve reviewed before now. In many cases, they’ve actually said, ‘We’ll start to examine these scripts. We’ll examine the process more. Although we do look at diversity, we’ve never considered gender part of the diversity issue.’ And so both male and female executives are very receptive because everyone wants to do the right thing for kids.”

And The Geena Davis Institute is providing the research data, informing and educating media professionals through several studies conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

  • Key Findings of Changing the Status Quo: Industry Leaders’ Perceptions of Gender in Family Films
  • Key Findings of Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films
  • Key Findings of Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV

Dr. Stacy Smith and Geena Davis

“Actually, the study that we published recently, Changing the Status Quo, was the first time we did qualitative research and the first time anyone asked industry professionals what they thought. All of the previous studies we’ve done have been quantitative—the stats and the numbers. What was really heartening about this study was that when we asked people if gender equality was possible, their answer was Yes. And when we asked them to discuss how important it was to achieve gender balance on screen, the industry felt that this was a very important issue and that it wouldn’t be difficult to implement. That was very inspiring.”

But what about behind the camera? Has there been an increase in the number of women directing, writing, or producing?

“Unfortunately, that really hasn’t changed very much,” Madeline informs. “During the time period that we looked at for one of our studies, Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films, which spanned a three year time frame from 2006 through 2009, only 7% of the directors were female, 13% were writers and 20% were producers. The numbers are a little bit higher on the TV side. But what we did notice for the first time is that the presence of women behind the scenes seems to matter. So films that contained one or more females in the positions of director or writer had a 10% uptick with regard to influencing and depicting more female speaking characters on screen.”

Yet many of those on-screen personas are still lacking in substance. “One of the areas that we’re really paying attention to is career occupations and aspirations,” Madeline relays. “We’re finding that there’s great concern about girls dropping out of STEM-related areas in education or within occupations. Although we haven’t published the study yet, we took a look at career occupations in G-rated films, and essentially what we found is that there were no females that were portrayed in any type of career whatsoever,” Madeline noted. “So when we think about our youngest children not seeing girls reflected in any type of profession, that’s disturbing.”

It’s also bizarre. Why present such a limited vision? Since media has a powerful affect on popular culture, it’s essential that we see more images of women and girls in diverse and powerful positions. How then does media that leans toward stereotyping and oversexualizing females affect gender equity on a global level?

The Geena Davis Institute, partnering with UNIFEM (now part of UN Women), is addressing the issue, taking a look at women’s empowerment internationally—especially how media portrayals are affecting the Millennium Development Goal of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (MDG 3).

“Approximately 80% of media that’s consumed overseas is made in the U.S,” Madeline states. “That means we’re exporting these gender stereotypes and portrayals around the globe. That’s why we need to look at media’s impact on social change. With regard to addressing MDG 3, we work with the UN to bring a gender focus to the situation and to raise awareness as much as possible.”

               The images and portrayals of girls and women are transported through American films and programming throughout the world and therefore exert a great influence on shaping cultures  — Geena Davis, World’s Women at the Centre of Achieving the MDGs

Geena Davis’ partnership with the United Nations is a monumental effort to create a new blueprint regarding the way media portrays women and girls—increasing their presence and offering more empowering images which recognizes and confirms their value. Yet, we don’t have to be celebrities or involved in UN initiatives to meet the challenge. We can all make a difference, whether we’re involved in the entertainment industry directly or we’re a concerned parent. Madeline points out that we can become advocates in our own right and contribute to the change.

“If someone is a content creator, they can use a gender lens when they’re creating characters and story lines. Anyone who can control the words on the page is important,” Madeline emphasizes. “If you’re outside of the industry . . . well, clearly we’re looking for evangelists. So if you’re is in a position of authority and have an opportunity to mentor or create a mentoring program in your organization, we believe that would be of great value as well as an opportunity to move women up the ranks. If you’re a parent, we would suggest you use your critical thinking. Watch what your children are watching.”

That simple directive holds the key. As one of television’s icons, Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers) once stated, I’m not for censorship, but I’m certainly for self-censorship when it comes to producing or purveying products to America’s children. I think that for people who make anything for children, their first thought should be: Would I want my child to see, hear or touch this? And if the answer is no, just don’t make it.

Well, you can’t get more definitive than that. So perhaps it’s time for the entertainment industry to do an about face and take a good look at the messages it’s sending our children. As Madeline Di Nonno has clearly assessed, content that empowers girls and women will allow for a quantum leap in arenas far beyond entertainment. We can create media that disenfranchises and marginalizes or develop content that transforms and revolutionizes. How we use our creative power, and to what end, is up to us.

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All photos used by permission.

          Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.                                                                 —  Mohandas Gandhi

Ronit Avni

Human Rights . . . filmmaking . . . a vision of justice. Ronit Avni has fused these elements as founder and Executive Director of Just Vision, a non-profit organization that uses documentary film and educational tools to tell an otherwise untold story, disenfranchising outdated stereotypes and supporting and inspiring nonviolent peace initiatives. In short, Just Vision focuses on increasing the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis working for nonviolent solutions to the conflict.

The award-winning director and producer of Encounter Point and producer of Budrus speaks about her background and her own evolution as a human rights advocate.

The daughter of a Canadian mother and Israeli father, Ronit grew up in Montreal among an expatriate Israeli community. “Many of my friends were Israeli or had Israeli parents. Eventually, my father moved back to Israel when I was a teenager, so I would go back and forth.” Ronit eventually studied Theatre Directing in Montreal and Political Science in the United States. “I went to Vassar and then got a job at a human rights organization. Basically, I wanted to fuse my passion for the arts with my political interests. I felt that documentary filmmaking and human rights advocacy would combine my interest areas, so I began looking for ways to bring together those two fields and came across a human rights group called WITNESS that was founded by the musician Peter Gabriel. At the time, it was a project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now known as Human Rights First). The vision behind it was to equip human rights defenders around the world with video cameras, train them to document violations and work with them to deter abuses — to capture evidence for courts and tribunals and to mobilize their constituencies.”

Ronit had already laid the foundation for continuing her advocacy with WITNESS by previously interning and volunteering with two prominent Israeli human rights organizations: B’Tselem—The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. She also mentions having bought her own camera at the time and training herself to use it. “I was eager to bring my creative and political interests together professionally. After I got a job at WITNESS, I began working with human rights advocates all over the world — primarily with groups in West Africa, the United States, and in the Middle East. So I was working in everyone else’s backyard. After September 11th, which took place a few blocks from our office, and after the collapse of the OSLO process, I felt that I needed to focus exclusively on my own backyard which was that bridge between North America, including the North American Jewish community, and the Israeli/Palestinian context. And so I embarked on a two year research process while I was still at WITNESS.”

As Ronit relates, that process involved interviewing four hundred and seventy-five Israelis and Palestinians engaged in nonviolent conflict resolution work based in Israel, the West Bank and Jerusalem. “For me it was consultative to understand what was going on — what people were thinking, what they needed, and what they were doing,” Ronit enumerates. “It was very informative and people were very generous with their time. This was during a period when many people and organizations didn’t have websites yet, so the feeling was one of invisibility, where the people that I met with felt that they tended to only know others in their own field. If you were a human rights advocate, you knew other human rights advocates. If you were an educator, you might know other educators engaging in this kind of work. But you didn’t know people beyond your field. And so there was this heightened sense of isolation and a sense that the world didn’t know about their work. They really wanted media attention and a way to connect to broader communities of support. So after that two year process, I felt that there was a gap to be filled. Although I loved my job at Witness and was very reluctant to leave, I felt that I could apply the skills I’d acquired there to this work which I was very passionate about. I then received a two-year fellowship from Joshua Venture that enabled me to take the risk to leave my job and to start to lay the groundwork for Just Vision.”

That foundational work, as Ronit describes, developed organically as those media experts resonating with the initiative entered the picture. “One person that came on board right away was an American journalist who had been working with Linda Gradstein from NPR, named Nahanni Rous. Because of her journalism work she had extensive contacts and began researching and interviewing. I also moved to Jerusalem and set up a small office there in 2003. Then, through a filmmaker friend, I got in touch with the first Palestinian female pilot, Joline Makhlouf, who had been helping her on a film she’d been working on . . . So very quickly our team grew. Soon thereafter, I saw Control Room, and really loved the handling of the multiple narratives featured in the film. I reached out to the director and asked her to recommend one of the four editors listed. She recommended Julia Bacha (Director of Budrus) who ended up coming on as our Media Director.”

So Just Vision initially began as a core team of women –- Israeli, Palestinian, American and Brazilian. “Two of them have moved on to having children and building their families,” Ronit mentions, “but they are still consulting for us and working with us. I joke that we’re like the Mafia –- once you’re involved you can’t leave. We’ve developed really close relationships. There were years that were incredibly intense during the height of the Second Intifada. I felt we were like a little engine, and we were. We had no money. We had an idea and no track record at the time. But the idea was always to create media and to document the stories that you weren’t hearing on the nightly news.”

               Just Vision emerged in response to the lack of media coverage of Palestinian and Israeli civilians working to end the occupation and the conflict. While violent extremism receives front-page exposure, courageous nonviolence leaders and peacebuilders are relegated to occasional human interest stories. Consequently, at Just Vision, we work to ensure that these Palestinian and Israeli civic leaders are not only taken seriously as partners in the quest for peace, but are also more visible, valued and influential in their efforts.

Of course, most nonviolent initiatives by their very nature don’t make it to prime time, where sensation and drama drive ratings. Yet, the fact remains that it’s essential to depict the other side of the story, where peaceful attempts at resolution, even if initially thwarted, give rise to possibilities for lasting change. The bottom line:  Extremists get plenty of press. Stories need to be told that spotlight the peacemakers.

Ronit recognized the imbalance long ago, as well as the need to broaden the scope of the narrative. “You know, the thing that I really want to be clear about is that we’re not doing this to make people feel good about themselves. A lot of people just want to hear good stories so they can just relax and not do anything. That’s not why we do the work we do. We do it because the people who are working toward ending the occupation and the conflict are doing something really important. They need to be supported, and they need to be understood. We’re not saying that every initiative or every individual is equally effective or compelling, but we need to start from a place of knowledge and understanding. We need to try to remove the barriers toward engaging in nonviolence and conflict resolution work. I feel strongly and I’ve felt this from the beginning—and, in fact, the effects in Tunisia and in Egypt have only reinforced this for me—that any political agreement reached at the top will not hold without support from the bottom.”

Ayed Morrar of Budrus

And at the end of the day, as Ronit concludes, civil society is what leads. Eventually politicians come around, and they of course, have the power to make specific agreements, but the community-at-large is critical. “We’ve seen that with the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and so many other social movements historically, as well as those today around the world. So neglecting civil society is a major strategic mistake and also one that is going to have negative consequences in the future. That’s why Just Vision focuses exclusively on civil society and on grass roots . . . Those people who say ‘Enough is enough. I have to personally get involved in some way and do something.’ And sometimes it’s at great risk to themselves and to their families. Those are the people we don’t want to leave isolated. That’s why we try to tell their stories. We try to drive attention to them through print and broadcast media and also through social media. We create tools for educators, community leaders and faith leaders to use with their constituencies. We bring thought leaders to meet some of the people that we profile and also get them to see the stories that they may not be aware of. There’s a feedback loop. President Obama in his Cairo speech several years ago implored Palestinians to adopt nonviolence, and he cited examples from all over the world. He devoted an entire paragraph to it, but he didn’t cite a local example. He didn’t cite one because he didn’t know of one—not because a local example didn’t exist.”

Just Vision actually underscores those examples and brings them to light. “Because doing that has implications. It’s how policy gets formulated,” Ronit explains. “You know, we’re not an advocacy organization. We don’t prescribe policy, but the policymakers should not be in the dark about civil society initiatives that are moving in the direction of resolving the conflict or challenging the occupation.”

Have Just Vision’s films, Encounter Point and in particular, Budrus, made tangible impacts in promoting the idea that nonviolence is a powerful and viable avenue toward achieving a sustainable peace?

“Yes, absolutely,” Ronit confirms. “It’s happening on multiple levels. First of all, when we decided to make Budrus, we set out to put the village and the story on the map. We did a search on Google of all of the references to Budrus prior to the film production. Because the events of Budrus happened in 2003-2004 and we only started making the film in 2007, it’s very easy to look at the before and the after. Before, there were only a handful of activist websites that told the story of Budrus. But none of the major media outlets from Al Jazeera to the Israeli Press, from the NY Times to the BBC, knew the story. Some local press had gone to a few of the demonstrations but they never went back to find out what happened. But now if you were to do a search on Budrus, you would literally find thousands of references, including those from all of the top journalists and top media outlets . . . My favorite is seeing the story of Budrus mentioned without any reference to the film — where it’s now just part of the popular discourse.”

When the residents of Budrus learn that the Israeli army plans to build the Separation Barrier through their town, cutting them off from neighboring Palestinian villages and uprooting their precious olive groves, they decide to organize. Under the leadership of Ayed Morrar, Palestinian men of all political factions come together to wage an unarmed struggle to preserve their lands. Victory seems unlikely until Ayed’s 15-year-old daughter steps in to organize a female contingent that brings the women of Budrus to the front lines in a tense stand-off with the military.

Ronit also conveys another example of a village facing similar circumstances as those in Budrus — vying the placement of the Separation Barrier. “They showed the film in al-Wallajeh, and several days later when they had another demonstration, we were told that about four times as many people showed up. We also found out that after a screening in the actual village of Budrus, a march was held down to the places where they were slated to lose land, and the people planted trees to commemorate what had been done. When we showed the film to a woman’s group near the Bethlehem area that had never seen women play such a pivotal role, they were so moved that they asked to meet with the women of Budrus.” The documentary was also screened in a more unusual venue: a preparatory program that included about thirty young people who were about to enter the Israeli military. “One of them was going to be in the exact same unit that [squadron leader] Yasmine Levy was with in Budrus,” Ronit informs. “It raised some very important questions for her about what it was going to mean ethically, and what she might be faced with.”

Screenings of Budrus continue to spark both awareness and dialogue. “We don’t tell people what to do, but we want people to think,” Ronit states. “We want them to think about what constitutes a nonviolent movement and what an ethical response to a nonviolent movement would be. We also want them to think about the role of ordinary people. These are all questions that come up in the film.”

And what about the role of women? As conveyed in Budrus, fifteen-year-old Iltezam Morrar, daughter of the Palestinian leader of the village, questions why women are not involved in the protest. Once they are allowed to take part in the demonstrations, a palpable change occurs which definitely affects the process.

“Well it’s interesting,” Ronit relates, “Ayed Morrar, who is the Palestinian protagonist—the father that leads this movement in Budrus—said that the men in the village behaved differently when standing next to their wives, daughters and mothers, and that the soldiers also behaved differently. It seems there’s a kind of restraint, or at least, a relative restraint that could kick in around the presence of women. It doesn’t always kick in, but it has a greater probability of doing so than when men are just facing one another. But of course, we do see instances of Yasmine Levy beating some of the women with a baton. Yet, their presence was incredibly important, and there’s a very interesting rapport and dynamic that emerges between the women of the village and Yasmine. You can see it. But women are not playing a central role in some of the other villages that are engaging in similar kinds of demonstrations today. And none of them, to date, have had the success that Budrus has had. We can’t say it’s causal, but I think there is a correlation between women’s participation and a higher probability of a successful outcome. It’s not the only factor, but it’s certainly a factor.”

Ronit also addresses the fact that both Israeli and international activists played an important role in the protests held in Budrus. “The Israelis that came into the village recognized that they were going to be treated differently by the soldiers because they were Israeli. So that was a way to help lessen some of the violence—it would make the military think twice about using force. But it’s a very complicated dynamic. I think that the relationships built among the demonstrators were very strong. When we brought the film back to the village of Budrus, all the different political factions and the Israeli activists came to the screening and so did another seven hundred people. It’s only a fifteen hundred person village. So literally half the village came to watch the movie.”

Dubai Film Festival

Budrus is a wonderful example of the power of the media to touch us in profound ways, challenge our preconceived notions and open our hearts and just maybe our minds.                 — Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan

The film, undoubtedly, created a lasting impact. Empowering communities . . . conveying the positive results of nonviolence . . . depicting women coming to the forefront. Ronit describes another compelling factor within the Israeli/Palestinian peace initiative which, when unleashed, thrives on its own momentum. “The relationships that get built defy stereotypes and defy expectations. They’re really deep relationships. It doesn’t mean now that they’ve had exposure to one another that they’re going to embrace – that every Palestinian is going to embrace every Israeli . . . But there are deep relations of trust that are being built among these constituencies. I think those bode extremely well for the future. For example, we had a screening in Gaza, and the young people there had never seen Israelis like the activists in the film. They were fascinated.”

Prolific and often seen as much more impactful, violent images sweep across movie screens and consume the front pages of newspapers and magazine covers. Since the media is such a powerful tool, it’s important to offer alternative depictions which are just as real, and certainly just as important, in order to balance our view of the conflict and the players, as well as the possibilities for resolution.

“I think that’s a big issue in the conflict in general,” Ronit states. “I think both Israelis and Palestinians need to be able to make distinctions because if you see each side as just a homogeneous group, then it’s so much easier to demonize. It’s so much easier to say ‘All Palestinians are terrorists, or all Israelis are soldiers and settlers who only understand violence,’ or whatever the caricature language is. That’s why it’s important to understand that there’s complexity within these societies, that there are different kinds of people. Not every Israeli is Baruch Goldstein. It’s really important to not only make distinctions but actually put your actions where your values are to make sure that the other side sees the difference.”

Recognizing the potent realities of Just Vision’s work, one can’t help but wonder how covering and documenting the ongoing conflict in Israel has affected Ronit personally, perhaps shifting some ideas she may have previously held.

“It’s hard to separate out the filmmaking from the day to day work,” Ronit admits, “because Just Vision’s work is not just about making films. We interview people in the field, and we conduct outreach on a continuing basis. So my interaction with Israeli and Palestinian culture and society is ongoing. I think that certainly I’ve grown over the years in terms of my involvement with Just Vision. I don’t have any romantic illusions about anyone. It’s messy. Movements are messy. Governments and populations are messy. There are no righteous or noble victims just by the virtue of being a victim. These are things that I knew but they’ve certainly been reinforced. Yet, I am constantly inspired by ordinary people who have everything to lose. They put their families, their lives, their reputations, their liberty on the line in order to change circumstances on the ground. So I’ve simultaneously seen some very ugly expressions of human behavior as well as some of the most courageous, empathic and generous expressions of it.”

Ronit also recognizes she has gained a deeper understanding about nonviolence and what it means. “I had not been exposed to the nonviolence movement that existed historically in Palestinian society before the Second Intifada. For example, I didn’t know about the incredible protests and marches or the strikes and sit-ins that took place during the First Intifada or that have been taking place since the ’20s and ’30s in Palestinian society. None of that history was something that I was aware of. I had seen the First Intifada through the lens of the Western media and through the Israeli press. I also didn’t grasp the extent to which ordinary Palestinians were sitting in Israeli prisons. I think my default assumption had been ‘Well, there must be a reason.’ Also, over the years, after seeing the arbitrary nature of how people get detained, how violence gets used and how decisions get made, that instinctive benefit of the doubt that I afforded one community and not the other while I was growing up is gone.”

Since films like Budrus have opened the aperture further, highlighting nonviolent leaders in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and recognizing the power of peaceful demonstrations, there’s been a promising breakthrough. Although there are still exceptions, Ronit notices a difference in how other journalists and documentarians are treating the problem.

“There’s been an improvement in terms of recognizing that these movements exist, and that they’re important,” Ronit asserts. “So I do think that there’s been a change. There’s no question. I mean the fact that people are referencing these movements is the biggest change, frankly.”

Ronit also underscores how Budrus has helped in thwarting old narratives. “I think the narrative amongst the Israeli public has been Why don’t Palestinians adopt nonviolence? If they did, there would be peace. In Palestinian society the narrative has been Nonviolence doesn’t work. We’ve tried it. The American society narrative is Where is the Palestinian Gandhi? . . . This film challenges all of those assumptions. You’re seeing journalists pick up on those themes and write about them differently or reference and incorporate them into their arguments.”

And so another salient and controversial issue rears its head. Responsible journalism. Is it important for journalists and filmmakers to not only present “facts” but to use the force of media to benefit and not exacerbate the problem?

“I think that journalists have a responsibility to report on events and phenomena that are taking place in a particular region,” Ronit states, “and to try to do so dispassionately in general and get a complete picture of what’s going on to the best of their ability. But very often in this context, people default to the closest native speaker of whatever language the journalist speaks as opposed to the native language of the region, whether it’s Arabic or Hebrew. So that limits the pool of people that are featured. Also, it’s very hard to encapsulate these movements in a photograph or a headline. If you show a building that’s been bombed or a bus that’s exploded, it’s easy to make sense of that immediately. Whereas, if you see a picture of a group of people standing around, it takes a lot more work to really cover the story. And often, I think many journalists make the mistake of waiting for it to be a mass movement like what we saw in Tahrir Square (Cairo). They wait for it to get to that critical mass point before giving it coverage.”

Ronit also recognizes that smaller, less dramatic peace initiatives are staples in building a movement. “In fact, the building blocks are as important as the outcome. Those building blocks are critical – and often they’re small and disjointed in some way. Reporting on these stories requires a lot of patience, a lot of effort, and a desire to really understand the local dynamics. And I also think, along with budgets being slashed in terms of long-term reporting and the default, especially, to local English speakers, that there is a general bias against nonviolence. There’s a feeling that it’s not as newsworthy as violent actions.”

As Ronit indicates, there are a number of obstacles to having stories on peace activism see the light of day. She notes it can be frustrating when a local stabbing involving one militant actor warrants media attention while five hundred people at a nonviolent demonstration doesn’t receive coverage. “There’s a question of proportionality and scale that I think is often missing,” Ronit indicates. “So at Just Vision, we try to complement existing coverage. We don’t say that we have all of the stories. We’re not outfitted as a twenty-four hour news cycle type of organization. We’re there for the long haul. We work exclusively on this issue because we want that depth of knowledge and that scope of contact on the ground so we can really understand what’s happening.”

And that understanding provides a powerful framework for Just Vision’s goal and philosophy: To direct attention to Israeli and Palestinian nonviolence and peacebuilding efforts, working with and beyond traditional media. Top down leadership is clearly not enough; an end to the conflict will be rooted in the work of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

“I think that we want these nonviolent leaders at the table,” Ronit elucidates. “By ‘at the table’ I mean being covered by journalists, paid attention to, taken seriously, taken into consideration on the diplomatic level and supported on the grassroots level. Those who are favoring a nonviolent approach — one which recognizes that the two peoples are here to stay — are the best hope we have for a stable future.”

The film, Budrus, highlights and gives voice to that recognition, inspiring hope in the most basic aspects of human understanding. Originally released in 2009, it makes its DVD debut on May 10, 2011. And the Budrus Outreach Campaign is on the move as well. “It’s been very positive. We have different staff members who engage in outreach in the United States, in Palestinian society, and in Israeli society,” Ronit states. “Fundamentally, no matter the specific audience, there are three core messages: unity across divides, the power of nonviolence, and the strategic importance of women’s involvement.”

By exposing us to nonviolent leaders and initiatives, Just Vision provides a more encompassing view of Israeli/Palestinian relations, one where human decency and fair treatment is given a chance for survival. Within these small grassroots movements, we can recognize the power of peaceful resistance, where individuals, armed only with passion and principle, can make a difference.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.    —  Mohandas Gandhi


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All photos used by permission. Photo of Ayed Morrar by Aisha Mershani.

            Feminist.com cares not only about supporting women’s accomplishments in the outside world, but about a woman’s inner growth and healing, underscored by the belief that fostering women’s personal empowerment is the first step towards being able to express our true power and individual special gifts in the world.

Marianne Schnall

Cultivating awareness and educating and inspiring women and men globally, Feminist.com is a dynamic online community that acts as a portal, funneling generative ideas while providing information and resources that address issues such as violence against women, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and peace.

And just who is the feminist behind this dot com? Marianne Schnall, founder and Executive Director, is also a writer and interviewer who has dedicated herself to building the organization’s ever-broadening horizons. Interviewing influential and powerful women and harnessing their inspirational messages has been her forte.  

As it turns out, 2010 was an exceptional year for both Feminist.com and Marianne. In December, Feminist.com celebrated its fifteenth anniversary, and along with that milestone, Marianne Schnall launched her new book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness, and Finding Your Own Voice.        

Born in New York, Marianne says she realized early on she was going to be a writer, right from the time she won a city-wide contest in sixth grade for one of her short stories. “I always really enjoyed writing,” Marianne states. “I became an English major at Cornell, and then when I graduated, I worked for a literary agent. After that I applied for a job as an editorial assistant to the managing editor of US Magazine. One of the editors there started sending me out to cover industry events like movie premiers and award shows. So I would go and get on the red carpet with my little recorder and ask my questions. It was really fun and glamorous, and I had a great time doing it. I didn’t think it necessarily connected with what I really wanted to do with my life, but I got a lot of experiences through it. Certainly, that’s how I started with interviewing.”

Marianne also credits the March for Women’s Lives in 1992 for influencing her career path. “I decided to ask US if they would send me to cover it as a reporter. That was the first time that I interviewed people like Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, Jonathan Demme, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cyndi Lauper. All of a sudden I found myself speaking to celebrities about a cause they felt passionate about.”

The March, as it turned out, was an awakening for Marianne on several fronts: the first with regard to her feminist consciousness—a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body; secondly, as an activist, she was able to experience the power of being in a community of people who cared about similar issues; the third awakening, as Marianne notes, was about the use of fame itself—celebrities using their renown to promote a good cause. “It was the first time that I felt that I was doing something that was really connected to my path . . . something that was meaningful, and I felt like I was talking to the real person behind the celebrity.”

Shortly after the event, Marianne left US and began doing free lance work. “When InStyle Magazine started up, I started doing their Cause Celeb column. That allowed me to interview all sorts of amazing people about their causes.” Marianne recalls talking with Bette Midler about the New York  Restoration Project. “They were cleaning up a park and she was there in her overalls with her daughter and her husband.”

Investigating this whole other aspect of celebrity became Marianne’s passion. While she was interviewing famous people about their causes and charities, her husband, Tom Kay, whose background is in solar energy, was surfing another wave. “Tom always had a very pioneering way of thinking,” Marianne remarks. “He decided to launch this site on the internet called Ecomall.com back before people knew what the internet was. I mean literally, when we first launched, people couldn’t find the site because they were spelling out the word dot. That’s how new it was.”

Venturing forth onto the web, Ecomall launched in 1994. Feminist.com took off soon after in 1995. “People didn’t even understand what we were doing. They didn’t have home computers, no one had e-mail, and no one knew what the internet was.” As Marianne explains, after having just interviewed Gloria Steinem and other feminists she found herself at a picnic one day speaking with a women’s studies major—a conversation which led her to acquiring the domain name Feminist.com. “I got the name before I knew what Feminist.com was going to be and before I would have ever said ‘I’m a feminist’. That wasn’t part of my identity.”

Marianne immediately called several friends and colleagues to help define what this budding organization would represent. Those friends, still on the board and advisory board today, include Amy Richards, Lauren Wechsler Horn, Karen Obel Cape, Susan Celia Swan, and Jennifer Meyerhardt. Together, along with her husband, Tom, they pioneered what literally has since become a “feminist Google.”  

“Back then, about 15% of internet users were women,” Marianne states, “so there were very few women on-line. Also, most organizations didn’t have websites. So the very first thing we did was to provide a service to have a free web presence for groups like the Ms. Foundation, Equality Now, Girls Inc., and V-Day.”

As it also turned out, Marianne relates, V-Day was actually founded at a Feminist.com board meeting. She recounts how she made the initial connection with Eve Ensler through the suggestion of a mutual friend of theirs, actress and activist, Kathy Najimy.

“Kathy just said, Her name is Eve Ensler. She’s a writer, she’s a feminist, she’s an activist. Call her. Don’t ask questions.” Marianne did just that and has shared a rich history with V-Day ever since. “Eve was just starting to do the Vagina Monologues downtown and knew she wanted to do it as a fundraiser to help stop violence against women. She came to a Feminist.com board meeting in my dining room. That’s where the term V-Day was coined and where the seeds for that first fundraiser happened . . . So I can really attest to what Eve has accomplished.”

The story is another example of how Feminist.com has grown, allowing structure to form naturally along the way. “The whole site has really developed organically,” Marianne maintains, “without a set mission or plan, which turned out to be a good thing because we could really change with the internet, with the number of women coming on-line, and also with where feminism was headed. We could be a little bit more fluid.”

Just as the definition of feminism has been broadening, Marianne indicates that Feminist.com is continuously evolving. She mentions how freeing it was not to approach the site holding a limited view. “There are a lot of definitions of feminism that I would definitely not sign on to. So I think that what has been wonderful about how Feminist.com has developed is that we’ve been able to see how we can use the site to correct misconceptions and how to present a version of feminism that is more inclusive—that doesn’t shy away from the little controversial elements and actually holds them up for dialogue and reflection.”

In addition, Feminist.com also looks for the voids and niches it can fill. “We’re launching a section called Young Voices in conjunction with Carol Gilligan,” Marianne offers. “She’s an amazing psychologist who wrote this pioneering book called In a Different Voice which is all about how gender roles start so early. Boys lose their authentic voice around four or five and girls lose it around nine or ten. The idea is that there’s all these societal pressures that, before you know it, make people lose their true voice. You see it so much in little girls. I have two daughters so I’m hyper aware of this type of thing, even though they’re so much more empowered and independent and centered than I was at their age.”

And giving those voices a platform is essential. Feminist.com’s new section Girls & Young Women appears to be not only offering messages of empowerment to the younger generation but also a space for their ideas to flourish. “There are two reasons why we reach out to younger women at our site,” Marianne says. “One has to do with just what we were talking about—a lot of these issues happen really early on. So we’re constantly looking for both content and resources that we can offer by, for, and about girls and young women. But also, there’s this misconception that the younger generation is just completely complacent and that there’s this kind of resentment thing going on between older and younger generations of women.”

Marianne mentions that, although there may be some truth to the statement, she believes the notion is mainly fostered by the media. “I think that it may look different . . . feminism . . . in the younger generation than it did for let’s say people of Gloria Steinem’s era . . . but I take issue with people who say that younger women these days are completely apathetic. That’s not my experience,” she contends. “It’s hard to speak for a whole generation, and granted, there are going to be exceptions to every rule. But there are so many amazing blogs and groups and things happening on college campuses these days, so I really don’t think that’s true. At Feminist.com we are constantly trying to find young women’s voices and groups that are doing amazing work, and we’re helping to promote them.”

Furthering a holistic view of feminism that encompasses being environmentally conscious is also an initiative.

               In addition to supporting humanitarian causes, feminism should also include taking care of and nurturing the Earth, the planet we all live on and depend upon for our sustenance and survival.     — Reflections [Feminist.com]

“I see it all as being interconnected,” Marianne asserts. “The definition of feminism that I hope that Feminist.com presents is this idea that it’s larger than just a gender thing—that it really is about our interconnection with each other and with the earth. What we do to the earth affects us. It’s a symbiotic relationship . . . So, for me, feminism is really about respect for all life and all of its various manifestations.”

As Marianne confirms, what we’re really talking about is raising our awareness and consciousness to a level that serves men, women and humanity as a whole. “It’s about love and respect,” Marianne asserts. “It’s just like the same way that having an eating disorder is self destructive—it doesn’t honor ourselves or our bodies—if we mistreat the earth . . . if we pollute the earth and put toxins into it . . . then that’s also connected to how we treat our bodies and the beautiful planet and animals that we live with.”

Marianne’s interviews have also placed her in contact with extraordinary women who are truly inspirational, linking feminism to global initiatives affecting the planet. “I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing two amazing environmentalists,” Marianne remarks “One is Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel peace prize for the Green Belt Movement. She planted forty-five million trees across Kenya. . . And then of course, there’s Jane Goodall. That was actually one of my favorite interviews. Who better to talk to about some of these themes in such a deep and thoughtful way.”

When exploring the subject, we can’t help but discover an important fact — Pillaging the earth is symptomatic of a larger problem which needs addressing: a disregard for the feminine and the abuse of women. Through columns such as those provided by Amnesty International, V-Day, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Equality Now, Men Can Stop Rape, and Nobel Women’s Initiative, as well as questions explored in the Ask Amy – Violence Against Women section, Feminist.com is offering resources to assist those who are victims of abuse as well to help on a preventative and educational level.

“Regarding violence against women, we have worked really closely with V-Day because of our long-time relationship with them.” Marianne also notes their collaboration has produced the Anti-Violence Resource Guide, which provides both international and U.S.-based resources. “I have to say, because I’ve interviewed Eve Ensler so many times and constantly post her work and V-Day’s work, I think there’s nobody better than Eve to make sure we’re remembering what’s happening in places like the Congo. Actually, out of all of the interviews that I’ve done, some of the ones that have been the most wrenching have been with her . . . And she doesn’t talk about it as just a women’s thing. It is that, but it’s also about if we’re treating women and girls this way, then that’s a symptom of an overall problem with humanity and with a culture that breeds people who rape and produce violence—with a culture that produces wars, like what’s happening in the Congo.”

Marianne also stresses the importance of not condemning men or making sweeping statements like, “Oh, all men are bad. It’s more about let’s have a thoughtful conversation.” That means including men in the dialogue and making sure they are an active part of the solution.

“We’ve had a column for many years called Men’s Voices, Men as Allies. It started out being done specifically by a wonderful organization called Men Can Stop Rape and then it evolved into including a diversity of male voices. It’s one of our most popular columns. Pat McGann and I—Pat works at Men Can Stop Rape—decided that it would be very useful and timely to devote a section to the whole idea.” 

As Marianne explains, this upcoming section—Men and Women as Allies—would provide a space for dialogue. Not only would it continue highlighting men and women joining forces on issues such as rape, physical violence, and gender equity, but it would provide a venue for “redefining masculinity and helping men see how constrictive gender roles impact them in negative ways.” It would give men a safe base where they could read about the issues as well as dialogue with each other, and just as important, dialogue with women. “It’s actually one of the projects I’m most excited about,” Marianne mentions, “because I think that, with the groups and people that we have in place to be partners, we can do something in a really thoughtful, sensitive, and dynamic way.”

And isn’t that the aim? Working toward creating non-violent societies, no matter where in the world, means embracing humanitarian values. For men to ally with women, for them to break free of stagnant and harmful societal roles, for men to view gender equality as a human rights issue as well as a women’s rights objective, and for men to be a vital part of prevention makes ending violence toward women and creating a more peaceful world finally seem attainable.

               Our mission is to empower people to re-imagine and transform the roles of women and men and encourage them to break barriers so they can be agents of social change in the world. 

Concurrent with the partnerships men and women are creating to address the problem, women’s groups are coming to the fore everywhere around the world, and like many of the powerful movements in history there seems to be a spiritual dynamic involved. Marianne addresses the phenomenon—what’s been called spiritual activism—as it relates to feminist causes.

“Well, I think that people are calling that the fourth wave of feminism,” Marianne states. “Actually, I try to get away from linguistics although sometimes they come out of my mouth, but I do think that there’s this spirituality-infused social justice movement that is connected to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This idea that it really does start with our inner world and that we have to be the change we want to see. That’s what the Our Inner Lives section which we just launched tries to do—honor all the paths, whether you define that as spirituality or as a traditional, organized religion.”

               We are committed to creating a space that represents as many women as possible—women who embody a diversity of religious, faith and spiritual identities as well as those women with an unnamed hunger, longing, or confusion. Together, we translate our compassion into tangible paths to positive change in the world, recognizing our interdependence with each other and the earth.

As Marianne indicates, there’s an interconnection between our internal and external reality. Our Inner Lives emphasizes the commonalities between many of the world’s religions and its various spiritual traditions in the sense that most of them, at heart, try to promote compassion and love. 

“And it’s not just about going out and joining the Peace Corps,” Marianne enumerates. “It’s also about how you treat your neighbors or someone in your family who is being difficult and going through a hard time. Just finding ways, both little and big, to have more consciousness and mindfulness in how we’re going through the world.” Marianne regards the fact that it starts with some inner reflection—that we’re often unaware of what we can or should do. “One of the quotes I include in my book is from Natalie Portman who mentions that volunteering is more for her than it is for the people she helps. It’s very soul nourishing and meaningful and joyful—that sense of doing good.”

Feminism’s big picture encompasses so many diverse elements. What about the issue of including spirituality in the conversation? Can we go as far as to say it’s an essential part of the equation?

“I think it’s hugely important, but I think it’s delicate,” Marianne concludes. “It has to be very sensitively handled because I think, in the same way that feminism is one of those loaded terms, spirituality can be so misinterpreted.” Marianne mentions that at Feminist.com they’ve taken special care to have an advisory team that includes women from Omega Institute as well as others who represent different faiths and perspectives. She also makes a point of connecting regard for the spiritual with the need for men, as well as women, to respect and value their own feminine wisdom. “I always thought that Feminist.com represented the feminine energy in the world as being something metaphysically bigger than just the gender association of feminism. And that’s one of the wonderful things I think Omega does in their conferences, which are all about women and power—bringing forth this idea of feminine power and new paradigms of power—honoring values that are typically associated with the feminine, which doesn’t mean necessarily with women.”

Marianne makes the connection between spirituality and the need to honor feminine energy in our attempts to resolve many of the world’s difficulties. “It’s making sure that we are in touch with the feminine values that we all have—the masculine and the feminine, the yin and yang in the world.” Marianne notes the timeliness of the concept, making reference to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s important book, Half the Sky, and its global initiative. “Right now it’s becoming more mainstream to acknowledge the truth which is that helping, empowering, and educating women and girls throughout the world is completely interconnected with all of these other issues that we’re facing—whether it’s war or violence or whether it’s about poverty or the environment.”

It is definitely a vast, humanitarian effort in many ways. And in order to make any significant strides, we need to emphasize women’s leadership, especially with regard to peace initiatives. Feminist.com is highlighting the issue through its evolving Women & Peace section, which has plans to expand and will examine women’s roles in building peace.

And the reason for emphasizing female leadership is simple. As Marianne observes, women need to be an integral part of conflict resolution. “As over half the world’s population—as the mothers, the daughter, the sisters, the wives, the educators, and the leaders—we have to be involved in every aspect of the peace process in order to accomplish lasting peace. And also, just look at how domestic and political violence are connected. You can’t have peace in the larger world without looking at what’s happening behind closed doors. It’s the connection between the private and the public—how women are treated in a society. . . If you look at Afghanistan or at Kenya, girls aren’t educated . . . it’s seeing how these things are connected to why war and violence are happening.”

Throughout her assessment, Marianne stays clear of stereotyping. When speaking about “the feminine” in any arena, including peacekeeping, she stresses that she’s referring to qualities like compassion, cooperation, intuition, and expressing emotion, “and that it’s okay to cry if our son goes off to war and dies. Not that men don’t do that, but men have often been taught to suppress their emotions. Carol Gilligan talks about the first time a boy cries when he’s about four or five and he’s called a sissy and from then on thinks that showing emotion is wrong and unmanly.”

Derogatory remarks and unrealistic gender expectations have been a big part of the problem. Thus the struggle. As mentioned in Daring to be Ourselves, we don’t need to be wrestling with words, especially with the term “feminine.” We certainly don’t need to be feeling pigeonholed if we use it. Both women and men have feminine traits, and as Marianne notes, these qualities need to be celebrated as part of all of us. Could authentic living may be part of the answer? Sounds a bit simplistic, but allowing the feminine and the masculine to be expressed in our lives, whether we’re male or female, may finally help create the kind of balance our world desperately needs.

Marianne regards Omega Institute’s Women & Power conferences as being pivotal events that address this quest for balance. She acknowledges them as inspirational forums that help women believe in their ability to be leaders and voices of change. “I think that Omega is at the forefront of really promoting some of these themes that we’re talking about,” Marianne remarks. “I have such respect for that organization. Elizabeth Lesser [cofounder of Omega], who is also in my book, is a true visionary, an incredible person and author.” Marianne also makes reference to the Women’s Institute, now officially known as the Women’s Leadership Center.Carla Goldstein, who runs it, is a very good friend of mine. They are doing really exciting work and are a very close partner of Feminist.com.” 

At Omega’s 2010 Conference, Our Time to Lead, Marianne and Feminist.com cofounder, Amy Richards, taught a workshop together, Activism in Your Own Voice. “One of the things that was great about doing the workshop with Amy is we had everybody go around and say what their definition of activism was and what brought them to the conference and to our workshop . . . the women were so excited and happy to share their stories. Yes, there are these amazing people who speak at the conferences, but there are also some really amazing people in the audience.”

As Marianne concludes, women inspiring and motivating each other to keep the momentum of self-awareness and change going is important. Overcoming the fear of acknowledging their own voices—of becoming authentic—is a key step in harnessing genuine power.        

At the first reading and book signing for Marianne’s book, Daring to Be Ourselves, which was held at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock, NY, she cited a quote by activist and author, Loung Ung.

Courage is when you dare to be yourself.

Marianne found that theme popping up with most of the women she interviewed. She now reflects on what the quote means to her personally as well as within the context of feminism. “I think that for the book, it just emerged as the overlying theme,” Marianne remarks. “As I looked at all of the various quotes and messages, it was just very clear that it was that simple—just being who we are. It almost sounds ridiculous because it sounds like the easiest, most obvious thing we should all be doing and yet very few of us often are, or we’ve gone through periods of our life where we’re not.”

Perhaps, as Marianne suggests, that’s because there are so many forces affecting all of us—women and girls, as well as men and boys—which constantly inform us that we’re not acceptable as we are, ceaselessly urging us to change and make ourselves into something else.

Girls, in particular, are under constant pressure from the media about their body image. Marianne reflects how that stress affected her as a teenager. “I blew dry my hair straight every day, dyed it blonde, and dieted my way until I was borderline anorexic,” she divulges. “We’re all told we have to look like a super model or just why bother. But also internally, like Carol Gilligan says, we’re told from early on not to value our genuine voice. Sometimes I think what happens—and this happens to a lot of women and happened to me for quite some time—is that we have no clue who we are, and that’s a really lost feeling to have. I think we’re so on autopilot that women can go through their whole lives having no idea who they are and therefore aren’t in touch with what would give them fulfillment and happiness. What a waste and what an atrocity. So to me, it’s really that simple and that powerful—just finding your true voice and honoring your authentic self in all the various ways that you can.”

And if you bring your whole self to the task, whether that’s furthering a feminist cause or any other human rights issue, it makes the endeavor all the more powerful.

Marianne agrees with the premise. “Yes, that’s what naturally happens . . . like when we were talking about the connection between spirituality and feminism or spirituality and activism. Once you do this kind of inner work and start honoring yourself, it becomes this contagious thing. You can’t look at other people without seeing your common humanity and recognizing yourself. I remember—I think it was with my older daughter when she was in fourth grade—there was another girl who was saying unkind things again and again. I  found myself saying something so simple which really resonated, something like ‘You know, for this girl to act like that she must be a really unhappy person. I feel so bad for her because if you were a happy person, it doesn’t make you feel good to act that way.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you try, rather than fighting back or getting into a thing with her, just responding with love. You know, compliment her or just smile.’ As Marianne relays, her daughter told her the advice helped. “Now sometimes when things like that happen, I’ll just say, ‘Just respond with love,’ which is easier said than done. But sometimes it’s just about that . . . having compassion.”

Of the many fascinating women Marianne has interviewed, when asked to choose one who was particularly inspiring, she mentions Jane Fonda.  Just before their interview, Marianne read Jane’s autobiography, My Life So Far, which is about her personal journey—about her eating disorders, her marriages, being an actress and the pressures and insecurities that came along with her career. “But it was also about how it took her until she was in her sixties, post her divorce from Ted Turner, to really find her power and find her voice—to find out who she was. That was a big theme through my interview with her,” Marianne recognizes. “It just had a profound effect  on me because it really helped clarify the fact that the same thing had happened to me. . . It took me until my thirties to really start to wake up out of this society-imposed slumber that I had been in. So it not only was a personal revelation that way, but it also made me want to focus on making sure that we instill these messages in young women and girls so they don’t have to wait that long to reclaim their voices or, perhaps, not lose them at all.” 

Although it’s difficult for her to pick one quote from Daring to Be Ourselves that resonates with her own personal journey, after a moment of reflection, Marianne acquiesces. “It actually closes the whole book—the Alice Walker quote. It ties in with the overlying message, which has to do with finding your own voice and also finding your inner leader in order to produce change in the world.”

               We do carry an inner light, an inner compass, and the reason we don’t know we carry it is because we’ve been distracted. We think that the light is actually being carried by a leader or somebody that we have elected or somebody that we very much admire and that that’s the only light. So we forget that we have our own light—it may be small, it may be flickering, but it’s actually there. So what we need to do, I think, is to be still enough to let that light shine and illuminate our inner landscape and our dreams—especially our dreams. And then our dreams will lead us to the right way.       —  Alice Walker

Expanding on those words of wisdom, Marianne offers further insights to those of us who feel a bit dwarfed by the overwhelming needs we see expressed in the world today—whether they be women’s agendas, humanitarian issues, or global initiatives addressing peace and security. What exactly should we remember as we venture forward?”

“To have love and compassion for yourself,” she says plainly. “To take the pressure off that you can do it perfectly. . . It’s starting where you are and not thinking that you’re going to go out and found another V-Day. It’s literally just looking at your own family, your own neighborhood, and into your own community as you go through the day for ways to be mindful. It’s about how you’re interacting and the energy you’re putting out into the world. And . . . it sounds corny . . . just spreading love the best we can.”

Spreading love may just be a dare in itself. But if it’s a heartfelt desire, we’ll muster the strength to be up for the challenge. With enthusiasm and courageous effort, Marianne exemplifies that one woman is capable of doing just that—believing in a vision and becoming herself.

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Visit Marianne’s website to find out more about Daring to Be Ourselves and for scheduled appearances.

               Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.      — Coretta Scott King 

Jamia Wilson

The media has a powerful influence over how society views women as well as how women perceive themselves. The Women’s Media Center, founded in 2005 by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, is an organization determined to address and redress that image. Increasing  women’s prominence and visibility in media as a core objective, WMC recognizes the need to change the conversation so that media more accurately represents the perspectives, positions and priorities of women.

The question looms: Just how are they going to go about doing that? Sexism is certainly not a new phenomenon. Jamia Wilson, Vice President of Programs, asserts it’s a multigenerational fight. And it appears she’s up for it, her life experiences having prepared her with the audacity and vision to further the movement’s lineage.

“I have always been passionate about women’s issues,” Jamia states. “That’s probably because I was raised in a really strong family of women. In feminism, a lot of people talk about their click moment, when they first realized they’re a feminist, but I feel that I’ve always known. I just didn’t know its name was feminism. I also knew early on that I wanted to do some kind of social justice work. That’s something my parents were involved in doing during their personal time—working in local campaigns and initiatives.”

Jamia recalls how her mother and father would encourage reflection and how they would go the extra mile to broaden her scope of understanding. “I would get deprogrammed after school,” Jamia states, laughing. “My mom would ask, ‘What did you talk about in class today?’ When I told her she might say, ‘Okay, well maybe there are some books that you should read that would cover the other side of that issue.”

Born in South Carolina, at the age of five and a half, Jamia moved to Saudi Arabia with her mother to join her father who had already been working for the past year in a Saudi University. “I remember not really wanting to go, having seen some of the movies about that part of the world. Even at that age, there were images in my mind that encouraged a fear of this Middle Eastern other. My parents quickly changed that perspective for me and I went.”

Jamia notes that her life in the Middle East still impacts her perspective today. “Growing up in a school with over thirty nationalities represented has really had its effect on me. It’s influenced my relationships. It’s affected how I look at the world, and how I look at war and peace. It’s even influenced how I look at feminism. I’ve heard a lot of people make comments about women in the Middle East and their plight. I really find it problematic when I see judgment or any kind of negativity that promotes this idea that there’s no agency among Middle Eastern women because there is. It’s just different. There are many really strong Saudi women who are doing amazing things.”

Eleven years of Saudi Arabian culture under her belt, Jamia once again took up residency in the U.S., continuing her education and graduating from American University in Washington, DC in 2002. It was soon afterward that she began working for Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund, eventually managing their outreach program VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood. Having also helped to organize the participation of thousands of students in the historic March for Women’s Lives, Jamia has definitely traveled her own path in the women’s movement, reaming knowledge along the way. “When I was in DC managing VOX, I was working with all the different affiliates on the youth initiatives in the national office. It was then that I realized this was the work I loved and what I really wanted to do.”

After venturing to New York and obtaining her M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought from NYU, Jamia discovered there was a position open at the Women’s Media Center. “I wanted to work at WMC because I knew that I needed to be involved again in a major way. Now I’m getting to collaborate with people I worked with before like Shelby Knox, who is a young feminist activist, and Gloria Feldt, who’s a mentor and was also my former boss at Planned Parenthood. Gloria is a social media expert and just really amazing—someone who’s shown me I can do anything that I want and also be super powerful and dynamic.”

Dynamic intention seems to be the glue holding this multigenerational women’s initiative together. The Women’s Media Center links tried and true strategies with fresh, progressive initiatives to rattle the status quo, all the while presenting a new media paradigm—a blueprint positioning women at every structural stronghold from cornerstone to apex.

               The WMC works to amplify women’s voices on key issues in the national dialogue, fight sexism and bias against women in the media, and increase professional opportunities for women across all forms of media.

In order to achieve that aim, Jamia explains, the Center strives to make certain that women have equal representation. “We can’t tell the whole story if we don’t have everyone’s voices represented. We do that through our media advocacy campaigns, our media accountability campaigns, and also through our leadership and media training for women.”

The WMC’s flagship program for media training, Progressive Women’s Voices, gives women opportunities to go into studios and practice different techniques to expand their media platforms. “They’re taught everything from how to use social media to on-camera training that involves practicing hostile and friendly interviews,” Jamia states. “They learn how to be thought leaders.”

               PWV trains and mentors emerging political commentators to ensure there are plenty of qualified, authoritative, progressive women experts available to the media.

Not Under the Bus,” Jamia relays, “is our reproductive justice advocacy campaign, promoting women’s freedom to choose. In addition, we also have our media accountability campaigns like Name It Change It which we’re doing in partnership with Women’s Campaign Forum and Political Parity. That program is about confronting sexism against female candidates in the media. We challenge media outlets when we see them giving a platform to that type of targeting. We ask that they take our Equality Pledge to discontinue those sorts of attacks and to make certain that they’re focusing on the views of our candidates and not on the way they look or dress—that they’re not promoting misogynistic stereotypes.”

               We must erase the pervasiveness of sexism against all women candidates — irrespective of political party or level of office — across all media platforms in order to position women to achieve equality in public office.

Girls are also prime targets of media hype. Jamia conveys how the Women’s Media Center is dedicated to pushing back against the onslaught. “We recently had our SPARK Summit which is now the Spark Movement Campaign aimed at standing up against the sexualization of girls in the media.” As Jamia explains, the movement sprouted from a 2007 APA Study which found that sexualized images of girls was linked to, among other things, increased eating disorders and lower self esteem. “It’s important to make sure that girls are not only protected from this kind of media but are proactive about it,” Jamia maintains. “Debra Tolman, a professor at Hunter and a big proponent of the study, partnered with Lynn Michael Brown, a professor at Colby College, to bring together a new feminist coalition to fight against this sexualization. That’s where the WMC came in. Along with other partner organizations, we wanted to bring girls together to have a day long conversation about the movement we were going to ‘spark’, with girls not only leading the conversation but also leading the initiative.”

The SPARK Summit, held in New York this past October, gave girl activists ranging from the ages of fourteen to twenty-two the tools they need to take a stand against the prolific ” target=”_self”>sexualized images presented by the media, as well as the opportunity to create meaningful messages and make media of their own.

“The training we gave the girls was an abridged version of what we do for Progressive Women’s Voices, just specially tailored,” Jamia relays. “We gave them on-camera time, and the girls were also able to show their videos and get feedback from each other. We also gave them a platform to blog during the event and to do social media tweeting—live tweeting—as well as to create video blog interviews. Some of the girls had already created their own documentaries which we included in the Summit. What was important to us was to convey that this is truly a girls-led movement. They have their own ideas about what to do about fighting back.”

Jamia also speaks about how WMC live streamed the event so that those people who were unable to come to New York for the convening could virtually participate. “We had people from Alabama to Dubai who were virtually streaming in,” Jamia recounts. “It was amazing. They were able to chat and interact and have their own community with each other. I was in a couple of panels where we took questions from that virtual audience. It was really exciting for me—interacting with people who weren’t present but who were really engaged in the conversation.”

During the SPARK Summit, the girls also had the opportunity to interact with women they admire. “Geena Davis was our keynote speaker,” Jamia mentions. “She’s brilliant. She has her own center on media [The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media]. She is such an excellent role model because she’s done a great deal of work of her own and has used her privilege to help uplift others in a really powerful way. The girls also got to meet Gloria Steinem. They just loved her and were so excited to be able to engage and learn from Gloria and she from them. So for me, it was great to see this intergenerational movement building, which was one of our goals for the summit.”

Weaving the generations together to create a more cohesive force seems like a sound plan. Within the scope of the women’s movment, young feminists valuing the accomplishments of predecessors is an essential element in assuring the success of the endeavor. “I have seen the importance of intergenerational movement building from the very beginnings of my life and also know its importance by being involved in this work. There are those who have come before me who have given me advice, have mentored me and given me the power to continue. I know that a lot of my peers have a similar view, so I think that young feminists really do recognize what has been achieved before us and what work we need to do to in order to continue things forward. We see our role.”

Still, there are women who don’t consider themselves feminists, who may not fully appreciate the type of effort it took to establish rights that they wouldn’t second guess today. Jamia indicates that “education is the key” in creating awareness of the work that’s gone into past attainments and maintaining a well-rounded perspective. “You really should be learning about equality at a young age,” Jamia states. “It’s a larger conversation about history and how we talk about it and how we treat it. We need to teach people about their predecessors. We need to write more women into history and really create a narrative tradition of passing on these stories.”

Of course, most of us will never know what it’s like not to be able to vote or get our own credit card without having our partner’s permission. Jamia recognizes that although she’ll never go through those experiences, she can appreciate their significance. “I’m grateful that I’m living in a world where people have laid that foundation for me, and I hope to be able to do that for the people that I precede. I believe when we understand what has been laid out before us, we have appreciation and want to work to move it forward.”

Working toward women’s voices being an integral part of the media is key to upholding a more balanced and just society. That essential truth is what must urge us forward today to establish women in all levels and sectors of media, as commentators as well as on the organizational front. There is certainly a danger if we don’t.

One aspect of that danger, as Jamia indicates, is “not having the whole story. Women will not be able to make their mark on history which will lead to a larger problem—people in future generations not understanding how they got where they are. Our history is so powerful. Coretta Scott King said, ‘Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won—you earn it and win it in every generation.’ I believe that as well. We can’t just let go and take things for granted. We really need to know about our history. If we don’t have women out there who are getting reported about, or there isn’t an archive being created about our lives, then we’ll never be able to make that mark. That’s why it’s so important for our voices to be heard. Women need to see each other in the media and hear each other’s voices in order to remain empowered. We need to see other women doing the things we all aspire to do.”

In that respect, Jamia herself is an example. Passionate about her beliefs, she brings her own spiritual path to her work, including the idea that “our success as a movement depends on our ability to respect spirituality’s role in the feminist conversation,” a provocative stance she presented in her blog article, Manifesting a Movement—a Spiritual Uprising.

But there are some women who feel their position is weakened if they bring spiritual beliefs into the picture. “There are people who feel that expressing that part of yourself means you are somewhat naïve—that you’re not thinking intelligently,” Jamia states. “I’ve even had conversations with feminists who’ve asked, ‘How can you be so interested in God when you know that this concept of God, in an organized sense especially, has been used to oppress us?”

Jamia’s answer is one that reveals spiritual reflection rather than dogmatic rhetoric.

“I see a very strong synergy between spirituality and science,” Jamia concludes. “When I was at Planned Parenthood I had some very hard conversations with coworkers about where I stood on some of the issues. They didn’t understand how I reconciled being a Christian with my belief in science. Basically, I believe people have free will, and I also believe that the concept of God is so much more expansive and powerful than our human understanding. It’s perplexing to me why people are so bothered about bringing spirituality into the conversation because to me it just seems so inherently real—that there’s this life force. It’s not necessarily about believing in a deity but really understanding that there is something beyond us that’s part of the situation.”

That ‘something beyond us’ which Jamia refers to has almost always infused our political struggles—for better or for worse. With this in mind, the women’s movement may find itself further strengthened by being more open and willing to include spiritual values and beliefs in the dialogue—creating even more power within an already shifting paradigm.

“We need to take our moral conversation back,” Jamia asserts. “I think the right has done a really great job using the moral frame and putting out this idea that they have a premium on values—that they have a stronghold on any kind of worthwhile conversation. I completely disagree with that. I believe that the reason I do this work is very spiritually driven. It’s something I wouldn’t have chosen if I didn’t have a belief system that made me think about what ‘right’ means or what ‘justice’ means.”

Jamia mentions feeling hearted to be in a community of feminists who are spiritually involved. Presently, she’s on the Advisory Council for Our Inner Lives, a project of Feminist.com founded by Marianne Schnall. Our Inner Lives honors women’s spiritual beliefs and practices, recognizing how they enrich all our human endeavors. Jamia is also a board member for REVEAL, an organization dedicated to empowering and advancing the next generation of feminine spirituality—secular feminists and fiery women of faith who come together and understand that faith and feminism create a soul-fueled form of activism.                        

“I think that there are some very strong women who are demanding that this conversation about spirituality and feminism be brought to the forefront,” Jamia proclaims, “and I’m really happy about that. I remember being interviewed for an article on pro-choice and spirituality. Some people wrote comments below the article like ‘I’m writing her off  because you can’t be pro-choice and a Christian. She says she does yoga and is interested in Eastern philosophy. How can you relate to those things and still have Christian beliefs?’ It was really interesting for me to see that kind of closed-mindedness coming from some people. They’re actually promoting energies that are oppressive and that shut people down. Instead, we need to be more open to the spirituality conversation—open to different ways of attaining our goals in the movement.”

Women of Liberia Mass Action for PeaceWhile attending  this year’s Women & Power Conference presented by Omega Institute in New York, Jamia mentions she was able to see many women address the spiritual aspects of feminism—women of international repute like Leymah Gbowee, who organized several thousand Christian and Muslim women in Liberia to help bring peace to the country after a fourteen-year civil war, and Ani DeFrano, singer-songwriter and feminist who Jamia interviewed. “When I asked Annie about spirituality,” Jamia reveals, “she basically said she believed that most of the great activists that she knew were deeply spiritual people.”

Jamia also stresses the role feminist leaders like Jodi Evans, cofounder of CODEPINK and part of WMC’s board, have played in her life. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Jodi and being able to meet someone who’s organization mobilized a lot of the different actions I was a part of in college and that had energized me to get involved in peace work when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. So for me, it’s been a great blessing to be able to meet some of the people who really catapulted that work.”

Building upon that thought, Jamia notes the importance of women’s voices being included in peace initiatives, as well as the kinds of messages those voices convey. “Women have a deep investment in the peace conversation because we are usually at the helm of our families and are so greatly affected by conflict. We often bear the brunt of many burdens—in finance, in health care, as well as on our bodies when rape is used as a weapon of war. So I think that makes us really important messengers of peace and compassion. I also believe it’s important we’re carrying that message because we have such a deep involvement with children. We’re planting seeds in their minds about how we define friends and how we define enemies.”

Jamia also touches on WMC’s connection to this larger picture—using media to focus on the conversation of women’s human rights. “We’re working on an upcoming project on public education about genocide and its effects on women, specifically the story of women in the holocaust and their suffering due to sexual assault. We’re taking a look at the connection between that atrocity and more current ones such as in the Congo and Rwanda—how things might be different today if we had really talked about what those women went through back then. So I’m happy we’re going to be raising awareness about what’s occurred, because when you look at mob mentality and mass movements against entire races of people, they’ve usually stemmed from the fact that nobody spoke up. It’s like the Martin Luther King quote: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

The Women’s Media Center is determined to break that silence. But changing the course of women’s roles in the media is no easy task. Jamia’s vision for the WMC encompasses holding an even broader conversation, and that dialogue, driven powerfully forward by the organization’s intergenerational collective, is harnessing the strengths of the past to the promise and initiative of the present.

“There have been some people who’ve said, ‘We need to be in the streets. We don’t need to be blogging as much or on social media.’ But I believe we need both,” Jamia contends. “When Marianne Williamson was at the UN MDG Summit, she was asked how she felt about all the blogging young feminists were doing. She responded by saying that blogging was a beautiful way to bear witness, and I agree. I also think that we can use these tools—blogging, video, etc—to organize marches and spread messages, to spread a feminist gospel, so to speak. It means we can still be somewhere and show solidarity, and we can also live stream a summit.”

The world, ready or not, is facing a new wave of feminists. Image-makers and information outlets hold on to your hats as women man the frontlines. Armed with computers, laptops, iPods, flip phones, video cams and every social network platform known to humans, they are determined to flood media pipelines with women’s voices and their agendas.

Yet throughout it all, as Jamia Wilson emphasizes, the foundation for true success lies in acknowledging something deeper.

“When a woman suffers, I suffer.”

And it’s that voice of suffering that must move us—not to rail against the tide but to focus our collective energies toward turning it. As the Women’s Media Center states, diversifying the media landscape is critical to the health of our culture and democracy.

Women’s voices, empowered with conviction, will be the key to that deliverance.

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