Posts Tagged ‘Pure Vision’

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

Angelina Perri Birney

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

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

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

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

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

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

PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation

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

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

Author’s Website: perribirney.com

Genre:  Fiction, Action/Adventure, Thriller


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

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

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


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

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      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.

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               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.”


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.


Visit The Geena Davis Institute and the SEE JANE program to support the research.

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                 “. . . recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
                     —Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Sam Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Kathleen Durham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He who builds with alarm never builds anything.

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

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

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

Do one thing everyday that scares you.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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The power of women to change the world is evident.  Former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt never stopped working for “the common man.”  Famous for her social and political beliefs, she did not hesitate for a moment to back reforms which were unpopular and risky. The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s rights, Social  Rights of the poor and disenfranchised—Eleanor always found her voice, speaking out and delivering a clear message regarding her stance.

                Strong and independent, Eleanor was a woman of great compassion and generosity. Her love of humanity reached the highest of levels as the first U.S. representative in the United Nations and as a chairperson and highly regarded member of the UN Commission on Human Rights. While in that position, she helped create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Beyond her status as former First Lady, Eleanor’s qualifications for such a monumental task was her conviction that every person’s dignity and rights had to be protected. Her hope was that the Declaration would eventually be recognized throughout the world and that all nations would come to honor it.

                But Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertions represented only the beginning of a long and ongoing effort for women to become more involved in peace issues at an international level. Over sixty years after the Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, the struggle for international rights continues. As far as female activists are concerned, that  long and arduous road has led to the modern heroine—a dedicated, passionate woman who understands her involvement with the world’s struggle for peace and equality isn’t just a choice. It’s a must. The days of listening to devastating news reports and shaking our heads are over.  It’s time to put our hearts on the front line.

                Angelina Jolie, an academy award-winning actress, proves over and over again that she is in touch with the world and does not hesitate to use her status as a superstar to voice her concerns. A global citizen, she works tirelessly as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN agency that delivers assistance to tens of millions of refugees around the globe.

                A powerful woman who uses her voice . . . you bet. Angelina uses her ability to draw high media coverage to raise awareness of the tragic and heart-breaking conditions of  refugees, conditions so often not given proper media attention. If anyone is to be characterized as fearless, we must give credit where credit is due. Although we can probably be certain that Angelina has been in quite dangerous circumstances because of her beliefs and her desire to help, she has nonetheless gone beyond her fear, which is the true meaning of being fearless.

                As women, that’s our test. Can we go beyond our fear? Can we assert our beliefs and become voices of peace even when the situation is risky and will most definitely be be met with resistance?

                One thing is certain: It is imperative that more women become part of the peace process no matter where that is. In Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur. The list, unfortunately, seems endless. But it is certainly time for women to be active, not only talking about resolution, but willing to get out there and stand in the streets, offering their presence wherever necessary.

                Now, does it mean that women are  waging war against men if they take such a stance?

                Of course not.

                Does it mean we would be waging peace, trying to balance the feminine with the masculine to create a saner and safer world?

                Yes, exactly.

                No doubt Eleanor would agree.  “No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war.”

                Sometimes the simple truth says it all.

* * * * *

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front cover.indd

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

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

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