21 Leaders 2015: Seven Who Transform Cultures

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Julie R. Enszer: Michigan’s Circulator of Lesbian Poetry

Julie R. EnszerJulie R. Enszer is, right now, a visiting assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Maryland, where she teaches courses on LGBT studies, women’s studies and theories of feminism.

These subjects can be transformative for undergraduate students who happen across a course like this–as they once were for Enszer, when she was a women’s studies major at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s.

But Enszer’s reach and impact into the world of lesbian and feminist activism spans far beyond the classroom. She is a poet and the creator of the Lesbian Poetry Archive, which undertakes the unique task of collecting and circulating lesbian poetry online.

She is also a scholar and blogger, writing on topics such as marriage for lesbians and gay men. "For lesbians, engagements with marriage are ongoing, providing opportunities to articulate and reimagine how we live and organize our intimate lives," she wrote in a 2013 article.

On top of that, she is the volunteer editor and publisher of Sinister Wisdom, a lesbian literary and art journal operating since 1976.

A Michigan native, Enszer came out in college and following graduation began working at a LGBT community center, Affirmations, in the Detroit area. People advised her against taking the job at Affirmations because they said she would be forever seen as a lesbian and unable to get a real job in the future.

"It didn’t seem to me like such a big risk, as other people saw it," she said. "It was clear to me that I was not going to switch and go work for corporate America. I wanted to do work that was interesting and creative and was aligned with my values."

She stayed at the organization for eight years, eventually becoming its executive director. She also began to develop her own writing, growing more interested in the literary tradition that "speaks to and is meaningful to lesbians at different times."

Enszer is now focused on finishing a book manuscript on lesbian feminist presses from 1969-2009 and is working on a collection of poetry based on the Jewish folklore Lilith myth, told from the perspective of female demons.

"Representations of lesbians, whether using that word or not, representations of women in erotic relationships with other women and building lives centered around women, is an important literary tradition," Enszer said. "I believe my work is contributing to that tradition, keeping it alive and helping new generations rethink lesbian identify."

–By Amy Lieberman

Mary Fisher: Michigan’s Uniter of Women with HIV/AIDS

Mary FisherMary Fisher took the worst thing that happened to her and used it to help some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls.

"I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society . . . Though I am female, and contracted this disease in marriage, and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection."

On Aug. 19, 1992, Fisher made history with those words. She was 44, an artist and the mother of two sons, Max, then 4, and Zachary, 2, when she spoke at the Republican National Convention in Houston, calling for compassion for people infected with HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.

In 1991, Fisher’s ex-husband told her he had AIDS; she tested positive for HIV. Facing death, Fisher said, "I want my children to know that their mother was not a victim. She was a messenger."

Oxford University Press ranked her convention keynote among the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century.

"One of my wonderful mentors was Betty Ford," said Fisher. She had worked for President Gerald Ford as the first female "advance man" for the White House. The former first lady "was instrumental in my going public. She always believed it was important to help others by telling your own story."

Born in Louisville, Ky., and relocated to the Detroit area at age 6, Fisher grew up the daughter of philanthropists and began her own career in public service broadcasting in the early days of public television.

In 1992, Fisher started what became the Mary Fisher Clinical AIDS Research and Education (CARE) Fund at the University of Alabama. The fund supports outreach to black and Hispanic women to urge them to get tested for HIV and AIDS.

In the late 1990s, Fisher met with African women and girls infected with HIV and AIDS and felt "a bond." The Abataka Foundation, named for a pan-African term for "community," supports her work in Zambia and other African countries, where she teaches jewelry-making skills to women and girls with HIV and AIDS. The jewelry is sold in galleries and online at www.abataka.org. In 2014, Fisher designed The 100 Good Deeds Bracelet to encourage acts of kindness. Proceeds from sales help women in Africa and Haiti support themselves and their families.

Fisher has also served on the Leadership Council of the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS and as an ambassador for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

She said she plans to "always do whatever I can to help women and girls."

–By Jan Paschal

Preston McMurry, Jr.: Arizona’s Online Promoter of Women’s Safety

Preston McMurry, Jr.Long before finding his purpose, working to combat child abuse and domestic violence, Preston V. McMurry, Jr., fell in love with the woman he calls the love of his life.

As their relationship grew, Donna Theresa Della Croce’s body told a story that she could not explain. "I discovered six scars on each of her feet," he said. She brushed them off as "birthmarks."

For McMurry, the retired founder and CEO of McMurry, Inc., once the nation’s largest content marketing company, the word "impossible" doesn’t exist. But, try as he might, even with 10 years of psychological counseling, Della Croce’s past remained lost to her memory.

Seeking answers, the couple traveled to a mountaintop village in Italy, where Della Croce was born at the close of World War II. It was there they discovered she had been horribly abused and tortured by fire. Village court records showed she was baptized Theresa and her father was an alcoholic coppersmith. "Her scars were red-hot poker burn marks," said McMurry. At age 5 she was adopted by an American couple, who named her Donna.

Three months after returning home to Phoenix, Della Croce disappeared. As time passed without a word, McMurry discovered his "purpose in life." He dedicated himself to combating child abuse and domestic violence by creating Theresa’s Fund in 1992. Since then McMurry has donated to and helped the charity raise more than $49 million for Arizona-based organizations fighting child abuse and domestic violence.

Seven years later, Della Croce resurfaced. The couple reconciled, acknowledged their mutual love and became lifetime friends. She remarried a fine successful retired gentleman 10 years later.

In early 2014, seven months prior to her death, Della Croce announced she had committed her substantial estate to Theresa’s Fund, as had McMurry.

Recently, in collaboration with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Theresa Fund and McMurry’s son Chris researched, designed and implemented http://www.domesticshelters.org, the first online and mobile database of more than 3,000 U.S. domestic violence shelters. Coincidentally and fittingly, the site launched on the day of Della Croce’s passing in August 2014.

When Della Croce told McMurry her cancer was terminal last year, she asked him to deliver her eulogy, which he did, and to take her ashes back to the mountaintop village in Italy where she was born. McMurry will keep that promise in May, when the snows clear from the passes.

"If you were a screenplay writer, could you dream up a story like this?" asked McMurry.

-By Jan Paschal

Geeta Mehta: India’s Distributor of New Forms of Wealth

Geeta Mehta Growing up in India, Geeta Mehta was very aware of how poverty affects women more deeply, but also of the potential of capable and hardworking women that could be realized with just a bit of help. It was this realization that led her to start the nonprofit organization Asia Initiatives.

In 2000 she founded the organization with her husband Krishen Mehta. At that time, Asia Initiatives focused primarily on its technology initiative, which involved sending computers to India and the Philippines, and its microcredit initiative, which provides loans to female entrepreneurs in villages.

Today, Asia Initiatives focuses much more on a program Mehta created, called Social Capital Credits (SoCCs). Community members who make positive improvements to their community, such as managing waste, growing trees and getting children vaccinated or sending them to high school or college, earn SoCCs, which can then be redeemed for education, skill building classes, health care, child care, etc. This program not only builds a sense of "we can" in underserved communities, but also has a multiplier effect for each development dollar.

Asia Initiatives has also helped start Internet linked Village Knowledge Centers in some of the remotest villages in Asia, some that don’t even have roads. These centers provide information on agriculture, farm prices, jobs, medical issues and also build literacy.

"Women who never had a chance to go to school get so excited when they become literate enough to catch a bus or go to a bank by themselves," Mehta said.

Mehta added that observing the transformation in women in their programs is the most rewarding part of running Asia Initiatives. She recalled a visit to the Indian city of Pondicherry, where Asia Initiatives was running a microcredit program for self-help groups of women to assist them in starting their own businesses. On her first visit the women were very timid and quiet, but several years later, they had evolved into strong, capable entrepreneurs and some of them were running for local elections.

"Helping women is the most efficient way to sustainable development," said Mehta. "Once a women becomes financially empowered, she is more respected, her position in the family improves and she participates in decision making."

Next up, Asia Initiatives is working on the creation of an online platform to facilitate SoCCs transactions and to foster "community to community learning." It will allow people to access information on what other communities are doing to solve similar problems.

Mehta also hopes to continue to grow SoCCs into a global movement. She believes the program is so effective in helping women and communities because "it’s not charity. It’s empowering people to empower themselves."

–By Amy Rubinson

Kathy Miller: Texas Campaigner for Women’s Reproductive Health

Kathy MillerA native Ohioan, Kathy Miller, the president and executive director of Texas Freedom Network, has had a lifelong passion for politics and women’s equality.

As a teen, Miller dreamed of serving as Ohio’s first female Republican senator. Although her politics have changed drastically since then, her drive for women’s rights and recognition never dwindled.

Miller’s direction shifted to working as a progressive and Democratic activist while she was a student at Ohio University working with Professor James Henderson, who she calls her mentor.

"Henderson helped guide my exploration of the world of politics and policy," said Miller. "He changed my whole life."

After starting a Ph.D. in political philosophy at University of Texas, Austin, Miller followed her heart and pursued a career in public affairs. She has served as communications director for the Texas Council on Family Violence and National Domestic Violence Hotline and public affairs director for Planned Parenthood Federation of Austin.

In 1995, Cecile Richards, currently president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, began the Texas Freedom Network to advocate for religious freedom and to defend civil liberties. Miller was one of her first hires.

"I felt certain that learning from the ground up with Cecile would teach me what I wanted and needed to know about doing advocacy," said Miller.

In particular, Richards, a mother of twins and the daughter of a Texas governor, the late Anne Richards, supported a family-friendly work environment. As a working mother, Miller was attracted to the work-life balance Richards promoted within the network.

After first serving as the network’s deputy director from 1996 to 2000, Miller returned to serve as president in January 2005.

One issue Miller focuses on is abortion access. Calling the current political situation a war on women, Miller works to ensure American women, including her two daughters, have access to the best reproductive health information and care.

"I know women cannot be equal players in this society if they cannot make decisions about their own fertility," said Miller. "We are still battling an antiquated system that does not recognize the true and genuine benefits to everyone when equality exists."

–By Elizabeth Kuhr

Graciela de Oto: Argentina’s Broadcaster of Equality

Graciela de OtoFor more than a decade, Graciela De Oto, a native of Buenos Aires, has been helping women overcome gender biases to launch and advance their entrepreneurial careers.

To help spread the impact of her work, she has been involved in such efforts as coauthoring the book "Women in Latin American and Caribbean Organizations," participating as a speaker in conferences around the world and has created a radio show, "The Irresistible Feminine Force," to further strengthen female leadership and entrepreneurship.

"In my country, women are not taught how to do things in business," De Oto said. "That’s why I started the foundation – to create a place for women to help them grow in their personal and profesional lives."

De Oto is the founder and CEO of The Suma Veritas Foundation in Buenos Aires, an organization that connects women with business training and resources that have historically not been accessible to women. The foundation helps female entrepreneurs develop professional skills, start a business and cultivate clients. Through events and fundraisers, entrepreneurs enrolled in the program are given the opportunity to pitch their business ideas and face real clients.

"Many of the women who come to my program do not know how to dress for a business meeting," De Oto said. "They have great business ideas, but don’t know how to make a business plan."

The Suma Veritas Foundation helps female entrepreneurs overcome some of these deep-rooted challenges. "In the banks, it’s more difficult for a woman to get a loan to start a business because she is a woman," De Oto said. "We teach them how to position themselves and which papers to acquire in order to get one."

The foundation has also extended its reach into the legal system with initiatives to instate an official Equal Pay Day and to pass laws that measure and compensate work within the care economy. In 2013, De Oto saw a year-long initiative realized when the mayor of Buenos Aires pledged that emergency contraception for rape victims would be provided in all hospitals.

De Oto began her career at a law firm, after earning a marketing and management degree from Palermo University in Buenos Aires. While she gained experience there, she realized she needed to complement her studies in order to get bigger clients. She later went on to do various degrees, including a master’s in business administration and a Ph.D. in management, both from Pacific Western University in California.

"I love innovation and new things. I’m always searching for new things all the time, but if I had to say, what’s next? I want to internationalize the foundation," she said.

–By Stephanie Yacenda

Ai-jen Poo: Taiwan’s Strength Trainer for the Lowest Paid

Ai-jen PooKnown for her outstanding organizing for the rights of female caregivers and domestic workers, Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, learned how to value community support from her grandmother, propelling her passion to protect domestic workers from childhood.

"My grandmother always used to talk about … all the people she appreciated in her life," said Poo, who lived with her grandmother in Taiwan as a child. "That was one of the greatest things she taught me–the value of caregiving relationships."

Poo initially studied ceramics at Washington University in St. Louis and graduated with a degree in women’s studies from New York’s Columbia University. Her college career led to the beginning of her activist roots when she volunteered in a domestic violence shelter.

"I realized how important women’s economic opportunity and real, stable livelihood for women is for anything else to happen," said Poo. "If women don’t have access to a good job that they can support their families on, the vulnerabilities are just enormous."

Her volunteer work, coupled with her waitressing job where she witnessed racial and gender hierarchies as well as rampant sexual harassment, opened her eyes to systems of bias that exist in society.

Today, her life comes full circle as she organizes for people like Mrs. Sun, a home care worker who takes care of Poo’s elderly grandmother in California. She focuses her efforts on raising the level of respect and recognition of domestic workers such as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly.

Poo’s team is currently working toward building a voting bloc of Americans committed to securing good care for their families and ensuring access to well-paid jobs that respect the domestic workforce.

The success stories of her female clients working in tremendously difficult situations–from African American workers in the Deep South to undocumented domestic workers–motivate her to continue her work each day.

"They’re not only asserting their own dignity, but doing their work with so much love," said Poo. "Then bringing that love, care and joy into our movement and helping us win these incredible historic breakthroughs that no one thought was possible."

Recent breakthroughs include regulations that will change minimum wage and overtime rules for nearly 2 million home care and direct service workers. This workforce is 90 percent women and approximately half people of color. Also, in January 2014 the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights went into effect, extending overtime protections to thousands of domestic workers in the state.

continue to make strides toward gender equality, Poo said women from all walks of life need to support and uplift one another.

"It comes down to power and influence," said Poo. "We need to come together and work collectively to increase our power, our voice and our influence over these underlying systems."

–By Elizabeth Kuhr

For more information:

Women’s eNews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2015 Home Page
Women’s eNews Annnounces 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2015
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Interrupt Legacy Narratives
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Transform Cultures
21 Women Leaders 2015 – Seven Who Give Life to Movements

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