By Sarah Seltzer
Monday, December 24, 2007
Profiles of seven outstanding leaders dedicated to improving women's lives: Sammie Moshenberg, Nguyen Van Anh, Susan Nickey, Rosita Romero, Anucha Browne Sanders, Lorraine Drammer Serena and Lekha Singh.
Sammie Moshenberg left the United States in the late 1960s for her junior year at Oxford University and jumped into the women's movement going full tilt on the British campus.
She had grown up in Baltimore advocating for civil rights, racial equality and anti-war causes, partly motivated by her progressive Reform rabbi. Far from home and fighting for coeducational options at England's fabled university, she realized how interrelated sexism was with other civil rights movements.
After college, she spent several years teaching elementary school in Baltimore's inner-city and working as a writer. A decade after her time at Oxford, she landed a job in communications in the New York office of the National Council of Jewish Women.
"I was working for an organization that was not just predominantly female but consciously feminist, which works on women's issues, with women and about women," Moshenberg says.
Now in her third decade with the National Council of Jewish Women, Moshenberg's work has expanded as the organization grew, from writing to lobbying and then to heading the Washington, D.C., office. Moshenberg says at this point in its history the National Council has become more oriented toward public policy and has made progressive social change integral to its activities. "I am constantly energized by the activism of members all over the country," she says. "They are a constant shot in the arm."
Moshenberg now works on the National Council's BenchMark initiative about the nomination of anti-choice federal judges. The campaign expands the reach of local members to other progressive organizations within their communities by offering training, educational materials and other support for public forums. A similar campaign, called Plan A, has as its goal to "secure and protect" women's access to contraception.
"Our battles aren't over," she says. "There's a need to remain proactive to protect our rights and ensure that all women are truly able to realize the full benefit of the rights for which so many of us have struggled."
She adds that the other continuing need is for the U.S. women's movement to embrace and include at its tables more young women, immigrants, women of color and women with disabilities.
"I want to develop possibilities for a diverse multitude of women's voices to be heard, speaking out for social justice," she says.
Before Nguyen Van Anh quit her job, abused women in northern Vietnam had no one to call for help. Domestic violence was not recognized as a problem; it was seen as a private, family matter.
Nguyen had encountered woman after woman affected by violence while working as a radio reporter for the Voice of Vietnam station. But there was little in the way of assistance for them. She decided to take action and in 1997 she started the region's first psychological and emotional counseling hotline. Services were in heavy demand from the get-go, and she saw that the women got a boost, "especially young women," she says. "Through the hotlines, I knew many victims of domestic violence, victims of tragedy."
Eventually, Nguyen decided to quit her radio job and devote herself fulltime to helping women and children, "vulnerable people." The Hanoi-based Center for Studies in Applied Sciences in Gender was born.
In addition to expanding the telephone hotline--which today operates in 22 cities and takes 5,000 calls a day--and offering online and in-person counseling services, Van Anh also started gender-equality training programs, hoping that alerting others on how to deal with issues of domestic violence will have a trickle-down effect.
"We would like for change to start small," she says. "We work with police, women's unions, hospital leaders. We provide knowledge about gender equality and domestic violence. After that we discuss their roles in their communities, so they can help victims in their communities."
The training sessions incorporate creative exercises such as role-playing and encourage participants to practice their counseling and response skills in person, rather than on paper. Although their main focus is counseling victims of domestic violence, they also offer sessions on children's rights, lobbying and conflict resolution.
The center also actively works to end the stigma surrounding violence and sexual assault in Vietnamese culture: Victims can feel intense shame and family violence is rarely condemned publicly.
They are teaching women that "nobody has a right to victimize them. Nobody has a right to abuse them," Nguyen says. "Sometimes for my staff and me we feel very tired, when women come in and cry. But we understand that we have to change their lives. We have to go outside, we have to talk about our lives. Then we feel stronger."
"For most of my career in this industry I've been the only woman in the room," says Susan Nickey, the chief financial officer of Acciona Energy North America, a renewable energy company based in Chicago, and a subsidiary of Acciona SA, headquartered in Madrid. "It's an obstacle at times and an opportunity at times."
One area where she feels gender helped her is in smoothly bringing diverse factions together to launch Nevada Solar One, the largest solar thermal energy plant built in the last 16 years and the third largest in the world.
Nickey is a true believer that women can help power the clean-energy industry. She hopes her pioneering work can persuade women that the all-boys-club image of Big Coal and Big Oil is no longer accurate.
"I hope to see more women in this field in particular," she says. "When women see their children, grandkids, nieces and nephews, they see the importance not only in making money, but in the right corporate objective and sustainable mission to devote oneself to."
She spends much of her time speaking to female college students and women in business schools, trying to recruit and mentor them and encouraging them to take a stake in their environment.
As the opportunity to usher the Nevada Solar One project came up, Nickey was seriously beginning to notice the effects of pollution and saw more and more otherwise healthy people in their 40s and 50s diagnosed with late-stage cancer. "I've been looking around me seeing it every other day and thinking we've got to do something about our environment."
Although other firms had turned the project down, Nickey was convinced it could happen and helped secure financing. Strategies she'd learned as a woman in a male-dominated field came in handy as she ushered the project through the government permit process. "Having a woman can help bring all the personalities and teams together to work together," she said. "Being a team player and organizer can be a real positive force in getting things accomplished."
Nickey is amazed by the change in attitude towards Nevada Solar One, which went from a pipe dream a few years ago to providing energy to 14,000 Nevada homes when it opened in June. There are so many visitors--students, businesses and federal officials--the company had to hire a tour guide.
"We can start quickly moving in the right direction," Nickey says, "for us, and particularly for rest of the world which we have to lead."
Rosita Romero has combined her passions for gender equality, housing and immigration advocacy into a unique space for Latinas that has been emulated by other women's activists.
As co-founder of the Dominican Women's Development Center--started in 1988 in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, the center of the Dominican immigrant community--Romero wanted to address the combination of sexism, racism and classism diminishing the lives of women in The Heights, as the area is known.
"There was a lack of representation of women in positions of leadership within the Latino community and no organization to address the particular needs and interests of women," Romero says. She and several other women wanted to start a place to address those needs.
Planning their launch, Romero and her colleagues asked 100 women in their community what their biggest priorities and needs were. The first was to learn English, followed by housing and employment. So the center launched three levels of English classes, along with basic Spanish literacy classes. They borrowed space from a church and provided free classes and child care so women could attend.
That kind of holistic help has been a trademark of the Dominican Women's Development Center. They created a program to help women build small businesses with their skills, such as daycare or catering. They began workshops on self-esteem and gender roles and offered reproductive health seminars.
"For women, part of personal empowerment is taking control of our bodies and taking care of our health," says Romero. She hopes next to help the center, which now has an annual budget of $2 million and 40 employees, acquire a permanent home by purchasing a building.
Whether fighting for the Latino community at large; for amnesty for undocumented workers, health care and immigrant rights; or lobbying on women-specific issues like domestic violence, reproductive justice and child care, the Center aims to combine a personal, community-based approach with an understanding of broader political truths.
"We try to raise consciousness and raise awareness about society and community problems," Romero says. "Women can be educated about how to change these realities."
Romero was born in the Dominican Republic, spent much of her youth in Puerto Rico and has lived in the United States for decades; her multicultural background is a mirror to the Center's growing influence. Sister organizations in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have now been established.
Anucha Browne Sanders, the basketball executive who was fired for speaking up about sexual harassment on the job, took on one of the most powerful sports organizations in the country and scored a major victory for working women.
"It is my hope that all women will be able to work in an environment that is free of discrimination and harassment and that any women who stands up for her rights will be taken seriously by her employer rather than retaliated against," Browne Sanders said after settling her lawsuit against the New York Knicks in December.
The agreement followed an October jury verdict that awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million in punitive damages for being sexually harassed by Knicks coach and former NBA star Isiah Thomas. Under the agreement, she will receive $11.5 million.
Browne Sanders emphasizes that what happened to her at the Knicks isn't endemic to the U.S. athletic community. A former college basketball star at Northwestern University, she felt that as a female athlete she had always gotten respect.
"It isn't the sports world," she says. "It's leadership. If leaders say no from the start, that message is sent directly to the organization."
"This could have been avoided," she adds. "All they had to do was tell him to behave."
Browne Sanders says it wasn't hard to speak up. "I was so taken aback that the way they responded was to fire me," she says. "I'd never been fired in my life. The feeling--I can't describe it. To be fired for something you wanted support on, that you knew you were right about. It gave me the resolve to say, 'No, I'm not going to put up with this.'"
She recalls walking in with three lawyers to see a Knicks legal staff that far outnumbered hers. Then one day in a parking lot she encountered a woman who said, "'Anucha, I want you to know that you're fighting for every working mother.' She was almost in tears, she was so proud of me," she recalls.
Browne Sanders hadn't contemplated what a victory would mean, but at that point she realized how many faceless women were in her corner. "It was something that deeply affected me. I wanted justice."
Now working in Buffalo, N.Y., Browne Sanders ultimately hopes her victory sends a message to companies to "take control of the working environment and make sure it's free of harassment, free of discrimination, and that people are not going to be retaliated against."
In 1991, Lorraine Drammer Serena of Santa Barbara, Calif., realized that the act of sharing an artistic endeavor with others had a particular power. The insight came while discussing with several female friends who were artists how to "connect with women around the world, honor their voices and visions." They felt women's oppression created a poignancy and potential for triggering change.
This was the beginning of Women Beyond Borders.
A plain wooden box--"the size of a human heart, very big in expression but small in dimensions," as Serena describes it--became the vessel for women to make an artwork, to be free to create whatever they want in, around or with it.
To spread the idea, they contacted other artists and curators they knew around the world and asked women to contribute by word of mouth. One even put the boxes in their children's and friend's backpacks as they prepared to travel. Boxes came back transformed into miniature works of art from places as diverse as Israel, Singapore, Argentina and Austria. Some boxes are enameled or painted; others have been cut up to make figures. One artist wrapped hers in rubber bands to express the tension of being a woman. Another fashioned her box into a face with a long tongue bearing a quotation about the power of women's words.
Participants in the project are "doing what women do best," says Serena. "The act of collaboration itself is what made this project possible."
Over 5,000 women and children have contributed from 50 nations. In Kenya, Women Beyond Borders had the first all-woman exhibition in the national museum's history. The project has received boxes from women in Afghanistan to Zambia and from every continent.
The boxes add to a group dialogue about the place of women in society and nurture alliances with other women, expressing truths about relationships, sexism, poverty and more. Many women write about their pieces, which become a part of the artwork and discussion.
After 15 years collecting hundreds of boxes and showing them in temporary exhibits, Serena and the Women Beyond Borders staff and board are searching for a permanent home.
Serena considers the community she's built to be a work of art in itself, and says that, paradoxically, many say that the box project has "allowed women to think outside the box."
In Lekha Singh's photographs, both in print and on gallery walls, women are brought from the margins of society into sharp focus.
Singh creates dramatic images that raise awareness of global crises, with a particular focus on poverty and its effect on women. Singh grew up in India, where she recalls seeing great respect for women alongside terrible abuse. "What my photographs do is bring the commonality up front," Singh says. "Who are you seeing: your sister, your mother, your daughter?"
In October 2000, Singh founded and became the first CEO of Aidmatrix, an international organization with a mission to bring help and hope to peoples' lives in times of disaster and situations of poverty by mobilizing "the right aid to the right people at the right time." Aidmatrix connects aid--in the form of surplus products and goods including cash and food, clothing, building supplies and medical and educational supplies--by using technology to enable a speedy and efficient delivery of aid to people in need. In this way, Aidmatrix links together more than 35,000 charitable organizations on five continents.
Through Aidmatrix partnerships, food aid is distributed each year to more than 25 million Americans, 67 percent of whom are women. To date, Aidmatrix has distributed more than $50 million dollars' worth of aid to over 1 billion people globally.
Singh now serves as a board member and advisor for many major nongovernmental organizations that are led by or support women, including Women for Women International and the Green Belt Movement. "Helping women has wide reverberations," she says.
Singh has also supported development programs in sub-Saharan Africa for women, many of whom are HIV-positive and in need of medicine and treatments. "If I help 100,000 women who have 10 kids to prolong their life with drugs, I'm helping over a million kids."
"When you help a woman, you help a whole family," she says. "You help generations to come."
Singh's photos of Afghan women rebuilding their lives after years of devastating conflict are published in National Geographic's "The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope." Her second book, "The Making of an Activist," is a wake-up call for young activists around the world and her third book, "Call to Love: In the Rose Garden with Rumi," was published in 2007.
Sarah Seltzer is a writer for Women's eNews in New York City.
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