As a fair housing advocate and community organizer in New York City’s low-income neighborhoods, Amy Sananman felt there was a "spiritual aspect" missing in the work she did.
As a New Year’s resolution, she decided to learn about murals as a tool for social change by spearheading the creation of a mural herself. She started working with youth from a Brooklyn neighborhood where she’d been organizing and collected money from friends. For a year, the students worked after school and weekends to paint a mural on the side of a kosher chocolate factory, depicting a golden bird cage nestled in a metaphoric depiction of the struggles of immigrant families.
Sananman decided to make murals her full-time focus after that, founding the Groundswell Community Mural Project in 1996. Since then, over 900 participants have created more than 50 murals around the city.
Although the project serves youth of both genders, Sananman says she believes in the value of giving girls and young women a chance to explore their voices and issues that affect them in a safe space "outside the expectations and eyes of male presence." So she started year-round programs dubbed "Voices Her’d" just for them.
Wider issues, from globalization to the military to sexual assault, are explored and then related back to their own lives. After the participants complete their research, they go through a long planning and execution process to translate what they’ve learned into a mural supervised by a teaching artist.
The programs are designed to give participants experience and strength in four areas: collaboration, using creativity as a tool, compassion and critical thinking. The goal is not necessarily to train them as artists, Sananman says, but rather for them to gain confidence and skills for success at whatever field they choose.
One of the young women’s more controversial projects was a mural on the side of a Rite Aid drug store, painted in 1999, that metaphorically depicted a community sweeping away violence. Neighborhood residents were concerned by some of the imagery. Looking back, Sananman says it provided a way to focus on class and racial tensions.
Even these types of controversies over public art are learning experiences for the young women, Sananman says, because it teaches them about negotiation, communication and censorship issues.
But she also sees the physical work of creating murals as a means of helping young women. Climbing up and down scaffolding, they learn about their own physicality in new ways. "They can be dirty, sweaty, with no jewelry or makeup," she says. "They get to be really tough."
Maria Luisa Sánchez Fuentes was working for Oxfam America’s Regional Office for Mexico and Central America on anti-poverty and economic development initiatives when she began to hear about women dying from illegal abortions.
"In the early ’90s, there were plenty of popular subjects carving the public’s mind and abortion was a total taboo in Mexico, like a curse," she says of her native country. "It might sound simplistic today, but to set the tone for a public debate on abortion at the time has not been easy at all."
Yet Sánchez Fuentes has been able to do just that. In 1993 she joined GIRE, the Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida, or the Information Group on Reproductive Choice. The Mexico City-based nonprofit has become the nation’s leading advocate for sexual and reproductive justice. Sánchez Fuentes’ guidance has helped place Mexico at the forefront of the battle for legalized abortion in Latin America.
At first, the public was not interested in breaking taboos about abortion. That meant that government officials could remain unresponsive. Sánchez Fuentes decided to launch a public relations campaign focusing on women who had become pregnant through rape. By law they were entitled to an abortion, but for the procedure to be authorized, the rape victim was required to file a complaint.
In 1999, however, a 13-year-old rape survivor and immigrant from Oaxaca was denied an abortion by authorities in Tijuana. The case drew international attention as it was taken to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights. That was the turning point for GIRE and the other groups lobbying for change. In April 2007, abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy was legalized by the Mexico City legislature.
"There are still restrictions in every other state, but this is a resounding victory for women’s rights," says Sánchez Fuentes. "Mexico City, along with Cuba, Guyana and Barbados are the only Latin American bastions where abortion is decriminalized."
Sánchez Fuentes recalls the disillusionment she felt after graduating in economics from the National University of Mexico with the state of democracy and a political system that few had confidence in. But today she says she feels optimistic that activists are winning the battle to guarantee women’s fundamental rights, though she is aware of the severe social and political crisis that Mexico is facing.
"My dream is that abortion is legalized throughout the country," Sánchez Fuentes says, "that the state takes full responsibility to guarantee the freedom of choice, that public health services are in place, women are not stigmatized, the public is more compassionate, sexuality education is involved in schooling and that men are fully involved in this issue."
Human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver is haunted by the nightmarish stories of victims from 10 years of conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, characterized by widespread sexual violence.
"The first victim of atrocities was my best friend," Schuler Deschryver says. "She was raped by 20 men and her body was found with more than 100 holes."
That was back in 1998 and Schuler Deschryver says she hoped that it was an isolated, tragic accident. But two years later, she was handed an 18-month-old boy who had been raped. He died in her arms.
"I had two choices then, to leave the hell or to alert the world. I chose the second," Schuler Deschryver recalls.
In 2008 she joined forces with V-Day, the anti-violence group founded by activist playwright Eve Ensler, to work for the creation of the City of Joy, a refuge in Bukavu, a city near the center of the violence. The City of Joy shelters female survivors of rape and torture. Many have been displaced from their communities, lost their families or been shunned because of the heavy stigma against rape victims.
City of Joy was established jointly by V-Day, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Panzy Hospital in Bukavu. While waiting for surgery or medical care, the women have a place to live, opportunities to work and a chance to take classes or leadership training.
At least 10 new victims arrive daily at the hospital, but that doesn’t include the many women forgotten in the forest. Schuler Deschyver describes the atrocities as "sexual terrorism," recalling the story of how one woman was forced to eat her children, then gang raped and killed.
"They used it as a weapon of massive destruction against women, to destroy all of the society," she says. "If nothing changes in Congo, women will disappear. AIDS will slowly and silently kill the survivors."
Schuler Deschryver has been concerned for human rights since her childhood. The daughter of a Congolese mother and Belgian father, she attended school in Belgium and was active in the movement against racism. After college, she returned to Congo with her husband and child and worked as a teacher with CARE Canada, an anti-poverty and emergency-relief organization.
She says now that she doesn’t believe politics can help end the war.
"It is with women’s movements on the ground that we can change the world and bring hope," she says.
When Marilyn J. Smith was raped as a college student in the fall of 1970, there were no services for victims of rape and sexual assault.
In 1981, a deaf woman living in Washington state was murdered by her husband. "At that time, the shelters were not accessible to Deaf women and when this woman approached them, they turned her away because they didn’t know how to communicate with her," Smith says. "The depth of her vulnerability has always haunted me."
She says she had to "do something with my rage," and in 1986 she founded the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services, a Seattle nonprofit that assists Deaf women who have experienced violence.
In 2006 the organization opened the nation’s first transitional housing facility for Deaf and Deaf-Blind victims of domestic violence. The victims face greater difficulties accessing support and receiving help, she says, such as not police not providing interpreters to be present while they are interviewed.
The first woman who came to the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services for help asked Smith to tell her husband to stop beating her. Instead, they sat down and worked out a safety plan.
"Our work is about giving victims choices," she says. "It would have been very easy to just take over and do what she asked, but that went against our basic philosophy of empowering victims to make choices for themselves and respecting those choices."
Demand from outside Seattle poured in. In 1998, Smith created a national project to train other Deaf women around the country to replicate her model. The waiting list had grown to 28 cities when funding ran out in 2000. Now with new funding, trainings will finish in the 28 cities in two years.
Smith also spearheaded a lawsuit against Washington state’s King County government to force it to provide interpreters for Deaf people experiencing crisis and to answer 911 calls through text telephones. She had been advocating for the changes for a decade before deciding to litigate.
Smith is working to change opinions within the Deaf community itself, which once considered issues of domestic violence and sexual assault taboo. When the victims who came in for help changed from being Deaf women with hearing partners to include Deaf women victimized by Deaf partners, she knew the thinking within the Deaf community was beginning to change.
"I knew the community was changing its thinking as many members began responding appropriately to violence."
"For years I’d watched the powerful elite boys’ network," says uber-corporate-networker Susan Schiffer Stautberg. "Women didn’t have similar organizations."
One of those elite boys’ networks was the Bohemian Grove, which claims ex-presidents, military officers and businessmen as members. Tired of being on the not-invited list, Stautberg in 2000 created her own inner sanctum for the power bunch, the Belizean Grove, a comparable opportunity for high-level women from the public, private and nonprofit worlds.
The connections forged and ideas exchanged during retreats and seminars held in Central America "help us take charge of our destiny," she says. Its 115 members are directors or serve on advisory boards from Fortune 500 companies to technology start-ups.
The Belizean Grove is a natural outgrowth of Stautberg’s passion for fairness. She pitches gender diversity as a value that genuinely helps organizations thrive by providing the best qualified and most talented individuals regardless of pedigree or connections. She has developed a number of networking and training initiatives to help firms attract "diverse brain power" and to help leaders with "unconventional" backgrounds build access to power.
In 1998 Stautberg became the president of PartnerCom, a firm that staffs advisory–rather than corporate–boards, which she believes are great stepping stones for women and people of color. She has been particularly successful with recruiting and has placed over 250 women into corporate or advisory boards in the last decade.
Her help has clearly been needed; only 15 percent of Fortune 500 companies had female directors in 2008.
At PartnerCom, Stautberg also runs the On Board Boot Camp to train women for board service. Some skills aren’t immediately apparent, she says, such as knowing that interviewing for a board seat is different than landing a regular job.
Stautberg noticed that joining a powerful network was a less tangible but critically important asset for female leaders. Thus, the birth of the Belizean Grove and its subsidiary, TARA, which stands for Today’s Already Rising Achievers, and focuses specifically on fostering relationships between younger women and business mentors.
"It’s a win-win," says Stautberg. "We can mentor you; you can give jobs to our kids in college; we can help each other achieve what we want to do."
Stautberg began her own career as a pioneer. She worked for Westinghouse-Group W television and was the first woman to head a Washington television bureau. She was also the first broadcast journalist chosen as a White House Fellow in 1974-75.
Moving women into positions of power is invariably a question of access, and that’s why Stautberg ‘s focused on getting women through the front door. "Once they come into a room and sit around the table, people see the brain power," she says.
As a girl growing up in a supportive family in Grenada, Miss., Johnnie Walker told her father, "I want to work at the radio." His answer was that she could.
She became a country music DJ at the local station, WNAG-AM, updated the programming and had a taste of local celebrity.
"The biggest challenge I had growing up was to be a young black women and believe I could still go where I wanted and do what I wanted to," Walker says. "It was always a desire of mine to be in positions that, traditionally, women were not in."
Working in radio, she progressed from on-air personality to music director to program director in an industry where women are still rare in management. She turned to the marketing side of the music industry and became the first female senior vice president of promotion at the Def Jam Music Group, working in the company’s rhythm-and-blues division. After 14 years at Def Jam, she moved to DreamWorks Records as head of promotion for urban music.
But that touch of early hardship gave her a resolve to help other women break through.
"I had no one I could study from or anyone to take me under their wings," Walker says, "so I thought, if I can show someone else, it will not necessarily make it easier, but maybe smoother."
In 1999 she created the New York-based National Association of Black Female Executives in Music and Entertainment, with the goal of building a platform to help women find jobs in the industry. The nonprofit trade group now has 3,500 female members and provides support programs, training and education.
As president, Walker works to open up entertainment jobs from backstage to the spotlight to women of all backgrounds and races. She says she intends to "infiltrate" the industry from within in order to increase the number of women of color in the ranks.
"I wanted to show women the multiple, behind-the-scene possibilities," Walker says. "We cannot all be Beyonce, but we can be part of the architecture behind bringing the women who are already in entertainment jobs to share, direct, inform, support young women who dream to be in that world, because it is possible for a lot of us."
Jacki Zehner says she was born a feminist. But she learned what the term really meant as a trader at the male-dominated investment bank Goldman Sachs.
In 1993 a male colleague was having a bad day, and decided to take his temper out on her, she recalls. He let loose over the firm’s hoot-and-holler system, adding to her humiliation. That day, she sold $1.2 billion in bonds and claimed the trading floor as her own. She also had a wake-up call.
"As a woman or a minority, you have to fight incremental fights," Zehner says. "Many senior men that run these organizations think a woman’s place is in the home. They won’t say it, but in a million ways they act like it. It is truly time we say enough is enough."
In 1996 Zehner became the youngest woman and the first female trader to become a partner at Goldman Sachs. She also continued working on recruiting and mentoring initiatives to create equal opportunities for women.
After leaving the investment bank in 2002 she became a founding partner of Circle Financial Group, a membership-based wealth management firm of 20 women. "These women are incredible role models for me on how to invest yout time, treasure and talent to make a difference." She is now taking that message out to the world.
To that end, she is pushing forward the "Women Moving Millions" campaign that encourages women of wealth to step up to the plate and become large donors as a means of achieving significant change for all women.
The campaign was launched by the Women’s Funding Network, a San Francisco-based coalition of 130 women’s organizations. Zehner also serves on the board of directors for the network. In addition, Zehner also serves on the boards of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation; the Center for Work-Life Policy; her alma mater, the University of British Columbia; and is president of the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation.
"It is my fundamental belief that by investing in women you will improve the world," she says. "If you empower a woman, she takes care of her family, which improves her community, her country, the world. It’s called the ‘Woman Effect.’"
Zehner believes that this next movement for positive change is one in which menand women work together. "The need for social justice is not a gender issue. Smart men and smart women realize that this movement needs the best of everyone."
For more information:
Groundswell Community Mural Project
GIRE, Information Group on Reproductive Choice
Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services
National Association of Black Female Executives in Music and Entertainment
Women’s Funding Network
Jacki Zehner Blog: Musings on Money, Markets and Changing the World
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