This past Spring, I had the incredible honor of attending the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference. I was one of about 12 women’s rights supporters invited to join a small group of women Nobel Laureates and women human rights defenders who are working to create peace around the globe. We came from different countries, continents, and in some instances seemingly different worlds. We represented a variety of cultures, religions, politics, and socio-economics. Many of these women have survived brutal civil wars, horrific sexual violence, incarceration, torture, religious extremism, and social injustice. Some have received jail sentences and death threats for their work; others have received Nobel Peace Prizes.
It was a truly life-changing experience. My intention for the conference was to be a sponge – soaking up as much wisdom, experience, and inspiration as possible. I left fully saturated. That said, I am still trying to absorb all that I heard and learned from the many incredible women in attendance. My hope is that I will find ways to integrate all of this into the work of World Muse so that we can, in some small way, contribute to what Lisa Veneklasen of JASS called “the collective power.”
It was palpable, the collective power of women coming together to defend human rights and promote peace in our world. I felt humbled and empowered to be a part of it. I started asking why I was there. What could I possibly do to support all of these amazing women? Then, I decided to stop questioning and just be there. It sounds so simple, but being present, truly present can be difficult. Sitting in a room with women who are sharing stories that slam you in the gut and rip at your heart can make you want to be anything but present. But I realized that being present, truly listening, and bearing witness was my reason for being there. As Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee reminded us, “If they can live through it, we should be able to listen to it.”
Here are a few of my post-conference musings:
1) Humans not Heroes.
It is tempting to put people on pedestals. We love to glorify heroes, but real change comes from humans not heroes. The first night of the conference, I sat down at a table next to a woman I did not know. We introduced ourselves, and I asked about her work. Yanar is an Iraqi woman who builds safe houses for survivors of sexual violence. She currently runs six, mostly in and around Bagdad. One is specifically for survivors from the LGBT community. She is also in the process of opening one to serve survivors from the Yazidi community, which has suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of ISIS. Yanar has received numerous threats from the Iraqi government, along with ISIS, and yet she keeps working to provide shelter, counseling, and hope to these survivors. The next night at dinner, I met Christine Ahn. When I asked what brought her to the conference, she told me about the Women’s Peace March from North Korea to South Korea that she was organizing. She had four Nobel Laureates and many other well-known activists, including Gloria Steinem, joining her for this historic march. My first reaction after meeting both Yanar and Christine was to think, “What an extraordinary woman!” Here’s the problem with that, when I label Yanar and Christine as extraordinary, I am suggesting that they have more potential to do good than other humans do. If I turn it around and see them as ordinary women doing extraordinary things, I create a vision of the world in which each one of us has the potential to do equally extraordinary, albeit different, things. They become human role models for me to emulate rather than heroes to glorify.
2) We are OZ.
When we hear stories of kidnapped girls, child labor, rape as a weapon of war, racial injustice, illegal mining, etc., we are quick to blame “them”, whoever “them” may be. We look for a culture, a religion, a corporation, a government to blame because it’s easier to demonize a system than a human, and it’s also easier to stay distanced and disconnected. But when we unravel these stories, we start to see the human side of them. Once we begin to see the people behind the story, we begin to feel connected through our shared humanity. If we allow ourselves to look even closer, we might even begin to see how our own actions, even though at times a world away and seemingly innocuous, are playing a part in the story. Not long ago, I heard a couple discuss their trip to Thailand. They were laughing about how they had visited the red light district and gone into the bars where young girls performed sex acts. Earlier that same day, I had met with a woman who works to end sex trafficking. After that meeting, I remembered thinking, “how can the sex trade be greater now than the slave trade of the 1800’s?” The irony was not lost on me. I thought of it again at the conference when I heard stories of sex trafficking. My first response was to think, “how can this happen in this day and age?” But it does, and we are all complicit. I often tell my children that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you witness injustice and do nothing to end it, you are part of that injustice. If we visit sex shops, we may be supporting sex trafficking. If we buy cheap products made in China, we may very well be supporting child labor. When we use our cellphone, we could unwittingly be supporting the conflict in Congo.
How? Consider this, profit from the mineral trade is one of the main motives for armed groups on all sides of the conflict in eastern Congo – the deadliest since World War II. Armed groups earn hundreds of millions of dollars per year by trading four main minerals: the ores that produce tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. This money enables the militias to purchase large numbers of weapons and continue their campaign of brutal violence against civilians, with some of the worst abuses occurring in mining areas. The majority of these minerals eventually wind up in electronic devices such as cell phones, portable music players, and computers. Given the lack of a transparent minerals supply chain, American consumers have no way to ensure that their purchases are not financing armed groups that regularly commit atrocities, including mass rape.
I realize this can all seem too overwhelming. How can we be to blame for all of the atrocities in the world? It’s not that we are directly to blame, but I do think we need to start looking at how our actions indirectly play a part in these problems. We need to realize our inter-connectivity. Just today I read this excerpt from a recent New York Times article:
“A vast majority of people will continue to buy what they buy for one reason: It’s a good value. Very few of us will order a $50 handmade scarf on Etsy when one is available for $5 at Target. We can’t expect most consumers to avoid items made in sweatshops or by otherwise exploited workers. We need regulations for that. When “buy handmade” is couched as a solution to exploitative labor conditions, it’s easy to forget structural change-making.”
I realize the need for structural change making, but I do believe it is up to us to put pressure on the structures to make change. We have to look at our lifestyle choices and consumer purchases and how they impact our world. We have to listen to the stories of the people who are directly feeling the negative impacts. Once we see and hear the stories of women who have suffered under exploitive labor conditions, we are more likely to pass up that $5 scarf that was made in a sweatshop. If we don’t see better or affordable alternative products, we will remember their stories and demand that alternative products be offered. We will remember the stories of sexual violence survivors from Congo and begin to insist upon corporate transparency and regulation so we can know where and how our electronic products are produced. When we see and hear the stories of women who have lost so much to these issues and we realize the direct or indirect role we play in some of this, we will begin taking action to create solutions. On the other hand, if we insist the issues are too big to address – too systemic, too structural, too imbedded – we essentially put the blinders and the earplugs on.
We need to stop blaming systems and structures and start holding humans accountable. We are the systems. We are the structures. We are the corporations, we are the consumers, we are the religious groups, we are the governments. Look closely at any system, and you will see that it is made up of people. Pull back the curtain, we are OZ.
3) One Peace At a Time.
If we look at these issues through the Problem Lens, we see only what is wrong. We feel hopeless. We look away. It’s what happens when I watch 24 hour news or scroll through Twitter. It’s what happens when I see headlines like these – ISIS kills 300 More Yazidis and South Korean Studying in US Reportedly Arrested in North Korea. But when we look through the Solutions Lens, we see the ways we can make a difference – big or small. We feel hopeful. We Lean in. It’s what happens when I think of women like Yanar and Christine who are doing their part to end sexual violence in Iraq and bring peace to N & S Korea. It’s what happened when I met Nobel Laureates Shirin Ebadi who fought injustice in Iran, Leymah Gbowee who helped to end a decade long civil war in Liberia, Mairead Maguire who helped to bring peace to N. Ireland, and Jody Williams who worked to get an international ban on the use of landmines. It’s what happened when I spent time with 100 women who are working to create a better world for all of us to live in. All of these women saw the problem and didn’t turn away from it. Instead, they leaned in to find a solution. The choice is ours too. We can look away or we can lean in.
I’ve heard Desmond Tutu share this proverb: “How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.” World Peace is the elephant in the room. We all want it; we want it for ourselves, our families, our communities, our planet, and for generations to come. So how do we get it? One peace at a time. After meeting Shirin, Leymah, Mairead and Jody, a few things became clear. For starters, they are humans not heroes (we shared jokes, beers, dance moves). They are humans who looked at a problem and leaned in to the solution. They didn’t sit down one day with a to-do list and write 1. Create world peace. 2. Become a Nobel Peace Laureate. Instead, they took on the piece that they could chew. They created their version of peace. That’s my big takeaway from spending time in the company of ordinary women who are doing extraordinary things – we have stop glorifying heroes and start promoting the collective power of humans, we have to take responsibility for our actions and hold the people within the systems of power accountable, we have to lean in, find our piece and create our own version of peace. That’s how we will make the world a better place, that’s how we can work towards world peace…one person at a time, one peace at a time. As Leymah put it, “this is the time, the moment when we need to be together more than ever.”
This is my little mashup of more Nobel Laureate Quotes from the conference:
We Must Choose Human Security over National Security,
Make Powerful People Uncomfortable,
Throw Books Not Bombs,
and Lead the Way in Peacemaking not War.
We Must Stand in Solidarity,
Amplify our Voices,
and Uphold Human Dignity,
to Make the World a Better Place.
We Must Refuse to be Divided,
Movements are about We, not I.
It’s Up to The Women,
The Great Peacemakers who Give Birth to All Life to Stand for All Life and Hold It in Love and Compassion.
Thank you for letting me share some of the inspiration that was so generously shared with me. xo, amanda
Learn more about the Nobel Women’s Initiative.