By Barbara Phillips, social justice activist and former Ford Foundation Program Officer for Women’s Rights and Gender Equity
I arrived in Los Angeles on November 18, 2010, knowing only that I would be in the presence of diverse innovative institutions and individuals attempting to build a national movement for social justice through transformative analysis and work placing gender equity at the core.
At the invitation of Peggy Saika, a dangerous woman because she is a visionary with fierce organizing, executive, and leadership qualities, I was to have the privilege of hanging out with community-based organizations representing Asian American communities convened under the Organizational Fellowship Program (OFP) of the National Gender & Equity Campaign to reflect upon past work and establish goals and plans for 2011. Undergirding the whole thing is AAPIP’s BRIDGE (Building Responsive Infrastructure to Develop Global Equity), a framework for building and strengthening social justice movements through organizational transformation…
As I joined the group for dinner – a stranger to all but a few – to get my first glimpse of these social justice activists, I was engulfed by spirited camaraderie as participants greeted each other with affection and filled the evening with caring about the work and each other. To capture the moment, I jotted words that came to mind as I sat there eating great food, being welcomed by those around me, and listening to the chat around me and brief organizational check-ins: • Affection • Community • Engagement • Commitment • Passion • Connection • Understanding/knowledge • Insight • Compassion • Hope • Belief • Culture
The next morning, the work began in earnest at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Each group reported upon their work during 2010. The breadth and diversity of the organizations ranged from long-time dedicated advocacy troops to a remarkable Minnesota organization that recently transitioned from years of social services to now social services and advocacy putting gender equity/gender democracy first in all its work. And the age range seemed to span from 20s to 60s and then some. I was as engrossed as everyone else who listened respectfully to the presentations of each group.
I was struck by the honesty of the reflections, the openness in sharing challenges and self-critique, and the empathy and insight of questions.
Presenters shared the experiences of discerning what “gender justice” actually means at all levels – internally with respect to organizational culture, policies, board and staff composition and practices, as well as externally in engaging members and constituents in the conversation and shaping the work in which the organizations engaged. In the words of one presenter,“This is a process of on-going work around gender, race, and oppression.” (continued…)
There was no rote recitation of ideology; rather the entire conversation was a living definition of what we dream of when we aspire to practice informing theory and theory informing practice. Here were activists sharing, for example, what it means to bring LGBTQ issues into their work – learning to say “gender matters” as effectively as they have said race matters for positive social change. Eventually, I noticed a bunch of missing elements (elements that are ALWAYS in evidence when social justice activists get together):
• no dysfunctional personalities
• no weary souls sunk in despair
• no unrealistic young organizers
• no older organizers who knew everything
• no bumps, landmines and potholes in communicating across all the diversity in the room
Really, not a single quibble over process. Not a single eruption of warfare over the meaning and appropriateness of a word. Are these people for real??? True. The thoughtfulness and thoroughness of preparation for the convening was obvious. The facilitation by Bo Thao-Urabe, Beckie Masaki, and Alice Hom was exquisite.
In my over 40 years of activism, I’d never experienced a meeting in which each organization was itself engaged in deep internal transformation across such diverse, challenging, and innovative work And each organization was also contributing to a collectively determined vision, framework and work. Complicated and challenging. The pace was unrelenting, but no one seemed exhausted; to the contrary, the room buzzed with energy.
As I watched the incredible productiveness of these social justice activists, I realized BRIDGE and the transformative power of placing gender equity at the core of the work were responsible for what was amazing about this convening. It is through the tools of BRIDGE that these activists and organizations are undergoing internal transformation while developing the capacity for a different realm of vision and work – building a powerful, sustainable, broad-based social justice movement .
I observed that November weekend in Los Angeles, and find reason to hope. My son tells me there were thousands of young people at the U.S. Social Forum in 2010, ready to join in common cause. In Los Angeles – convening in one room for a brief moment – was the wisdom, passion, organizing skills and fortitude that the BRIDGE will channel and strengthen into a stronger, more effective social justice movement.
These organizations are making the abstract into reality. Their experiences show that through placing gender equity/gender democracy at the core of social change and utilizing the tools of BRIDGE, social justice organizations in the U.S. can transform themselves internally and can develop the capacity to create a powerful movement.
My hope is that other social justice organizations take a serious look at this work and make it part of their own; that funders realize activists have created an effective framework called BRIDGE for movement building; and that organizations and funders form meaningful partnerships in building the social justice movement that will bring about the change for which we have struggled so long.
I left the convening thinking of my favorite proverb, “Those who say it cannot be done, should not interfere with those who are doing it.”