Thursday, November 21, 2013

The State of female Justice: Transformational Leadership and the Women who are paving the Way


On November 7 V- Day and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia School of Law brought together an amazing group of women to rethink the state of justice for women in America. You can watch the whole event here.

The panelists were impressive women each of them employing their skills, talents, experience and creativity in the struggle for Justice in a particular area. You can learn more about each panelist and their work by clicking on their name. There was Catherine Albisa,   Kimberle Crenshaw, Eve Ensler, Monique Harden, Donna Hylton, Saru Jayaraman and Sylvia McAdam, and the host was Laura Flanders of GRITtv.

The discussion opened with a powerful statement from Kimberle Crenshaw, who suggested that perhaps the way to rethink justice and what justice ought to look like is to expand our perspectives by looking at and challenging the failures in executing the law and failures in coalition building. She posited that looking at the intersection where power converges, and how it converges could possibly be the way through a ‘blackhole- a vacuum- so to speak, into which we could leap forward to a new way of thinking and being.

Each of the panelists was asked by the Laura Flanders to give an example of an injustice through a story that made an impact on them.

Saru Jayaraman, an activist is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and shared the fact that the restaurant industry is the second largest sector of the United States economy but that it was one of the lowest paying industries where employees relied on tips for their livelihood. The minimum wage for restaurant workers is set at $2.13 per hour, an amount that was frozen in 1996 when The then leaders of the National Restaurant Association (a trade Lobby) made a deal with congress that they could raise the minimum wage as long as the minimum wage for restaurant workers remained frozen forever because they made money through tips. Seventy (70%) percent of restaurant workers are women and these women were 3 times more likely to be poor than other workers in America and relied on food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the US workforce. This dependence on tips from customers often placed women in the restaurant industry at greater risk for sexual harassment and sometimes sexual assault. This according to Saru, is a grave injustice.
Image from: Popular Resistance

Monique Harden is an attorney who co-directs Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm headquartered in New Orleans. She recounted a couple of heart breaking stories but the main point and focus of her injustice stories was the fact that environmental racism was perpetrated through the use of federal laws that supported profit making at the expense of people of color and indigenous communities. She described the presence of chemical facilities along sections of the Mississippi River that ran through historically black communities making communities sick through air and water pollution. She also described the racism that many poor black people experienced during Hurricane Katrina, from law enforcement and rescue personnel.
Image from 

An injustice that actually made me feel physically sick was described by Donna Hylton, where in the prisons across the United States, inmates are locked into their prison cells during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or September 11 and that the staff on duty simply leave. Essentially 2.3 million people in American prisons are left to die in the event that a huge disaster occurs. There are no evacuation measures. They are locked up and left alone. This is a shameful injustice where the fundamental rights of human beings do not seem to exist at all. The idea of punitive versus restorative justice came up also and the fact that there were not enough opportunities for an individual who had committed a crime to transform themselves and move beyond their crime and start afresh.

Sylvia MacAdam, a leader of the largest indigenous women- led social movement in the world (Idle No More) told the terrible story of the colonization of Canada and the fact that treaties that were created between the Canadian government and First Nation peoples were being threatened as bills were moving through Parliament to terminate those agreements such as the provision for the protection of water.  She also shared the horrific sexual violence against First Nation women through prostitution, human trafficking and murders which were directly connected to the extraction industries in Alberta Canada. The degradation of the land due to extraction industries is eliminating resources and wild life that are critical to the cultural spiritual and medicinal rituals of indigenous peoples; a genocide as Sylvia described it. These are gross injustices that Idle No More is mobilizing against.

Catherine Albisa is a constitutional and human rights lawyer, who is also the co founder of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). NESRI works to build legitimacy for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular, in the United States. Catherine  pointed out the fact that the stories being told by the other panelists highlighted the failure of human rights. However she stated that it was more than just institutional failures but also our failure to uphold and to fight for human rights in relationship to one another. She gave an example of how in 2009, farm workers drew up a list of basic demand such as no sexual harassment, fare wages and they went on strike and did not pick tomatoes, a move which affected all the major industries that relied on tomatoes and tomato based products their demands were met. The huge impact this action had on a family is incredible. Catherine told a story of a mother and father who could finally walk their son to school after ensuring that he had eaten a decent breakfast because they no longer reported for work at 4 in the morning. Catherine’s point is that it does not occur to many people that the basic rights such as the right to walk your child to school, the right to just be a good parent is denied many poor parents in this country and that these same poor people are blamed for the poor outcomes in  their children.

Kim Crenshaw, director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, followed on with a discussion about the punitive nature of neoliberalism and how this ideology has led to a systematic retraction of resources that help poor communities. She described how the system created through this ideology makes it impossible for poor families to have positive outcomes. Resources are removed and this leads to social ills for which the community is blamed and penalized. She talked about how the "school to prison pipeline" dialogue that centers around how suspension from school affects the outcomes for Black boys but the discourse hardly ever looks at how black girls are affected by school suspensions as though they do not exist.
Image from qCity Metro
 Kim talked about a social disaster and about how the failure of anti-racism to be anti-patriarchal often means that Black female headed households are seen as problematic simply because they are led by women. The fact that governments consistently talk about the middle class as being economically vulnerable often means that poor people (majority are black women) somehow are not seen as targets for government assistance as though they do not need or deserve help. Neoliberal policies lead to punitive measures, which are compounded by silence. Kim explained that feminism that does not address racism and racism that does not address the issues concerning women leads to a convergence of silences. Silence is complicity.

Eve Ensler, founder and artistic director at V-Day, addressed the issue of punitive versus restorative justice and illustrated using the response from feminists in India to the death sentence pronounced on the men who gang raped a medical student in December 2012. They stated that killing the rapists would not solve the huge problem of rape but that focus had to be on the root causes of these horrible rapes that are plaguing India and the world. Eve explained how creating more punitive measures would results in more punitive systems and lead to more disassociation and disconnection from each other as groups in society. She emphasized that it was important to look at how we got to this point and to recognize that a patriarchal, imperial, colonial, neoliberal capitalist system is how we got here and that this is the basis for most of the systematic forms of violence against women.

What I loved about this panel discussion is the fact that it started off with story telling and as the stories were told, the interconnections between and among the stories became clearer and clearer. I was moved by the passion that each panelist brought along with her story and that in the end, all the stories elicited passion and compassion because of the recognition that our individual stories are braided into one Single story of struggle against injustice.

I also loved the fact that the discussion resulted in a couple of concrete steps we could all take collectively ,to target a major root cause of the injustices that fed Violence against women: Mega corporations that control prisons, restaurants and the interpretation and creation of laws that favor profit over human health safety and dignity. This could be done by investigating which corporations they were then on February 14, 2014, the day the entire world will rise for justice, we could Out them in a big way and expose their nefarious activities to citizens with a call to boycott until there were some changes. I have already started compiling a list!

The idea of coalitions being formed around the issues or campaigns was one that was eloquently challenged by Catherine Albisa, who described coming together around a shared vision about the kinds of societies and world we would ultimately like to see. She called it a coming together and organizing around principles is a way that is transformational, not transactional which is what many groups currently do, if they come together at all. This resonated deeply with me because this is my deepest hunger, to see transformation, a change in our very mindset and how we live life in relation to each other, in the distribution of resources based on need not greed and in relation to the environment. Eve stated beautifully that Justice is restoring the primacy of connection. Justice is connecting the stories that are interwoven in the patriarchal, racist, sexist neoliberal capitalist framework. Ultimately justice is the restoration of human dignity. Justice is a woman.

My hope is that this discussion and many of the state of female justice panels that will be convened across the world will really go to the heart of the issue and the root causes of violence against women by systematically teasing out the real villains are who benefit from the status quo and who turn a blind eye to the injustices that lead to the violation of women and girls.

My biggest hope is that we begin to see through the divide- and- conquer tactics that have been used to keep us from critical dialogue that removes the barriers that keep us separate and disparate. It is a fact that when we unite we can accomplish the impossible! I am chanting for authentic solidarity and the shattering of the invisible barriers so that we become an intentional community of care and generosity, one step at a time! What these phenomenal women have done is to simply pave the way and the rest is up to us as individuals to take up the call to be more open to the other, to be compassionate and to desire for the other that which we desire for ourselves. These women have shown what Justice can look like and the principles in which transformational leadership is grounded. Ubunthu: I am well IF you are well also.