By Holly Tarson
Photos: Courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Rhinebeck, NY, eOmega.org
A sea of over 400 women mingled and milled about in the Main Hall of the Omega Institute one Saturday morning in late September. The leaves had started to turn colors all across the Rhinebeck campus, and change was in the air. Anhayla Stanle entered the stage unannounced. She strummed a lone chord on her acoustic guitar and her voice rang out, in beautiful melody, “I am enough.” The room fell to silence; the women turned toward the stage. Strum. “I am enough,” louder this time, with a raspy resonance. As she led the audience in call-and-response singing, their voices turned from timid to strong. They joined hands, stretched across the aisles and down the rows, creating a web of strangers and friends all affirming themselves and each other. “I am enough,” the choruses sang. Omega’s Women and Power Conference was well underway.
The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, created the Women and Power series in 2002 and launched the Omega Women’s Leadership Center (OWLC) in 2012 to convene, train and inspire women to Do Power Differently. OWLC’s Juno Leadership Collective supports women leaders in nonprofit organizations working on issues of equality, justice, sustainability, violence and economic empowerment. The Women and Power Conference is a magnificent intersection of all the ways the Omega Institute strives to support and amplify the voices of women and the causes of equality and social justice. Some attendees were regulars, having participated in numerous Women and Power events in the past. Some were attending for the first time and already vowed to return. Women from around the country, and as far away as Nepal, came to listen, engage and discover strength in new relationships and the web of support this conference cultivates.
This year’s conference title, “Gathering Our Strength,” underscores the intensity of the obstacles still faced by women and the kind of endurance the marathon quest for equality demands. The OWLC mantra is #DoPowerDifferently, and there are many important ways to unpack that idea. Conference speakers examined power (defining it, gaining it, sustaining it and the obstacles to it) through the lenses of community, economics and race. But on the very first night, that room was full of powerful women who were already Doing Power Differently. Some of them are speakers and writers advocating for social justice. Many are running nonprofits or are on the front lines, directly serving the populations who are bearing the brunt of injustice. Women whose names you may recognize, or ought to learn—Roxane Gay, Tarana Burke, Elizabeth Lesser, and others—graced the stage over the course of the weekend and shared their stories, research and inspiration.
What does Do Power Differently look like?
Carla Goldstein, cofounder of OWLC and President of Omega Institute, said, “Leadership comes from the sides, from holding each other.” Each presenter had their own take, but it came down to building community and creating a new paradigm of collaboration with an emphasis on healing individuals and society.
T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison are flipping the script on traditional views of power and leadership. As founders (and CEO / COO, respectively) of Girl Trek, a health movement for African-American women and girls grounded in civil rights history through walking campaigns, community leadership and health advocacy, they shine with grace and tenacity. Sign up and you will receive this welcome message: “We believe that if Harriet Tubman could walk herself to freedom, we can walk our way to better health.” They are consciously building success on the foundation of a long line of women that has brought each of them here. Vanessa began her presentation by introducing herself as the daughter and granddaughter of women who came before her. She talked about Isabella, the first black woman brought here in slavery, and Elizabeth Arkansas, who was named after the state where she lived. She didn’t even get her own last name. “We are the harvest of survivors,” Vanessa said. They are claiming back what the women before them sacrificed. “Everything about today’s world is telling us we have to go to war using tools men have taught us,” Morgan said. “No. They must be tools of our own divine feminine power.” Their message was clear: let your bones talk; connect to something greater than you; pray without ceasing; call the greatest part of you love.
This is Doing Power Differently
All weekend, the kaleidoscope turned to reveal different perspectives on power and strength. Elizabeth Lesser (cofounder of the Omega Institute and OWLC, and best-selling author) told the Greek myth of Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo because she refused his advances. He made her clairvoyant, but also fated her to never be believed. Elizabeth addressed the power of stories in our culture that overtly and surreptitiously reinforce messages of women as unreliable witnesses in their own lives. These cultural stories create voids in the human experience for both women and men. We must claim our own stories to live in our truth. “I dream of men and women together tempering power with wisdom, giving power and prestige to tenderness.”
Each woman, whether speaker or participant, was powerful in her own right and came to this space to gather the strength to continue, to persist. Bard students from a Women in Leadership class sat next to community organizers, social workers, fund-raisers and writers. Collaborations were happening at the sunlit tables in the café, under the soaring pines on the walkways, over bowls of coconut rice and plates piled high with greens at dinner. How can we move the needle together? Whatever needle. There are so many.
Ana L. Oliveira (president and CEO of The New York Women’s Foundation) spoke about philanthropy. She said philanthropy exists as a consequence of inequality, and philanthropy is always late. She strives to support solutions within the communities where problems exist. “Problems and solutions live in the same place,” she said. Then she paused, mid-speech, and asked, “Where’s Vivian?” A woman in the back stood up. Vivian Kurutz is founder of the Harlem Wellness Center, an organization that provides health programming in communities most vulnerable to adult-onset diseases like diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease. Vivian brought a number of coworkers with her to Omega this year, and she is beloved in this audience. People cheered for her as she stood. “I know about the work you are doing, and I want to help you,” Ana said. This is Doing Power Differently. Here’s what I have. I see you and the work you do. I want to contribute.
Tarana Burke, civil rights activist and founder/leader of the #metoo movement, is radicalizing the notion of mass healing. How do we heal from sexual violence as individuals and as a society? “What would it look like if everyone in the world committed to one thing to end sexual violence?” Tarana asked. “Trauma halts possibility. Movement activates it.” She returns again and again to her mantra that healing is possible, but it is not a destination. It is a journey. Tarana’s version of Doing Power Differently begins with deconstructing the notion that one or two special people or groups are going to fix anything. She is often asked, “What is #MeToo going to do about…?” She laughs, probably with some frustration, at that question. #MeToo doesn’t make change. People foster change. The real question is what are you going to do about it? “Privilege has to be used in service of other people. You can’t lead people if you don’t love people,” Tarana says. “We will tucker out if we don’t harness collective power.” Standing up and standing in your truth. Marching forward in that. This is Tarana Burke’s power.
Women were wielding their swords of service and justice around every corner. One attendee, Ms. Alicia James, is a force. As president of the P.A.M. (Preserve A Mom) Project, she promotes the importance of maternal mental health for women of color. Over dinner, Alicia introduced herself to a table of strangers, saying, “I need to talk to you.” She explained that the P.A.M. Facebook page is receiving comments from women in the Philippines who are identifying with her post-partum depression information and asking for help. Alicia said this was not an isolated occurrence. It was an overwhelming number of women just from the Philippines, and their frequent messaging is ongoing. Even though international populations are beyond the scope of her own project, she was desperate to connect these women on the other side of the world to some mental health services. Another woman at the table worked for an International Health Organization. “Oh, you know, just the other day I met someone who is working on a mental health initiative in the Philippines.” Phone numbers were exchanged. A plan was hatched. Connection. Collaboration. Power.
When asked what Doing Power Differently looks like, Pat Mitchell, journalist, producer and author of the recent book Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World, quoted Bella Abzug. “Women will change the nature of power rather than power changing the nature of women.”
The shift is happening. Kate Manne, professor of moral, social and feminist philosophy at Cornell University and author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, notes that progress and backlash are perfectly compatible; they are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the current backlash against women’s rights signifies the headway that’s been made. “The stronger you get, the more likely misogyny will be looking to pull you down,” she said. “When we understand how misogyny works, we are better prepared to protect ourselves.” Knowledge is power.
Roxane Gay, professor and successful author of novels, short stories and her recent memoir, Hunger, is wicked-smart and equally funny. She tells it like it is. “I’m not trying to make you feel like the world is on fire, but the world is on fire.” Roxane defines strength as being able to make difficult choices, even when they make us uncomfortable. And she emphasizes the importance of lifting others up as we climb. “Being the first is really lonely. It’s really important to not be the last.”
So, we must keep going. We must find moments of joy to lift ourselves up, to celebrate progress, to honor one another. To that end, the weekend was peppered with celebration, inspiration and song. The rhythms of Batalá New York, an all-women Afro-Brazilian samba reggae percussion band, filled the campus. Carla Goldstein was one of many women who picked up an enormous drum for the first time and learned to play it with fierce conviction.
The transcendent Natalie Merchant performed Saturday evening. Dressed all in white, with long hair freely flowing down her back, she told the audience, “You give me hope.” As she sang, her voice, rich and true, resonated with the themes of the weekend. “Gotta build yourself a levee deep inside…for when the waters run high.” Gather your strength. “I’ve walked these streets in a spectacle of wealth and poverty,” say the lyrics of “Carnival,” which were particularly apt. And as she closed her performance with “Thank You,” the entire room sang along. The repeated refrain, “Thank you, thank you…” said it all. Gratitude.
Collaboration and generosity, sustainability and endurance, kindness and compassion, love and gratitude, tenacity and fearlessness. These are the forces of the new paradigm of power. A power that leads to freedom from racial injustice, gender inequality, economic inequity, discrimination and sexual violence. Start where you are. Do what you can. Be inspired by Vanessa Garrison’s words: “Freedom is No Fear. And the poster child for fearlessness is women.”
For more information about Omega, visit www.eomega.org. █