Looking out the window onto the dust-choked construction site that is the London School of Economics these days, I wait for my conference call to start. A short beep later, I am transported to a bright new place by the birdsong and lively chatter that pours out of Roseline Orwa’s end of the line in an internet café in southwest Kenya. Roseline is an acclaimed widows’ rights activist, storyteller and organiser. I first met her last June when she joined the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity, a social-change leadership programme based at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute. As the programme’s manager for global engagement and impact, I speak to Roseline and other Fellows regularly about their fellowship projects. Roseline’s initiative aims to bring women together to combat the economic inequalities, cultural exclusion and physical and sexual abuse that widows in her community face: not only through new laws and policies, but via social and cultural change, too.
During the call, Roseline shares the news that she was recently invited to formally take part in Siaya County Assembly, her region’s law-making body. Amazing, right? What she did next is even cooler. She pushed to ensure that this precedent-setting access to political power would be given not just to her on a one-off basis, but would henceforth involve the community of widow activists as a whole. At the heart of Roseline’s activism and leadership is a focus on stepping back: inviting other women to take a stance, to initiate and drive conversations on change, and to coach and persuade young men and elders in the community to support new ways of thinking and acting.
Everyday intentionality: challenging power and patriarchy
I’ve seen this approach across the work of so many of our Atlantic Fellows, too: a thoughtful, generous, everyday intentionality in challenging power and patriarchy through solidarity in sisterhood. Melanie R. Brown, one of our US-based Atlantic Fellows, is a policy and philanthropy practitioner with years of experience in building new paths to dignity and equity in education for girls and women, African Americans, students with disabilities and those from low-income backgrounds. In her Atlantic Fellowship project on Black women in US philanthropy, she referred to this kind of women’s leadership and solidarity as “making a way out of no way… without asking for permission”.
These inspirational ways of being, leading and serving community are exciting because they focus on acknowledging the power, knowledge and agency of individuals and communities that the traditional “winners take all” system makes invisible, undeserving and disposable. In other words, these approaches are responses to just how much intersectionality and inequality matter. Moreover, the people who practice this kind of leadership make a commitment to question their own power and privilege and keep them in check throughout their professional and personal journeys, with the support of other women and allies. Practising leadership this way consistently demands an undoing of ourselves, every bit as much as of the histories, systems and structures that surround us. I believe it calls for “radical sisterhood”.
Why so radical?
Radical sisterhood sharpens the focus on the collective, rather than the individual by critically engaging with the legacies of women’s activism in the global North and the global South. Why do we need this sharper focus? Of course networking, coaching, fostering role models, cultivating male champions and traditional leadership skills-building among underrepresented groups are all important and still necessary, but they’re mostly intended to lift up individuals rather than focusing on rising together, and place an undue burden on the shoulders of a few. Mainstream diversity and inclusion programmes need an ecosystem of behavioural, narrative, legal and policy interventions to create any meaningful impact. Too often these programmes are piecemeal efforts that fall short of critical mass, and fail to frame and drive a disruptive agenda that can address the root causes of inequalities, deconstruct gendered spaces, target unconscious bias and its impact on our present-day technologies, and shift unjust power relationships in our workplaces, our homes and our societies.
“As women, domestic workers, and farmworkers — together we are unstoppable!” Ai-jen Poo, Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Ai-jen will speak on the global care economy on 20 June at LSE.Register for a free ticket here.
What it takes: getting really uncomfortable, and embracing it
Women farmers transforming the landscape of farm work, Black domestic workers in the US demanding professionalism, respect and dignified pay, African feminist macroeconomistschallenging a traditional, male-dominated discipline, and a 16-year old girl’s school strike for climate justice gone global… Women fight every day against wide-ranging inequalities that impact them disproportionately. I argue that in the midst of this daily struggle, there still is room to focus on self-awareness, to turn our approach to power and privilege inside out, and to encourage others to speak, act, and lead. I do so because I’ve seen what difference it can make. I do so because I owe it to the sisters who taught me how to lead with humility, grace and a passion for the collective.
I’m thinking of my own journey to the UK, and an increasingly anti-immigrant labour market, when Sophie Lambin, CEO of Kite Insights, hired me as employee no.1, willingly taking on the thankless uphill climb of dealing with a work visa at the same time as she was growing her company from the ground up with purpose and passion. I’m thinking of my work at the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme with Rana Zincir-Celal, AFSEE executive director, and our team to build a transformative, action-oriented social change programme within the boundaries of a traditional higher education institution. Then, as now, I take my cue from Maya Angelou’s The Universe in Verse, which highlights our potential to foster power, life and positivity even when life is hard and victories seem impossibly far away. I propose that we need to start by accepting the uncomfortable, and then work with that discomfort (she said, clutching her Feminist Killjoy survival kit).
Ai-jen Poo: a new horizon for women’s potential
Embracing discomfort is the driving force of a new and progressive landscape for leadership, according to Ai-jen Poo, Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a leading voice for dignity and fairness for millions of workers, the majority of them women and many of them migrants and people of colour, in the United States. Last month I saw Ai-jen speak at the Skoll World Forum 2019, where she paid inspirational tribute to the ever-growing potential of the women who are connecting, community-building, organising in their tens of thousands for an equitable care economy, and marching in ever greater numbers on International Women’s Day.
Drawing on those same values of embracing discomfort and looking past differences to build collective change, Ai-jen is part of one of the most inspiring new gender equity initiatives in the US, Supermajority. Along with Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Global Network, and Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood, Ai-jen is lending her voice to this inclusive, national, membership-based collective that aims to mobilise women beyond US political party lines around a “Women’s New Deal”. Supermajority’s plans to help build tangible power for and by women are still taking shape, but the message “that women’s lives are whole and human… and that we shouldn’t have to choose or prioritize or put into a hierarchy” is already resonating with thousands of new joiners. If Supermajority can succeed in being able to hear, share and inspire all women instead of relying on a hierarchy of voices, its approach could be truly transformative.
If you’re London based, you have an opportunity next month to come and hear Ai-jen Poo set out an inspiring vision in which leadership is a shared endeavour whose means and ends are transformative as they are questioning and sometimes uncomfortable. Ai-jen Poo will speak on Caring Forward: The Global Care Economy and Its Future at LSE on 20 June. You can meet Roseline and our other Atlantic Fellows there too.
Join us. Register for a free ticket here.