MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with “Roll Red Roll” Filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman

You can view the original version of this post on the Ms. website.

I first met Nancy Schwartzman in 2009, when she was designing the impact campaign around her short film “Where Is Your Line.” That documentary leveraged her own experience as a survivor to spark conversation around consent and sexual boundaries back in the era of Yes Means Yes, and a groundswell of new activism that demanded a sex-positive movement to end violence.

Ten years later, Schwartzman’s groundbreaking anti-violence work is back on bigger screens. Roll Red Roll, her feature-length true-crime documentary thriller, takes viewers to the frontline of the infamous Steubenville rape case, in which heinous accusations of rape against football players in a small town made national headlines—and put rape culture on the map.

Schwartzman’s film is now on Netflix following theatrical releases across the country and a debut TV release with PBS’ POV series. Before the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference, where Roll Red Roll will screen and be followed by a discussion, she talked to Ms. about what that case—just as disturbing, jarring and shocking all these years later—can teach us about the roots of rape culture and what it will take to shift it.

Tell me about the moment you realized you were going to make this documentary. What led you to Steubenville, and what kept you there?

I’ve been an activist in the anti-violence movement for many years, leveraging film and interactive media and tech to do this work—I made a short film, “Where Is Your Line,” that explored consent, and developed the White House 2011 Apps Against Abuse Winner Circle of 6. When the Steubenville story broke, people started sending me information and urging me to do something.

I first heard about the story when it broke in the New York Times. But blogger Alexandria Goddard already captured social media, found deleted evidence and kicked it up to a larger audience. Rachel Dissell, an investigative reporter at the Plain Dealer had been reporting on it, too. Then Anonymous came in, after Alex was sued by a local family trying to silence her blogging about the case, and blew it onto the New York Times home page.  

Ultimately, it was the public nature of the crime, the social media documentation and the rare ability to tell a story about rape that focused on the perpetrators and the larger culture that drew me to the story. 

When we were in conversation at the Laemmle Theater in L.A. you said something that stuck with me—that you wanted to make a rape documentary where the survivor’s story was not at the center. Where, instead, cultural forces and circumstances were under the spotlight. Can you talk a little bit about that decision, and how it shaped your process as a filmmaker?

What made this story different were the elements that were not explored in film before—rape culture laid bare, published in hundreds of social media posts, hackers, an amateur crime blogger, the ability to look into perpetrator behavior and the context that enabled it. Without scrutinizing the victim, we can look at the language these boys are using, the seeming acceptance of folks in town.

Which begged the larger questions: Why did no one stop it? What was happening in that community that made it “ok” to joke so publicly about rape? 

We crafted the film to engage men and boys—we worked in the true crime genre, a popular genre that usually fetishizes victimhood, flipped that trope, and put the spotlight on the behavior; we used football imagery, football energy and music to echo the energy of the young men during the night of the assault and afterwards. But set in this context and laid bare, the “excitement” or celebration is horrifying.

Context is everything. I wanted to make a film that no one could watch and still minimize what occurred or blame the victim.

I remember Steubenville not only because it was such a defining moment in my own activism, but because I was convinced, I think, on some level, that it was an outlier, and I was wrong. In what ways is Steubenville—and when I say that word I mean the town, and also the crime that’s come to define it—a lasting case study in rape culture? 

To quote Jimmie Briggs: “Rape culture is American culture.” We live in a culture that dehumanizes women and queer people – that objectifies and shames, and ultimately laughs at and makes light of sexual violence. In many ways, Steubenville was the horror story that brought the term “rape culture” into mainstream conversation. And in the process, Steubenville has become synonymous with the ugly realities of that culture. 

I’m wondering if you had “a-ha” moments while you were making the film. What lessons can advocates and activists take away from this film? What did you learn making it?

I traveled back and forth to town quite a bit, and got to know folks from all corners. What I learned was that everybody was impacted by the rape, the effects were so far reaching, everyone felt close to it and hurt by it. It really solidified my understanding that rape is not just a crime between victim and perpetrator, it reaches and ripples out to en entire community. 

But we are truly in a transformational moment. Finally people are listening, are enraged. We are seeing more men stepping up as allies, calling out the behavior as unacceptable. Can we harness that for change?

The epidemic of sexual violence needs multiple solutions, strategies and stories. It can be tempting to see legal and policy changes as a “fix,” but these are left vulnerable and unsustainable without long-term cultural engagement. We want to stress the importance of the anecdotal feedback we have received from our audiences about how Roll Red Roll has changed the way they think about sexual violence and has inspired them to be a part of positive change. These attitude shifts lay important groundwork for sustainable cultural impact.

In the midst of #MeToo, what happened in Steubenville also doesn’t feel like it was nearly a decade ago, not anymore—yet it was a groundbreaking moment for digital activism, for anti-rape activism, for survivors speaking out. What conversation are you trying to spark with Roll Red Roll—and what impact are you hoping to make with this story in the current moment?

I hope we are creating pathways for men to challenge toxic masculinity and harmful tropes that create the context for gender-based violence and harassment. I think we’ve deepened audiences understanding of rape culture, from the subtle to the extreme.

I also know the work doesn’t end here, and it hasn’t for you, either. You’ve already released a short film follow-up with The Guardian. What are your next steps—as an activist, as a filmmaker, as a feminist?

Roll Red Roll just went live on Netflix in 138 countries, so we are connecting with a global audience with tweets pouring in—in Spanish, French, Norwegian—and our impact team is really working hard to meet the demands for resources. We are continuing to bring the film and our impact campaign to communities around the world, including implementing the free and available Roll Red Roll interdisciplinary high school lesson plan in schools around the U.S.

I am also developing new film projects continuing to explore the intersections of gender and technology, and I’ve joined the APB Speaker’s Bureau—so I’ll hopefully come chat in more schools and communities moving forward, too!


MS. MAGAZINE: Inside the Jane Club’s New Orleans Essence Festival Pop-Up

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Earlier this month, the Essence Festival made space for a whole lot of Black Girl Magic in New Orleans—and the Los Angeles-based Jane Club set up shop in the city to offer VIPs and distinguished guests space where they could be in community, in conversation and at home.

The “mother of all member clubs” set up a pop-up location on Esplanade, a historical location where free women of color owned businesses in the early 20th century. They offered their standard amenities—on-site childcare, a woman-centered workspace, community programming and opportunities to take action—with an Essence Festival twist.

The Jane Club was invited to participate in Essence Festival at SXSW, in Austin, where they had organized a similar on-site pop-up. “We didn’t need to be asked twice!” Zaino exclaimed. The space jumped at the chance to be part of the annual celebration, where around half-a-million women, and especially Black women, would be at the center of the festivities.

To honor the opportunity, Zaino and her crew “kept it New Orleans.” The Club opened its doors with a panel discussion featuring local female artists, and an art exhibition called King Woman curated by Mashonda Tifrere of ArtLeadHer. It closed with a Family Festival in partnership with NYDJ denim. Each day, brunch opportunities abounded—and feminist celebrities, creatives and public figures collided.

“We played the drums with the Ashe Cultural Center,” Zaino remembered, “and enjoyed local music from the Andrews Family Brass Band, street violinist and busker Tanya Huang, local artist Caren Green and the legendary Zion Harmonizers, who launched jazz fest over 80 years ago.”

Over the course of the weekend, live tapings of podcasts like Demetria L. Lucas’ Ratchet and Respectable were set up as part of a SEE JANE LIVE conversation series, presented in partnership with Planned Parenthood. Children were ushered into The Nest, the Jane Club’s signature childcare space, while women like Latoya Cantrell, the first female Mayor of New Orleans, sounded off on issues like black maternal health and celebrated advocates like Cleopatra Singleton. 

“It was absolutely incredible to see the full team and village we built out in action,” Jane Club co-founder Jess Zaino told Ms. “Everyone and everything was buzzing. The brands and people and Janes and NOLA Janes together is an image held in my heart and soul forever. It was transcendent to be with my Jane family in NOLA as we swam, supped and sistered together.” 

Zaino couldn’t pick a favorite moment. “Our NYDJ family festival queen Retta is hilarious to spend time with,” she recalled. “Chef and author Carla Hall, who I know personally from my years as a producer on ABC’s The chew, baked biscuits in her hotel room throughout the weekend with strangers she would meet on the street. Having Tina Knowles-Lawson and Iman join us for dinner and show up for the Jane mission and vision was a dream come true. To work with Mayor Latoya Cantrell, Action New Orleans, NYDJ and Planned Parenthood to amplify issues important to black women and motherhood was something I will never forget.”

The Jane Club’s mission—to “create the village” that it takes to raise children and to foster women’s success—took on new meaning in executing the experience. “We were grateful to create something that represented and supported our New Orleans Janes,” Zaino told Ms., “and it truly took a village of Janes to get our NOLA pop up off the ground—from our title sponsors NYDJ, to Planned Parenthood, Ciroc, Evolve Footwear and Swivel Beauty, to the full Jane team on the ground, we worked tirelessly to create the most impactful experience possible.”

Zaino was one of the lead architects, but her co-conspirators also brought the space to life. “Jenny Billard executes the vision,” she explained. “Chudney Ross builds out a safe, nurturing and fun nest for the kids who visit. Shawnta Valdes holds our community hearts in light and Hailey Porter translates our IRL experience into something that all can enjoy on social media. McKensie Kirchner held down the fort throughout the weekend and Claire O. Bivens greeted guests with a southern smile and grace. Rickey Lee of Urban Earth created the magical space and Barrie Schwartz and Danielle Lee of My House Social ran the f and b like nobody’s business.We also had several Janes join us in NOLA—Aryn Drake-Lee and Trian Long-Smith recorded their podcast, bbs are trash, as part of our See Jane Live, and Hannah Diop, founder of Sienna Naturals, was representing Jane in our beauty lounge.”

Ross reveled in the opportunity to re-create The Nest in a new city and take the experience it offers on the road. “I was so happy to be in New Orleans to recreate that experience,” she told Ms., “for Janes traveling to Essence Fest with kids and local Janes who joined in on programming with their children.” The Chief Kid Officer is also the owner of Books and Cookies, a mobile, interactive literacy program, and she brought some of that programming to New Orleans as well with two music storytimes for the littlest Janes. “Our programs not only entertain children,” she explained, “but also develop vocabulary, improve the ability to learn to read and, perhaps most important, foster a lifelong love of books, reading and learning—which is important no matter where you travel!”

And once the space was constructed, a mighty village also filled its walls. Tai Beauchamp—Zaino’s longtime friend, and “one of the most impressive connectors” she’s ever known—was brought on to executive produce the weekend, and secured artist Estelle, now an honorary Jane; venture capitalist Arlan Hamilton; and the global head of community inclusion at Google, Valeisha Butterfield Jones to form the space’s host committee. “Even previous to the weekend,” Zaino explained, “we had women on the ground in NOLA who supported our mission and vision—notably, artist Mallory Page, Ariel Wilson of the Orchid Society and Andrea Stricker of the McKenna Museum of Free People of Color.  Of course, all the while, our LA Janes supported us from the Homefront.”

Diop described the Jane Club pop-up as transforming Essence Festival into a homecoming twice over. “I love being at Essence Festival, because it is a celebration of our beauty and sisterhood,” she told Ms., “[…and] I loved being in community at the Jane Club—connecting with powerful women, sharing our stories, ambitions and goals for our community.”

“We loved meeting all of the New Orleans Janes,” Zaino confided. “The women who came through the house over the weekend, and stayed and then came back the next day—always ready to connect, show up, honor and enjoy each other—is a true testament to the power of The Jane Club community. Wherever you go, women are the same in our needs. We need the same support, love and village. Our NOLA pop-up was further proof that we need more Jane Clubs.”


MS. MAGAZINE: Stories from the What Women Want Campaign

This piece was published by Ms. magazine online and in the Summer 2019 print edition.

When mobilizers in Uganda from the What Women Want campaign asked Kansiime Prossy to declare her top demand for improving women’s reproductive health, she offered a simple request: “Good quality health services near to women’s homes.”

Years earlier, Prossy had delivered her child outdoors at night in the middle of Queen Elizabeth National Park, surrounded by hungry hyenas.

Prossy knew the way to the maternity center: She had walked the 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) through the park for prenatal care throughout her pregnancy, but when she went into labor at 11 p.m., the journey was much more challenging. She rode by bicycle to the center with her husband, sitting behind him on the saddle while he stood to pedal. Six kilometers (almost 4 miles) from their goal, they could continue no farther and she gave birth in the dead of night in the unforgiving wilderness. When Prossy and her husband saw hyenas closing in on them, they shouted for help—and were relieved to see headlights. The National Park patrol vehicle that found them at the last second saved their lives just as surely as the health workers who stopped Prossy’s bleeding and removed her retained placenta after the rangers delivered her to the maternity center.

Prossy is one of 1.2 million women and girls from 114 countries who participated in the What Women Want campaign created by the White Ribbon Alliance (WRA). Her story exemplifies the urgency behind their mission.

“The origins of this campaign,” WRA deputy executive director Kristy Kade told Ms., “are as grassroots as grassroots can possibly be.” In 2016 in West Bengal, India, a local WRA chapter recognized, through face-to-face conversations with local women about their needs and experiences, that lawmakers advocating for them were missing the mark.

“There was such a missing voice from the planning that was going on in terms of India’s care, and the rollout of their new guidelines about improving maternal health services for women,” Kade explains. “It was being done in a vacuum, without ever really talking about the experiences of women.” The WRA team in West Bengal came together with more than a hundred allied organizations to expand the effort nationally and launch a campaign they called Hamara Swasthya, Hamari Awaz—“Our Health, Our Voices”—that eventually gave women unprecedented influence over the agenda setting that shapes their own lives.

“It caught on like wildfire,” Kade recalls, describing the effort mounted by volunteers to ask women across the country what they needed and wanted to see change in terms of reproductive and maternal health care in their communities. “When they started, they thought they might get 10,000 responses. By the end—they did this for three months—they got 150,000.”

Those responses became powerful leverage for advocates. The collective power of women’s voices in West Bengal had created enough political pressure to grant them a seat at the table. The results of the campaign were shared with local leaders, who were persuaded to pay more attention to critical health care issues facing women. When those local leaders passed the results upward to ministers and parliamentarians, the campaign became fodder for national news coverage—and forced lawmakers to respond by shifting the focus of their health care policies.

A table covered in survey responses. (Copyright White Ribbon Alliance, photo courtesy of WRA India)

In 2017, during her first week working with WRA, Kade and her team began building out the model on a global scale. Despite the necessary customizations and adaptations for the campaign which allow each to flourish in their own cultural context, the mobilizers worldwide were unified by a singular mission, as Kade summarizes: “putting our mouths and our minds behind the idea that we need to ask women, they should be heard, they should be listened [to], they do know best about their own health care needs. They’re the real experts.”

Radically restructuring the model of health care advocacy, and putting power back in the hands of women patients, marks a revolutionary shift in and of itself—especially during a moment in which the Trump administration’s expanded Global Gag Rule is attempting to restrict women’s choices by cutting U.S. funding for any foreign organization that promotes or provides abortions worldwide.

The transformative power of the campaign began with the question at its core. Asking women what they want, the WRA team realized, was revelatory.

“It shouldn’t be radical,” Kade observes, “but it was.” For many women, it was one question they’d never been asked before. “There was sometimes a lot of: Why are you asking me this? Why do you care? Why would anyone care?” she explains. “Convincing them that their voice had power and significance and resonance was the transcending moment… That invitation to speak is what so many women have been waiting for.”

The campaign’s mobilizers, some of whom collected responses on social media and others who trekked through regions on foot to give women space to speak, bore witness to the impact of that invitation.

“It has been an amazing journey,” Talha Rasheed, a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan, told WRA. “I met with young girls, teenagers and women from all walks of life. Some were pessimistic; others were optimistic; all were victims of different levels of abuse. However, What Women Want gave them a platform to speak their hearts and make our voices heard by government. It gave wings to the women of Pakistan.”

“People needed to speak,” Kade declares. “What we really were interested in is what everyone individually wants, and that has power… It’s seeing not the doer or the done to, but [that] we all have needs, we all have interests, we’re all experiencing health care in a complicated way, and we need to express that. That’s where the real power comes from.”


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Documentary Filmmaker Greta Schiller

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

It’s been 50 years this June since three days of rioting outside of New York City’s Stonewall Inn launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement—and 35 since documentary director Greta Schiller uncovered the histories of queer and trans Americans in the decades prior.

“When we set out to make this film,” Schiller has said, “I had no inkling of the meaning it would have around the world.” Indeed, she likely couldn’t have predicted what would come next: funding and support from PBS, which meant broadcasting the film nationwide into the living rooms of everyday Americans, and even an Emmy award. But Schiller’s acclaim has only grown in the years since Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community came out.

After co-founding production company Jezebel Productions, Schiller produced a slate of notable documentaries, including the Teddy Award-winning The Man Who Drove With Mandela and Paris Was a Woman, which was broadcast around the world. She was awarded the City College of New York Townsend Harris Medal for Outstanding Contributions to her Field and a Rachel Carson Fellowship, was the first person to receive a UK/US Fulbright Arts Fellowship in Film and is currently producing a new documentary series as part of her Global Fulbright Award.

First Run Features is now re-releasing Before Stonewall—narrated by author Rita Mae Brown and featuring interviews with activists including Audre Lorde and Barbara Gittings—to mark the current historic moment. But the personal and profound stories of LGBT Americans that populate Schiller’s Emmy award-winning film remain timeless, and so does its urgent reminder of the personal and political battles facing the LGBTQ community.

In advance of the film’s theatrical re-release in New York City on June 21 and Los Angeles on June 28, Schiller opened up to Ms. about what happened before Before Stonewall—and what lessons she has carried with her since.

I always begin with an inception story. Tell us how this movie came to be—why did you decide to make it, and what did it take to make it happen?

The project began when Robert Rosenberg, who became the co-director, approached me with the idea to make a film based on the unpublished work of historian John D’Emilio—which chronicled the early, pre-Stonewall, homophile movement. Early funding came from the New York Council on the Humanities and the NY State Council on the Arts. 

It became clear pretty quickly that I needed to expand the original concept to trace the formation of the mostly hidden lesbian and gay subculture across the country, not just the few homophile organizations.  I decided to tell this story chronologically, decade by decade—from the turn of the century when homosexuality began to be seen as a distinctive identity, rather than simply a sex act, up to the Stonewall Riots, when marginalized gay and lesbian youth fought back against police raids and the modern LGBT movement was born.  

But as the lives of homosexuals pre-Stonewall had been so marginalized, we had a big problem: How could we tell this tale in a visual and engaging way? Even when gay life spilled onto the streets of Greenwich Village—over 5 nights, hundreds of people protested—the news media gave very little coverage to the riots, and there was almost no visual documentation of gay life before then.

Rosenberg, Research Director Andrea Weiss and I were on the project from its inception. Executive Producer John Scagliotti was brought on by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; he was a condition of our funding. Yet they did not give full funding, and in order to match their award, we all worked organizing benefits across the country.

As this was the first GLBT history feature film, we had tremendous support from the burgeoning gay and lesbian community. By drawing attention to the project, these events also helped us locate potential interviewees. Andrea organized research teams to find people who may be willing to share their personal scrapbooks. This was the first time anyone saw their personal artifacts as history. It was difficult to convince many of them that their photos, home movies and love letters were in fact worthy of being considered historical. Today, in our age of instant celebrity, people think even their pets are worthy of such. 

I was inspired by UNION MAIDS, a film by Julia Reichart and Jim Klein—the first filmmakers who used oral history as history in film. The weaving of personal eyewitness testimony into the historical narrative provided a way for me to begin thinking about how to approach my task.  At her retrospective screening last week at MOMA, I saw one parallel I had not seen on first viewing, and that was that communists were also closeted. Even union leaders kept their party membership secret from the public, despite the fact that their entire lives—work, love, family, play—all revolved around party membership.  

We were what would now be called “artisanal” or “boutique”—most of us were doing our jobs for the first time. The sound woman J.T. Tagaki’s first sound job was interviewing Allen Ginsberg! I would film the stills on a 16mm camera while at people’s homes. I drove to Virginia with a sound recordist and had Rita Mae Brown read the narration in her living room.  We carried 16mm prints to festivals to save on shipping. 

It reminds me of this comment of yours—it struck me. “I was a young woman director in the early 1980’s, setting out to tell the ‘History 101’ version of a people systematically ignored and erased from the historical record,” you said. “Perhaps if I had been older, I would not have taken on the task with such naïve zeal.”

But this film ended up having an outsized impact: being the first movie on LGBTQ lives shown on public television, and winning awards for how it shaped our cultural narratives and understandings around gay life. How did that zeal shape your process, and what did it teach you as a filmmaker? What from this process have you carried into your other work?

Today I spend a fair amount of time mentoring young filmmakers. Not all of them are women or gay, but they are talented and marginalized by the media landscape. I had no real mentors; there were literally five or six women and maybe two lesbians who had made feature documentaries.  Emile d’Antonio looked at some edits and gave me valuable feedback.  Filmmaker Artie Bressan was super supportive, and film historian and activist Vito Russo was a good friend and invaluable guide to GLBT representations in cinema.

I grew up at a time when we actually believed we may make a revolution in this country: when women would be equal to men; when workers were paid a living wage; where health care would be universal. My friends were gay, straight, black and white, and I believe this is what gave me that zeal. My co-producers gave feedback, but Andrea Weiss was the most crucial support and critic, and she can be seriously critical in the most demanding way. When I faced obstacles from within the production team itself, she helped me maintain my zeal.

Trusting myself, the importance of holding close my vision for a film’s narrative, listening to collaborators while being confident in my directing, was a process I learned on the making of my first feature documentary. I also learned that when a film is successful, then those who had doubts and drifted from supporting my efforts come back with a roar to stake their claim—so I learned to take much stronger legal protections. When we began this process of making the film, I thought lawyers were only for when problems arise; now I know they can prevent problems down the road. 

It was also a time of collectivism, so some people were given roles beyond their capacity, while others were not given the credit they deserved. My sister Tina Schiller was our San Francisco Production Manager—she organized a benefit screening of an Andy Warhol film, Edie, at the legendary Castro Cinema, and has been amazingly supportive throughout my life and career. Today, I choose my collaborators with much greater care! Making an independent film can be either a dysfunctional family unit or functional one. Coming from a dysfunctional family, I had no idea back then that there was another way. After much work on healing that original family, and having good relationships with my extended families, and being married for 35 years—legally married for one—and raising a daughter and making 15-plus films, I can look back and see that it is a sort of miracle that we pulled the film off at all!

As a director, the film gave me enormous confidence to bring stories hidden from history into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that respected my subjects. To be trusted by African American women, some of them lesbians, was and is a great honor. To collaborate in a deep, productive way with researchers, producers, writers—all of this I learned and grew better at over the years.

I have maintained friendships and in many cases professional relationships with virtually everyone who helped bring Before Stonewall to fruition. My lifelong creative partnership with Andrea began on Before Stonewall. I learned from Before Stonewall that a film has many filmmakers, but one Director, except in very exceptional cases. I co-directed The International Sweethearts of Rhythm with Andrea, but after that we each developed projects as Director, producing one another’s films through our production company. I believe we are the longest-running women’s film production company, at least in the U.S.

My sense of irony, use of music, intimate interview style, writing those who had been written out back into the historical narrative, looking at newsreels and other dominant media through a different lens, reading the subtext, drawing out a narrative that gives a fresh look at history— from the South African liberation struggle to women artists in Paris between the world wars to many other films set in other eras and cultures—this all grew from my first feature documentary. Today I am finishing a film about humans and our relationship to the earth, about ecological restoration—and even in this film, respecting the people, animals, landscapes, wanting to tell their story, comes from the same place.

What do you hope comes of the film’s re-release?

My goals are the same: to bring the story of the making of the LGBT community from a scattered, closeted people into full members of society and do it in a way that engages everyone. Gay, straight, young, old—I hope that everyone enjoys the film.

Even though the LGBTQ movement itself has evolved so much in the last 50 years, and especially since many of the moments in history you touch on that go even further back, so much in this film still resonates—the schisms within the LGBTQ community, for one, and the challenges people at the intersections face in making themselves heard—and we’re still setting records straight, even about Stonewall. What lessons from our history do you think are most critical to remember in this current moment?

One of the most important lessons is to embrace diversity.

I would like to note that we did not really want bi people in the movement back then—we considered them to be confused! Trans rights were not a political issue yet. I fought with my co-producers about opening the film with drag queens, which they saw as too controversial. 

I have always adored a good drag butch or queen; the early homophile movements tried to silence drag queens. Butch women, working class lesbians and gay men and people of color were largely absent from pre-Stonewall organizations. One of our regrets is that when researcher Andrea met Marsha P. Johnson at her home in New Jersey, we did not then interview her.

What fights ahead do you feel are most pivotal?

I anticipate fights around the right to adopt or to marry—these are victories that can be reversed. Violence and homelessness, sexual abuse and suicide among GLBT youth are great concerns. A far-right religious group, Project Blitz, has begun a campaign to discriminate under the auspices of religious freedom—they want to pass bills banning government entities from penalizing people or businesses who’ve donated to or are affiliated with a religious organization, even if those groups are known to have discriminatory practices, and they have already made inroads in the Texas legislature, but for the first time an LGBT caucus exists in the Texas legislature and they have fought to keep and expand protections. Voting really matters, who sits in government matters. The bans on trans people in the military and elsewhere is the easiest and first attack.

History is not linear. While societal attitudes have shifted enormously, there will always be homophobia, and we need to stay vigilant. So much depends on where you live, if the family you grew up in accepts you, if you can get a job. Social service agencies need to provide services for the marginal members of our community.

I’m fascinated, as a queer woman myself, with the urgency and importance we have toward and reverence we owe our elders—and the relationships we have to them. So often, we don’t know who they are. Too often, we never have the chance to witness them. This film introduces us to them. How do you think LGBTQ activists and allies today can best honor them?

I think respect for seniors is a problem everywhere. Cross-generational interaction is nearly non-existent. People push past older people on sidewalks, trains, buses—and many of them are no doubt members of the GLBT community. SAGE hosts intergenerational dinners and events designed to encourage more exchange of ideas and perspectives.

It is very hard for a young person to imagine anything outside of their own experience as valuable, impossible to imagine that simply loving someone of the same sex until the 1970’s was a brave act, punishable under the law of the land in counties ways. I hope seeing my film will help with this, at least a little. 


MS. MAGAZINE: Reporting Live from the Global Women’s Rights Awards Red Carpet

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Feminists in Los Angeles Monday celebrated the growing momentum for women’s equality worldwide, from the menstrual equity movement taking shape across the globe to the re-invigorated push for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment sweeping the U.S., at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 14th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards.

“Each year at our Global Women’s Rights Awards, we salute individuals who have contributed significantly to advancing the rights of women and girls and increasing awareness of the injustices women face on account of their gender,” FMF Executive Director and Ms. Executive Editor Katherine Spillar told attendees from the stage at the Pacific Design Center’s SilverScreen Theater. “The Awards are a moment to stop and celebrate the progress we’ve made and reflect on the work that lies ahead.”

Katherine Spillar, Executive Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Executive Editor of Ms., speaking at the 14th annual Global Women's Rights Awards. (Dave Banks)
Katherine Spillar, Executive Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Executive Editor of Ms., speaking at the 14th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards. (Dave Banks)

This year’s event honored actor and ERA activist Patricia Arquette, alongside Virginia Delegates Hala Ayala and Jennifer Carrol Foy, as well as the transnational team behind the Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence.

“Every time I turn around,” Arquette told Ms. on the red carpet before the event, “there’s some new thing to get angry and energized about.” Inside the theater, the FMF board and leadership and the night’s honorees also offered up new reasons for optimism.

Actor and ERA activist Patricia Arquette talked to Ms. Managing Digital Editor Carmen Rios on the red carpet before the event. (Hayley Costey)

The Girls Learn International activists from Oakwood school who launched the Pad Project; producers Melissa Berton, Guneet Monga and Lisa Taback; director Rayka Zehtabchi; and Action India Chair Gouri Choudhury took the stage first, and told their story of how Period. got made and where The Pad Project started.

“I remember those days at our GLI club meetings when we dreamed about how we could make a real difference by purchasing the pad-making machinery for the girls and women of Action India,” Oakwood GLI alum Avery Siegel said on the stage. “In addition to making affordable sanitary pads, we discussed how the machinery could be the basis of a self-sustaining enterprise.”

Siegel also recalled the scrappy fundraising strategies that made the film possible, from bake sales to yoga-thons. “We became quite good at asking everyone we knew,” she joked. “Thank you, mom and dad and grandma—and thank you to all the Oakwood parents here tonight and to everyone who supported our dream!”

Maggie Brown, a current student at Oakwood and GLI activist, also noted that the Pad Project—and the larger fight for menstrual equity—didn’t end on the Oscars stage.

“In getting deeply involved in the Pad Project for Action India, we began to realize that we didn’t have to go halfway around the world to make an impact on this critical issue for women and girls,” she explained. “We discovered that 20 percent of girls in the U.S. missed one or more days of school because of not having access to affordable menstrual protection. I was shell shocked when I found that out.”

Together with other GLI clubs, the Oakwood chapter successfully pushed for a California law mandating free sanitary products for girls in high school bathrooms, which went into effect in January. In the coming weeks the club is heading to Washington, D.C. to meet with Rep. Grace Meng, who is fighting to pass the Menstrual Equity for All Act. When asked on the red carpet what she learned from The Pad Project, Brown offered only optimism: ““When strong women put their minds together,” she said, “anything is possible.”

Berton, who is both a producer of the film and the teacher who heads up the GLI chapter at Oakwood, described the years of work her students have dedicated to making those changes possible as a “wonderful, inspiring ride” to Ms. before the event. Inside the theater, she beamed with pride as past and present students from the chapter took the stage.

“People often ask me why this issue became so important to me,” Berton said. “The answer has something to do with being a high school teacher—where it is my privilege every day to witness the simultaneous beauty of my students’ physical growth into womanhood on the one hand and their intellectual growth that informs the kind of women they will become. I believe it is at this tender and transitional moment that education must be nurtured—and never, ever stopped.”

Melissa Berton (center) with student activists and alumni from the Girls Learn International chapter at Oakwood School in Los Angeles. Berton’s students founded The Pad Project and produced the Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence. (Hayley Costey)

Choudhury shares that pride. Action India, which was founded in 1976 to advance women’s equality in the region, was among the first GLI partners overseas. Her daughters were among the first GLI leaders in India.

“I am seeing changes throughout India that I never thought I would, as the menstrual equity movement sweeps across the country,” Choudhury explained, recounting the work it took to make The Pad Project and Period. possible and all that’s come since the installation of a pad machine in Hapur. “I can tell you tonight: the Period. End of Sentence. documentary is accelerating the demand for change all across India. It has broken the silence around the topic of menstruation creating conversation at all levels of society between women and men too. This Oscar shot the topic to the sky—there is no question about it.”

Monga agreed. “The film has put the conversation about menstruation on the map in India,” she explained. “On the ground at Hapur, these young women are now icons reflecting what we know to be true that the combined effect of education, exposure and conversation is empowerment.  As filmmakers, we talk about changing the world, about telling stories that have a real impact and make the world a better place. With this film, I have seen the needle move in this way.”

Zehtabchi has also had a close-up view to the impact of The Pad Project in India, having visited Hapur before the machine was installed and then again to witness changes in its wake.“Here we are now, two and a half years later—thousands of pads made and sold, a second machine installed for Action India, an Academy Award and a permanent home for our film at Netlix for millions of people to view,” she said from the stage. “Our hope is that this documentary will continue to amplify the global menstrual equity movement, and break the silence that has kept women all around the world—and throughout history—shamed and sequestered.”

Taback, whose daughter also produced the film and was a GLI activist involved in the inception of the Project, knows best how impactful an Oscar can be. “People ask me: How do you go from having an idea to fund a pad machine, to making a movie, to winning an Oscar and then opening the floodgates to a conversation about a subject no one wanted to talk about?”

She revealed the answer: “Controlling the narrative.”

Spillar and Taback on the red carpet at the Global Women’s Rights Awards. Taback was a producer on the Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence.—and is the proud parent of one of the student leaders and co-producers who made it happen. (Hayley Costey)

“These girls were not interested in a nice piece in the New York Times,” Taback explained. “They didn’t want their 6 minutes on The Today Show sitting with Hoda. They wanted to change the world by telling their truth and shining a light on injustice for young women and girls around the world—and as [FMF Board Chair] Peg Yorkin would say, they fucking did it!”

The movement for menstrual equity showcased in Period. is rooted in cultural change—but that shift isn’t possible without policy to support it. That’s where the renewed fight for the ERA entered the discussion on stage.

(Left to Right) Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, actor and ERA activist Patricia Arquette and Del. Haya Ayala on the red carpet at the 14th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards. Later that evening, the two Delegates from Virginia and the ERA champion hailing from Hollywood joined Spillar and Smeal for a wide-ranging conversation on the importance of constitutional equality. (Hayley Costey)

“The need for a federal Equal Rights Amendment could not be clearer,” Spillar declared on stage, “in light of widespread violence against women, the under-representation of women in elected office, the continuing gender pay gap and the escalating attacks on birth control and abortion.”

The ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, but didn’t pass out of the House and Senate until 1972. Despite widespread popular support, it wasn’t ratified by 1982—an arbitrary deadline imposed by Congress—and the movement to advance women’s constitutional equality fell largely dormant. But in 2017, Nevada’s legislature ratified; in 2018, Illinois followed suit. Now, the measure needs only one state to meet the majority for ratification.

Delegates Ayala and Carroll Foy, two fearless women of color legislators, made it their mission decades later to bring the ERA to a vote on the floor of the Virginia legislature for the first time in 42 years after their elections in 2017. In doing so, they became the first women of color to demand a vote on the Amendment.

FMF Board Member and legendary organizer Dolores Huerta celebrated the work of Delegates Haya Ayala and Jennifer Carrol Foy in Virginia. They brought the ERA to the floor for a vote for the first time in 42 years. (Dave Banks)

“Moved to outrage, then action, after Trump was elected president, the founder of Prince William County NOW, Hala Ayala, organized a delegation of 14,000 women to join the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017,” FMF board member Dolores Huerta explained from the stage. “Shortly after, she made the life-changing decision to quit her job as a cybersecurity specialist for the Department of Homeland Security in order to run for office—among the first of what became a wave of hundreds of women across the U.S. running for office.”

Ayala wasn’t alone. “Another first-time candidate in Virginia in 2017, Jennifer Carroll Foy,” Huerta recalled, “was inspired to run for a seat long held by a Republican. But just three weeks after launching her campaign, Jennifer found out she was pregnant with twins. Undaunted, she plowed ahead—and after giving birth prematurely, Jennifer and her husband spent their days campaigning and their nights in the neo-natal intensive care unit with their twin boys. So of course, the twins were in their arms as she took her oath of office in early 2018.”

The effort to ratify the ERA in Virginia ultimately fell short—but by only one vote. In the process, Ayala and Carroll Foy put the issue of the ERA back on the ballot: By forcing a vote by their colleagues on the floor, they made it possible for voters to hold lawmakers who opposed the measure accountable at the polls.

“We need to make sure everyone in Virginia and the country knows there is only one way to spell equality,” Carroll Foy told Ms. on the red carpet before the event, “and that’s E-R-A.”

Ayala—who is Afro-Latina, Lebanese and Irish—also told Ms. on the carpet that the ERA means a lot to her personally, as well as politically. “It means I am now dignified,” she declared. “I have representation in the Constitution. I have a seat at the table. I’m not on the menu.”

Spillar told Ms. before the event that when the ERA wasn’t ratified in the eighties, she was shocked. “I realized it was time for me to get involved,” she explained, “for all of us to get involved.”

The same call was clear throughout the FMF’s program Monday. Whether it’s a matter of menstrual equity or Constitutional equality, it’s time for feminists around the world to continue rising up—and claiming victories that change women’s lives.

WATCH: Carmen Live on the Global Women’s Rights Awards Red Carpet!


MS. MAGAZINE: How State Lawmakers are Responding to Anti-Abortion Laws

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

In a scathing statement released today, 373 state legislators from 46 states denounced the extreme abortion bans being passed by state lawmakers across the country.

“The 2019 state attacks on the legal right to abortion are a crisis,” the lawmakers declared in their joint statement. “As state legislators from around the country and members of the Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, we condemn this coordinated political strategy to overturn Roe v. Wade and are outraged by efforts to criminalize doctors or patients seeking abortion care. “

The powerful declaration from the Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, a first-of-its-kind national network of over 350 pro-choice state legislators convened by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), comes in the wake of two weeks of non-stop attacks on abortion by state legislators and in the midst of individual efforts by state and local lawmakers to fight back against the growing numbers of laws threatening women’s bodily autonomy.

“We envision a nation in which each of us can make our own decisions about our reproductive health, pregnancy and parenting, free from political interference,” the Council continued. “We’re calling on our fellow legislators, governors and the courts to stop these abortion bans and instead take action to ensure all people can access reproductive health care with dignity and respect, no matter where they live or the size of their bank account. We respect the sacred duty of public office and we honor our charge to act for a better future for our constituents and communities—and that means protecting abortion rights.”

In 2019 alone, nearly 30 bans on abortion have been introduced, passed or signed into law by state lawmakers and Governors across the country. Most recently, Georgia banned abortion at six weeks, criminalizing even women who cross state lines to obtain care; in Alabama, a ban on all abortion from the moment of conception signed into law last week also threatened providers with felony charges and up to 99 years in prison. Missouri lawmakers just passed an eight-week ban, and Louisiana is attempting to pass a six-week ban; in both states, the Governors have indicated that they plan to sign them into law as soon as they reach their desks.

This isn’t a new trend: More than 400 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted since 2011, and abortion is the most heavily-regulated health care service in the country. The measures mentioned above echo similar laws passed in Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio—and pending bills in Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia.

“Anti-abortion state legislators are are emboldened by the extremists in power in Washington and are running scared of the momentum demonstrated by women voters across the country,” Kelly Baden, Director of Reproductive Rights for SiX, said in a statement. “Enacting bans on abortion, whether they are all-out bans like Alabama or near-complete bans like Georgia, flies in the face of common sense, public health and Americans’ support for reproductive dignity and autonomy.”


Letter from an Editor on Mother’s Day

Every week, I send out a digest of our top stories from msmagazine.com—prefaced by a personal note from moi. This letter ran on Sunday, for Mother’s Day. Sign up to get letters like it—and lots of good links!—directly to your inbox each week.

Mother’s Day has always felt like a homecoming. My feminist journey begins with my mother, with all that she went through to open doors for me and all that she showed me about power and persistence—and the themes of political and economic equality which ring throughout our Mother’s Day pieces this year have particular resonance for me as a daughter, granddaughter, niece raised by strong, working-class women.

I want to tell you about my mom—a strong and self-determined woman who raised two weirdo kids on her own, who told us every day with her words and her actions that we mattered and were special and could do whatever we wanted with our lives, who advocated for me endlessly, who instructed me to be kind and be good, who made so much magic for us in spite of a world that attempted to constrain and crush families like ours and people like us and the kinds of dreams we dared to have in spite of it. 

(Also, mom, I know you’re reading this. Hi! I love you so much.)

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I also want to tell you about my aunt—a woman who wears shining black heeled loafers every day just in case she has to kick ass; who studied law and went into finance and never let the world tell her what kind of woman she had to be; who whispered in my ear when I was 13 that I could, would, should be the first woman president. 

And I mean, I obviously have to tell you about my grandmother, too—a woman who ran the kitchen at our local high school and practiced a firm but feminist form of leadership, who picked us up from summer camp and fed us fruit snacks as we rolled down the car windows, who took care of us when my mom worked nights and rinsed the plastic tables from pizza boxes for my dolls to put in their bedrooms, who grew up in the Great Depression but still taught herself to drive and fought for her own freedom. 

When I am asked why I do this work I always think about the village of women who empowered me into existence. I began fighting for gender equality because of them. I began fighting for women because I was fighting for us—for women who confront discrimination and harassment while they work to feed their families, for women who are constrained by a lopsided system that was never meant to support them, for women who want more and who raise their daughters to live out their wildest dreams. 

I am here because I wanted families like mine—and women like me, women like my mother, women like my aunt and my grandmother and the generations of women before them—to have a fair shot at freedom. I am here because together, they endeavored endlessly to give me the incredible opportunity to chase my own. 

I’m here because my mother and your mother and their mothers deserve to be supported, valued and heard all year long. In the pieces below, Ms. contributors and feminist movement leaders alike sound off on how we can make that happen.

Happy Mother’s Day.


GIRLBOSS: How To Build Feminism Into Your Business Plan

Click here to read and share the original post from Girlboss: 11 Ways To Build A Formidable Business—That Also Reflects Your Values

The way our culture approaches work is broken—and it’s breaking us. We’re facing toxic and abusive work environments. We’re working more than ever for less than we’re worth. And we’re burnt out AF.

When we think about bad working conditions, a corporation like WalMart comes to mind—because what stands out starkly, despite their current commitments to improve, is how much more they could do if they straightened out their priorities. An organization that employs over one million Americans and forks over a whopping $20 billion to shareholders in stock buybacks can and should do better.

But so can you. We don’t have to wait for the big-wigs to have an awakening and get their shit together. If you have entrepreneurial aspirations, then you have the power to make a better workplace possible—just by committing to a business plan that mirrors your beliefs and works to support not only you, but also those who you employ.

We deserve to feel energized and invigorated by our work and to get credit and advancement opportunities where they’re due. We also deserve to work for people who respect our boundaries, value our contributions, and honor our voices.

Here are 11 ways you can make it happen—by baking your values into your business plan.

Build a budget that supports your employees

Too many corporate budgets are designed around profit alone, and not people. Flip the script in your business plan: Build a budget that ensures everyone on your team can thrive. Commit to paying your employees a fair wage—providing them with not just what they’re worth, but what they need to live well. If someone is working 40 hours a week to drive your success, they shouldn’t have to live paycheck-to-paycheck in order to pay rent, buy food, and fill up their gas tank at the overpriced Exxon across the street from the office.

Building an economically just budget means that if your business plan doesn’t work for your employees, it’s not working. If you don’t have enough money to pay five full-time workers what they’re worth, consider recalibrating your staffing structure instead of their salaries. Similarly, if you can’t afford to expand your business without cutting benefits, reconfigure your expansion plan instead of your health insurance plan.

Building your business with fair wages in mind may mean it will take a little longer for you to become a mogul—but you’ll get there having done right by the people who helped along the way.

Get creative with your benefits package

The Jane Club, co-founded by actor June Diane Raphael and producer Jess Zaino, calls itself “the mother of all workspaces.” And because Raphael and Zaino built their business around lifting moms up, they attracted top internal talent—including co-CEOs Dori Howard and Zoe Reagan.

“We were able to recruit high-level talent to help run The Jane Club—for no money, really—because we offered them childcare,” Raphael explained in a live video interview with me. “We got them because of what we offer here.” (Those offerings include on-site childcare, laundry service, and meals-to-go at the end of the workday.)

Paid maternity leave, paid family leave, sick days, flex time, and other benefits shouldn’t be coveted—they should be common. It’s time for higher standards across workplaces and sectors—and it’s on us to set them.

Raise your bottom line

While you’re building out your budget, you may also want to reconsider your true operating costs—for your neighbors, your surrounding cityscape, and the planet at-large—and hold yourself accountable to them, too.

If you’re in the retail game, you can do right by ethically sourcing your material and offsetting your carbon footprint from constant shipping. If you’re looking to run a brick-and-mortar, you can lift up your community by hiring locally and opening the space up for community groups looking to gather in the evenings.

Pay it forward (and back)

Your employees are helping your soon-to-be-booming business get to the level you’ve always dreamed of. You couldn’t make this happen without them. Those two truths alone are enough reason to reward them when the fruits of their labor that drive your success. They’re also solid reminders that you should strive to give your employees credit where it’s due—and perks where they’re due, too.

Show your employees that you’re grateful for all they’ve helped you accomplish. That could mean something as major as giving them a stake in the business via stock options or offering up bonuses for extraordinary accomplishments, or as fun as putting that windfall to good use with a grand holiday party.

Remember: They deserve it. (Plus, the morale boost alone will be worth it.)

Make more room at the table

Studies show that diversity is good for business and for our well-being—but the persistent white and male dominance in most fields proves that it doesn’t happen by accident. The only way to ensure that everyone gets a seat at the table is to invite them to come sit down. Intentionally recruiting, training, and mentoring people from marginalized communities is the only way to disrupt the hierarchies that privilege white men in every workspace.

“It’s important to us, especially working in film and TV, to center on women, people of color, and queer folks,” Robin Roemer, co-founder of Scheme Machine Studios, explained in an email. “We’ve had several shoots which have had entirely female and non-binary crews. It helps to balance out the male whiteness of Hollywood when you are thoughtful about your hires.”

For Scheme Machine, intentional hiring is about more than principle—it’s about finding the right people to advance their mission of making better media. “We are less interested in making canned, generic content that has been made a million times and more interested in producing and creating entertainment that is not only representative of a diverse world, but isn’t told through one lens,” Roemer said. “When you are interested in lifting up other voices and perspectives, you also have to hire directors, producers, and other crew members that will provide an authentic look into whatever story you want to tell.”

Keep an open mind about the “required” skills needed for a role

Think about it: How many times were we told that we needed a college degree to be good at our jobs? How many of us were pressured into pursuing higher education even though we had the passion and know-how then that is driving our advancement now—without the additional debt weighing us down?

The gatekeeping we’re all accustomed to isn’t just hurting our credit scores. These ideas become barriers for people without wealth and connections that keep them from the dream jobs they deserve.

When you’re hiring and recruiting, challenge yourself on the notion of “qualifications.” Does someone really need a BA and five years of on-the-job experience to do a middle-management job, or do they just need to be a bonafide badass with the business chops to prove it? Consider candidates based on their work ethic and demonstrated skills—not just their degrees.

Practice feminist leadership

Feminism is rooted in the very simple concepts of equality and choice. Part of building better businesses is that it’s on us to be better bosses—which is why feminist leadership involves turning our ideas of hierarchy and power on their heads and reconstructing what workplaces look like.

“Ever since we started our production company together, it has been really important for us to make sure that the people we hire onto projects are valued for their work,” Roemer told me. “We want anyone working with us to not only be fairly compensated, but also given credit for their ideas and the space to do their jobs without a ton of micromanagement. We hire people we trust and then we trust them to do their jobs.”

That might not sound revolutionary, but it is. Building your business around your values means putting feminist theory into practice. It means redefining “work” and “success,” valuing fulfillment over output, encouraging collaboration over competition, and ditching the founders’ syndrome to create more opportunities for tomorrow’s female leaders.

Rethink outdated notions of professionalism

I once asked a former supervisor if she would submit a letter of reference for me—and afterward, she sent me a copy for my brag file. (My brag file had not existed until this day. This is another post in and of itself, but: Start a brag file.) I was struck by what she wrote: That I “bring my whole self” to work. Of course I do!

Then I realized that many of us don’t—and, even worse, many of us can’t. In too many workplaces, showing up authentically can be a liability.

Don’t build that kind of workplace. Our notions of “professionalism” are steeped in every -ism. Ditch them. Scrap the dress code nonsense and let your employees figure out how they can look and feel their best—and do their best work for you. Parse the respectability politics out of your code of conduct.

We do our best work when we feel safe and supported in the office. Giving your team the space to be authentic and honest fosters loyalty and community across cubicles.

Leverage your platform

Do not be the business owner who sits idly by while kids are being separated from their parents at the border, or women are put behind bars for exercising their constitutional right to make their own reproductive choices. None of us can stay silent, especially if we care about the future of this country and the world.

It can be scary to mix politics with your brand, but in these times especially, it’s critical. Speak up about what matters—on your official social media pages and at your in-person events. Owning a business gives you an amplified voice. Raise it every once in a while.

Partner with causes you support

Corporate social responsibility can have a major impact. Forging brand partnerships with non-profits can raise awareness about critical issues. Donating some of your proceeds to worthy causes can provide pivotal resources to the people doing good work on the ground. So don’t just talk the talk—walk the walk, directly to the post office, and mail some checks.

Salesforce pays its employees to offer some of their time, at no cost, to non-profit organizations. That kind of program signals a firm commitment to social justice—and it provides invaluable support to the movement-makers on the ground who are strapped for cash.

If summer is your slow season, tell your team to take Fridays off to help clean up the beaches or escort outside of a clinic. Next time you’re organizing an office-wide clothing swap, pick a shelter and donate what gets left behind. Encouraging your crew, no matter how big or small, to be involved and engaged in changing the world will empower them—and it’s lots of fun.

Put it in writing

Policies around workplace behavior, formal processes for performance reviews and raises, and concrete guidelines for diversity go far when it comes to ensuring that everyone is on the same page, and it ensures that everybody is treated equitably and fairly in sticky situations and as your business and your team expand.

When Roemer and her wife, Carly Usdin, co-founded Scheme Machine with the goal of bringing new perspectives and stories to the fore in media, they wrote an inclusion policy to ensure they achieved it. The difference that emerged from it was tangible.

Put your policies and practices on paper from the get-go. You’ll clarify your own vision for what your ideal workplace looks like—and become even more clear about the values that led you there in the first place.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Musician, Conductor and AYS “Year of the Women” Champion Carlos Izcaray

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

On February 23, a new vision for classical music will resound in Los Angeles.

Susan Botti’s EchoTempo, a setting of Native American translations for soprano, percussion and orchestra; Lera Auerbach’s Icarus; and Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra will fill UCLA’s Royce Hall. The trio of works, performed by the equitably gender-split American Youth Symphony’s 2018 cohort as a salute to its 2018/19 theme, “The Year of the Woman,” will set a new tone in the field for advancing gender equality—and provide audiences with the rare opportunity to spend a night surrounded only by the sounds of works composed by women. (Ms. and Feminist Majority Foundation are sponsoring the free event, and will be on-site to participate in a pre-concert conversation about gender gaps in classical music.)

Though the orchestra’s season will eventually come to an end, AYS’ commitment to advancing women’s representation—behind the curtain, backstage and in the conductor’s pit—will not waver come summer. The Year of the Woman, inspired by the mounting global fight for women’s equality in every sector and sphere, is only the beginning of AYS’ enduring commitment to shaping the future of classical music.

Carlos Izcaray is steering that powerful vision for progress. He is no stranger to the AYS mission to foster young talent and set a new tone in the field: Just last year, Izcaray’s Strike Fugaz was premiered by AYS in association with Human Rights Watch to celebrate global fights for justice; throughout his career, he has worked with young musicians in workshops and led tours by youth orchestras.

The AYS Music Director, who is splitting his time between AYS and a parallel role at the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, is also a legendary figure in classical music with a storied career, lending more than a note of gravitas to his efforts to diversify the field. Izcaray leads ensembles across the U.S. and around the world, from the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphonies to the Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic. He has performed in opera theaters as nearby as Utah and as far as Peru. He served as Principal Cello and Artistic President of the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra and was featured as a concert soloist and chamber musician worldwide. He won top prizes at the 2007 Aspen Music Festival and the 2008 Toscanini International Conducting Competition, took home the Best Opera prize at the Irish Theatre Awards, received rave opera reviews and saw praise pour in after the release of “Through the Lens of Time,” his latest release.

Izcaray talked to Ms. about how AYS plans to continue advancing women’s representation, what comes after the Year of the Woman and just what we can expect to experience this weekend.

I always start with an inception story. Tell me how the 2018/2019 AYS season became known as the “Year of the Woman.”

As I was envisioning the season as a whole, I wanted to make a statement regarding women composers. The initial idea was to do a program where all featured composers were women, something that I hadn’t done before. As soon as I started the process though, it quickly became evident that doing just one program wouldn’t be enough. There are just too many great works by an incredible diverse pool of women composers to chose from, and sticking to a single event didn’t have the impact I desired. So the main goal quickly evolved into something much more powerful and meaningful, where AYS would perform a whole season where the majority of living composers were women. Add to that the involvement of several female guest artists and, voila!, the Year of the Woman season was born. This felt like a real statement that we could all stand by, and an example to follow in the future.

You’ve also made your own firm commitment to gender equality in time with this powerful public devotion to the issues women face in getting to the stage. Can you also tell me a little bit about your pledge to produce gender-equitable shows?

One of the challenges with classical music is that our past doesn’t collaborate with the gender gap. In other words, women of previous eras sadly didn’t get the opportunities to shine in the field, or even to start in the musical path, hence we have very little repertoire to choose from. But our era is quite different.

A brief glance at databases like composerdiversity.com shows that the resources are there for us to level the field. So we, as a field, can really make it proportionally fair if we desire, and it’s something we at AYS will continue to do so from here on. Our goal is that 50 percent of all living composers through each of our programming cycles, which last 2-3 years, will be women. From a performing angle, it is also key to give equal opportunity to guest artists, and make sure that there are no gender gaps.

I just want to mention some statistics here about gender in classical music: A 2018 study by Quartz at Work found that, of 2,438 full-time musicians from the world’s 20 greatest orchestras, 69 percent were men. A Post analysis the same year found that women made up nearly 40 percent of the country’s orchestras members—but then held only 21 percent of the principal, or titled, slots. Last year, women occupied just 12 of 73 principal positions in the “big five” orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. Of the 1,445 classical concerts performed across the world from 2018 to 2019, only 76 included at least one piece by a woman.

Beyond feminist programming and individual commitments, how do we close these gaps? What will it take for women to achieve parity in classical music, and how can leaders in the field follow your lead and play their own part in making it happen?

I believe the best way to deal with the gender gap is to tackle it head on at every single front. First comes the exposure and instruction for our youth, where every child, no matter that gender they may be, feels that there is equal access and fairness during the first steps of the musical path. Second, there must be equal opportunity for those musicians who strive for advancement in an extremely competitive field. Blind orchestral auditions, where the jury panel is positioned behind a screen and can’t view who is playing, are a great example. Since the practice started a few decades ago, the gender gap has been drastically reduced, and I’m very glad that we at AYS have adopted this practice since the beginning of my tenure. The last part of the equation is the leadership. Whether we’re talking about composers, featured artists, administrators, members of boards of directors, or conductors, it is important to provide an even field and opportunities so that women can also display their talents at the helm of the industry.

What impact do you hope the “Year of the Woman” has, locally and on a larger scale—and how will it shape what’s yet to come from AYS?

With regards to AYS, I hope that our young musicians will see this as a model to follow as they advance in their careers. I foresee that a good number of them will be involved in making artistic or executive decisions in the future, so hopefully they can consider this methodology when it comes to programming and hiring. I also want our audience to feel enriched by being exposed to this diverse roster of composers and performers. On a larger scale, I would encourage other artistic leaders and administrators to apply similar concepts with their respective organizations. This initiative is truly universal in spirit, so it can and should be applied worldwide.

I’m already so looking forward to the “Year of the Woman” celebration concert later this month, produced in partnership with Ms. and the Feminist Majority Foundation. What can those of us in attendance expect that night? 

You can expect to be moved by three amazing composers. Lera Auerbach’s Icarus is driven and fiery, and it provides an energized spark for the concert to take flight. Susan Botti’s Echo Tempo, based on Native American poetry, provides a music tapestry that is truly enchanting. We are also extremely fortunate to have Susan as our voice soloist, and Ted Adkatz will join her with the incredibly complex percussion part. Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra, our closing work, is a journey of epic proportions that features and challenges all the sections of the orchestra. Each composer provides a completely different sound world, with a wide spectrum of emotions to discover.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with “Gloria: A Life” Director Diane Paulus

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Diane Paulus has led a storied life in the arts with a distinctly feminist twist: In 2012, she became the third-ever woman to win a Tony award for Best Direction of a Musical for her gender-swapped production of Pippin; in 2015, she worked with the first-ever all-female creative team behind a musical to bring Waitress to life on stage.

Her latest project, however, is far less fictional—and much more movement-oriented.

This season, Paulus directed “Gloria: A Life,” bringing the story of one of the modern women’s movement’s most famous faces to the Daryl Roth Theatre and issuing a nightly call-to-arms in the process. Each performance follows Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, played by Christine Lahti, as she walks, quite literally, through her own life; along the way, it provides a pathway to understanding and empowerment for viewers rooted in a corrected version of feminist history that is more diverse and inclusive than any most of us have seen before.

The play’s unusual format—there is no intermission, and the second act is an open conversation between the cast, crew and audience about the issues that matter most to them—is distinctly Gloria. But the engaging performances that fill the black-box theater have Paulus’ name all over them.

Paulus spoke to Ms. about what drew her to the project—and how it challenged and changed her.

Diane Paulus (second from the right) with Gloria Steinem (center) and actors from “Gloria: A Life.” (@gloriatheplay)

I always start with an inception story: You have had a legendary directing career. How did you become a part of this particular play—and, by extension, Gloria’s story? What drew you to this project?

Daryl Roth, our producer, reached out to me about this project initially—and it was a no-brainer for me to get involved. I’m drawn to projects that I know will expand my mind and my soul. The chance to immerse myself in this project and deepen my understanding of Gloria’s life and work has been completely life-altering.

This is such a rich and uniquely interactive theater experience. How did this play upend the typical model of directing for theater? How did you begin to approach the task of telling Gloria’s story and calling the audience to arms in the process?

The whole point of telling Gloria’s story in Act I is to transform the audience and get them to a place where they are ready to share their own stories in Act II. We created an installation in the set design that was all about the audience sitting in an actual circle, so the physical space evokes the Act II talking circle. The audience is always present—there is no fourth wall; they are included and directly involved in the theatrical event.

What was it like watching this play come to life?

One of the most thrilling aspects of watching this play come to life was to experience the meaning this story had for our cast and creative team. The artists that collaborated on this play ranged vastly in age—from our youngest directing assistant, a recent high school graduate, to women in their fifities and sixties, all the way up to Gloria herself at 84. Throughout the process, everyone shared stories of their own lives, and in this way we learned about the history of the women’s movement up to the present moment through our own personal histories.

Watching Act II come to life has been similarly inspiring, hearing the audience share their own experiences about what resonated in the play for them. There have been so many emotional and galvanizing moments.

For so many, the play is a trip down memory lane. And for younger generations, it is an informative lesson of where we came from and what our mothers and grandmothers have been through.

This isn’t your first feminist feat, on stage or on screen. Such a major part of this play is the notion, I think, that Gloria’s story is, in some ways, part of our own stories—and that we have stories just as wild and wonderful to share with the world, and which we must begin to tell to one another. How do you think the feminist movement shaped your own life, and your work? 

I went to an all-girls school growing up: The Brearley School in New York City. There was never any question that we could be whoever we wanted to be and say whatever we wanted to say. In high school, I marched for the ERA and I lobbied for Planned Parenthood in Albany. I actually wanted to go into politics—my goal was to become the mayor of New York. In the end, theater became the way for me to channel that impulse to bring people together and make change.

Now, having done this project, I have an even deeper understanding of how everything that I have been able to do in my life is thanks to the efforts of the women’s movement.

I am so grateful to have had the chance to see this play—I attended the night Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a Ms. Contributor, led the act two talking circle. It’s such an immersive and inspiring event. I’m so curious about the vision that guided everyone toward the shape it ultimately took. What impact were you hoping each performance would have on the audience? What impact has it had which made you most proud so far?

In the play, Gloria says “every social justice movement has started with people sitting in a circle—like this. We called it consciousness raising… It’s all about sharing what’s wrong and what to do about it.” I am most proud of the simple fact that we’ve created a space for people to sit in a circle and to recognize that their own stories have value. I know that audience members leave the theater newly energized and inspired to create their own talking circles.

Yes, absolutely. As the run winds down to a close this spring, I am confident a league of driven and bold women will emerge in its wake. Now, just for fun: If you could invite any five feminists—from contemporary times or ancient history, or anywhere in between—to see this play and then join you afterward for a talking circle, who would you save a seat for?

I would definitely want to include the figures in our play—Dorothy Pittman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller.

And Joan of Arc!