MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

“Criminal justice is the biggest human rights issue in the U.S.,” Carroll Bogert, president of the non-profit criminal justice news platform The Marshall Project, declared from the stage Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Humanitarian Symposium. “Why do we think civil rights happened here, and human rights happen somewhere else?”

That was the question at the center of a wide-ranging conversation between Bogert and E. Tendayi Achiume, assistant professor of law at UCLA Law School and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, and Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Los Angeles is a City for CEDAW, even though the U.S. has yet to ratify the treaty calling for worldwide gender equality. “That can be applied to criminal justice reform,” Achiume noted, “and that is a global issue where the U.S. is far behind.” Building criminal justice reform efforts around a “shared language” of human rights, she added, can help “race activists connect with the movement outside.”

That’s the language Cullors speaks with her organizing efforts. “When we started Black Lives Matter, we were very clear that we wanted an international frame,” she explained, adding that the BLM Global Network now extends to places like Brazil and the United Kingdom. “Black Lives Matter wasn’t go to be African American Lives Matter.”

Cullors is also founder and chairperson of the Reform LA Jails movement, which has seen recent success in a city where, according to the activist leader, 17,000 people are in prison daily because they can’t afford to post cash bail. The coalition fought the construction of new jails in Los Angeles County for 15 years—and officially, just this year, put a halt to a $35B jail expansion plan.

But the campaign to stop cash from flowing into the construction of new prisons in LA was “never about jail facilities,” Cullors explained. Instead, it was “always about the investment.” Halting budget expansions for prisons, she noted, is one way of “reversing the [city’s] divestment from people of color.” That’s why the big fight now ahead of the Reform coalition is a ballot measure campaign moving money away from jails and passing it on, instead, to mental health care services.

“Someone imagined a jail cell,” Cullors reminded the room. “Someone imagine a siren. And then they came to be, and we came to think that they had always existed.”

Cullors, of course, is interested in imagining a new way forward that looks entirely different—and she talked to Ms. after walking off the stage Friday about what comes next in the work of making it possible.

We’re coming up on 2020, and there’s all these conversations right now about what’s a political agenda that serves people in the right way. What’s a local agenda? What do you think a political framework that does center black lives and black liberation would look like in this current moment?

Well, I think, you know, this conversation around abolition and reparations is critical for how we are talking about what’s needed for black liberation. You know, Black Lives Matter Global Network launched a campaign called What Matters in 2020—really calling on, I would say, not just the presidential candidates, but also, you know, elected officials, appointed officials across the country to really look at, um, what it would take to consider a black agenda. In 2016, when Black Lives Matter really took, you know, an a aggressive approach to challenging the presidential candidates about discussing Black Lives Matter; this is sort of the evolution of that.

We’ve really identified, you know, what are some key issues that black people are thinking about? Obviously police brutality, criminal justice reform, issues around maternal mortality and morbidity, economic justice, queer and trans rights is the kind of the center of what black people are thinking about around how we get free. It’s not, I don’t think, hyperbolic to say what you’ve been saying for the last six years—which is, when black people get free, everybody else gets free. The work of changing the very fabric of this country is going to take really looking at the history of the oppression of black people and the divestment from black communities and what it would look like to reinvest into these communities.

I also really loved the idea of applying a human rights framework here and also even at that local level, like in our communities. From your experience, having done all this organizing that you’ve done, what does it look like in practice to have that human rights framework at the center of an organization or a campaign that might be really hyper-locally focused or you know, a county campaign, or absolutely presidential campaign?

I think for us here in Los Angeles, as we’re leading a much of the work around changing the criminal justice system—is being brave enough to have a conversation about what does it mean that our system here in Los Angeles is the largest jailer in the world, that it has really been the blueprint and a lot of ways for other jail facilities across the country, that our Sheriff’s department, you know, is a Sheriff’s department that is riddled with corruption and a culture of violence. And that isn’t an anomaly, right? That is the culture at most law enforcement agencies.

It really begs a question around the use of jailing and the use of policing if these sort of two apparatuses weren’t really created, you know, to rehabilitate—which we know they weren’t, jails and prisons were created after the emancipation of slavery and police were created during slavery to patrol black people—and so we have to have a historical conversation. I think when we have that historical conversation, both at the local level, it gives us an opportunity to talk about what’s happening across the country, and also what’s happening across the globe.

I think a lot of people are talking about disruption and disrupting systems and, you know, you talked a lot, too, about imagining new systems. What does a political system look like that would serve people?

Well, I think it’s twofold. You have to think about infrastructure and institutions as what creates systems, but the infrastructure institution also creates culture. So we got rid of Jim Crow, but we didn’t get rid of Jim Crow hate, right? We got rid of slavery, but we didn’t get rid of the idea that black people shouldn’t be still be subjugated, still be in chains, still be controlled.

We have to change the culture—and as we create every new system, we should be created in a way that is based off of the dignity and the humanity of individuals, and the collectives and the people they come from. When we’re thinking about institutions: the institution of imprisonment is not an institution that is about dignity, not an institution that is about freedom. It is literally about control and subjugation and punishment. We need to imagine a new system, one that is about healing and that it’s about dignity, but it’s about reconnection. It’s not going to come inside of caging a human being.

Much of what we talked about on the panel is like there’s other places that are doing it. We can learn from those other places. There was a time when this country wasn’t inhabited by white colonizers. There was a time when the idea of policing or caging human being was not on the table. They’re there. We have context for being able to change what we have right now in the U.S. and in LA in particular, but we also have present context. We have places and countries and people that are doing it.

As you’ve built Black Lives Matter into this global network, what would you say are some of the greatest takeaways about how to build transnational movements? How can folks in one place support folks at another and how do they come together?

I think every time we’re doing local work, it has to have an international implications. The local work that I’m doing, I’m never thinking—oh, this is just going to help the people of Los Angeles. I know that the people of Los Angeles are from around the world, so it’s going to help people from around the world. I know that what Los Angeles does has national and international implications.

The work we’re doing here—and I’m going to use this term that I’ve talked about, I didn’t coin it, but I’ve talked about in a lot of my writings—is we have to create a non-reformist reformance. We are reform movement until revolution, but a non-reformance reform is the idea that you are going to reform an institution by not making it stronger. Non-reformance reform is something like, you know, take a half of the police budget and give it towards schools—not reform that would actually enhance the police. It’s like body cameras, right?

We’re not interested in giving more money to law enforcement to do a job that is about harming and violated communities. We’re interested in taking away that power so that we can put power into places that will empower our communities.


MS. MAGAZINE: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Warning for Humanitarians

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

“To give people the opportunity to tell their stories in their own language,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told the crowd Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Symposium and Prize Ceremony, “is to give them their dignity.”

The award-winning author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions spoke at the Hilton Foundation’s annual event in Los Angeles about the topic of her viral TED Talk: the danger of a single story.

Adichie is familiar with many of them as the Nigerian-born daughter of refugees—someone who, as a young girl, remembers sitting in the car while it drove past neighborhoods and feeling a distinct “ache” for all of the stories she could never tell.

In one that she recounted for the audience, an American professor told her that her work wasn’t “authentically African” because she depicted middle-class life in Africa. “This is how to create a single story,” she explained from the stage. “Show people as just one thing, over and over again, until they become that thing.”

In another, her well-intentioned male friend boasted about giving Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, to his female friends—but resisted the notion of reading it himself. “We know statistically that men read men and women read men and women,” Adichie reminded the room. “It is time to change that and move to higher ground.”

Adichie was a fitting speaker for the afternoon, in which the Greek refugee services organization METAdrasi—Action for Migration and Development, founded in 2009 by Lora Poppa to help provide basic humanitarian services to the estimated 80,000 refugees and migrants currently living on the shores of Greece, received the 2019 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

“Nobody is ever just a refugee,” Adichie told the symposium attendees. “Nobody is ever just anything. Nobody has a single story.” No movement does, either, which Adichie opened up to Ms. about backstage after her address.

“I was talking to a young woman who said to me that she doesn’t like to participate in Twitter debates about feminism,” Adichie remembered, “because she feels that she might say the wrong thing and she’s afraid to be ostracized—and it just broke my heart because she’s, you know, she’s young, early twenties, she’s sort of trying to figure things out and she feels like she can’t talk.”

That conversation with a young Nigerian woman, who was living in the UK at the time, brought to the fore some of the disconnects Adichie has felt in the feminist movement herself. “I think maybe it’s just a question of hearing one another,” Adichie observed. “We don’t really hear one another. I sometimes feel a little alienated from a certain kind of modern ‘woke’ feminism, because I think a it’s almost become a ‘gotcha’ feminism, and I feel like we don’t really hear one another. I feel that there is a lot about the movement that has become, I don’t know, that almost lacks compassion.”

Adichie also called for even more #MeToo stories, especially from working-class women. “I’d like to see more stories of working class women and sexual harassment,” she declared backstage, “because it’s rampant, and it happens, but I feel as though it’s not yet taken the position that it needs to in the #MeToo movement. But it’s not to say that the stories of middle class and upper middle class women don’t matter, because they do. It’s simply to say that I think we need to broaden it out more, particularly in terms of class. I just really think that we need to hear the #MeToo stories of women who are not privileged.”

To make that possible, Adichie called on feminists organizing events around #MeToo and issues of workplace harassment and discrimination to specifically encourage working-class women to tell their stories—and to put them at the center of organizing efforts. “If there’s a panel on #MeToo,” she said, “whoever is organizing that panel, I think there is a moral responsibility to not only find the sort of usual suspects, but to find the less predictable.”

Of course, encouraging the most vulnerable women to speak up also means encouraging women to break free from the cultural baggage that has silenced their stories for centuries. Adichie offered up a succinct explanation of her own courageous acts of speaking out to speed along the process: “As you get older,” she assured, “you’re looking at your bag of fucks to give, and it’s empty, so you just say what she would say.”

Adichie, who grew up climbing trees with her brother, remembers vividly that when she began developing and got her period, at just age 11, her socialization as a girl was presented as a series of limitations. “Everything changed,” she confessed. “Suddenly I couldn’t, you know, I was ashamed of myself, I didn’t know what this whole thing was about, and then I got my period, and my mother was like, you’re now a woman. I was 11. I didn’t even know what that means. Everything that was fun was no longer allowed. And this is also what I was being told: You need to go to the kitchen and be there when the cooking is done so you can learn to cook because you’re going to cook for your husband.”

Those moments set Adichie’s own feminism into motion. “I did experience femaleness very early on as as just limitations,” she remembered, “and all the things that you were told you could not do.” But she also has come now to a new place—one in which she is defying norms for herself and as an act of service to other women around the world. Adichie is resisting the notion of a single story by telling her own as loudly as possible.

“I’m 42, and I do think it gets easier for women as we get older,” she said, thinking back on her bag of fucks. “That’s for me. That’s been my discovery, that you become more comfortable in your own skin and you just didn’t have it. Your story more, you genuinely really, that bag is empty, you do not have any more fucks to give—but when you’re in your early twenties, it’s harder. You’re trying to figure things out. People’s opinions matter more to you. It’s harder. I do worry about the emotional health of young women, the mental and emotional health of young women. But I’m at a place where I can take it.”


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Take the Lead Founder and Author Gloria Feldt

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Gloria Feldt’s vision for the future is clear: more women in power, period.

It’s the mission defines Feldt’s career as the bestselling author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, professor of “Women, Power and Leadership” at Arizona State University and cofounder and president of Take The Lead—an organization intent on preparing, developing, inspiring and otherwise propelling women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.

Feldt been named one of “America’s Top 200 Women Leaders, Legends and Trailblazers” by Vanity Fair and was once Glamour’s “Woman of the Year,” but her own journey to power—and empowerment—had unexpected beginnings.

Feldt grew up in a small town in rural Texas; she was a teen mom and a high school dropout. But her own journey has made her certain that all women can claim their own seat at the table—once they surrender their learned resistance to embracing their own power.

That’s where Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can program comes in. The new initiative cultivates community among women leaders in difference sectors, bringing together cohorts of fearless and powerful women to help them forge pathways to parity together. 

Feldt talked to Ms. via email about the 50 Women Can program and the results she’s already seeing—and even handed down some advice for activists looking to leverage their voices to accelerate change.

Tell me about the 50 Women Can program you wrapped earlier this year for female journalists. What led you to launch the program, and what was it like in the rooms where it happened? Would love a glimpse into the experiences of these female journalists who participated.

Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can Change the World provides women with the intention and skills to achieve greater leadership roles and embrace their power to lead change in the culture of their professions. We’ve had programs or are planning programs for cohorts in journalism, finance, healthcare, nonprofit, media and entertainment and human resources. 

Take The Lead’s mission is to prepare, develop, inspire and propel women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. That’s a tall order—and 70 to 150 years sooner than current projections. We developed the 50 Women Can Change the World program to fast-track cohorts of emerging leaders and women already in executive leadership roles to accelerate gender parity in leadership. 

Our 50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism program was an incredible experience. Many of these super-talented and ambitious women have felt isolated and seen opportunities in the field of traditional journalism contract. Women now make up almost two-thirds of journalism graduates, but they remain at one-third of newsroom leadership roles. 

The women benefited from virtual and in-person sessions, along with individualized coaching. The program’s curriculum, which I developed, focused on enabling them to elevate their career intentions, provided them with immediately usable tools and skills and required them to create individual and cohort Strategic Leadership Action Plans to activate what they learned.

Here are a few voices of women in the room.

Eva Pearlman, co-founder of Spaceship Media: “I just feel this incredible sense of gratitude for this program, for the structure of it, for the ways you’ve gotten us thinking, because there’s so much beauty and so much power and so much talent and so many ways to go about working on the problems in journalism…so I’m very thankful.”

Antonia Hylton, correspondent and producer at Vice News Tonight: “Now I have new words and dreams, and things that I’ve put on paper, I have an actual 10-step plan, of everything that’s in my grasp, resources I realized I already have at my disposal, and while I’ve been in this space of rethinking, what a blessing that has been, to know there are things I can do, people I can call now, many of them in this room, to take my career to its next phase.”

Claritza Jimenez, senior producer of Politico Live: “It’s been really reaffirming to see women still dreaming big, no matter what stage of their life they’re in and knowing they can always reinvent themselves and reinvent themselves and I think that’s so important.”

Jayati Vora, managing editor of The Investigative Fund: “It’s really rare to be able to step out and re-examine your life …to just take stock, to take that space for yourself is really rare, so thank you for making me do it.”

Tell me, too, about the 50 Women Can campaigns and programs you’re launching across sectors more broadly. What unites all of them? What makes them special and unique?

Many women’s leadership programs measure success by numbers reached. We’re different. We measure success by impact.

You can go to a big conference every day, get inspired, maybe learn one new thing. But that hasn’t been moving the dial toward parity for women fast enough for any of us to see it in our lifetimes. In fact, I think women spend way too much time and money going to puffy fluffy conferences that are like cotton candy—pretty but lacking in nutrition.

I realized that we can have a greater effect—go farther faster—by creating mutually supportive cohorts of women who are emerging leaders within an industry, providing high impact, immersive training and coaching. Each highly accomplished group practices the nine Leadership Power Tools—which hone leadership skills—and creates Strategic Leadership Action Plans with high intention goals. All that we provide and enable is unique and uniquely effective. And we don’t stop there. Once the program is complete, we measure progress in three- and six-month intervals. 

The power of the cohort is also inestimable. I see the women continuing to support, sponsor and elevate each other years after the program. Together, these highly intentional women can drive progress for all women in their sector. It’s really movement-building on a personal and organizational level to create sustainable change.

What’s really fun right now is that the various cohorts want to know the other cohorts. So, we’re experimenting with ways to enable them to communicate and share strategies to leverage the impact exponentially.

You’re a former Planned Parenthood CEO, advisor to the ERA coalition and a prolific writer and author on myriad feminist causes. Why did you kick off these 50 Women Can programs with media, entertainment and journalism focuses? How do you think media parity, and trainings and programs like this, connect to the larger fight for women’s equality and gender parity?

Everything I have ever done has sprung from my passion for social justice. And I am a very practical person. I don’t just want to talk about gender parity and social justice—I want to foster real results.

I realized that as important as reproductive rights are, if women don’t get equality in power, leadership positions and pay, we’ll keep fighting the same old battles over and over. I think achieving gender equality in leadership is today’s most important women’s movement.

The first 50 Women program was for emerging female leaders in nonprofits and we have done three of those cohorts now. We’ve also done one for women in healthcare and have two more on the drawing board. Those are two fields where women are 75 to 80 percent of the employees and 20 to 30 percent of the top leadership positions, especially of the larger organizations in their sector. In planning stages are finance, law and tech. We’re determined to change that.

Every sector is important. The curriculum applies to and can be customized to any sector. That said, the reason for focusing on media, entertainment and journalism is that whoever decides what stories will be told, who will tell them and through whose lens shapes the entire culture. Therefore, we believe that achieving gender parity in these fields will have outsized positive influence on how people think and act on the social and economic issues that are especially relevant to women.

What have some of the participants in 50 Women Can gone on to do? What do the reverberations of the program show us about the power of this kind of model?

Many of the women in the 50 Women Can Change the World program have been inspired to pursue promotions or raises, think more strategically about their careers and put their names out there, and have forged deep, lasting connections with other cohort members.

The power and impact of individual learning and the cohort are very clear. For example, one participant reported that she used the 50 Women Can planning process and coaching to create a pitch for a leadership position – an important first step in her career growth. Another shared an exciting new role at a major broadcast network. And yet another made sure her team got credit for the work they did for network news coverage of Hurricane Florence by speaking to HR management. 

There are many more stories like this. Overall, the women have shared how enthusiastic they are about all they took away from the program, how they’re already putting it into action and their victories.

The program has made a difference in women’s professional lives. For example, Valerie Brown Grant, who attended one of my first workshops, said: “A year ago at your workshop I set my personal action plan goal to become a vice president at my firm. I used the Use What You’ve Got Power Tool to differentiate myself and demonstrate my value to the company. Today, I was informed I am being promoted to vice president.” 

And Anne Parmley, SVP at Pearson and a Take The Lead executive leadership program graduate, said: “The Take The Lead programs provide a safe and supportive environment for women climbing in their careers to have thoughtful and productive conversations about where they are and where they are going in their leadership journeys. You walk away with a plan and intent to take yourself to the next level, professionally and personally.” 

These are such natural extensions of your work around women’s leadership—you’re the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, and you teach “Women, Power and Leadership” at ASU. And it comes at a time when women’s voices seem as powerful as ever—in the midst of #MeToo and the powerful Women’s March movement.

What can the feminists reading this do right now to start stepping into their own power, and leveraging it to advance equality?

This is the moment we have been building to for centuries, you could say, but certainly for the last two centuries. I want everyone reading this to know you have the power in your hands right this minute to achieve gender parity in position and pay, in law and in daily life. For good: our own good, the good of the world and forever.

This is a rare strategic inflection moment when the justice case and the business case converge. But such moments pass quickly if we fail to take them “at the flood” as Shakespeare or perhaps his sister said. Power unused is power useless.

This is not a time to congratulate ourselves. It is the time to press forward with eyes on the overarching goal of full equality for all women. All humans, for that matter.

Go win elections. Give money or time to candidates you support or run yourself. Start companies that build wealth at the Apple level or run them. Raise feminist kids. Give to social justice causes. Invest in women-led businesses and buy from companies with female-friendly policies. Find the cure for cancer, solve climate change. Do one small thing every day to help another woman succeed. Use your power to lead men and women together to a healthier, more just world. Nobody has to do everything, but everybody can do something.

And know that when you go forth to change the world, some people won’t like you. There will be pushback, sometimes violent. Don’t let it deter you. Listen to your own clarion call. Ignore the naysayers. You are doing the most important work for the future of humanity. That to me is what feminism is all about.

Video + Audio

RECAP: Carmen On-Stage and On-Screen at the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference

This recap was published by Ms. magazine.

Last week, over 1,700 advocates, practitioners and public figures working to end sexual violence came together in Philadelphia—now re-dubbed “the city of consensual brotherly love”—to forge a new path forward in their movement.

In the wake of #MeToo, speakers and workshop leaders agreed, it is time to push beyond the breakthrough, and leverage this current moment for long-term change. Attendees alike also agreed that the moment is ripe for trying something new—for taking stock of what worked and what didn’t and being honest about what changes are in order to end sexual violence in a generation.

Ms. was the proud media sponsor of the conference, live-streaming sessions and sitting down with experts in the exhibition hall to envision the next steps for a renewed fight to end violence. Below, I’ll recap all we learned—and what comes next.

Wednesday, August 21

The 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference kicked off with a plenary session focused on the crux of the #MeToo movement’s viral moment in 2017: how rape culture takes shape in the workplace, and how corporate leaders can challenge it. Tina Tchen, former Director of the White House Council on Women & Girls and a co-founder of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, joined Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West, also an Obama administration alum from the Department of Justice, and Monika Jones Hostler, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault and founding RALIANCE partner, for a wide-ranging conversation about corporate accountability and changing workplace culture.

Tchen, West and Hostler joined me afterward to continue the conversation with a live interview—in which they laid out some concrete steps advocates and non-profits can take to foster partnerships with corporations invested in doing better.

That first plenary also featured a performance from feminist poet Ursula Rucker, who read her piece L.O.V.E. on stage. She opened up to Ms. before the conference about what it meant for her to be in the room—but after she’d had the chance to take the stage, she also made time to catch up with me in the exhibition hall and envision a world where love and compassion were more powerful than violence.

That kicked off a full day of live interviews between me and advocates, experts and educators focused not just on changing corporate rape culture, but on shifting their own movement to end violence—and demanding better from every institution that protects perpetrators and excuses sexual violence.

Ignacio Rivera—activist, writer, educator, sex(ual) healer, filmmaker, performance artist, mother and abueli—took some time to talk to me about their organization, The HEAL Project, and how holistic sexuality information could be a major tool for preventing, interrupting and ending child sexual abuse. 

Devin Rojas, the Capacity Building Specialist at the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, took a minute with me to break down the findings of their recent statewide hotline audit—and boast about the action that advocates in the Garden State are taking to improve these pivotal resources.

Holly Rider Milkovich, who spoke to me last year about her work as Senior Prevention Director at EVERFI, came back for a second go this year—and brought with her Elizabeth Billie, whose work there focuses on programs to disrupt and end campus sexual violence specifically. Together, they shared strategies about ending harassment and violence in different workplaces—including on campus and in corporate suites.

Tara Graham from Just Detention International came by next—and talked to me about what survivors in confinement face and what the movement to end violence can and should do to advance the baseline standards in place to protect them.

Terri Poore, who has worked with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence on federal policy and appropriations related to sexual assault for almost 15 years, first as a board member and now as the Policy Director, and previously worked at the National Sexual Assault Coalition Resource Sharing Project and the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence for 13 years, provided me next with an insight into the difference between “feel good” sexual assault prevention policies and the kinds of laws that make a real impact—and what activists can do to tell the difference and fight for tangible change.

Christina Presenti and Diane Daiber from the International Association of Forensic Nurses also made time on Wednesday to sit down with meand expanded on the ways in which forensic nurses can make a huge difference in shifting culture as well as improving the individual experiences of survivors across the country. (Diane talked a bit during our interview about going “beyond the rape kit”—which she also wrote about for Ms. before NSAC.)

I ended the day with a conversation with Fiona Oliphant and Jessica Li from Healing Equity United—who laid out some radical self-care strategies and challenged all of us in the movement to do better by ourselves and each other. (Jessica wrote about radical self-care for Ms. before the conference, and Fiona wrote about the basics of cultural humility.)

Thursday, August 22

Thursday got off to an early and education start when Julie Germann, a former prosecutor who now works through Finding the Right to train law enforcement officials on how to seek justice for survivors, explained to me what going beyond the breakthrough required from folks who work in the courtroom and the criminal justice system.

That conversation continued when Jessica Mindlin, the National Director of Training and Technical Assistance at the Victim Rights Law Center, broke down the work she does to train folks who engage with survivors—including law enforcement officials, prosecutors, advocates and health care workers—in an interview with me.

I explored a different conversation about accountability when filmmaker, lecturer and writer Aishah Shahidah Simmons sat down for a Q&A about her new anthology, Love With Accountability, and her upcoming #FromNoToLove conference—both efforts that center a black feminist framework for addressing sexual violence.

Tricia Banks Russell, Executive Director of From Fear to Freedom, sat down with me next—and talked about their model of providing survivor resources and engaging campus communities against violence at the same time.

The topic swung back to conversations about policy and law when District Attorney Kevin Steele and two attorneys from the case he prosecuted against Bill Cosby joined me next. Steele, Stewart Ryan and Kristen Feden all opened up about the power of holding the powerful accountable—and how they make it possible.

Luz Marquez Benbow then sat down to tell her own stories from the frontlines—and stress the importance of survivor leadership from the intersections in the fight to end violence.

To that end, Nina Jusuf joined me next, sitting down to talk about co-founding the National Organization of Asian Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence, the first organization centered on API survivors in the country.

Victoria Dickman-Burnett, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a youth educator, helped connect all of these conversations when she broke down the basics of action research to me, and the difference it makes in the movement when advocates let survivors speak for themselves.

I took a pause then for the afternoon plenary—in which NPR reporter Joe Shapiro took the stage with advocates Debra Robinson and Carolyn Morgan to talk about sexual violence against folks with intellectual disabilities and the urgency of their own leadership in this space.

Joe also joined me afterward, offstage, for a follow-up conversation about his work covering people with disabilities, and his groundbreaking series of reports on sexual violence on campus and in the disability community. (He wrote about that experience, too, for the Ms. Beyond the Breakthrough series.)

I closed off the day with an informal self-defense lesson from Lauren Taylor, founder and director of Defend Yourself, an empowerment self-defense organization teaching people of all identities to raise their voices and reclaim their power. (She’s written about her work before for Ms.—check it out!)

Friday, August 23

On the last day of the Conference, I took to that plenary stage myself—and talked to “Surviving R. Kelly” producer and showrunner, dream hampton, about community accountability, black feminism in the fight to end violence and the impact of her groundbreaking Lifetime series.

That plenary kicked off with a performance by LaTreice Branson, who proudly Drums Like a Lady. Afterward, she opened up to me about the incredible opportunity to take that stage, and how it’s already impacting her work.

That marked the end of the Conference—but not the end of this fight, or of these conversations. You can explore more in the Beyond the Breakthrough archives at Ms.


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: 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!