Magic women who know their stuff (and made me think)

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TFW you read something and things you struggled with before become clear (especially when written by a woman who inspires you).

As it’s international women’s day I wanted to pay tribute to a few of the women who I refer back to on a daily basis, plus a new one I recently discovered after moving to Beirut.

~ Hannah Arendt – understanding everyday evil

Why do people do bad things? Is it just because some people are simply bad eggs? Then how could atrocities like the Holocaust be committed by so many people – were all the perpetrators basically evil? In the “Banality of Evil,” Hannah Arendt explains her theory for why acts of evil are committed. Arendt was a reporter for the New York Times during the Nuremburg trials, specifically for the Eichmann trials where Mr Adolf Eichmann was put on trial for his complicity in the Holocaust. Arendt started reporting expecting to witness Eichmann as a monster in action. But as the trial developed she realised instead how ‘terribly normal’ Eichmann was, not the hateful monster she had been expecting at all. Surprisingly Arendt realised while listening to his statements in court, that the biggest crime Eichmann had committed was actually pure ‘thoughtlessness.’ He had never questioned the orders to put people on a train (in order for them to be taken to concentration camps), he simply carried out what was expected from him. This realisation led to Arendt’s theory that people do not commit acts of evil just because they are evil people themselves or even because they are driven by hatred. Acts of evil are committed because people play their role within a system without questioning it and through this both perpetuate the system and contribute to its evil outcomes.

I first came across the theory at a time when I was struggling to understand why crimes are committed on a global scale by my community in the global North – perpetuating systems and structures that actively cause conflict, inequality and poverty around the world. Of course there are many contributing factors, but Arendt’s theory helped me realise the problem of people not being supported to understand the structures and systems they are a part of, or question what role they are playing in causing ‘acts of evil’ around the world. Besides this incredible theory, Arendt was also pretty bad-ass as a respected female academic in the 1950s who did not back away from her theory when her opinions on Eichmann (and in particular, not depicting him as a monster) were seen as a betrayal by many around her.

~ Hahrie Han – consciousness + commitment + agency = change

Last year a whole group of people working to support activists, pooled their money in order to bring an inspirational speaker over to speak to us. Her name was Hahrie Han and the problem Han began to tackle for us during her speech was as follows: People who want or need to make a change often lack the power to make it. Han continued to explain how there are two forms of power in our society, that of organised money and that of organised people (think: the election of business man Donald Trump and the mass demonstrations that came together in response). This is clear to many people who know to get people out on to the streets when fighting for justice. But after you have thousands of people taking to the street, then what? How do you keep those people fighting for change and keep the pressure on your targets? And how do you make sure that it is not the people who are already aware of their power taking to the streets and campaigning, but that you are supporting new people who currently lack power to make the change they want or need. The answer according to Han is that we can support people currently without power by building their agency. In this sense agency is a person’s sense of competency (do I feel like I matter?) as well as a person’s autonomy (do I have the skills and space to act on it?).

With Han offering a range of incredibly useful models to build people’s agency and turn their activity into a campaign for change, I felt my own thoughts on change-making suddenly clicking into place. Influenced by Arendt, I had always felt that for people to become active change makers they need to be conscious of the issues around them, as well as feel committed to changing the situation. But hearing Han speak I remember excitedly writing down a new formula for myself to follow: consciousness + commitment + agency = change. It is not enough for people to just be aware of what they feel is wrong and their role in perpetuating or changing it. People also need to feel that they can make a difference. (What has become clear through Brexit, Trump and the current elections in Holland, France and Germany is that a viable alternative is also an important factor, but that is a discussion for another blog post). Update: MobLab shared this great article on the Indian Independence Movement’s use of three combined approaches, one of which ‘Living the Alternative.’

~ Gloria Steinem – the power of public listening

Throughout 2016, my role was to bring together groups of young activists from around the world to work together on better solving the problems people and planet are facing. In the run up to these workshops I would lie awake at night thinking about how to structure them. Should we spend more time on building a common language before we talk about the actual reason for the workshop? Should we spend less time on reviewing sector models? Or should we just completely focus on their ideas with the risk that we don’t make any decisions? On and on the mind-rant would go as I wanted to make sure that I was doing justice to the opportunity, and for the activists spending their time at the workshops. In Gloria Steinem’s book ‘My life on the road,’ she describes what it is like to be a perpetual traveller, an intersectional feminist and working woman (a journalist) starting off in the 1950s, as well as a public speaker. On this last point Steinem explains to us how she took this role quite by coincidence:

“Gradually, I became the last thing on earth I would ever have imagined: a public speaker and a gatherer of groups. And this brought an even bigger reward: public listening… One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.”

This focus of Steinem – that the reason for bringing together people should not be just to talk together but also to listen to each other – is such a strong point to be aware of when you are a facilitator of groups. ‘Who is the listener’ is a strong symbol of power, and another important reminder that we can raise the voices of the marginalised. But if no one powerful is actively listening there is no point (as I explain in my Meaningful Youth Engagement bullseye). I am grateful to Steinem for giving me the confidence to bring groups of people together to listen to each other as well as talk together, and also for reminding me to be impressed by the way that people will try and empathise and understand each other when brought together. During these workshops people come from all around the world bringing with them a diversity of backgrounds, religions, languages and issues they care passionately about and I have never run one where each of the participants won’t try to find common ground.

Such as at the most recent workshop I ran for the Danish government where Dor (a young South Sudanese guy who now lives in Australia) and Thor (a young Danish guy who now lives in Belgium) instantly bonded over their similar sounding names and the fact they were both super tall. Even though this is where most of the similarities stopped they formed a great partnership throughout the workshop and proposed their own activities to the group, making the result of our efforts stronger. My wish for 2017 is to delve deeper into this subject of supporting groups to listen to each other and come to shared decisions as a result (something I think we need strongly in the left at the moment!). So if anyone has any reads to recommend, please do comment below this blog.

And finally as a part of my recent move to Beirut, Lebanon I have started seeking out the inspirational women writers who have framed the minds of women here.  A writer I am excited to start reading is Layla Baalbekki and her book ‘I Live’ from 1958, so watch this space for some revolutionary Middle Eastern feminism…

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