The Rebirth of Activists

The Rebirth of Activists

Throughout my 14-year career as an activist I have worked with and supported many civil rights institutions, initiatives and gender rights advocates, but nothing prepared me for our advocacy work in India.


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For 10 days we were guided by and learned from ally organizations and activists working to end child sex trafficking and exploitation as a “great experiment” (approaching the work as an experiment creates space for risk taking and innovation).

Together, we visited Sonagachi, the largest red light district in India and all of Asia —a place that betrays Gandhi’s theory with no principles of Ahimsa (nonviolence, or the resistance of violence to the self and to others), and Antodaya (the upliftment of the last person/girl, or the empowerment of those who are most marginalized and vulnerable).

Our small group of six walked less than 50 feet into the district before a girl in a group of three girls grabbed my arm so I could stop and they could touch my curly hair. They were no older than 16-18, wearing typical sari tops and giggling as they looked at our faces and clothes. Our group stopped and let them pick at us, our guide translated the comments and questions the girls had for us. We laughed together as they practiced their English and we attempted to speak Bengali. They were shocked that some of us weren’t married and didn’t have kids. We talked about hair, what we did in America, their life in India; ignoring the growing group of pimps, landlords and other trafficked workers that surrounded us.
We totally engaged in conversation with these curious teenage girls and equally curious older women.women-in-india

Until the connection was interrupted by a familiar voice behind me saying, “you’re such a social worker”. I turned around to a fellow smiling cohort member and followed her eyes as she looked down at my arm. I looked, too, realizing that the girl who grabbed me was still hanging on to it – partially hugging it – while the group talked. To my bleeding social work heart, she was a little girl feeling comforted and heard, but in my rational social work head, I knew to guard my heart so there wouldn’t be countertransference; we were in Sonagachi to learn so we could live up to our Gender Avenger leadership aspirations developed in a parody we created at Rockwood Leadership.

And still, when I looked at this assertive young girl who led her group to our group by grabbing my arm, my I’m from Brooklyn armor melted. She could have been Julia, one of GGE’s participants who loves to act, play volleyball and tell jokes; or Sophia a former participant who stops by our office every Wednesday and Friday because we’re en route to her college downtown; or Maria, my niece I wrote about in my last blog; or any of the thousands of young people that have come through GGE to develop leadership and advocacy skills over the last 10 years. She was assertive enough to lead her group to us and we had been so engaged in the conversation we didn’t realize that twenty minutes had gone by and other groups were leaving.

We parted ways from the girls and finished our tour as small kids played, dogs lay lazily in the street, shop owners sold goods, vendors cooked food, boys rode scooters, men prayed to their Gods, and young girls were being sold to men for sex. It was normal – their role in this community – what was expected of them. Just like it is normal for Haitian girls and women still living in open access tents after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Just like it was normal for neighbors of the 11-year-old girl, who was gang-raped by more than 15 men in Texas, to say the victim wore clothes and make-up inappropriate for an adolescent girl – so what did she expect?

joanne_blog_photo_1When I returned home from India, I did my executive director leadership due diligence by speaking on panels, at conferences, being interviewed by funders and media, joining coalitions, and reading about and watching documentaries on ending child sex trafficking and slavery. Additionally, the staff and I continued to chip away at avoiding burn out by developing a leadership pipeline and working on our organizational development plan. All the while, I was still adjusting to jetlag and catching up on work that waited for me and grew before my eyes.

Three weeks after our return, while researching for the next interview and soaking in more reading about the atrocities of the U.S. based sex trafficking industry, I decided to take a break by looking out my window onto other apartments on my tree lined street, and simply put, I lost it.  What felt like a sea of tears flowed from my eyes and an unrecognizable piercing wail filled my apartment. I didn’t even realize that sound was coming from me. My chest felt compressed by the weight of the thought that a girl could be being repeatedly raped and held as a sex slave in the apartment right across from me, or the one next to me, or the one at the end of the block connected to my favorite WiFi café. Yet, I was sitting here reading for a panel, overworked, and feeling like the lone proverbial nonprofit manager unable to do anything about it.

I’m an activist, and the trafficking of girls, women and boys makes me angry; an anger born from hurt, fear, and a disdain for injustice. This fighting spirit is something I hadn’t connected to this strongly since I founded GGE. My purpose as an activist was being reborn. Somewhere along my journey I started leading with my head more than my heart. Not for profit management in the U.S. often leads to this. And, as painful as it is to lead from your heart, my healing cry reminded me of the words of Aruna Roy, “You cannot disassociate yourself from the other. The minute you do you get bad planning and bad policy.”

I’m not the last girl; I’m not the first girl either. As a matter of fact, I’m closer to the last girl than the first girl as a first generation Haitian immigrant, but I do have a certain level of education, status, money, and power.

As my male ally Ted Bunch put it, “Women and girls don’t need us to protect them; they need men not to be violent and safety will take care of itself.” They need us to show up and fight this war on women by their side and to the best of our ability daily; however, I’m still struggling with how to do that while navigating this nonprofit terrain.

My experience and work with Move to End Violence has further strengthened my conviction that violence against women demands a collaborative, global strategy in order for these barriers to be dismantled. While we’re all on the same side of the table, this parallel process of hierarchies is developing as we work.

So the following questions still endure: 1) How do we remain connected with “the last girl” within our movement when opportunities, education, status, money, and power move us away from the margins as individuals and as activists?; And 2) How do we create a revolutionary movement that doesn’t mimic and re-create the same capitalistic structures of hierarchy, power, decision making, and allocation of resources to the “haves and have nots” of nonprofit management and movement building?

We fight the oppressive structures of society to move the people we work for from the margins. We fight the oppressive structures of capitalism to move ourselves/our organizations from the margins. I challenge my fellow activists, funders, and those of you reading this blog to contribute to a dialogue. Be as curious as primary school children on their first day of school with me. Engage and think big about the “great experiment” of institutionalization of social change by transposing identities to deconstruct hierarchies within the movement to end violence against women girls. What would that look like to you?

Joanne Smith
Joanne Smith
Founder and Executive Director
Girls for Gender Equity

A staunch human rights advocate Joanne N. Smith, founder and executive director, is responsible for moving Girls for Gender Equity closer to its mission through strategic advocacy, development, and leadership cultivation. Learn More

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