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September 14, 2011

The F-Words: What It Will Take to End Violence Against Girls and Women

Gloria Steinem and Cohort 1

Every summer, I travel to Chicago to be part of A Long Walk Home, Inc.’s Girl/Friends Leadership Institute, an art and advocacy program that empowers African American teen girls to be leaders in the national movement to end violence against girls.  I begin our summer leadership training with the basic question: “What is feminism?”  As expected, one or two students always raise their hands and shout out phrases, like “girl power” or “girl strength,” but the vast majority has never heard the word, which is both a good and bad thing.

It is bad because it is a stark reminder of the limits of feminism within both youth culture and urban African American communities.  Unlike other social movements of the 1960s, most obviously the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, young African American girls cannot readily name or identify with the icons and the demands of the feminist movement.  Names like Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker are simply not on the tip of their tongues.  But, it is good because the word “feminism” itself remains untainted.  Their blank stares always remind me that feminism is a gestalt that we can fill in, extend, and shape according to their experiences and worldview.  By the end of our summer time together, the girls not only know what feminism looks like, but also have collectively crafted their own definitions of how they can live it in the future.

When I participated in Move to End Violence’s 1st Fireside Chat with Gloria Steinem last May, I was a bit stumped by the question “what will it take to end violence against girls and women?”

The room was filled with some of the most awesome and humble movement leaders who, along with the Girl/Friends youth leaders’ feminism, have inspired the following “F-Words” as my answers.

Frequency: Given the ubiquity of violence against girls and women in the United States, the scarcity of media attention focused on these issues is shocking.  As movement leaders, I believe we should directly impact how the media attends to these issues and help shape public opinions and policy regarding gender-based violence.  This year alone, the New York Times had two major victim-blaming stories related to sexual violence that directly impacted the safety of the individual accusers and how the general public and even the prosecutors dealt with the cases.  I believe that to shift the dialogue from victim blaming to violence prevention, movement leaders need to cultivate relationships with local and national news organizations, utilize progressive new media platforms, and develop media trainings and strategies within our organizations.

Formal & Strategic Partnerships: Low-income communities and communities of color, like those we serve on Chicago’s Westside and Southside neighborhoods, are more likely to experience high rates of gender-based violence but are less likely to have access to traditional social service agencies.  As a result of this shortage, what our executive director Scheherazade Tillet describes as “social service deserts,” organizations committed to gender equality and ending violence against girls and women, should embrace a community asset model and establish formal and strategic partnerships with local community groups.  While this might be an obvious point, it is often overlooked by mainstream organizations that value a “one size fits all,” culturally homogenous model of social services and violence prevention.  Movement leaders should turn inward and link outward and cultivate formal and strategic partnerships with churches, schools, health centers, and other anti-violence organizations to develop and house violence prevention programs that intersect gender-based violence and the core social missions of these other organizations.

Funding: None of this work can be done without funding, funding, funding.  Unfortunately, while there is a key group of philanthropic organizations, such as the NoVo Foundation, that are committed to ending violence against girls and women, it remains one of the most underfunded and overlooked social movements of our times.  It is here that I believe that movement leaders and movement funders should work together and actively create a dialogue with other philanthropic groups committed to social justice, arts and culture, and health in order to cultivate a broader network of donors and funders.  Much like my other two points, this involves: 1) re-educating potential allies about the pandemic of violence against girls and women and social and economic value of ending gender-based violence; 2) finding points of synergy and shared values; and 3) creating a strategy plan with key philanthropic groups to provide funding for a larger pool of recipients and increase our collective capacity to end violence against girls and women.

In many ways, Move to End Violence (MEV), the 10-year initiative designed to strengthen our collective capacity to end violence against girls and women in the United States, has begun to do much of what I have offered here.  This support of a diverse group of movement leaders and their organizations is a fundamental step in unraveling the matrix of domination and gender inequality that drives gender-based violence.  And it is the combination of resources and radicalism, intergenerational dialogues and intersectional politics, of a national campaign and local youth leaders, which will lead to a world without violence – a true feminist dream.

Art by lizar_tistry