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March 24, 2014

The Last Girl in Frontier Idaho

During our journey in India, Ruchira Gupta, founder and director of Apne Aap, a grassroots organization working to end sex trafficking, shared her perspective on our movement to end violence. Ruchira probably had no idea that several of her simple statements would have such profound impact. Among the many moments, Ruchira’s focus on the “last girl” deeply informed and radically transformed our work at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence as well as my own vision of leadership.

Ruchira’s work is rooted in the Gandhi philosophy of the “last girl” - that in order to create compassionate communities with respect, equity, and justice, one should do their work thinking of the person or child who is valued the least, who suffers the most, who comes in last. We walked through Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata where more than 11,000 women and girls are being sexually exploited, a community intertwined with brothels, children darting in and out of shops, men praying at a marigold-blanketed temple, a butcher cleaving chickens next to a fire. A festival was underway with colored lights and a marching band. A young girl, maybe thirteen, leaned against a well-lit doorway. The last girl.

The “last girl” as a touchstone for our movement resonated with me and prompted a critical examination of our work at the Idaho Coalition. The simple act of closing my eyes and envisioning the last girl – and there are so many variations in Idaho – and asking if our action will benefit her has dramatically shifted the breadth of our work to marginalized communities. It has also illuminated opportunities to reach the last girl in policy work – from STOP Implementation Plan and the opportunity to prioritize marginalized communities for federal grants to the Justice Reinvestment Act and the opportunity to lift up the issue of human beings being raped in detention. Ruchira Gupta needed to come to Idaho – to share her vision of the last girl and of the movement with our staff, Idaho’s tribal and community domestic and sexual violence programs, and the larger community.  So I invited her and she accepted.

On her first day in Idaho, we created spaciousness and rest, driving through the mountains alongside a creek to a hot springs an hour north of Boise. Soaking under the open skies and snow draped mountains, Ruchira shared stories about her recent month long tour with Gloria Steinem.

We spent the next day with the staff of the Idaho Coalition, sharing a meal and talking about current feminist thought, readings that have inspired our respective work, and Ruchira’s perspective on the last girl. We talked about the challenges and the opportunities of federal funding, and the importance of movement building. Ruchira asked each staff what our purpose was or why we did the work, creating a powerful moment of reflection.

Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap and Kelly Miller of Idaho Coaltion Against Domestic Violence

On the following day, the executive directors of Idaho’s tribal and community domestic and sexual violence programs came together to engage in conversation with Ruchira on reaching and standing by the last girl. From the Coeur d’Alene reservation to the agricultural community of Weiser to the conservative Mormon community in southeastern Idaho, the leaders of community and tribal programs shared their personal experiences of the last girl. Ruchira asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine the last girl in their community. Homeless teenagers in the northern forests of Idaho to a young woman raped and found in a ditch to an immigrant woman economically tied to an abusive partner, everyone could clearly envision the last woman or girl in their community.

The Apne Aap approach of a building a community of ten women, then building self-empowerment through ten assets from the articulation of their problem to speaking out, resonated with many in the circle  This concept also resonated with the sixty community members who joined the program directors later in the day for a luncheon in celebration of International Women’s Day.

That evening, Ruchira was our featured speaker at a public event for International Women’s Day. Over 600 people, over half of whom were students from Boise State University, attended the event at the restored Egyptian Theatre in downtown Boise. She spoke on her personal journey and the values that guide her work. After Ruchira’s presentation, the question and answer session sparked a powerful community conversation on movement building, power and privilege, the impact of violence on girls and women, the vital role of men as allies, and the links between pornography and violence.

The Idaho Coalition raised over $5,000 for Apne Aap, but more importantly raised the consciousness of movement builders in Idaho. In recognition for Ruchira’s contributions to the movement to end sex trafficking, the Idaho Coalition and the Idaho Human Rights Education Center presented Ruchira with a paver with her name and contribution to humanity that will be placed at the Anne Frank Memorial, an educational park dedicated to human rights and one of the only places in the world where the full Universal Declaration of Human Rights is on public display. Along a curved wall of stone, quotes from human rights leaders are embedded in the wall. When we visited the memorial, Ruchira was excited to find a quote, one that speaks directly to her work and to ours: Make injustice visible. Mahatma Gandhi.

Art by lizar_tistry