WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Wellesley Centers for Women Mourns the Loss of Advisory Council Chair, Activist Deborah Holmes

Headshot of Deborah Holmes, who looks at the camera smiling. A yellow and black artwork hangs in the background.The Wellesley Centers for Women is mourning the death of Deborah Holmes, Chair of the WCW Council of Advisors and a passionate activist committed to the lives of women, people of color, equity, and social justice across the world.

“Deborah understood the intersectionality of social justice causes as well as the necessity of making change on multiple fronts at once, and she lived it,” reflected Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of WCW. “She brought indefatigable energy and an indomitable spirit to our Council of Advisors, and our global outreach and media impact expanded under her influence.”

Last spring, WCW cosponsored a research forum for change makers, “From Persistence to Power: Facts, Truth & Equity for Women,” in Washington, D.C., during which Deborah spoke about the need to address issues of intersectionality in order to achieve equity for all women in the U.S.

“It is hard to be black every day in America; but at the same time, I love being black. Because we have so much power, and the fact that we are in this room, and in this place, and still strong, and nobody has knocked us down, says a lot about our people,” she told the hundreds of attendees. “We are at a moment now where we have an opportunity, perhaps in coalition with other black and brown folk, to really rise up in a way that we rose up when we shut down the buses in Montgomery, when we forced people to listen to what we have to say.”

At the time of her death, Deborah was the Chief Communications and Engagement Officer at the Women's Funding Network (WFN), one of the world's largest philanthropic networks devoted exclusively to the equality and rights of women and girls around the world. There, she oversaw external and internal communications, brand and reputation management, strategic partnerships, and member relations. Prior to WFN, Deborah served as Chief of Staff and Vice President of Communications at the Global Fund for Women (GFW), where she was senior advisor to the CEO and charged with the development and execution of GFW's mission, vision, and strategies. Additionally, she was responsible for nurturing key organizational relationships and initiatives, enhancing staff and board capacity to steward the GFW brand, talent management, and human resources.

"No one met Deborah Holmes and was not immediately impressed,” said colleague Deborah Richardson, Herndon Human Rights Expert in Residence at Honors College, Georgia State University. “She wore her confidence and brilliance well, while openly embracing you as a fellow sister and comrade. Every moment of her life was purposeful—her yes meant yes. If she committed to something, she was all in.  What I learned from Deborah is we have to do more. Speak out more. Confront injustices more and love each other more. Those who had the privileged of working with her, and the thousands she felt a deep responsibility to—we are all blessed by her many gifts.”

An award winning television news correspondent and analyst for more than 30 years, Deborah worked for local, national, and international news organizations covering an array of issues including race, politics, and social justice. She addressed the importance of quality journalism during the D.C. conference.

“Backing down is no longer an option,” she argued. “The facts matter and we have to get the facts into the right hands of the people—and that includes your friends and associates who need to read and use critical thinking skills. Because there are facts out there. But if you choose not to read them, or you ignore them, then they are of no benefit to anybody. Losing first-rate investigative journalism,” she stressed, “is one of the worst things that can happen in this democracy.”

Prior to her work in women's rights, Deborah was Senior Vice President at a global communications firm, Fleishman Hillard, Inc., where she led client strategy in brand and reputation management, healthcare, and multicultural audience development and initiatives. She was an outspoken activist for issues impacting people of the African diaspora including racial equity and economic and political empowerment. Throughout her career, she promoted and facilitated opportunities that brought diverse voices into public discourse and debate to inform social change.

“This [work] takes time, and so you have to make a commitment within yourself and among your friends that you are going to devote some actual time to this in addition to the knowledge, but we have to show up,” Deborah said.

In addition to her service on the WCW Council of Advisors, Deborah’s board and community service included Global Press Institute, Change Philanthropy Partners, Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy, Reporters Without Borders, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

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Family, friends, and colleagues are welcome to share their reflections in the Comment Section below.

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Reflections on Charlottesville

layli charlottesville 2

Why has it been so hard to eliminate racism in the United States, despite concerted and valiant efforts, ever-growing numbers of people of goodwill, lots of good thinking about the issue, and some clear-cut progress and gains over the years? As a researcher and director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research institute with a demonstrated commitment to gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing in all its forms, including ending racism, my mind turns more to questions than answers today, in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville this past Saturday, August 12.

Questions I am asking include things like: What are we doing that we think is working but which actually isn’t working? What do we need to do that we aren’t doing that would actually work? Which of the things we are actually doing do work and just need more time or more people involved? And, in what ways do we need to more deeply operationalize things we know to be true but tend to abandon to the realm of platitudes? How can we more effectively move from intellectual knowledge to concrete action to measurable social transformation?

Last week, I spent a week in retreat with members of my religious community, the Baha’í Faith. For two of those days, I led discussions addressing the elimination of racism, which Baha’ís refer to as “The Most Challenging Issue.” We gave thought to the inner (self-focused) and outer (public) actions and practices needed to truly eliminate racism, and we asked some hard questions about our own practices and the practices of others in the social change field. We reflected deeply on passages such as these, penned 1938 by Shoghi Effendi, who was charged with guarding the unity of our Faith as it grew from local to global:

“Freedom from racial prejudice, in any of its forms, should, at such a time as this when an increasingly large section of the human race is falling a victim to its devastating ferocity, be adopted as the watchword of the entire body of the American believers, in whichever state they reside, in whatever circles they move, whatever their age, traditions, tastes, and habits. It should be consistently demonstrated in every phase of their activity and life, whether in the Bahá’í community or outside it, in public or in private, formally as well as informally, individually as well as in their official capacity as organized groups, committees and Assemblies. It should be deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Bahá’í meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies.”

“A tremendous effort is required by both races if their outlook, their manners, and conduct are to reflect, in this darkened age, the spirit and teachings of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. Casting away once and for all the fallacious doctrine of racial superiority, with all its attendant evils, confusion, and miseries, and welcoming and encouraging the intermixture of races, and tearing down the barriers that now divide them, they should each endeavor, day and night, to fulfill their particular responsibilities in the common task which so urgently faces them. Let them, while each is attempting to contribute its share to the solution of this perplexing problem, call to mind the warnings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and visualize, while there is yet time, the dire consequences that must follow if this challenging and unhappy situation that faces the entire American nation is not definitely remedied.”

Our takeaways from these days of contemplation and discourse left us poignantly aware that inner and outer work must constantly run parallel, allowing us to transform into beings who actually desire and actively create justice, peace, and harmony, from the level of our deepest gut feelings to the level of our highest spiritual aspirations. To think all the “right” thoughts and hold all the “right” values is not enough, because the transformation of society requires so much more.

layli charlottesville 1As a developmental psychologist who works from an ecological systems theory framework, I know that interventions on racism must take place at every level from the most interior to the most distal, in order to be successful and sustainable. Yet, as a lifelong scholar of both African American studies and women’s studies, I also know that we must perpetually refresh our understanding about what kinds of social movement methods work, and we must stay tuned in to when and where they need refinement. Sometimes, our assumptions about what kinds of methods work and why they work (or don’t work) need to be questioned.

As a developmental psychologist, I also can confirm that babies don’t enter the world knowing hate. Hate is learned by imitation, but it is also absorbed passively through language and imagery, and stimulated by deprivation, hardship, ridicule, and trauma. While unchecked power and privilege, often conferred by birth circumstances, also have the power to accelerate hate, these alone are not sufficient to create it. There is a complex calculus to how hate is created – which means there is also a complex calculus to how it can and must be uncreated. We are sophisticated enough now as a society to figure this out and execute on that knowledge.

A big part of my talk at the Baha’í retreat centered on the politics of invitation, the notion of inviting others to a better world, as differentiated from the politics of opposition, which rely on fighting and struggling our way to a better world. If unity is the goal, opposition cannot logically be the means to that end. And we now know that, psychologically, opposition to people and their views only entrenches them further in their views. So, what other methods might we consider if we want to eradicate racism and promote justice, peace, commonweal, and amity?

All of us can take small everyday actions to eradicate racism, and some of us can take sweeping, expansive actions to catalyze the eradication of racism on a broad scale. What’s stopping us? Please share your questions and thoughts about how we can genuinely eliminate racism from our country and the world!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann '67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

 

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Thoughts on the Safety Pin--To Wear or Not

The International Day of Tolerance (November 16) was established in 1995 by the United Nations to help increase public awareness of the dangers of intolerance. In our current climate of heightened intolerance both in public discourse and acts of violence, we need no reminders--but we do need clarity and strategies to build our strength and effectiveness as activists who choose to respond proactively to intolerance. The following is written by Christine Saxman, a National SEED Project staff member and Chicagoland high school teacher who reflects thoughtfully about the safety pin symbol that is being worn by people in the U.S. and Britain to show solidarity with targeted/marginalized people in our communities, and how every action we take has consequences.


WCWsafetyPinI wrote these thoughts as a white, upper-middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual, secular humanist woman, with the primary goal of connecting more deeply with other white people and being open to all other intersections. I was deeply impacted by and must honor this writer of color--Isobel Debrujah’s “So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin.” There was also much reaction to a white writer, Christopher Creelty’s, “Dear White People Your Safety Pin is Embarrassing.” After I wrote my initial reflection, I was also deeply impacted by ryboylorn’s “On Safety Pins, Pant Suits, and (Faux) Markers of Safety,” the personal testimony of so many people of color who were yet again targeted by the white fragility that could not tolerate the message that their pin is not enough, and by the need for Mia McKenzie’s “How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’” to be re-shared so many times. So I’ve reflected and added to my original piece. I humbly offer it here.

INTENT and IMPACT:
Pay attention to and appreciate all the thoughtful dialogue that prompts deep self-reflection and understanding of one’s purpose/self-reflection, taking ownership of the impact of one’s actions, regardless of intent. Own your impact if you wear the pin or if you do not wear it. But do not dismiss anyone who shares a negative impact with you from their perspective as a targeted group. Listen. Believe. Take further action and focus on repair.

INTER-CONNECTEDNESS:
Appreciate (and question) the history of the pin: from Australia’s #illridewithyou to support Australian Muslims to the history of the pin to combat the anti-immigration sentiment post-Brexit.

Safety PinCALLING IN WITH LOVING ACCOUNTABILITY:
For some white people, this might be one of the first public actions they have taken and it is all they can see to do. As a white person, I have the energy and responsibility to support them in this step. I do not expect people of color or other targeted groups to take this action. And I personally have to be vigilant internally when I monitor and judge the behavior of other white people negatively to make sure I’m not just trying to make myself feel like I am the good white anti-racist, falling prey to competitiveness that props me up and allows racism and other -isms to continue on happily. This is the question I would pose Christopher Creelty, given the chance. How can we hold other white people in loving accountability, moving them to action? How can I do that with humility in the service of inspiring other white people to take deep, abiding action?

LOVING ACCOUNTABILITY ONE STEP FURTHER:
I see another white person wearing a pin who feels like they deserve credit for doing so. How can I use that symbol to start a conversation and move to actions we can take to back up the symbol, to give it some weight? In my own humility, I can possibly learn a new action. Perhaps, I can help someone realize an action they could not envision. Perhaps, we can work in solidarity. We can even continue the conversation to ask how can we move to a more overt symbols--a Black Lives Matter Pin, #NODAPL, #ISUPPORTDREAMERS, #STANDINGFORLGBTQ rights, #NoHumanIsIllegal…. And I commit to lovingly calling to action those whose only action is wearing a pin. I can emphasize that we are in it together.

ACCOUNTABILITY:
As a teacher I have been asked many times to identify as an ally publicly by my students and colleagues and so I have chosen to honor those requests and hold the anger/frustration/disappointment from others who do not believe I have the right to call myself an ally. It is one of those tough accountability decisions that I reflect on regularly and discuss with anyone calling me in or out. I am always a work-in-progress. I welcome all feedback, listen, believe, and act on the accountability that aligns with my commitment, humility, and humanity.

WHITE SUPREMACIST CO-OPTION:
What happens when white supremacists are faking it? I totally support all targeted groups to stay steadfast in their refusal to trust anyone wearing the pin. But as a predominantly privileged person, I go back to my responsibility to start dialogue with others I see wearing the pin. What does it mean to you? What’s your story? And if I doubt their answers and sincerity, I call them in and have another accountability discussion about White Supremacy. I commit fully to that. I had to do it in high school in Pennsylvania. I can do it as a grown woman now.

INTERSECTIONAL SYMBOLISM:
For me, the pin symbolizes standing against all the violence: racism, Islamophobia, anti semitism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. As a victim of sexual assault, I want to see the pin. I will ask for support and action from those wearing it. And I will have the conversation if it is just an empty gesture. But, wow, will I enjoy the conversations that let me know I am not alone. Don’t underestimate that.

BOTH/AND:
I believe we must wear a symbol and question the symbol. I believe we must wear a symbol and take action. I believe we must have this conversation and interrupt racism, Islamophobia, anti semitism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia at the same time. I believe we can be both/and. But we must take action. Our humanity depends on it.

saxmanI love the people in my life who push me to be better. I owe much gratitude for this piece to Mirah Anti, Jorge Zeballos, Pat Savage-Williams, Andrea Johnson, Donald Burroughs, Matthew Biecker, Ashley Tuzicka Ray, and Jamie Utt.

This piece was written by Christine Saxman, a National SEED Project staff member and Chicagoland high school teacher.

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November 9th Reflections: Through Harriet Tubman’s Eyes

LMaparyan11.9

We have a new President-Elect. For many of us, on either side of the aisle, it is not what we expected. My daughter cried when I told her, not just because she is a girl, but also because she is an immigrant. She is scared, and I, as her mother, had to reassure her that life will go on and that we will be okay even if there will be new challenges.

It occurred to me that this is the attitude that I must carry forward, not just at home, but in my work, life, and leadership. It is the attitude that many before me have maintained, against the face of obstacles and conditions as hard or harder than what I am facing now. Like Harriet Tubman, I must “follow the drinking gourd” and keep my sights on the North Star of my aspirations.

November 9th ReflectionsThe biggest gift I can offer at this time is empathy – to those whose hopes were shattered, to those whose anger, pain, and frustration led us in this surprising direction, and to those who are just plain terrified right now, especially the little ones and the youth. Clearly, we are a country of different realities, and we need to find common ground. I remind myself of my own mantra, “All of us are sacred.” As Thich Nhat Hanh taught me, I breathe in, breathe out, and utilize the present moment as a place of refuge.

The second biggest gift I can give is my continued commitment to peace, amity, love, liberation, and the freedom borne of illumination, as well as the very concrete and achievable ideals of gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing. We can’t give up! Even with the rhythm of one step backward for every two steps forward, we are still making progress, we are still transforming our society and the world. We can’t use this moment to further polarize ourselves; rather, we must use it to dig more deeply within ourselves for places of connection. As we know, thanks to our relational-cultural theorists, is that connection is what causes us to thrive.

How can we work with what we have to achieve what we need to achieve and get to where we need to go? Our own ingenuity is being invoked, as is our ability to “make a way out of no way.” Because I’ve seen it done, I know we can do it. Let’s share our creativity and plentiful gifts as we figure this thing out together.

Onward! The North Star is still shining!!

Please feel free to share your reflections.

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D. is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann '67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

 

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