Saturday, February 26, 2011

A letter to future WomenNC fellowship recepients

Dear future fellowship recipients,

I’m sitting on the plane on the way back from NYC. The airline attendant is passing around pretzels, asking what I want to drink (they still do this for free, on Delta). "Coffee, please." I feel like I'm in an alternate reality from the space in which I lived the past 6 days. Words are spilling out of me; I can’t type quickly enough and my mind won’t stop. Maybe I should have ordered wine. It is underprocessed and overwhelmed that I write to you, now. I’m sure you’ll have a similar experience when it’s your turn and you’re on the way home, gazing out the window, watching U.S. city lights dance from high above. You’ll be realizing how small you are, but also how much you can and will do. It’s incredible, truly. Spending a week with some of the most inspirational women on the planet is indescribable. Sure you’ll teach, but you’ll learn so much more. You'll love it, I promise. I’m taking a break from some of my personal processing/free-writing to write you this letter. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all emotional or in-depth about the complete awesomeness of this week, well, not yet anyway—that’s for a personal conversation or another post. Instead, I’m going to share with you some advice.

The following is a list of two things 1) What I wish I knew one week ago and 2) What I knew and was very glad I knew. This post is going to be a list of very concrete (I usually don't do concrete) logistical (or logistical blog posts) suggestions to you, as future UN presenters, fellowship recipients, and world changers. All of this is Annie’s life advice, so take it for what you will. Most of this is conference advice, some of this is UN advice, and little of it is UNCSW specific. Again, take what you want and leave the rest, disagree or agree. I will neither mind nor know. These are merely my “best practices,” my experiences, and I’m sharing them with you. I’m sure we’ll go deeper as we get to know one another, but for now, while lessons are fresh on my mind, here's my “to do list” for young women:

· Before you go to a session, if you have a list of dignitaries, CEOs, etc. attending, do a quick Google search, and look at pictures. This is for 2 reasons: If someone introduces himself or herself to you and you have a deer-in-the-really-important-headlights look; it’s not good. It’s embarrassing and you’ve also put yourself in a harder place to make a connection. Do your homework. Secondly, if you see a President or CEO on the street or in a hallway with whom you would like to speak, you will know who that person is and thus will have an advantage over the clueless passersby. This is not to say to run up to “famous” people just because you feel like it; that’s sort of pointless and this is not Hollywood. ..but, if there is a question you have or a connection you want to make, do it. Just go for it.

· When you do greet a President , MP,Director, CEO, etc., have a little speech prepared: I’m ____, from _____. I care about ____. What do you think about _____? Thank you for _____. I wonder why____. Can we follow up with _____ ? get the idea. You know yourself, so there’s no excuse to be star-struck or unintelligible. People are people.

· With that said, network with everyone, not just the all-stars. The old woman grassroots organizer in Ethiopia might be a better contact, and might teach you a lot more than someone with a fancy entourage. She’ll also have more time.

· Bring more business cards than you think you’ll need, and be *somewhat* judicious in passing them out, more so if you have only a limited supply.

· Set goals for yourself before you leave…then make them happen.

· Don’t try to go into the UN building with coffee, water or other liquids; it’s like the airport and they will confiscate stuff from you. Also, at certain times, the security line is really long. You’ll have a security pass, so you won’t wait with tourists, but it’s still going to take time, so plan for that. That being said, if you can find someone “important” and hook up with them, you can usually bypass lines and security all together.

· The food places in the UN do not take credit cards, cash only; bring cash.

· Big title does not equal good speaker, or sometimes even knowledgeable person. If you’re at a session, not learning, and don’t have a desire to connect with anyone in the room and something else is going on, leave. Go to something else. Time is priceless (always, not just here).

· Be aware of anti-choice groups masquerading as pro-choice. There are plenty of really right wing, fundamentalist, religious, crazy conservatives. This happens…I think Kimmie will blog more in depth about this, so I will direct you to her post. I just caution you that on NGO day, that some groups try to do this; they are good and sneaky, so watch out.

· There are seriously 500 things going on all the time. The UN is crazy busy. So 1) Take care of you. If you’re tired or feeling sick, go take care of you. Rest. Eat. You will not be effective, make a good presentation, or even make good impressions if you’re feeling lousy. With that said, after you are OK to work, realize that 2) this is an experience of a lifetime. Do NOT waste any time. Go to as many sessions as you can, talk to as many people as you can, learn as much as you can. Don’t chill out in the hotel room, take long lunch breaks, wander around Times Square for hours, or do homework all the time (I promise, it can wait; school is a major part of life, yet “life” will and should supersede formalized worksheets from econ class or English papers. Trust me.). Work hard, have fun.

· Challenge/push yourself. This week can make you better if you want it to.

· Bring a big bag, not a small purse. You will end up with more material than you think; it will be heavier than you think, and harder to carry than you think.

· Hook up your fellowship sisters who are with you…if you get an awesome opportunity to bring others, do it! Talk to those with you on the trip; share your experiences. Also, coordinate your sessions with each other in order to maximize the learning/connections. Unless you all really want to go to a particular meeting, there is no reason for four of you to be in the same session. Go to different ones and trade info.

· The second floor of the United Nations Church Center has a ton of resources, extra handbooks, etc. On Thursday or Friday, there will be an international market; go check it out.

· The postcard stamps you purchase in the UN building can only be used in the UN building.

· Age is just a number. Many people will think it’s awesome that such young people are there at the UN, and some will pass over you because of your age. Don’t let age stop you from doing your thing. You’re smart, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Be confident.

· Don’t underestimate lunch, and things like lunch (refer to my previous posting to fully understand this comment, I’m not going to type it all out here again).

· Take notes. Lots of notes. Bring paper. And a pen. And another pen for when that one dies.

· Arrive early to sessions if possible. 10 minutes or so should be fine. Seats are valuable; even our presentation was standing room only…and then it was hard for people to find spaces to stand. Some sessions are more crowded than others, so if there is one you really want to go to, RSVP early and go early. Also, sometimes you can talk your way in places/getting passes/etc. Just work it.

· If you’re in a session and you have a legit question, ASK IT! I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not be afraid, ASK. This gives you a chance to 1) get your question answered, 2) bring up an issue you care about, and 3) introduce yourself/your passion/your organization to everyone in the room.

· With that said, know when to listen and when to talk.

· When you receive a business card, within the next hour, write on the back of the card how/where you met this person, the general interest, if you’re meant to send/expect an email, etc. You don’t want to get back to NC and three weeks later, have a stack of 100s of cards, and not know any of them.

· Beth will love you if you bring up CEDAW.

· Have a schedule and a rough plan, but be flexible. Plans will change, often serendipitously.

· If you’re not sure if you’re meant to be in a room, briefing, etc. and no one says otherwise, stay and act like you are supposed to be there and you know what’s going on if you indeed want to stay.

· Follow-up the connections you want to keep and build upon with an email, text, etc. This is as much about networking as it is about learning hard facts in sessions. Connections are so vitally importante.

· Don’t try to speak at the Asian Caucus if you’re not Asian.

· Finally, go exploring around the UN building, just saying….

I’m sure I have many more suggestions which I have left out, but I’m also sure I will have conversations with each of you, dear future recipients. Much love, I know you will rock it out next year.

All my best, to each and every one of you,

Annie C.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I have the pleasure of turning 22 at CSW 55. I've only spent my birthday away from friends and family once before. I spent my 20th birthday in Tangier, Morocco, while studying in the country. Having a birthday at CSW turned out to feel a lot like it did when my birth was marked in north Africa two years ago. In Morocco, I was in a Muslim-majority country. This morning at CSW, I attended a panel discussion on the violence against and marginalization of Muslim women. While this panel featured women experts from Iraq, their arguments and discussion greatly reflected the sentiments expressed by my Muslim friends and colleagues in Morocco, regarding gender in a Muslim society.

The idea of religion and women seems to have the potential to create many setbacks regarding women's status. Using religion to justify patriarchal ideas, and embedding those ideals through religious upbringings, isn't something that resonates solely in Islam. Men dominating leadership roles is celebrated in Christianity as well. Why do we do ths? Men may be viewed to have more wisdom than women and therefore more able to lead religious communities. I disagree with this notion, which is often a subconscious characteristic of religion.

A woman from Uganda in today's panel's audience brought up the idea of female imams, or religious leaders in Muslim mosques. The idea is progressive in Muslim societies, as it is is in most Christian sects as well. The energy from her comments filled the room as she boomed,
"The men are against women imams because they say her body in front of them will distract them from prayer.
"Her bottom, her curves, it will tempt them.
"Can not a woman be thinking the same about the male imams when he is leading prayer in front of women?"
The audience applauded.
Her question dove to the core of a common double standard women are often subject to. The idea that we must mask our bodies so as not to attract 'unwanted' attention, or to make sure we are viewed as 'respectable' women in society.

I left the panel thinking about how societal judgment of women in public is not equal. Regardless of religion, we as women are held to practice norms in public and the workplace if we wish to be respected, and I think it's safe to say that men are not expected to fulfill similar norms. It is important to reflect on these differences. While living in Morocco two years ago, I reflected daily on women's appearance in public. I had to cover my body up more while living there, so as not to attract unwanted attention on the streets. Today, on my birthday, I may be able to cover my skin up less in the streets of New York (if it weren't 38 degrees out...), but a wardrobe viewed as 'scandalous' would still warrant at least one cat call per block. Maybe I can make a birthday wish that erases these gender inequalities. I suppose of that were possible, women would have wished away our worries ages ago, and conferences like CSW would not be needed.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reflections for the Day

Today has been a long and tumultuous day. I have finally seen the fruit of WomenNC's labor really come to fruition. These young students are amazing. What really gets me is how fascinated they are. How dedicated they are. How interested they are. How willing they are. How passionate they are. They are all around wonderful. I'm just awestruck at how well they are received and how they are conducting themselves. They are truly professional.

The presentation yesterday was extremely well attended. This picture above proves it. The capacity of this particular room was about 70 people. There were no chairs left at the peak of the presentation. This was a view at the start before the presentations started. Many more sauntered in. Truly a great turn out. Prof. Hershfield orchestrated the position of emcee extremely well. She did a wonderful job and we are so thankful to have her as a Student Fellowship Chair.

Each student did their presentation beautifully. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to tape the whole presentation, but a video clip of the presentations will hopefully be made in the near future with the parts I did get to tape. But, this wasn't what I was worried about at all. I knew they would all do a great job. I had no doubt in my mind. To me, Questions and Answer sessions and making sure to network with these people at the end of the session was what seemed to be the part we had missed explaining. But, again, I was astounded. It was handled with such poise and finesse. We even had June Zeitlin step in and answer a few questions on CEDAW. She is the director of the CEDAW Education Project. We took a picture with her as well as seen above. Below, you can see how involved the students were with people after the presentation as well!

These presentations were so well received that in one day, people are recognizing us as the North Carolina group once again. Women and men have approached these girls asking about their studies and how they got involved and they are quick to mention WomenNC and how it has helped them. I'm so proud of them.

Directly after this amazing session, we held another for Prof. Hershfield's screening of Men are Human, Women are Buffalo. It was EXTREMELY well attended as well. The film was amazing. There were no technical difficulties. Much of the credit goes to Prof. Hershfield and Kristen Brugh on that front for being so quick about getting everything set up. I could not imagine a better session than that. The film and the discussion that followed was truly inspirational.

As I have worked with these students and gotten to know them better over the past few days, I feel we have become a small knit family. I feel like a sister to them in many ways. They are all talented, professional, hard working, passionate, inspirational, cultured and real women. I'm very humbled to meet each and be a part of this program with them. Annie, Kimmie, Katie, and Kristen have been a joy to be with on this trip and I cannot wait to watch them bring the global perspective they have gained here back to their local audience.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Robert was not Invited

Yesterday was the official United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CWS) Non-Government Organization (NGO) consultation day. This experience included a plethora of the most book-smart, degree-acquired, experientially-qualified women from all over the world speaking about issues that they hold dear. We heard from NASA experts, former country presidents, UN officials, and grassroots organization leaders. The morning was not only informational, but it was also inspiring. I am extremely grateful I was able to hear these women speak.

However, not meaning to disrespect the insight, knowledge, and prestige associated with cavorting smartly across the professional stage…the best part of my day was lunch time. Okay, laugh, “lunch” is such an elementary answer. But to me, it was so much more than that; lunch was Three Cups of Tea. It was like a Catholic SEARCH condensed into one meal. However, the awesomeness of my experience resided not with the food—even though I do give CSW thanks for the veggie options—it was the people with whom I enjoyed this time.

Just before the (delayed) lunch, the emcee told everyone in attendance that because there were so many people—roughly 400-600 at any given time—that we would have to take lunch in 30 minute shifts in order to comply with fire codes. I thanked the English alphabet cosmos which rescued my stomach, as last names starting with A-G ate first. I scurried down the snow-covered steps of the Salvation Army building, out into the bone-chilling wind, and next door to the “cafeteria.” I surveyed the stereotypically prepared conference box lunches and quickly grabbed my choice. Boxes our hands, I stood with many of the women whom I already knew and walked into the makeshift dining room filled with alphabetically blessed people. Even though there were seats for us all to sit together, I insisted that we split up and each sit at different tables, for networking, better conversation, learning etc.

I found my place among three women, after asking their permission to sit via the rule: “is this seat taken?” It wasn’t. I sat. Shortly after, two more women engaged in the same convention. Thus, our group, our random, spontaneous group was formed. Young and old and in-between, different races and religions, histories and people, we promptly begin properly introducing ourselves. After five minutes of polite typical conversation, we began to stop formalities. For what ever reason, we decided to talk “for real.” I’m not sure how that happens; it is rare that one finds oneself in a situation where personal barriers are broken and one becomes raw and vulnerable. While some argue this type of discussion is easier with strangers, it is nonetheless exceedingly rare.

These women and I talked about ourselves, our lives, our passions, and our impressions of the conference. We discussed heartbreaks, successes, relationships, motivations, frustrations, families, and dreams. Nancy, Anneke, Lucia, Nina, Amy and I bonded in a vein similar with conscious raising groups in early feminism. When we told stories, we literally and metaphorically leaned in to each other; we scooted our chairs closer and understood. We opened ourselves to each other. We discovered we were published authors, film makers, educators, parents, children, spouses, environmental researchers, editors, world travelers, and so much more.

I remember when Amy shook her head in disbelief, squirming excitedly in her chair, as Nancy grinned, pecking away notes on her iPad. Anneke, who embodies the vision of a 1970s poet—and she is—removed her earthen scarf, put her hand in her hands, and stared into the eyes of Nina, another author. Nina was gesticulating wildly, talking excitedly, and uncensored. Lucia scribbled notes, nodding emphatically. I leaned back in amazement, knowing that these were relationships coming into being.

We exchanged our research, book recommendations, our stories, news stories, best practices, statistics, and little pieces of ourselves. Over the next HOUR AND A HALF our relationship and our bond intensified.

We connected.

I don’t exactly believe in fate, but I do believe in the connectedness of people and the powerful communication patterns that occur when women talk, really talk. When real talking occurs, it leads to sitting in a circle for an hour longer than one is meant to do, and missing markedly important sessions at the UN. In that moment, a circle of women engaged in conversation is more important. I offer my story as a testament to that fact. We don’t always agree on everything nor should we, but we can talk. Sometimes knowledge is different from information; I’ve learned that. Over box lunches—the kind where there is too much bread, and not enough inside, and the cookie is too hard (get it?)—we wrote history. We learned.

“Are you just talking, or are you really saying anything?”
--Djuna Barnes

We typically engage in small talk…small talk is anything from the weather to stories that we think prove ourselves vulnerable to others but really never can. We do what is convention and what is safe.

Small talk isn’t bad; it has its time and place and I certainly won’t disparage its validity. We need that too because really talking can be emotionally exhausting and I think, is occasionally inappropriate.

But to change the world, to change people, to have meaningful relationships, really talking is necessary. It’s interesting to me that much policy making is formalized small talk. It’s passionate occasionally, sure, but people have their sides and real engagement rarely occurs. Policy making is usually rigid, a facade-laden means to an end. It’s statistically based and formalized. Robert’s Rules of Order Apply. But what if Robert isn’t there? What if we don't even invite him? What does it look like when women engage in discussion, listen to one another and make policy decisions?

At CSW, must ask ourselves these questions. The UN is about that connectedness; CSW is all about how women can come together to create real change. We don’t always need big titles to give big speeches (although that helps with learning and with funding), but we do need them in the room, sitting and eating lunch with everyone else. We need each other and each others' experiences.

We need to cut through conventionalized formalities, national/emotional boundaries, mental barriers, and sometimes personal comfort. To get anywhere, we need to talk. Everyone must come to the table.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Women speaking out and being heard

I can't believe we've already been at the U.N.'s annual Commission on the Status of Women for two days. There are so many languages, nationalities, viewpoints, and experiences to absorb from the diverse array of women and men gathered in New York City from all around the world and each day passes by so quickly. One of the most interesting experiences I have had so far occurred on Monday during the NGO orientation and consultation day at the Salvation Army.

This day was full of stimulating speakers, including former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet, all of whom addressed the 2011 CSW priority theme of women's and girl's access to and participation in training, education, science, and technology. During the afternoon, we broke out into smaller groups to discuss this theme more specifically and formulate recommendations to be given to CSW to better implement and realize this theme. Each of the four groups then presented back to the hundreds of women (and some men) gathered at the Salvation Army building about the recommendations they had developed. The floor then opened up for "talk backs," which meant that women could come up and clarify points made or insert their own opinions related to the 2011 priority theme or other women's issues.

What was amazing about this experience was seeing a concept I had heard so much about in my classes in person. I took a course last semester titled "Feminism, Sexuality, and Human Rights," in which I learned about the ways in which feminists, LGBTQ activists, and sex workers had mobilized to broaden the U.N.'s inclusivity of key sexual and reproductive health and LGBTQ rights issues into human rights documents. I heard so many times about feminists fighting for certain words (i.e. abortion) to get into human rights documents, but it's incredible to be in a room full of women who are taking part in this very act. Women from all over the world stood up to clarify their points and bring up women's rights issues that matter to them. One young woman from Iraq spoke about how incredible it was to be a part of this important and exciting gathering. Another woman from the U.K. spoke about the importance of making domestic work a paid and validated aspect of the economy. While some conclusions were made about the recommendations CSW would receive, I felt that it was equally, if not more important for women to express and have their opinions validated since the voices of women are so often unheard and unappreciated.

This kind of forum for the exchange of ideas and clarifications really made me see the important role that civil society can and does play in shaping human rights' agendas and policies. I could not help but think of all the women not in the room, though, and what viewpoints they would bring to such a meeting. I recognize and appreciate the important role that NGO's play in advocating for the millions of women who will never be able to attend the Commission on the Status of Women, but wonder how these women can be better heard and validated in global discussions pertaining to women's rights. I will continue thinking about this as the week goes on, but I am honored to be a part of this incredible gathering and am aware of the privileges I possess in being able to present and participate here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Creative Writing Reflection

Today's Consultation Day presented CSW attendees with a number of issues regarding women's status around the world. Technology was a key theme in today's panels and discussions. Many speakers emphasized the value in women having access to technology, coupled with the ability to use it. I do NOT consider myself a poet of any sorts, but I would like to share some creative writing, reflecting on some of the issues raised today.

The world of inequality:

Can you help me birth my baby?
Then she will die during my labor.

Can you ensure me post natal care?
Then I will die from my labor.

Can you diagnose my illness?
Then I will be too sick to feed my child.

Can you allow me access to mobile communication?
Then I will not be able to seek out help.

The world of equality:

Can you diagnose my illness?
Then I will have strength enough to feed my child.

Can you help me birth my baby?
Then she will thrive in my household.

Can you ensure me post natal care?
Then I will have strength to raise a healthy child.

Can you allow me access to mobile communication?
Then I know I am safe when an emergency occurs.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Welcome to CSW

Arriving in New York City today instilled much excitement in our small group of students, despite having to wake up before 5 a.m. to catch our red eye out of Raleigh destined for LaGuardia airport. Despite our fatigue, we were all instantly reenergized as we walked up to the United Nations building to register and check in for this week’s events for the 55th annual Commission on the Status of Women. After obtaining a security identification badge, I took a second to marvel in the UN lobby at where I was standing, and why I am here. I am prepared for a week of exchanging knowledge and ideas, networking, and learning. I am most excited about the learning part. There are so many brilliant and passionate minds attending this conference, I am certain that I will only be able to benefit from their interactions. So let this week’s events commence! I am ready to represent WomenNC, and eager absorb the vigorous minds that are about.

Friday, February 18, 2011

WomenNC Heads to 55th CSW at the UN

In just a few days WomenNC will be heading to New York City to experience the Commission on the Status of Women Conference. On this site, the students will be conveying their thoughts on the trip and much more as we traverse through our week long excursion. There will be pictures, videos and in depth discussions. We hope you will follow us on our journey this year at CSW!