The following is an excerpt from the keynote speech delivered by Jennifer Buffett at the Women & Power: Our Time to Lead Conference held at Omega Institute, September 24-26, 2010. To see a video recording of Jennifer Buffett's full speech, click here.
Jennifer Buffett is president and co-chair of the NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused primarily on the empowerment of women and girls.
We believe the roots of human progress lie in people working together—in harmony with each other and the world around us. Being able to cooperate and practice compassion are essential in today's interconnected world. Listening to people on the ground and empowering them to come up with their own solutions and build community is so important. But, let's be real, our social environment is out of balance—discrimination, inequity and violence prevent individuals and society from reaching their full potential. In particular, girls and women are undervalued – yet hold untapped and huge potential for creating positive and lasting change in the world. But society, governments, large institutions, budgets… they are not in place, designed or set up to support this – at all. So there's a huge amount of work to be done about this as we all know….
Our aim is to spread the girl effect – maybe you've heard of it … through our partnership with the Nike foundation and dozens of nonprofit partners we work to empower the 600 million adolescent girls of the world to be able to be the agents of lasting and positive changes that they really can be… We have decided to work on behalf of the most marginalized women and girls – survivors of war and conflict, women and girls in prisons, women and girls who have been totally exploited and abandoned and trafficked and abused so that maybe we can flip the paradigm of exploitation on its head… Bring real attention and outrage to it… and help to change the situation. We also support men and boys to be able to be different, to redefine masculinity, and become true partners with women and girls – not their dominators and exploiters. And for this to be possible, there must be an end to violence against girls and women… and for the violence and dominance to be healed inside of men. The masculine and feminine inside of each of us – male or female - must be healed as well. I will take this even one step further… the masculine and feminine being expressed in systems and in the values in the world needs to be balanced and healed.
How much more war, domination and exploitation must we see to know that the masculine is out of control…? All the while motherhood is the single biggest indicator that a woman will live in poverty in this country. One cannot just BE in society, one must DO and produce. Be a mini-corporation of sorts… A man, as well as a woman, can lose his job, easily, should he decide to go home and parent and care for his sick child. This is ludicrious.
In our work, we promote the greatest technology - organically produced --human beings! Specifically, we work to foster and promote social and emotional learning so that children can be affirmed in their whole selves, and given the skills to recognize their feelings, work through conflicts and differences and trauma and the stresses of life and remain compassionate, empathetic, and creative … and dare I say, awake? For if education and society continues to discount and de-emphasize these things, I fear the end of humanity because we will have disconnected heads from hearts, body from soul SO MUCH…
If I think about the most powerful people I have met in my life, one person comes to my mind … a beautiful young woman who some of my NoVo colleagues and I visited in rural Bihar – probably the poorest most forgotten state in India. She had been abducted and forced – totally exploited and prostituted. She had been taken as a girl and turned into a product - a good and a service to be bought and sold many times a day however men wanted to use her - which is tragically most girl's fate in this region of India. In addition to fighting like hell to get out of this life, she fought to rescue her own daughter who had been systematically addicted to drugs and beaten into believing that her pimp was her father. After several hours with a group of girls and women, all with very similar stories, who explained to me how deeply entrenched the attitudes, economy and legal system is in keeping girls and women of the area prostituted, I asked this young woman how I could help.
I assumed that someone had told her all about what you could ask a funder from the west for. And I, in my awe and trauma just listening the story of her life and situation, was, frankly, ready to serve up her list of requests as best I could. One being - get her and her family the hell out of there! But her answer stunned and surprised me. She hardly thought about it or hesitated, "BE with me and give me courage." she said.
"I need courage and will fight this unjust criminal corrupt system and these men" she said, "I know what hell is and I was able to leave this life. But I cannot live or leave knowing other girls and women are trapped in this. I need courage and I will work to end this. This is not what life is supposed to be."
She asked me to BE with her and give her courage.
You know, sometimes, the most powerful thing, and maybe the hardest thing we can do is to actually BE with someone who is experiencing pain and great difficulty. JUST BE.
Reading between the lines, she was also saying: "tell me that I can do this and that I (and we) are worth fighting for – that this isn't hopeless… that you are not so different from me…" And as we'll hear from Malika Saada Saar
in a minute, there are countless girls like this woman and her daughter here in the United States… struggling to have a voice, find people who will SEE them and BE WITH them and their situation - be outraged with them not against them, not objectify or exploit them or give up on them and say that "this is just inevitable". We need to have courage. But how could I give HER courage if I had not honestly faced myself?
Aren't we all looking for this from one another? To be seen? To be valued? To matter? Aren't we looking for just a glimmer of support among our sisters and brothers to give us strength and courage? To affirm what we know and know is right and that we are on a good path? Someone to tell us that we are all in this together, not to settle for how the world is? Tell us that we are not crazy because what we want more of in the world is LOVE?
This Indian woman is my teacher. She modeled something different than the beliefs I bought about myself. She embodies deeply loving and clearly seeing herself despite the unbelievable force of the social environment and stigma around her. She is powerful because she is able to hold on to a vision of a just world. She knows who she is, she knows that women and girls have more value and that until they are all free, she is not. She knows that truth is a source of power and that she will speak truth to power and change things or die. Being a witness to this kind of courage, understanding and self-belief changes a person. It has changed me.
Whenever I get even close to anywhere near-nervous about standing up to protect and advocate on behalf of girls and women, and I have found myself in some very tough closed door meetings with very self justified patriarchy-defending males in very high positions of power, I could easily let them make me into the naïve idealistic girl being thrown to the lions, I think of this young woman. And she gives me power and courage. Ironic, isn't it?
Then I center deep in my belly, my soul and into my own inner knowing. And I am not alone. I know that I speak for her and countless others – ALL of us- who deserve dignity, rights and agency no matter what. Me and this courageous and powerful woman, who I may never see again, are one.
I used to have my own personal metaphorical hiding box. It's where I'd put away all of the things I held dear and felt I needed to hide and protect – things like how important and sacred nature and beauty are to me, my wildest and deepest emotions, how vulnerable I truly felt, the pain I experienced when someone cut down a tree or hurt an animal. Tucked away was my longing to create and to co-create and to dance. To feel a part of a universal human family and for peace. I hid aspects of myself so that no one could see them, take them away or destroy them, or destroy me (the authentic me), in the process. In the box I put my dreams of how the world could be – full of love. I didn't consider that this authentic me and these things were actually sources of power and strength.
It is time now, all of you, if you have not, to bring that which is most precious to you into the full light. If you have a personal hiding box of your own, that has been holding you and your vision for the world of your dreams..where not only girls and women are safe, but females and males together flourish side by side...where the earth herself is cherished -- not dominated, devalued or exploited. I give you permission, and with love, I ask you to open it.
Feminine power and energy wants to move into our conscious awareness now. But for her, we need to create space. She has been repressed for a long time. Like the girls and women of the world, she has not been affirmed, valued or listened to. Yet she is the fierce, creative energy that can tear down the old forms and birth the new. And we can consciously bring her energy to the forefront of our lives and nurture and work with her and in her – and allow her to move us. She is looking to US to do this. WE ARE HER – her voice, her hands, her heart, her toolbox…
and I think to be honest, our survival as a human family depends on this.
I would like to leave you with one final thought [from Sister Joan Chittister] - it's an invitation really… to join me in a renaissance - and I thank you so much for listening and being here at Omega today:
"The moment a woman comes home to herself, the moment she knows that she has become a person of influence, an artist of her life, a sculptor of her universe, a person with rights and responsibilities, who is respected and respects herself and her deepest knowing….. The resurrection of the world begins".