Leaders as Influencers of Change: The Power of Voice in Advocating & Advancing Gender Equality
Interview with Carla Goldstein, Omega Institute’s Chief External Affairs Officer and Co-Founder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, on the the power of giving life to a voice in advocating and advancing the agenda for gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment.
[Editor’s Note: I first met Carla in 2014 at Davidson College’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference, where Carla served as keynote speaker. Inspired by her own advocacy work in support of gender equality and personally influenced by the work of so many of Omega’s instructors, I invited Carla to share her own thoughts on the power of voice and how we can leverage our voices to create positive, collective change in support of gender equality. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I hope each of you will take a moment to explore and consider the ways in which you might leverage your own voice to support gender equality and work to advance opportunities for women and girls world wide.]
(Sharon): As an attorney with 25 years of experience in public interest advocacy, you’ve worked extensively on issues related to women’s rights, poverty, public health and social justice – all issues that are centrally related to women and girls’ empowerment, whether in the U.S. or globally. What does advocacy mean to you and what role does it play in the fight for gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment?
(Carla): Advocacy means to take a stand for something that’s important to you; to take action towards trying to bring about a change in the world that you think needs to happen. It’s simple in that sense. It’s about trying to create change. In the effort to make change, while one voice can be a catalyst to engage other people, one learns that you can’t do it alone. In that respect, advocacy becomes a group effort.
Our society is structured based on 4,000 years of patriarchy, which means that most of the systems and social norms have been created and perpetuated to keep the power relationship between men and women in its dominant/subordinate construct. Advocacy has been required to even have the wherewithal to understand this, and secondly, to be able to build relationships with other women and with men who care and want to work together to change that paradigm — to be able to work in every dimension of life, whether in the family, community, at work or at the global level, to transform our key relationships so that women have equal opportunity, access, and equal representation before the law. Advocacy, in this regard, has been really important to achieve basic tenants of equality.
In addition to basic positional equality of power (equality for equality’s sake), there’s also advocacy to change the nature of power. Both of those things have been important strains in the feminist movement from the beginning, but sometimes that second part gets lost in the conversation. The notion that we should have the same number of seats in congress or should be part of corporate boards in equality representation, etc… (equality by virtue of position) is really important, but it’s not the only important point. The other point is that as women gain more power, that power should be used to change the very nature of power – to shift from the traditional model of power over others to one of power with others.
(Sharon) I like the way you differentiate between equality in terms of absolute numbers, versus the nature of power. I think that’s an important distinction. Even if we could achieve equality in terms of numbers, that doesn’t mean we’ve achieved equality in terms of the power construct. That is a subtlety that needs to be incorporated into the conversation.
(Carla): The imperative for women’s leadership and advocacy is two fold: First, it’s to create gender equality as an end in itself; Second, as an important means to change the way human beings relate to power so that we can build a more healed world for everybody. It doesn’t mean that just because you’re a woman, you’re going to get it right. It doesn’t mean that by virtue of being a woman, you’ll be a great collaborator and power transformer or that you will naturally lead from this other paradigm. It’s not inherent in being female. I do, however, believe that from the experience of having been the ‘power down’ gender, that we’ve learned something… that it doesn’t represent the best of the humanity and the human spirit. We are all part of the same human family and we need to build a world that works for everybody.
The world systems that we are currently living in today were not designed with women’s creativity and needs in mind, so we’re in the process of a full-scale reengineering project. It’s not to say that you throw everything out because women’s voices weren’t part of it. They were. But the dominant power paradigm has kept our opinions, creativity and needs off the table. Being able to be equal co-creators in our world is a really important part of advocacy. And there’s so much to do. There’s something for everybody to do.
(Sharon): In many instances, women and girls may lack the courage, confidence and/or self-worth to stand up for themselves, yet are willing and able to lend their own voice to causes greater than themselves or for the benefit of others. How can advocating for others help women and girls build the confidence necessary to advocate for themselves?
(Carla): I think we always learn something by doing. Doing is a great teacher and taking action can change you. When you are advocating for anything and you see the result of your advocacy, you can learn from that. You learn that your voice has value; that you can be part of a community and you don’t have to do it all by yourself.
So often we live in isolation, so we have dialogues about what we think is possible for ourselves and the world that can be very self-limiting, because we’re just in our own head. When you go down the path of advocacy, almost by necessity you then become in relationship with others who care about the same things. That, in and of itself, lifts you out of your isolation and can help strengthen you and reflect back to you the importance and value of what you think and feel.
(Sharon): This speaks directly to my own experience with the #iamwoman campaign that I am working on in partnership with UN Women’s EmpowerWomen.org team that launched February 5th. It is an advocacy story-telling campaign that highlights stories from women around the world who are economically empowered, the impact that has had in their own lives, and the rippled effect in their communities. The campaign also features stories from men who are the direct beneficiary of an empowered woman in their life. Originally the vision of one of my campaign teammates, already I have witnessed first hand the power of going from an idea/insight to action, advocating for this issue and bringing other people into this conversation, just through the planning for this project. It’s been so powerful to see the momentum to begin to build; to see people get outside of their own head and own self-limiting beliefs and really come together in a force of solidarity around something that impacts each and every one of us.
Expanding on this concept, while women draw power from speaking up and on behalf of others, (many times) we are less comfortable standing up for ourselves and promoting our own achievements. This can play itself out on the school playground, in the workforce, or even in our home life, where we bury our own voices in exchange for proving, pleasing and perfectionism. The Global Girls Project was actually conceived out of this three-way struggle to ‘stand up’ and my determination to model a better way – especially for my young daughter who follows in my footsteps.
Was there ever a time in your career when you struggled to stand up for yourself, despite your fierce advocacy on behalf of others? If so, how did you overcome your fear? What steps did you take to become more comfortable and confident in your own voice? If not, to what do you attribute your innate inner confidence?
For me, it doesn’t feel so neatly either/or. I was raised by a mother who said to me at every turn, “you are strong and you can do whatever you want.” I think that did lay a certain foundation of confidence that’s I’ve always had in my own voice. But even with that foundation, growing up in this dominant culture that doesn’t value women’s voices, there have been moments and struggles and meetings and relationships, where in that particular moment, I was ‘lost in the sauce’. I do think that my experience of speaking up and out has almost always been met with welcome ears, and that in itself, is affirming. When I’ve taking the risk and used my voice, it has almost never resulted in a catastrophic event. Again, I go back to the idea that ‘doing and practicing’ is really important. I also think it’s important to find support in others, too.
When I started in law school in 1990, for example, there were already a fair number of female students (almost equal representation) and a good number of female faculty members and mentors. Despite this equity in numbers, the modality of the classroom created a gender divide. Typical of the Socratic method where you speak up and you’re asked a question, every time the professor would ask a question, all of the guys would raise their hand, but practically none of the women did, so I and a few other students formed a support group to help ourselves and other women speak up in class. We completely gained our confidence and later thought it was ridiculous that we ever felt afraid. After a while, we realized that one of the problems with law is that women’s voices have not been part of making the law, so our group formed our own law journal. We decided we were going to start a law journal that allows us to comment on the law in our own voice and style from the perspective of gender. And this group support is really the moral of the story. By putting ourselves together, we were stronger and could achieve more than we could do one our own.
(Sharon): One of the fascinating things for me in this project has been to talk to a majority of women and girls who have struggled with this confidence issue at one point or another and to one degree or another, and yet simultaneously encounter women for whom this has never been a struggle. I’m so intrigued by that.
Expanding on my previous question, have you ever withheld, minimized, or buried your voice, either out of fear of conflict, or out of a fear that you might attract those individuals who not only do not support your position, but may actually seek to undermine you? After all, when you raise your voice, you will certainly find those who are in solidarity with you, but you will also find those who I refer to as ‘subtle saboteurs’. You invite engagement and not everyone is rooting for your success.
(Carla): I’m sure I have, but I also acknowledge that I am one of those women for whom the chips fall in the other direction. Whether due to nature and genetics, the way my mother raised me, or some other factor(s) at play, somehow from a very early age, I always had the voice of an advocate. I always felt that I could give voice to things that other people couldn’t. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been afraid to use my voice or have elected to keep quiet for some of the reasons you mentioned or for other possible reasons. There have been millions of times I’ve quieted my voice, but on balance, part of what I’ve been able to do is to be a person who does give voice – not only to myself, but to other voices that are unable to be spoken.
(Sharon): That’s one of the reasons advocacy is a part of the project. I believe that as you give life to your voice (even when you may be initially inhibited to give it to yourself); when you give voice to others by ‘doing’, that process of doing innately increases your confidence, comfort and courage in then giving voice to yourself.
In Paulette Ashlin’s interview for the Global Girls Project on humility, she talked about the interdependence of human beings – something you’ve written about in your own work at the Omega Institute. What is the relationship between interdependency and activism, and how can developing our own character and core values enable us to become more effective leaders in our own lives and our communities-at-large?
(Carla): The main point about understanding our interdependence is that we have to be able to discern our differences of opinion without dehumanizing one another. We have to be able to figure out how to resolve our conflicts with each other without resorting to violence and negating the humanity of those we disagree with. From an advocacy point of view, if you accept that premise, the next insight is process — how you advocate and what your process is. Your process for advocacy really matters to the end result. If you fight war with war, you create more of the very thing you’re fighting against. Having the idea of interdependence as the basis for your activism and advocacy hopefully creates in you a compassionate stance…a non ‘otherising’ stance, that enables you to try and understand where those you disagree are coming from, and to be able to chart a path forward that works for everybody.
(Sharon): That’s where I see the importance of character and core values playing a role. The 16 principles this project was founded on are not the only important principles, but they are ones I felt are critical to advancing this agenda. Compassion, humility, collaboration, integrity, advocacy, etc. To me, these values speak to the process itself.
(Carla) : There’s a wonderful woman leader and marine biologist named Janine Benyrus, who talks about organisms and says that every organism that is alive on the planet has to answer the essential question, “how shall we live?” For decades…nearly a century, the dominant mode of scientific thinking centered around Darwinism and the idea that survival of the fittest supports a culture of dominance as the major power modality. She says that when you look at organisms that have survived on the planet for a long, long time, it’s really cooperation and community are the primary characteristics that enabled organisms to survive and thrive. So really, you could say that all of the character dimensions that are part of your project are the characteristics that are required for a cooperative, collaborative, community-oriented, interdependent thriving. That’s really what is needed today. Those are the human characteristics that we need to cultivate in our leaders and our people, so that as a species, we can survive and thrive, moving out of the dominance mode and into the cooperative mode.
(Sharon): Whereas you previously defined yourself as a social activist, you now describe yourself as a spiritual activist. What does that mean and how does it differ from the way you previously defined and saw yourself and your work?
(Carla): Honestly, I don’t know how I define myself any more. When I first began working with the language, the term ‘spiritual activism’ was my effort to incorporate these concepts of interdependence into my own thinking about activism. I grew up in a very traditional ‘us-them’ mode, and I learned just through living, that process really matters, and that I wanted my activism to take a form that was aligned with my values.
(Sharon): Left unchecked, advocacy can be perceived a something negative, often creating polarization between groups instead of building bridges of deeper understanding and awareness. Nowhere is that more evident than within our own political system, where fighting for key issues has been reduced by some to name calling and public smear campaigns – a factor that keeps many women from contemplating public office. Yet learning to advocate for ourselves, whether as individuals or as a collective body of women, is critical if we are to grow fully into our own voice and leadership and lift others up along the way.
What does healthy, constructive advocacy look like? What role can love, compassion, respect, and the other core principles of this project play in helping us learn to advocate constructively for ourselves and our causes, while honoring difference in the process?
(Carla): Anything that humanizes our experience and evokes an empathetic response in another is a more effective way of seeking change. If you think about any time you have every changed your opinion or course of action based on what somebody else did or said, chances are that it’s because you had an empathetic response to them; not because they were yelling at you, screaming at you, denigrating you or telling you you’re wrong. I think that the most effective way to connect with other people who have a different point of view from you is through story telling and relating at that deeper level of shared human experience.
(Sharon): How does this apply to the global conversation, where raising our collective voice to advocate for the rights of women and girls everywhere means challenging deeply entrenched values customs and points of view that may differ significantly from our own?
(Carla): We’re at a tricky stage of human development, where all of these opportunities for connecting info and relationships around the world are blossoming. On the one hand, we have to be careful not to impose our own views based on our own culture and upbringing on other people, while at the same time, we have to be able to outstretch our arms for building bridges of support.
There’s a distinction between the word ‘savior’ and ‘solidarity’. Often there’s a temptation among women who are more educated or well-resourced to fall into the ‘savior’ mode, but that’s a very different thing than being in solidarity with someone, as they are, not as you want them to be. There’s so much mutuality that comes from solidarity because when we stand truly together in relationship, we’re all stronger for it, and I think there are lessons that can be exchanged among and between women from different cultures where we can support each other to make the kinds of changes that abridge our fundamental human rights.
(Sharon) I think you can stand in solidarity with another and still hold space for difference. I don’t think those are mutually exclusive concepts.
The ‘middle’ years (aged 8-14) can be a particularly difficult time for girls, fraught with peer pressure to conform to others’ expectations, ideals and behaviors. ‘Standing up’ can be risky and many succumb to peer pressure rather than risk social ostracization. Globally, girls face other challenges too, yielding to cultural norms, values and customs that may ultimately limit her opportunities in life, whether through early childhood marriage, the practice of FGM, dropping out of school to help care for their families, and/or being denied an education altogether. What advice would you give those girls who may be struggling to stand up for their values, themselves, and others? From a global perspective, how might that advice differ in the face of conflicting cultural norms and values, as described in the scenarios above?
(Carla): Regardless of culture, I would remind her that her life has deep value and inherent wisdom; to know there are resources available to you, and to have faith in yourself and the possibility you can tap into those resources and to keep that always.
(Sharon): More broadly speaking, what advice would you give women and girls in general who are learning to come into their own voice and leadership?
(Carla): Your voice is important. I would also say don’t be afraid to look into the darkest parts of yourself, whether your own self, your family or your community, or the world, because it’s in the shadows that we will find the motivation and creativity for healing our world. All you need is one other person to help you feel a sense of community, and from there you can build and build. It’s important to learn to trust the world…to trust that there is a force of love in the world that you are a part of, can tap into, and can grow from. It’s important to know that you…that we belong in the Universe, and that our voices are valid and valued.