5 Inspiring women changing the world

The stories of these five women, taken from 200 Women, published by Chronicle Books, might just inspire you to take action on causes close to your own heart. 

Alicia Garza, civil rights activist

portrait of Alicia Garza

Q. What really matters to you?

I want to be able to tell my kids that I fought for them and that I fought for us. In a time when it’s easy to be tuned out, it feels really important to me to be somebody who stands up for the ability of my kids—of all kids—to have a future.

The other thing that really motivates me is wanting to make sure we achieve our goals. As I was coming up as an organiser, we were told we were fighting for something we might never see in our lifetime. I’m just not satisfied with that; I think change can happen much faster, but it requires organisation, and an understanding of power and how we can shift it from its current incarnation. We need to transform power, so that we’re not fighting the same battles over and over again. This is what I wake up thinking about every single day. And every night when I go to sleep, I’m thinking about how we can get closer to it tomorrow.

Women inspire me to keep going. My foremost influence was my mother; she initially raised me on her own, having never expected to be a parent at 26. She taught me everything I know about what it means to be a strong woman who is in her power. I’m also very much influenced by black women throughout history. I’m inspired by Harriet Tubman, not only for all the work she did to free individual slaves—which, of course, was amazing—but for everything she did to eradicate the institution of slavery, the alliances she built to do so and the heartbreaks she endured in pursuit of her vision. And it’s not only women in the United States who inspire me. In Honduras in 2016, Berta Cáceres was murdered while pursuing her vision of ecological justice and a better life for the people in Honduras being preyed upon by corporations and the United States government.

"Women inspire me to keep going"

Black Lives Matter has been a big part of my activism. When it came onto the scene, there was a lot of pushback; people responded by saying, "All lives matter". I think the intensity of these reactions against Black Lives Matter is a testament to how effective our systems are in isolating these kinds of issues—they make them seem as though they impact individuals, as opposed to entire communities. The all- lives-matter thing is simultaneously fascinating and infuriating to me, because it’s so obvious. Obviously all lives matter; it’s like saying the sky is blue or that water is wet. But, when people say, "Actually, all lives matter," it feels like a passive-aggressive way of saying, "White lives matter."

People seemed shocked that police brutality was an issue, but I thought, "Um, where have you been?" The police are supposed to serve all communities, but instead, they aren’t accountable to black communities in the same way they are to white communities. The United States is rooted in profound segregation, disenfranchisement and oppression in pursuit of profits. And it feels like the country is being powered by amnesia.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would start with all of the people who are suffering right now. I would give whatever is needed to every mama who is living in a car with her kids and is trying to figure out how she’s going to make it another day—if not for herself then for the people who depend on her. I would give to all the people who are dying in the deserts right now, trying to cross artificial borders pursuing what they think will be a better life here in the United States—if I had a wand I’d make it so that that journey was easier and that there wasn’t punishment on both sides. In fact, I would ensure that no one ever had to leave their homes in pursuit of survival—they would have everything that they needed right there at home.

The other area I would work on is within our own movements. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we could be clear about what we’re up against and how we each fight it differently; I think about how we can advance our goals without tearing each other up along the way. So, if I could wave a wand, I would also change some of the suffering of organisers and activists in our movements who are tired and burned out, who feel disposable and don’t feel seen.

 

Linda Sarsour, political activist

portrait of Linda Sarsour

Q. What really matters to you?

For me, it’s very simple; I have three children and I want to live in a country that respects them in all their complexities: what they choose to do for a living, what religion they follow and what their ethnicity is. I want to live in a country that respects whomever they choose to be.

I always felt like I lived a pretty good life: I’m a Palestinian American, born to Palestinian-immigrant parents; I grew up in a lower-middle-class environment, and I went to public school. But my activism was born out of the ashes of 9/11. Seeing members of my community targeted by
all levels of law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attacks at the World Trade Center radicalised me. With my own eyes, I saw men being picked up in public, raids in my community and mothers crying at the mosque saying that they didn’t know where their husbands were. I was shell-shocked that this could happen in my country, particularly knowing that a lot of the Muslims and Arabs in my community had come to the United States fleeing precisely that type of persecution and this type of police state. And I was furious. I immediately started translating for families, to connect them with legal services and help them find their loved ones. My networking and relationship building at that time was my introduction to civil rights activism.

I started out by wanting to protect my own community, and then I ventured out and found that there were other communities who were also oppressed. So, more recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work around black civil liberties and issues pertaining to undocumented people. And, the more work I do, the more strongly I feel that there is a connection between all of our communities, that we’re all being oppressed by the same state.

Racism, sexism and prejudice aren’t concepts ingrained only in the minds of people, they are ingrained in America’s history: we live in a country that was founded on the massacring of Indigenous People; Americans enslaved Africans here, and women were only given the right to vote within the last century. So, in order not to perpetuate racism, sexism and prejudice—in order for young people to broaden their horizons—we need to actively engage with our history and come to terms with it. We cannot teach the young blind patriotism for a country that makes mistakes; kids wave the flag and chant "God Bless America," but they don’t understand that the flag has blood on it.

"Racism, sexism and prejudice aren’t concepts ingrained only in the minds of people, they are ingrained in America’s history"

People will often say that slavery has nothing to do with them, when in fact, the existence of slavery in our history directly correlates to how we treat people of colour. And when people discuss setting up internment camps for Muslims, I wonder whether they’ve come to terms with
the Japanese internment camps America was responsible for, because, to understand that a Muslim internment camp is a horrible thing, you need to understand the horror of previous instances of such treatment.

I was very proud to be a part of organizing the 2017 Women’s March. A day or two after the 2016 United States elections, I saw a Facebook post that talked about women’s rights as human rights and that made reference to many different communities. However, it did not talk about how the issue of women’s rights affected the Muslim community, so I decided to comment that I thought it was a great effort and that I hoped they would include Muslim communities. The next thing I knew I was a national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington. So, I caution people against suggesting that the march was exclusive in some way; I felt gratified to be a Muslim woman in a hijab joining women from other contexts in organising something greater than any one of us—something that a lot of people had doubts about. Although there are women in leadership roles, I’ve wondered whether people really believe in the true leadership of women. We are often in the back, so this was the moment to say, "No. Women are leaders. Women are capable of anything." We planned a march for 200,000 people in Washington, DC, and about half a million people came. The sisterhood—the love, the compassion and the unity—was overwhelming. And it is just the beginning, a catalyst for protest and dissent under an administration like this.

Q. What would you change if you could?

Freedom and liberation are very important, so addressing this would be my first act of change. I would love to be part of a just solution and see a free Palestine that respects the dignities of all people living there.

I would end mass incarceration in the United States. We have a large prison population who are away from their families, and a lot of these people are non-violent offenders.

 

Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance

portrait of ai-jen poo

Q. What really matters to you?

Dignity: as the writer Atul Gawande says, "You may not control life’s circumstances, but getting to be the author of your life means getting to control what you do with them."

So, it matters that my grandmother, who is 92 and who cared for me from when I was six months old, should be able to live well and with dignity, on her terms. Workers like Mrs Lee, who is my grandmother’s homecare worker, are critical; Mrs Lee allows her to live in her own apartment and get the support she needs to go to church, to the doctor and to play mah-jong with her friends. Mrs Lee is a huge piece of the puzzle that allows for that dignity. And Mrs Lee should also have dignity at work: the ability to take pride in what she does, to know that her work is valued and respected and that she will be compensated so that she can care for her own family. If we really enhanced dignity—this notion of what it means for everyone to live with dignity and work with dignity—we’d be in a good place.

If you think about what domestic workers do, this work is probably some of the most important work in our economy. Domestic workers go to work in our homes every day and take care of the most important aspects of our lives: our kids, our aging loved ones and our homes themselves.

I grew up watching my mother and my grandmother do that work inside our own home in addition to working outside the home—taking care of everyone and everything all the time. I always thought all of that work was really undervalued. What’s more, if you look around in the immigrant community, there are very few work options for women. A lot of immigrants have risked their lives—left behind professions, families, traditions and cultures to give their children more opportunity in the United States—so the stakes are incredibly high for them and they’ve invested quite a bit in being here. Most immigrant women end up in one form of low- wage service work or another, but, despite how important this is to so many families, it is some of the most undervalued work in our economy. So, it’s really important—not only for the workers themselves, but also for all of the families who count on them—to really uplift the value and the dignity of this work, and make it more sustainable for everyone.

Women—particularly immigrant women—are caught in the crosshairs of a lot of the attacks of the Trump administration. Many people don’t realise that three-quarters of all undocumented immigrants in this country are women and children and that most of these women are working in the domestic work setting. Some of the recent data shows that domestic work is the profession with the highest concentration of undocumented immigrants of any workforce. There are a high number of vulnerable women; they are isolated, because this work has been undervalued for so long and because immigrant women are on the frontlines of many of the enforcement efforts—the raids, the deportations, the targeting—of this administration.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would probably make care an organising principle in our economy. I would try to reorganise our economy so that care in all of its forms—care for neighbours, care for family, care for children, care for elders, care for friends, care for co-workers—is a fundamental principle in every arena of civic and economic life. I would want us to have all the support we need, so that the caregiving relationships in our lives would be upheld as some of the most important and valuable. People who provide care would feel recognised and valued, and be able to support their families. We would utilise care as a way of reinventing our relationships and our structures of value—it would change everything.

 

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers

portrait of Dolores Huerta

Q. What really matters to you?

My mother was a feminist and a businesswoman; she was charitable, soft-spoken and gentle, and she set the philosophy for all our family. She taught us that you have to help people you see in need, that you have an obligation to help them even if they don’t ask for your help. And she said that, if you do help people, you don’t expect a reward or compensation for the help you are giving them, because, if you expect someone to give you something back, that takes the grace away from the act.

Q. What would you change if you could?

Right now, there’s a very strong intent to destroy labour unions—and labour unions are workers. Organisation is absolutely important because, when we are not organised, it’s very hard to reach people. But when we are organised, we can communicate, we can talk to each other and we can become educated on issues. When we have an organisation, we can all move together and take actions together to make the changes that need to be made. In all my work, over six decades, we have been able to make a lot of positive changes, but, in order to do that, you have to be able to mobilise and put pressure on the politicians. And, you have to make sure you can elect the right people to get the kind of representation you need. But, you can’t do all that if you don’t have organisation.

Consider the 2016 election—specifically, where the blue states were. What did the blue states on the West Coast—Washington, Oregon, California—and on the East Coast—New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut—all have in common? They had organised labour!

Workers in those states are organised, so they can act together, especially when it comes to the political realm. But in those places where labour unions don’t have organisation – the South or the Midwest – too much power has been taken away from working people, so they can’t really organise; they have been hamstrung.

All of this lack of organisation and lack of education results in the kind of president we ended up with in 2016. The only way out is to vote bad politicians out of office. But Republicans are putting in voter-suppression laws. In California, you can register to vote on your mobile phone and people are automatically registered when they get their driver’s license. But, in Wyoming, you have to go down to the courthouse—between nine am and five pm, Monday to Friday—to be able to register to vote. So, they put up all these obstacles, and as a result we have a democracy that is not functional, because people aren’t able to participate by casting their vote. They are trying to make voting more and more prohibitive for people, which is how they keep control. I like to quote the words of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who said that if you don’t have an educated citizenry, all you end up with is a government ruled by the greedy and the powerful.

People have the power to make change, but they don’t act on that power. We have to instill in them the understanding that we are the majority—we are the ones who pay the taxes, we are the ones who elect people to the legislative and congressional offices. All government staff work for us—we pay their salaries with our taxes.

 

Ruchira Gupta, sex trafficking abolitionist, journalist and activist

portrait of Ruchira Gupta

Q. What really matters to you?

Dignity and justice. I firmly, firmly want fairness. I understand that inequality exists and that there will always be inequality in some form or another—someone will always be richer, someone will always be whiter—but I still believe we can make this world a fairer and more equitable place.

So, what matters, is my work to end inequality.

About 21 years ago, when I was working as a journalist, I was travelling through Nepal and came across numerous villages with very few women between the ages of 15 and 45. I started asking the men I met why this was. Most were sheepish and some were very hostile, but a few told me they were all in Mumbai, which was 870 miles away; I couldn’t understand how these women had gotten there from these remote Nepali villages, so I decided to find the answer. It changed my life—I discovered a supply chain stretching to Mumbai’s brothels.

The supply chain involved local village procurers, transporters, corrupt border guards and lodge keepers across the border in India. The lodge keepers would lock these girls up for several days, and beat them, starve them and drug them, until their spirits were completely subjugated. The girls would then be sold to pimps in Mumbai, Kolkata, Bihar and Delhi. Prices were negotiated based on beauty; fair skin was premium, being voluptuous was premium, as was being docile and young—the youngest girl I met who had been trafficked was seven. These women were then locked up in rooms with iron bars on the windows and brought out every night to see eight to ten customers. Girls and women were being chewed up and spit out by the system, and, although the prostitution was all in plain sight, the extent of the network was invisible. I had covered war and famine, but nothing like this kind of intimate and deliberate exploitation of one human by another, the violence of a 50-year-old man on top of a 10-year-old girl. I decided to tell the world about it.

I made a documentary, The Selling of Innocents. I interviewed 22 women who found the courage to tell their stories. They spoke about how they were pulled out of school or sold by their fathers. They told me about how, when they escaped to a police station, the officers would return them to their pimps and tell them it was too late for them to be redeemed—that they were devalued and should accept their destiny. These women were beaten black and blue, their bodies were developing diseases and they were being forced to have abortions. I felt rage, anger and sadness—and I started to realise that reporting wasn’t enough.

"That was the moment I was transformed because I thought I was saving them, but they saved me"

The women would later tell me that I saved their lives, but we saved each other’s. I was shooting in the brothels without any protection for myself; one day, I was talking to these twenty-two women in a room when the brothel manager appeared at the door with a knife—these places are tiny wooden houses with narrow staircases and twenty rooms to a bathroom, and there’s nowhere to run. The manager told me I couldn’t be filming. The women surrounded me in a circle in that little space and said he would have to kill them all to get to me. That was the moment I was transformed, because I thought I was saving them, but they saved me.

I went back to the women I had interviewed, and they asked me to start a not-for-profit organisation. I told them I wasn’t a lawyer or a doctor or a social worker—I had no idea how to run a not-for-profit—but they told me I could help them because of my English and access to networks. We set up Apne Aap, which means "self-action"—this is a reference to the individual needing to help themselves, but is also about women coming together to help womankind. Fifteen years in, we’re now twenty thousand members strong. We have a voice, we influence policy and we march in a great battalion for women’s rights. When the Delhi bus rape happened, we marched to parliament. The women of our organisation have overcome their shame, guilt and fear, and we are now sharing their stories with politicians—we have convinced them to classify trafficking as a sexual offence.

When we started, those twenty-two women said they had four dreams: schooling for their children, so that they didn’t end up in the trade; a room of their own with a door they could lock, so that they and their children would be safe; a job with a steady salary in a clean office; and justice. Today, children are working in jobs that they never would have had access to otherwise and are supporting their mothers. Sadly, the original 22 women are no longer with us. They have all died from various things—AIDS-related complications, suicide—but their dreams live on in their children.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would remove Donald Trump from office like a puff of smoke—poof!

 

200 inspiring women book cover

200 Women is available now, published by Chronicle Books

 

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