Behind the Movement! Womyn on the Frontlines Speak! Featured stories...

During this economic crisis wom(y)n of color executive directors are having to make choice about their love and commitment to their organizations, movements or social justice issues they are working on and their self sustainability not only their own but those of their staff and all of the community that sustain from the organization. I  have been in conversation with wom(y)n on the front lines who are making tough choices, closing down or creating different strategies to take their love for the movement to the next level and create alternative systems of sustainability and self care in the process.

As a result I have become a citizen journalist reporting on Gender Justice through my Behind the Movement Newsletter, bringing you a social justice series featuring intimate interviews and a look at the  careers of womyn on the front lines, their journey of self healing and leadership.  Through the newsletter I will bring you the personal stories of  the most committed womyn in social justice movements in New York City. You will get a front row seat to their internal personal and organizational process as they bring the movement within and tackle the hardest issues and the impact  they have on their mind, body and spirit. They will talk about why they  integrate spirituality and healing into their mission and the lives of the people they work with. 

Below you will find  a series of features on different wom(y)n as they share their personal lives, the organization they work with  and the movement behind social justice that is in IN BOLD REBIRTH!
Behind the Movement...Featuring Rusia Naureen Mohiuddin

In the Pursuit of Justice by Dayanara Marte  Jan 26th, 2012

Rusia Naureen Mohiuddin was born in Bangladesh 1973, the year that two important cases dominated the United States news; Roe vs. Wade and the start of the Water Gate hearings.  Born an identical twin, middle children of four, her journey of social justice started before the age of 13 by which point she had lived in 5 countries; Bangladesh, Australia, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and, completing her high school and college education in America.

Although she was not aware of it at the time, Mohiuddin was being prepared to be a pioneer in the community organizing movements of New York City.  After having lived in Bangladesh for nine months after graduating from college, Rusia launched herself as the lead organizer for the Moshulu Woodlawn South Community Coalition. Without any formal training Mohiuddin successfully organized the first bilingual Bengali program in New York City at PS 20 in the North West Bronx, a community with a high concentration of Bangladeshi families. There she organized more than 100 community members to start tenant associations and run four campaigns in their neighborhoods.

This was the start of the many wins Mohiuddin would have in her 18 year run as an organizer in New York City. Since then she has co-directed organizations, passed bills, wrote curriculums and trained over 500 youth, men and women in leadership development and organizing.

 One of her greatest accomplishments to date is the co-founding of Social Justice Leadership (SJL); an organization based in New York City supporting leaders, organizers and supervisors to build authentic open relationships with who they work with as part of their organizing strategy.  Having worked in the 5 boroughs of New York City, Florida and California with both youth, women and people of color, Mohiuddin started seeing a pattern among them no matter where they were at.  For one, people where feeling stuck in old habits, old ways of  being  that no longer served  a purpose in their lives  and yet not  knowing how to be any different, two, staff across the board are under paid and over worked with no real structure in place  to appreciate or value the work they do and three, while there is a range of organizers the needs of communities are so vast and global, that the day to day does not as much as put a dent in the work;  unintentionally creating the exploitation of staff who get burnt out and leave.

In late 2004, Mohiuddin crafted a 5 year vision for the work she felt she must do to infuse highly skilled, balanced and sustainable organizers into the social justice movement. Already in development, Mohiuddin, as the chief architect of ACTIVATE! The Community Fellowship Program, decided to house this intensive 3-month program for intermediate, entry level folks and whole organizations to train together and develop skills sets that take care of their human and organizing needs as one of the launching programs of SJL in the Fall of 2006.

During the first year, Mohiuddin generated over 100 applications from all over the world, each vying for a spot as a fellow in the program. For the past three years she has supported folks in providing a real assessment of who they are both personally and as organizers. In her coaching she reflects back to them the ways that they are showing up while at the same time helping them understand the  impact that their way of being has on other people.    “ Some people want change that is tangible, that you can feel but the most stark changes are small and  have huge impact but we are only able to see them if we are engaged in day to day relationships with people” says Mohiuddin.

Over 5 years later, ACTIVATE! has not only become the staple of how Social Justice Leadership does their organizing work today  but also has revolutionized the  way that organizers think about themselves within the movement. It was through ACTIVATE! that Mohiuddin solidified integrating somatics into community organizing work forever changing the way organizing is done while having a transformative impact in the lives of the people who attend the training. Ultimately, this innovative integration became the basis for what will be the SJL model of transformative organizing.

“Somatics is the missing element in organizing,” says Mohiuddin, “it forces people to see their own humanity and the humanity of others in the pursuit of justice”.  As a women of color in various leadership positions, Mohiuddin always had the opportunity to connect with the staff of where she worked but found it hard to be taken seriously by her male peers in leadership no matter the race. In addition, the many displaced and disempowering positions she found herself in at the end were a direct result of her being a women. No matter the injustice or oppression she faced, Mohiuddin made the struggle  for gender equality secondary for the sake of maintaining relationships and getting her work done.   “ When our humanity comes up against what is being done to us we have to choose between ourselves and the work as if they where two different things when in fact our humanity is intrinsically tied to who we want to be in the world”, says Mohiuddin. 

Using her own experiences as a catalyst, in 2007 Mohiuddin embarked on her own healing journey. “I grew up all over the world and was always the new kid. I had to learn to do things fast and, in many ways, that hardened me. I had never cried in public or revealed my weaknesses. In time that life gave me a hard edge that most of the time was coming from a place of fear. I became meticulous to never become overcome by my emotions in order to survive” stated Mohiuddin. 

What Mohiuddin was not aware of was that that was not the initiating incident that would drive her to go through a yearlong intensive somatics healing journey for herself, instead, she would have to go back and visit March 12th, 1979. At the age of 6, Mohiuddin found herself in Melbourne, Australia witnessing her father grieving from a death of her maternal grand father, a revolutionary and founding father of the Republic of Bangladesh, Mashier “Jadu Mia (Magic Man)” Rahman.  He was sitting in the dark and when she asked him why he was crying, he would not explain. At this very moment Mohiuddin made the biggest agreement she would ever make with herself, my father is crying and it is because of me, because of something wrong I did. “From that day forward I excelled in everything, I promised I would do my best so I would never find my dad crying in the dark again” shares Mohiuddin. And she has been living powerfully into that agreement ever since.  Sometimes at her own expense she saves her parents from being upset especially from anything that she might have caused.

In order to get a deep assessment of who she had become as a result  and who she needed to be to win in this game of humanity and organizing Mohiuddin attended the Strozzi Institute, where she was mentored by Richard Strozzi-Heckler and Staci Haines, where she would embark on her own journey of healing as well as  get her certification as a somatic coach.  It was through this training that Mohiuddin, realized that not only could she transform herself from her “old shape(old way of being  to a new shape (new way of being)”,  but she could  also transform organizing  by using the principles of somatics to create a new model and methodology for organizing. They where a match made in heaven. 

The training in somatics softened her edges, it deepened her connection and relationship to people while it also served as personal development to build her capacity to continue to do her work of coaching people competently and responsibly. 
Somatics is the understanding and integration of mind, body and mood, as we are continuously being  influenced and shaped by people, experiences  and the world. Soma is the living body and all its wholeness. When our mind, body and mood  are misaligned they work against who we want to be in the world because we become fragmented. Fragmented organizers need a methodology that can help them navigate and figure out who they need to be to get to have,  create and live in their vision of the world.  In order to win battles and struggles as front line organizers we need to be whole and complete say Mohuiddin.

After 5 1/2  years of successfully working at  SJL, Mohiuddin is embarking on taking her work into the Universe reaching as many people as she can. “I want to be a part of something that has personhood at the center, I want to work for an organization not looking to be bigger than itself, where the expansion becomes more important than the work it is doing” says Mohiuddin.
The only way to secure that she will get to find this place is by creating it herself.  This  Winter,  Mohiuddin will be launching Universal Partnership. A consulting and training institute that believes that at the heart of sustainable movements must be the beat of sustainable people. In the meantime, Mohiuddin believes that you don’t have to have an ego to make it in the world. “We must remember that there is no light without darkness and that justice cannot be justice without love. But not just remembering as mere rhetoric as egos often can askew but as a modality for basing actions on and a true orientation to life. The world has no room for ego-driven intentions and our work cannot and should not tolerate those seeking identity at the expense of what we must truly do to bring forth a just society.” Movement work is all encompassing and affects every single living being and by nature there is a place for everyone in it.

For those of you in on the front lines, Mohiuddin says “ Its important to believe in yourself even when everyone tells you not to, surround yourself with people who care about you  and allow yourself to be impacted by the work that you are doing. It is not about changing the world , its allowing the work to shape you and who you need to be” Of course this is easier said than done so look forward to Universal Partnership to support you on your journey of finding  your humanity and dignity if you have lost it along the way.


Behind the Movement...Featuring Nina Mercer 

Bronx Playwright Creates to Engage Her Community

(NEW YORK)--"For those of us who pick up the call, we need to take care of ourselves" says playwright Nina Mercer as she embarks on a journey to pick up a call her ancestors made many years ago. Tracing her mother's lineage back to the middle passage, she founded Ocean Ana Rising in honor of a relative named Ocean Ana after her birth on the ocean during the transatlantic slave trade.
"I understand the culture of violence to include rape, poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition and I wanted to start my own nonprofit so other women of color can share their stories and heal in private and public forums" says Mercer.
Picking up the call is what many women of color in the United States are doing as they open up their own organizations to fill the needs the government is not meeting in their communities. The challenge is that these women are every day women like me and you, also holding roles of being partners, daughters and mothers while living in the same neighborhoods they are organizing in.
For Nina Mercer, however, the fact that she lived in her community was not a challenge at all. She used her story to organize her community into action and start her own organization, Ocean Ana Rising. Straight out of college and pregnant, Nina Mercer eventually found herself in a cycle of violence born out of her partner's substance abuse addiction, something experienced far too often in our communities. While focusing on raising her daughters and graduate school, she often turned a blind eye to her situation in order to feed herself and her children.
"I needed to turn my eyes to the codependent and abusive relationship I was in with my husband because we needed money," shares Mercer as she proceeds to admit that she too was engulfed in the cycle of emotional abuse and was aware of her participation in the destruction of her home but believed she couldn't do anything about it.
Internally, Mercer struggled with her code of ethics as she watched the drug culture of the 90s plague her family; a culture that demanded money to sustain itself and left behind a family ravaged by anxiety and depression due to loss of jobs and food. "People self medicate in order to keep up," says Mercer, "but I knew that my calling was bigger than that."
After going to doing some deep spiritual work and counseling, Mercer understood that what was happening in her house was stronger than her. "I had to save my girls," says Mercer. One day she changed the looks on the door and has never looked back.
Although she was liberated, Mercer felt like she was living in a spiritual wasteland. As a result she turned to art, painting, writing and spiritual creativity where she gave birth to "Gutta Beautiful," a theater piece that spoke to the challenges of people of color, their daily lives and the choices they need to make in order to survive. "I produced 'Gutta Beautiful' to be able to talk to my community, to my brother trying to sell crack while he also helped me with my groceries," says Mercer.
"Gutta Beautiful" was performed from Washington D.C. to New York City making remarkable impact in people's lives. As a result during the year 2005, Nina Mercer incorporated Ocean Ana Rising. "I didn't think economic sustainability when I thought of creating Ocean Ana Rising. I thought about community," says Mercer.
Although she is a mother of two her decision to create an organization in the height of the economic crisis was heart-driven. Without an operating budget Mercer had to turn to her community; she knew that they could help sustain it but at what level?
Like most women of color led grassroots organizations, Ocean Ana Rising has struggled with getting big grants, a trend that leads to the creation of organizations with a one woman show. "I am a single mother, an educator and a playwright. Even though it's a challenge, I have to work but I don't want to loose myself or my sanity," says Mercer.
For more than four years Mercer did not have health insurance through Ocean Ana Rising. Even now as an adjunct professor, her health insurance is always in question, as the labor union continues to fight to maintain health insurance for adjunct professors. When looking back, she says that she was so plugged into the work that her health was not a priority anyway. Unfortunately, when Mercer gets stressed she breaks out into hives and has swelling of the limbs, an auto immune disease called Sarciod affecting people of color but has not been sufficiently researched.
"I am now committed to holistic health," says Mercer. As a priest in Palo Mayombe, Mercer has been able to minister herself. Her spirituality has given her the tools to strengthen her core so she can continue to do her life's work. "I do spiritual cleaning, create medicine using medicinal plants and herbs. I do rituals that connect me with my ancestors," says Mercer. "I am happy!"
Through it all Mercer does not consider herself and expert; she says that tearing herself down and building herself back up is an everyday process. "Just because I choose not to take prescribed medication to deal with my anxiety doesn't mean I don t have challenges. I too deal with anxiousness, isolation and fall in and out of depression but my spirituality keeps me from hitting walls. Instead I now have the tools to keep going," shares Mercer.
However, "our health and wealth cannot be measured in finances alone," says Mercer.
Ocean Ana Rising has been here for six years but they need support. There is a community in need, more stories need to be put out there and they deserve to have financial support to create an operating budget, hire a development person, grant writers and researchers. Mercer cannot do this alone.
"I cannot heal if I am crumbling in on myself" says Mercer as she tells me that we all need people because the most important thing is human touch and love. "The biggest mistake we can do is get so caught up in the work that we lose fun, play and laughter, the moment you lose these then you become unjust with yourself and that is violence."
Behind the Movement...Featuring Wanda Salaman

Mothers on the Move Signals Solidarity in South Bronx

Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Wanda Salaman, Executive Director of Mothers on the Move!
READ THE FULL STORY/Updated on Women E NEWS Global Connect Gender Justice Project

"I was 100 pound lighter before I became an executive director," shares Wanda Salaman as she offers me fruit that she is eating for lunch as part of her self-care action plan this year.
"People don't understand how hard it is for an executive director to make decisions," says Salaman. There are days that she doesn't sleep, being stressed about everything, "I m not only carrying the whole community on my shoulders, but also staff as well, making sure they have bread on the table."
In addition, Salaman shares that when she is stressed she does not show it and keeps it within adding to the anxiety she already has. She also believes that this is a cut-throat business so she guards what she can tell people and as a result she feels like she does not have a safe space to express issues that may arise for her personally or about the work.
"I am not the best in practice yet, but I know that working 70 or more hours a week is not sustainable, actually, it's not cool. I have learned over the past year that if you have people take care of themselves, they have more love for the work, if not then you develop a cycle where the movement is on their backs" says Salaman.
In 2010, the Movement Strategy Center published Out of the Spiritual Closet: Organizers Transforming the Practice of Social Justice, validating the sentiments of Salaman. The report is the first in a series looking at how leaders and organizations are transforming the social justice movement by integrating transformative and spiritual practice.
The report contextualizes the stories of social justice organizers as they deal with leading within the current global environmental, economic and political crises.
Confronted with the burnout, isolation and fragmentation so common in the progressive movement, many leaders are seeking a "new way" to practice social justice -- a way that can meet the challenges of our time, sustain our leaders and transform our movement and the world.
"For staff appreciation day, I took my staff to the spa. After everything we have been through this year, we all needed it and if we want to have a sustainable place then the people need to be sustained," says Salaman.
There were times over the last two years that the she and her staff did not get paid. They had to work together to have the necessary foods to eat and depended on their partners and family for support. Salaman also lost some of her staff as they needed to go find other jobs. These where hard days in which she had to make hard decisions, either stop, become more dedicated or continue for the love of the work and for each other in the organization.
Salaman says, "There were a lot of days I couldn't sleep worried about closing down." There were questions running through her head like how do you pay Peter and leave Paul starving? And do you pay rent or pay staff?
Knowing that there are other organizations with a lot more money, one of the biggest questions Salaman had to ask herself was: Does her organization go under another organization and possibly lose their identity but knowing the staff will be okay?
The sad part about all of this is that Salaman is not alone. She is one of over 100 women of color executive directors in New York City having to ask themselves the same questions. Since 2006, organizations have been feeling the impact of the economic crisis at devastating rates. "I know that there are a lot of executive directors going through the same things but not having the conversations as a group, says Salaman.
In 2006, collaborating organizations: Artemisa, Elige and CREA published the Self Care-Self Defense Manual for Feminist Activists providing a unique tool that supports women in social justice in working through "the breach that exists between our discourse on human rights and social justice, and the reality of the labor practices adopted by our organizations and work spaces."
They put this manual together because they believed that we don't recognize ourselves as workers with rights and duties and therefore create a "sacrifice" mentality that justifies forms of violence that we would never accept in a factory or workshop, yet continue to live with and perpetuate every day in our very own NGOs, collectives, and groups.
Behind the Movement...Featuring Valery Jean

Leaders Who Are Women of Color: Take a Deep Breath

Friday, August 12, 2011

Valery Jean, Executive Director of FUREE!
READ THE FULL STORY/Updated on Women E NEWS Global Connect Gender Justice Project

"The clock ran out a long time ago, our communities where in crisis way before this one was published and I am not apologetic about saying it," says Jean,. As executive director during this hard time Jean goes to bed every day thinking about her staff and her membership who have to deal with evictions, public assistance and losing their jobs, while also struggling with paying her own bills and rent in the same way her members struggle. As a result Jean works up to 70 hours a week and sometimes around the clock to provide economic sustainability and healthcare for her staff. However, this year FUREE has lost half its budget but doing about 75 percent of the same work, while funders continue to have three times as high of standards to produce because she is a women of color.
According to "Daring to Lead 2011," beyond their organizations' balance sheets, the recession has taken a personal toll on executives; 65 percent. of executives reported significant levels of recession-related anxiety.
However, despite the exhaustion in her voice, Jean laughs as she tells me that this is her life's purpose, to challenge the system but something has got to change, she cannot win this fight on her own. So for the past year, Valery has not only embarked on a journey of self-care but has taken her staff along and is using this economic crisis to build alliances within and outside of the organization.
Today, Valery creates space to take care of herself: She journals, rants on Face Book, plays games and spends more time with her children. As executive director, her and her staff have created a space to address personal challenges and respecting each other as human beings first.
As a result there is a lot more communication and support. we operate more as a team now" says Jean. "Together, we have created a women-centered model because we know we cannot organize without addressing our needs,". This is one of the major accomplishments for her today. In addition, the most important accomplishment to date has been that organizationally she has developed one on one relationship with other executive directors from Mothers on the Move and the North West Bronx Clergy Coalition.
Valery Jean has come full circle since her organizing days at Hunter College, where she took classes on race, class and gender disparities. In spite of what she has gone through, she believes that this recession is a great opportunity for funders to support organizations led by people of color led. However, they must first look at the quality of life for social justice leaders and how much is being requested of them.
"The political landscape and public policy are shifting at a fast rate and it takes lot of energy and time to address them because they cannot be predicted and forecasted," says Valery as she finally advocates for self-care, urging funders to think about pay rates so executive directors can pay themselves and their staff what they are worth.
As for other executive directors, women of color and women on the front lines, Jean has an important message for you, BREATHE!
"I know self-care seems like a long path but it only takes five minutes to breathe and reflect, take a pause and check in on how you are feeling" and NETWORK! "Make sure you have a supportive network of people that you can vent with."