It was the news no-one wants to wake up to hear, delivered to me by my good friend, Thatch. Pete Seeger was dead. He’d been so much a part of my life for so long that my head hurt and my heart ached with the knowledge of his passing. Pete Seeger who’d written my favorite song, Turn, Turn, Turn. Pete Seeger who, with his wife, Toshi Aline Seeger, founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, to protect the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands. Pete Seeger, musical and political icon for a generation of people who shared his commitment to social justice. Pete Seeger, who said, “Participation – that’s what’s gonna save the human race.”
Speaking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in 2004, Seeger said, “I honestly believe the future is going to be millions of small things saving us. Imagine a giant see-saw where one half is weighted with big rocks and the other side is half full of sand and a lot of us have teaspoons with sand and we’re tipping it into this side. There are a lot of people laughing at us and saying that the sand is leaking out as fast as we put it in. And we’re saying, we’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time and we really think we’re getting there. At some point you’ll see the see-saw tip in the other direction (toward justice) and people will say ‘how did things turn so quickly?'” Seeger should know. His life is one that has affirmed the power of movement building. His active participation in the peace movement, anti-nuclear movement, and environmental movement has informed his songwriting at every turn (turn, turn).
During the Cold War era, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) interrogated more than 3,000 government officials, labor union leaders, teachers, journalists, entertainers, and others in order to purge communists, former communists and friends of communists from positions of influence. Seeger was one of those required to testify before the HUAC and, once there, Seeger refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment that protects citizens from self-incrimination. Instead he insisted that the Committee had no right to question him regarding his political beliefs or associations and he was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison for contempt. While this verdict was later reversed, Seeger remained on a network television blacklist until the late 1960s.
As a consequence of this blacklisting, and his difficulty securing performance venues, Seeger started playing at colleges and schools. Those in power thought Seeger was playing in arenas where he couldn’t do much harm and yet his ‘teaspoons of sand’ approach to engaging young people in his music and encouraging their social activism galvanized a new generation of advocates and catalyzed a new era of citizen action.
Seeger’s early exposure to American folk music, including time spent traveling through the South with his father, a musicologist and classical composer, infused in him a deep love of old time music. This connection deepened as a result of his working at the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Songs where his boss and mentor, Alan Lomax, connected him to a rich oral tradition where Seeger could learn how to capture old verses and add new ones relevant to the stories of a new generation. In the process he became a folksinger compelled by concerns for social and environmental justice and international peace and he was able to translate these concerns into potent songs.
The song ‘We Shall Overcome’ was drawn from a solidarity song called ‘We’ll Overcome’ created by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945-46. One of the strikers, Lucille Simmons, changed the words from “I” to “We’ll” to intensify the solidarity. When Simmons brought the song to the Highlander Folk School in 1947, she shared it with Zilphia Horton, head of the school’s cultural program and Horton taught it to Seeger. In turn, Seeger at some point started singing it as ‘We Shall Overcome’…as he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in 2004.
” ‘We Shall Overcome’ soon became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a song of dignity and comfort for protestors as they battled hate and prejudice in their fight for equal rights for African Americans. I’m usually credited with changing ‘Will’ to ‘Shall,’ but there was a black woman who taught at Highlander Center, a wonderful person named Septima Clark. And she always liked ‘We shall overcome’ too. I’m told she thought it slowed it down and had a better rhythm.”
Late last year I was in Charleston, Carolina, to speak at a Women of Wisdom event at The Sophia Institute . I was transfixed by a photo on the wall of the venue, the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture. The photo was of Septima Clark and the storylines of her face, and her wise, steadfast gaze, was arresting. I took photos of her picture and, as often as possible that weekend, I returned to look at her picture.
Septima Poinsette Clark was a civil rights activist and educator who developed the literacy and citizenship workshops that played an important role in the drive for voting rights and civil rights for African Americans. Her work was apparently under- appreciated by male Southern activists although Martin Luther King often referred to her as ‘The Mother of the Movement.’ Clark maintained a strong belief that her work in terms of supporting people’s awareness of their rights was crucial as she claimed that “knowledge could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn’t.”
Just a few weeks earlier I’d been in Birmingham at a Women’s Funding Network regional conference. In a taxi, the driver, a black man, said to me ‘things haven’t changed here much, there’s still not a lot of communication between whites and blacks, still a lot of poverty within the black community here.” He took me to see the sculpture commemorating the girls who were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963.
In 1963, work was progressing on ending racial segregation and voter registration in many parts of the South, including in Alabama, in spite of ongoing violent protests from those who disagreed. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was a focal organizing point and it was used as a meeting place for civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. It was also where students had been arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade. During a Sunday School Service on September 15, 1963 a bomb exploded in the church as an act of terrorism by white supremacists. In the explosion four black girls were killed, setting off riots that resulted in two black boys being fatally shot. This act marked a watershed in the Civil Rights Movement and it led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fifty years after the bombing, a large bronze memorial to the four girls was installed in the park across from the church, just a short walk from a life size statue of Martin Luther King Jr., Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen led a team of fellow sculptors in creating this life-size monument. The sculpture, entitled ‘Four Spirits’, depicts the four girls – Denise McNair, who was 11, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, who all were 14 – in and around a bench with a flock of six doves. The six doves commemorate the four girls and also the two young men, Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, who were shot and killed in the riots that followed the church bombing.
In the finished sculpture, Denise McNair is reaching exuberantly for the birds as they head skyward, and she has one in each hand. Feathers are on her hands and wrists, evoking an image that she will soon take flight herself.
Where have all the flowers gone, Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone, Long time ago
Where have all the young girls gone, Long time passing
Where have all the young girls gone, Long time ago
Deep in our hearts
I do believe
We shall overcome
The role that music and the arts play in social change is transformative in every sense. It captures the dramatic story at an emotional level and, provides space for activists to create ‘the story arc’, as my friend Chris Grumm calls it; one that leads to justice and generational change.
Seeger spoke to Amy Goodman in 2004 about his belief that Woody Guthrie, Buffy St Marie, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell were the finest songwriters of his generation in writing songs that sparked social action and awareness. And that it would be women and children who showed men the folly of focusing their lives on the acquisition of power. Buffy St Marie’s music has been very much about recognizing our individual responsibility to change things and our role in confronting greed and exploitation. (St Marie: “The problem is greed. We need to recognize that we belong to the same river.”)
Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.
And now there are new songs for a new generation of social activists.
In the U.S. one of the most compelling social justice campaigns is also one captured by artists, musicians and storytellers. The DREAMers movement is one that represents and advocates for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are separated from their families across continents. These are young people who were brought here as children by their parents. Many of them have never known any other country besides the U.S. and yet they don’t have a way to become legal residents or citizens here.
A total of 1.7 million people have been deported under President Obama alone. Protesters say they want a moratorium on the deportations while Congress considers the immigration reform bill that has already passed the U.S. Senate.
One of the groups involved in the movement, The National Day Laborer Organizing Network which comprises a broad coalition of immigration activists, teamed up with indie film director, Alex Rivera to use the power of culture, specifically film and music, to highlight the critical need for immigration reform.
Rivera captures in the music video the intense emotional toll that living life under the constant threat of deportation can take on undocumented immigrants, their families, and communities. Rivera chose real-life day laborers, activists, and family members of deported immigrants as subjects in the music video. In an interview with Buzzfeed, Rivera said, “It’s the ultimate power of cinema, to be able to show things that happen every day that are largely invisible.”
The songwriter, Aloe Blacc, who wrote ‘Wake Me Up’, sings this song in the video as one that vividly and powerfully captures the emotions of those involved in the struggle to be reunited in the U.S. with their families.
Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start
One group called ‘United We Dream’ brought together DREAMers and their parents to chain themselves to a fence at an immigration detention facility in Phoenix. This same group also organized a protest where the DREAMers met their parents through the border fence, and embraced through the fence at Nogales, Mexico, on the parents’ side of the border. The children could be in the U.S. illegally, but their parents could not. Their message was simple: stop splitting up our families when our only crime is wanting to live here peacefully, together.
Another group, National Immigrant Youth Alliance, also a part of this movement, organized young people who had lived in the U.S. their whole lives to go to the border, wearing their graduation cap and gown, and risk being expelled forever from the only country they’d known so that they could make the point that the U.S. is their home. These young people did get to come home and, in the process, they broke new legal ground for themselves and others by risking their own futures to make their case.
Over the last 15 years, people and organizations concerned about social justice, equality and development have increasingly turned to policy advocacy and campaigning to promote change. They are doing this in an environment where they are struggling to hold ground, let alone gain ground, and, in so doing they are working to understand the most effect ways to shift and transform power.
The feminist scholar, Srilatha Batliwala, defines social movements as being an organized set of people vested in making change in their situation, pursuing a common political agenda through collective action. Movement building organizes marginalized, discriminated people to build collective power. Movements create their own political agenda for change and undertake collective action and in pursuit of securing their rights and entitlements, transforming structures and challenging beliefs that justify their exclusion.
As Batliwala says, ‘”Movements matter because they can bring down multiple barriers, creating change in formal and informal structures and sustaining change over time. For women’s movements this includes a specific focus on shifting power and transforming relations that build on women’s own strategies and capacities, and involve women members at every stage of the process.”’
So what have women’s movements achieved over the last year? Well, for one thing, we’ve seen women’s movements score some political wins as part of the larger agenda to advance women’s and girls’ human rights.
Within the U.S., Texas State Senator Wendy Davis staged an eleven-hour filibuster of the state’s proposed restrictive abortion law, cheered on by hundreds of activists in the room and millions more who were watching. Supporting Davis, Texas legislator Leticia van de Putte, spoke the immortal line to the Senate President: “Mr President…at what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”
Senator Elizabeth Warren represented the 99 percent in demanding accountability for banks and an end to credit checks by prospective employers thus stalling momentum for “entitlement reform.”
Janet Yellen defeated Larry Summers to become the first woman chair of the Federal Reserve.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and, as a result, 84-year-old plaintiff Edie Windsor became a national hero to many. In eight more U.S. states gay people are now able to marry and polls show that a majority of Americans support marriage equality.
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, wrote Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, a book that got everybody talking about women and work in new ways and new spaces while Anne- Marie Slaughter’s earlier article in The Atlantic magazine, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, remains a compelling counterpoint.
Beyond the U.S., Michelle Bachelet was elected president of Chile for the second time, and Angela Merkel won a third term as German chancellor while Park Geun-hye became the first woman president of South Korea. Rwanda strengthened its position as the only country in the world with a female-majority Parliament where almost 64 percent of MPs are women. In Australia, Natasha Stott Despoja, former leader of the Democrats and a Senator for 13 years, was appointed Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.
In Russia, police arrested and jailed two members of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk rock protest group that frequently critiques policies of Russian President Putin, whom they regard as a dictator. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina Nadezhda were arrested after turning a performance into a music video entitled “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” In late October 2012, both women were sent to separate prisons and they were finally released in December 2013 after serving 21 months.
In Ireland, Parliament passed a law permitting abortion to save a woman’s life after Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis in 2012, because her doctors refused to complete her miscarriage and allow her to survive.
In Iraq, with the sustained advocacy by women’s rights groups, the government became the first country in the Arab world to develop a National Action Plan for implementation of the United Nations Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR1325) on Women, Peace and Security (women’s active participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction).
The wonderful global women’s rights activist, Professor Shirley Randell, wrote in her blog of the many women whose leadership has been recognized and elevated in the last year:
‘Myrna Kay Cunningham Kainhas, one of the leading figures of the global Indigenous Movement as a researcher, parliamentarian and social activist for the rights of indigenous peoples and especially for the rights of indigenous women in Nicaragua, the Americas and the world, has been awarded the first Iberoamerican Prize for Human Rights and the Culture of Peace.
The Indira Gandhi Peace Prize has been conferred on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, recognizing her work for peace, disarmament and development. The 2013 Nansen Refugee Award was won by Sister Angelique Namaika, who works in the remote northeast region of the Democratic Republic of Congo with survivors of displacement and abuse by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
New Zealander Jane Campion was announced as the jury president of the 67th Cannes Film Festival, running in May 2014.
In Zimbabwe, 124 women have been sworn-in as new Members of Parliament. Women’s representation in Parliament more than doubled from 17 per cent following the 2008 general elections, to 35 per cent in the elections on 31 July 2013. Zimbabwe now joins the ranks of the more than 30 countries worldwide that have used a special electoral quota system to increase women’s representation in Parliament to at least 30 per cent, considered the minimum for collective action. Vanuatu, with no women in Parliament, has enacted legislation requiring 20% of seats in Vila and Luganville Municipal Councils to be reserved for women, a small but significant start.
Fijian women’s human rights defender, Virisila Buadromo, has been appointed to head the People’s General Assembly, a historic gathering of civil society representatives from around the globe. Julie Carney, Cofounder, Gardens for Health has been recognized as one of 30 Forbes List Under-30 Social Entrepreneurs, providing patients at public health centers with seeds, tree seedlings, and small livestock and working to improve nutrition in families.
The International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) came into force on 5 September 2013, extending basic labor rights to domestic workers (mostly women) around the globe. Currently there are at least 53 million domestic workers worldwide, not including child domestic workers, and this number is increasing steadily in developed and developing countries.’
Shirley Randell herself was one of the 2013 International Alliance of Women World of Difference 100 Awardees.
Sakena Yacoobi, Global Fund for Women Board member and founder and president of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), an Afghan women-led NGO dedicated to promoting education, health and culture among women and families in Afghanistan, was the recipient of the one million dollar 2013 Opus Prize. Another Global Fund Board Member, Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, executive director of FemLINKPACIFIC in Fiji, has been awarded the 2014 Women of Distinction Award from the NGO-Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.
Women in Australia and in Britain mobilized social media campaigns to counter misogynist and sexist statements expressed by media commentators and political leaders. In Australia this took the form of a response to a radio broadcaster suggesting if more women got into power they would destroy the joint. Soon after, a tweet by a woman saying she was thinking of destroying the joint and her hashtag inviting others to join her went viral and destroythejoint.org was born. In the UK the website and hashtag Everyday Sexism reflected the daily reality of misogyny for women.
One of the documentary filmmakers and human rights activists who captured the consequences of this sexism and misogyny in the UK was Deeyah Khan who created a film called Banaz: A Love Story. Khan produced the film to expose the inaction by the British Police after a woman being abused by her husband sought out police protection on five separate occasions. This documentary chronicles the brutal honor killing of Banaz Mahmod, a young British woman in suburban London in 2006, killed and “disappeared” by her own family, with the agreement and help of a large section of the Kurdish community, because Banaz Mahmod tried to choose a life for herself.
Khan made the film to give Banaz the voice and validation she was denied when she was alive. Khan: “Our silence allows this to happen…we must bear witness…I want us to hear Banaz’s voice so that when we hear others we act… It’s time to end the fatal ignorance by authorities… I can no longer stand by as these women are butchered and erased. In the UK 12 honor killings last year and over 3,000 honor crimes yet there is still no specialist unit to deal with it. Honor is the ingredient that can escalate violence against women to lethal levels. The flow of pressure moves from the community to the family to the individual, the woman. In this case, Banaz must die.” “Banaz went to the UK police, they failed her on five occasions before Banaz was murdered.”
Nelson Mandela’s life was testimony to this approach of defusing hate, conflict and aggression, and to harnessing the power of music. In 2003, Mandela hosted the first in a series of concerts meant to bring awareness across South Africa of the spread of HIV/AIDS by, as he said, with Bono behind him on stage, “using the universal language of music to reach the greatest possible audience in order to achieve a world free of AIDS”. When Nelson Mandela died on December 5th 2013 the world lost one of the greatest liberation leaders it had ever known, a man of deep resources of political wisdom and courage and a legendary advocate for peace and justice, truth and reconciliation. I cherish the day I had with Mr. Mandela when he advised me to focus on conflict resolution and citizen led change, and the defining influence he has had on my life.
After a time of intense work activity last month, I retreated to rest. Time spent sleeping on a friend’s sun deck, near to the sea, Josh ringing in to read me poetry while I bathed. Beach walks in which I lived for the moments I could watch dogs racing into the sea to catch a stick, to follow a ball. Pure joy. Time to spin my own harmonies, singing to the sea and then returning home to take my palette of crayons and create wildly slashed storyboards of life writ large.
Songs are funny things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells. I always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history.
Well, I’ve got a hammer
and I’ve got a bell
and I’ve got a song to sing
all over this land
It’s the hammer of justice
It’s the bell of freedom
It’s a song about love between my
brothers and my sisters
all over this land