Womanhood and Parenting in the Black Lives Matter Movement: A Web-Exclusive Interview with Erika Totten

Photo by Rick Reinhard

Erika Totten is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in the greater Washington, D.C. Metro area, and an activist for the black liberation movement at large. She stresses the importance of self-care for activists and radical healing for black people through emotional emancipation circles.

Jenna Barnett is a peace writer for the Women PeaceMakers Program at the University of San Diego's Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice.

Restoring Dignity in the Midst of Poverty and Human Trafficking

Shirley, an employee at Dignity Coconuts. Photo courtesy of Dignity.

I love the story of Shirley. Her family was struggling to survive in the Philippines—a nation plagued with poverty and modern-day slavery. Her husband Ramir took whatever small jobs he could to help the family, but without land, his only options were to work helping on a rice farm or a fishing boat. The pay was irregular and unsustainable, so he made the tough choice to look for work in a bigger city and send money back to Shirley and their three kids. Shirley applied to work at Dignity. She was skeptical as she had never worked with a team and doubted her abilities. When Dignity hired her, it changed her life and her family. Shirley was able to make a consistent income from Dignity. The cycle of poverty and human trafficking was stopped in its tracks.

Testing Jesus

THE GOSPELS OF Mark and Matthew both include the story of a Gentile woman who begs a reluctant Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28).

I thought of these texts last fall while reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical work of the acclaimed poet Maya Angelou, who died last year. Born in 1928, Angelou spent most of her childhood with her grandmother in small-town Stamps, Ark. After a few years of eating candy from her grandmother’s grocery store, Maya developed two cavities that, she writes, “were rotten to the gums.” However, the white dentist in Stamps did not take “Negro” patients, and the closest black dentist was 25 miles away.

For several days no aspirin touched the blinding pain, so her grandmother finally took her to the white dentist, determined to beg and plead for help. Her grandmother recounts the dentist’s final rejection in highly colorful language: “Said he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. … He said, ‘Annie, I done tole you, I ain’t gonna mess around in no niggah’s mouth.’”

We may recoil at such naked racism, but in the segregated Jim Crow South, this sentiment must have been typical. I can imagine white churchgoers reacting to this story by thinking, “The nerve of that woman begging help from a white dentist! She got what she deserved.”

In Mark, we find Jesus also comparing a woman of a different race to a dog. Matthew includes the same story, only here Jesus adds that he has no obligation to this woman because “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Most commentators are uncomfortable with Jesus’ response in both places, but it is often softened by an explanation that he was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. Or perhaps he teased her, with a twinkle in his eye, by calling the dogs “puppies”!

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Maria and the Rabbi

IT’S THE 50TH anniversary of The Sound of Music. I never thought I’d write about it here, but someone recently offered me the kind of gentle admonishment that Maria might have given to the von Trapp children. Maria is usually right, and my friend is too. One of the wisest film critics I know, a man dedicated to contemplation and activism and who doesn’t shy away from the more challenging edges of cinema, still considers it his favorite film.

Don’t get me wrong— it’s not the greatest movie he’s ever seen (that’s usually an entirely different category to “favorite”). But The Sound of Music did something unique for my friend—it showed him that there was a bigger world out there. My friend was suffering constant night terrors. When The Sound of Music finally showed up in his town, it was the first film ever to be approved by the local religious authorities. He felt safe to watch it (as did many other townsfolk— it played at their local theater for six years without a break); it became a bath for his soul. The scale, the energy, the sheer heart seemed to leap off the screen. The night terrors stopped, and never came back. He says he’s seen it nearly 60 times in the last 50 years. Lest we forget, the story is one of hope trumping almost unimaginable odds.

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Why Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Tale Provides Cover for U.S.-Led Wars in the Muslim World

Photo via REUTERS / Francois Lenoir / RNS

Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the European Parliament in Brussels on Feb. 14, 2008. Photo via REUTERS / Francois Lenoir / RNS

Controversial American author Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been a regular fixture on major news networks lately, discussing her most recent book, Heretic, as well as her views on various issues that include violence in Islam and the treatment of Muslim women.

An ex-Muslim, Hirsi Ali began her rise to fame with her book Infidel, which documented her hardships growing up as a Muslim woman in her native Somalia. In light of her turbulent past, Hirsi Ali has gained strong following in the West. Prominent atheist author Richard Dawkins has called her a “hero for rationalism and feminism.” Now, after the release of Hereticsome are again cheering her as a brave champion for women’s rights, especially for Muslim women.

While many in the West have been receptive to her case, Hirsi Ali’s vicious attacks on Islam and her support for the war on terror, fought mainly in Muslim countries  , have left her with few friends among Muslims, including women. Hirsi Ali once famously called Islam a “nihilistic cult of death,” and she has advocated for a war with Islam.

Many examples of brave Muslim women exist in the Muslim world, yet it is not surprising that Hirsi Ali, regardless of her dangerous assertions, has stolen the limelight. As the American government continues to indulge in the war on terror, Hirsi Ali’s story makes her the perfect candidate to provide validation for the atrocities committed by the U.S., from Somalia to Pakistan.

The war on terror is largely a bipartisan issue. But media personalities, especially neoconservatives, have rushed to Hirsi Ali’s defense . Seemingly ever ready for war in the post-9/11 era, they look to Hirsi Ali’s views to help legitimize their own anti-Islam bias and imperialist ambitions.

It is no surprise, then, that she is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which has consistently tried to foster antagonistic relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

The liberal media, which have provided a more balanced view on Islam, also sympathize with Hirsi Ali’s detrimental views, especially in its simplistic portrayals of women in the Islamic world.

'The Mask You Live In': A Blessed Mess

From impossible standards of beauty generated by the fashion and make-up industry to the disproportionate number of women who are elected to political office, women and girls in America face a variety of obstacles in their journey of empowerment. But what also warrants attention are some of the less noticeable consequences when gender norms are so narrowly defined across the board. For instance, if we characterize women as submissive, emotional, or alluring beings, then what does it mean to be a man? And how might damaging myths and stereotypes about masculinity produce its own host of social ills?

These questions remain central to The Representation Project’s latest documentary The Mask You Live In, a film that ambitiously seeks to re-evaluate how masculinity is defined and expressed in America. According to director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, when mainstream culture views masculinity as a rejection of everything feminine, traits like kindness, healthy emotions, and constructive resolution of conflict become undervalued if not wholly disregarded for most men. Instead, the prevailing norms that young boys receive from their homes—as well as in movies, sports, and video games—push them to equate masculinity with domination, violence, stoicism, financial success, or sexual conquest.

The Strength of our Stories

Vintage Inscription. Photo by MyImages - Micha / Shutterstock

There is room and need for men’s stories in the narrative of ending violence against women.

In blending our separate and shared experiences we find common ground. Together they lead us to what Dr. King described as "the fierce urgency of now." Every action we take today will save others the pain and suffering that is in our collective past. We need to add male voices and stories to those of women who have been speaking out about violence for decades.

Today I work as a co-coordinator in Oregon for the We Will Speak Out campaign. Our goal is to bring faith communities into the movement to end domestic and gender-based violence. This not a women’s movement. It is a movement of all people of faith to speak up and speak out to end the use of power over women and children. It is a movement that walks with survivors in their healing journey. It is a movement that strives to live into Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The "Broken Silence" report commissioned by Sojourners and IMA World Health indicates that the main issue in keeping pastors from speaking out about sexual and gender-based violence is a lack of knowledge on the issue. By speaking our truth and sharing our history we provide both the common ground and urgency to take action—together and now.

Learning from Undaunted Women

Three figures forming a heart. Image by VectorFrenzy / Shutterstock

Sitting in Prajwala's small conference room adjacent to a chaotic market, I asked Sunitha where the strength came from to charge ahead into danger, violence, and sometimes even rejection by the women Prajwala served. I don't remember her exact words - but the gist was that the strength came not from herself, but from faith in her own experience of God. Not a God owned by some religious denomination, but the real One. That One who never let Sunitha down when it was time to pay the staff, deal with the mob, handle corrupt police, or remain resolute in the face of failure.

I have been blessed and humbled to have met these three women and remain inspired by what they do, particularly their commitment to empowering other women and girls. Sunitha told me to not just show up and feel sorry. Send money if you are inclined, but most importantly, speak about sexual slavery and trafficking to everyone you know. Don't allow anyone to pretend it isn't going on in your own community. Only when all men are vocal about this and intolerant of any abuse of women will things improve.

I pray that I may develop a sliver of the courage Anna, Anna, and Sunitha model.

Lean In: How Men Can Support Gender Equity

Then there’s the more recent pragmatic argument: you should want gender parity because of how it will help your own family, business, or city. In short, inequality and violence harms the women who are your partners and friends. Some suggest that it’s mighty convenient that men are ready to take a stand when we finally see how it benefits us. But one female friend advised me that men should ease up on themselves: “Just deliver gender parity, and we’ll gladly forget HOW exactly you got there. Deal?”

According to the Global Gender Gap Report released at the latest World Economic Forum, it will take 80 years to reach gender parity in pay, status, governance, etc. In the year 2095, my daughters would be approaching 100 years old, and my mother, wife, two sisters, aunts and so forth would be long dead along with me and all the women that I care about today. Why wait 80 more years? It’s time for all men to lean in and help cut that number in half (and then some).

I’ve joked before that having two older sisters is what every boy needs to make the world spin around more equitably. If not biological sisters, then let’s find older sisters for every boy. Hopefully with gender parity cut down to 20 years from 80, my 7-year-old son will need to work twice as hard to “get ahead,” since he’ll finally be competing fairly with the other half of the sky. May it be so.

Justice Ginsburg Writes a Feminist Opinion for Passover

Photo via REUTERS / Mario Anzuoni / RNS

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo via REUTERS / Mario Anzuoni / RNS

Rabbi Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

Not quite, but when a Jewish nonprofit asked the Supreme Court justice to write a biblical commentary for Passover, she agreed, and added a feminist twist: It would raise up the often overlooked women of the Exodus story.

Ginsburg, one of three Jews and three women on the high court, is known as a champion of women’s rights — but not for being particularly religious.

But Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, whom Ginsburg asked to help out with the commentary, said Ginsburg had a clear vision for the piece and knew exactly which biblical women she wanted to highlight from the iconic liberation story of the Book of Exodus.

“She has a Jewish soul, there is no question,” Holtzblatt, a rabbi at Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., said of Ginsburg.

“It’s in her. It’s deeply in her.”