Monday, December 18, 2006

Shadow Week

As kind of a grand finale to my internship, my supervisor, Deva, arranged for me to shadow a different YWTF board member at her job for three days this week. This way, I would be able to sneak a peek inside a few nonprofits, see how they were different (or similar) to the missions and inner workings of YWTF, and possibly gleam a few career ideas.

On Tuesday, I shadowed Aisha Taylor at the Women's Ordination Conference, where the exclusive focus was working to get women ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church. I wasn't sure what to expect, as Aisha was one of few board members I had yet to meet, and the address listed on their website was a P.O. Box. Aisha told me how to get there, and I arrived at a nondescript strip mall in Fairfax to begin my day at their offices. Aisha, who is the Executive Director of WOC, and Nidza Vasquez, the Program Director, were very friendly, and fed me dark chocolates and artichoke-spinach dip as I set to work organizing a mailing to the leaders of about fifty dioceses, nationwide, showing that their parishioners supported women's ordination. I also hand-wrote Christmas cards to their big donors, and made a few copies of a memo. The office was decidedly cozy, with lots of beautiful art celebrating women in religion.

WOC really challenged a lot of my ideas about feminism and religion. I think it's an unfortunately common western feminist belief that extremely religious women are, in some ways, oppressed by the institutions at which they worship. With the Catholic Church's blatantly anti-contraceptive and anti-choice stance, I must have assumed that any self-respecting feminist would sever her ties with the Church; this was a very stupid assumption. There are billions of Catholic women all over the world who believe in equality for women; just because they are pious does not mean they are victims. Instead of abandoning the Church in which they were raised, why not work towards making the Church more accepting of them? Aisha and Nidza told me that every reason the Church has offered as to why women cannot be ordained has been refuted through a textual analysis of the Bible, and that celibacy and maleness are outdated prerequisites for priesthood, considering the worldwide shortage of celibate male priests and the all-too-obvious problems that have arisen from those requirements. They argued that women do a majority of the actual work within their dioceses, and that they have often felt called to ordination, but denied that right based on their gender, and that this was in blatant disregard of Jesus's teachings of respect and equality for all people. So true! When my day was over, and all the envelopes were sealed, postmarked, and ready to go, Aisha gave me something really cool: a fake dollar bill with the face of Thérèse de Lisieux, a patron saint of sorts for those in favor of women’s ordination, and a message reading, "To encourage the church to celebrate the gifts and calls of women equally with those men in all ministries, I am withholding $____ from this collection. I have contributed it to Women's Ordination Conference." I thought that was really neat.

The next day, I was to meet Alex Walden at Legal Momentum, a women's public policy firm located just a few blocks down from the YWTF offices. I showed up a bit early, and waited in their offices, which were big, white, and set into a grid of cubicles, while reading the New York Times. Alex showed up with a hankering for coffee, so we walked down to Ye Olde Starbucks for some caffeine and chit-chat about her job with Legal Momentum. Basically, Legal Momentum has a legal team and a policy team, who work through a variety of programs to publicize, both in court and out, the preexisting rights of women under the law, and work to push for new ones. Alex worked in policy, which means that she was the one who reviewed the firm's activities and made press releases, amongst other things. She was leaving for New York the next day to negotiate the new contract for Legal Momentum's workers, who are unionized. We chatted away about her career ambitions and mine, and the frustrations and rewards of working for an organization that's policy-oriented. A cup of coffee stretched into an hour or so, and then we went back to her office, where I helped her research the results of female candidates in the midterm elections--luckily, a topic I'd researched before!

Thursday was by far my favorite. I was lucky enough to shadow Sheerine Alemzadeh, who is a paralegal with the Tahirih Justice Center, which helps women without status who are in jeopardizing situations because they are women seek asylum and avoid deportation, by offering them pro bono legal assistance. The center started with the seminal case of Fauziya Kassindha, who fled her native land of Togo because she refused to undergo FGM; she was the first person granted asylum in the U.S. on the grounds of gender-based persecution. This was an amazing organization to get to see first-hand, and Sheerine was the perfect shadow to follow. I highly recommend that anyone reading this blog right now go check out their website right now to learn more about it, because to explain the details of their operations would take more space than I've got. Needless to say, they provide a much-needed service by giving women, who often don't speak English, and know little to nothing about the legal immigration system here, and are most likely unable to afford court fees, to live in a persecution-free environment. Whether they were fleeing their homelands due to rape, domestic violence, or persecution because they were feminists, or whether they came to the States as "mail-order brides" and were living in abusive relationships, Sheerine and her associates help them through a series of phone screenings, interviews, and counseling. I went to a meeting with the three paralegals, who went through a list of cases and decided which ones they could help, and who would take which case. Then, Sheerine took me out to lunch at a Thai place down the street, and we talked about why she loves her job so much. I told her how I thought it was so important to do hands-on, and not just policy-centered, advocacy, and she agreed, saying that the Center really balanced out the two by helping actual immigrant women and by lobbying. She has touched so many lives, both directly and indirectly, and she's only twenty-two! Amazing.

It was so nice to get out of my office and see how other young women are becoming trailblazers in the women’s movement, and in such different ways. Each of the organizations I visited serves a different and integral purpose. YWTF organizes younger women and gives us a forum for meeting up, sharing concerns and ideas, and helping our communities based on local needs. The Women’s Ordination Conference serves as the voice and action of millions of Catholic women who feel called to ordination, or who simply wish to be recognized for their work within the Church on a level comparable to men. Legal Momentum advocates for a variety of issues related to women, both by taking on important court cases related to women’s rights, and by generating policy that speaks to all women, regardless of class or status. The Tahirih Justice Center fields calls from immigrant women at risk for deportation or abuse and helps them negotiate the necessary legal work. And these are only five of hundreds of like-minded organizations in the DC metro area alone working to help women! It was truly refreshing to witness firsthand the commitment and dedication these women and their co-workers manifest, and I, for one, was inspired.

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