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women cannot be ordained has been refuted through a textual analysis of the Bible, and that celibacy and maleness are outdated prerequisites for priesthood, considering the worldwide shortage of celibate male priests and the all-too-obvious problems that have arisen from those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.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

YWTF Member Profile: DC Metro Chapter

I thought it would be neat to let our readers get a feel for who our members actually are—what they do, how they’re engaged in YWTF, and so on. I hope that future YWTF bloggers will continue this trend, so that we can round it out by featuring profiles from chapters across the country; for now, I’m staying close to home, focusing on the DC Metro Chapter. Enjoy!

Name?
Lacey Dunham

Age?
23

How long have you been a YWTF member?
1 year

Why/how did you join YWTF?
I stumbled across YWTF doing an Internet search. The group seemed to fit my interests and seemed like a great way to meet people, so I joined! The first event I went to was The Good Body by Eve Ensler. We saw her perform it at the Lincoln Theatre in NW.

What do you think is the best perk of being a YWTF member?
Getting to meet and talk with other younger women. I also enjoy how the DC group’s agenda is member driven; what we’re interested in is what we do as a group. I appreciate that openness and flexibility.

What was your favorite event that your chapter hosted?
I’m a creative person with a lot of interest in the written and performative arts, so I’ve enjoyed the performances the group has attended. Something new we’re doing that I really enjoy is our discussion evenings, an informal gathering of members to talk about an issue affecting younger women. It feels wonderful to connect with women over issues that are important and matter.

Are you involved in any other form of activism outside of YWTF?
I work with a neighborhood association in my area that works to provide a balanced voice for all citizens in the neighborhood, not just the affluent, property-owning (and often Caucasian) neighbors.

What is your profession?
Currently, I am a fundraiser with an international development research and action organization that performs our work through the lens of gender.

Where did you go/are you going to school? What did you major in?
I graduated from a women’s college, Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. I doubled majored in Creative Writing and Social Politics.

What do you like to do in your free time?
A lot! Reading and writing are my true loves so I read voraciously and provide occasional freelance book reviews for websites and businesses. I also write a lot and take part in a bi-weekly writing group in NW DC. Additionally, I sing in a gospel choir and work now and then at a local yoga studio. I try to find time to meditate daily and to play with my two cats. As you can see, I like to keep myself busy!

What’s the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
The last book I read was A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There are short-comings to her thesis, namely that she doesn’t take class and race into perspective but it’s an important book for anyone interested in women and feminism. I also finished a book recently by a young adult author, Francesca Lia Block. Her writing is simple but her language and imagery are often overwhelming with their beauty. She writes on very adult themes and I appreciate that she is exposing youth and children to ideas and concepts in the world from which I don’t believe they should be sheltered.

If you had to pick a younger woman role model, who would it be and why?
You know, I’m always very impressed with all the younger women I meet in DC. I love talking with them and discovering their passions, learning about their jobs, and what motivates them in their daily lives. I am much more motivated by all of these women than I am by any Hollywood face or name. I think women who are living their daily lives, who are making a difference, who have passion and dedication for what they do are important role models for me and everyone.

How do the goals of YWTF apply to your daily life?
YWTF provides a forum for me to explore myself and my relationship to the larger world, especially now that I’m a professional and no longer a university student. I think ageism is an enormous problem in our culture and I appreciate YWTF because, as a younger woman who is often seen as incompetent, unintelligent, and incapable because I’m both a woman and I’m younger, it’s meaningful for me to know that an organization exists to support me and my place in the world.