Rising Up: Critical Awareness and Common Ground

Within each Cycle we offer Key Ideas and Tools to support you wherever you are in your movement building journey.  Are you just starting out or are you in the heat of a shaking up moment?  What is emerging in your context and what do you want to do?  What kind of capacity do you have?  Have you thought about risks and safety?  These Cycles can be used as a framework for Movement Builders—both experienced and new. So start collecting your tools and store them in your We Rise toolkit.

Rising Up

Rising Up is about discovering the power within us, the common ground that we share with others, and the potential we have together to change our lives, our communities and our world.

  • Safe Space Creating respectful places for dialogue and listening where we can speak our truth, share stories about our lives, question taboos and resist the shame and stigma that silence us; and where we can tap our own knowledge and know-how.
  • Heart Mind Body Affirming our wholeness and worth as an act of love and resistance given the toll that violence and oppression take on our spirit; caring for our bodies, health, sexuality, emotions, and intelligence in order to foster vitality and love in our lives, organizations and communities.
  • The Personal is Political Understanding and connecting the struggles, pain and power dynamics we face in our private lives to injustice in the society as a whole. Recovering and reinterpreting our individual and collective histories with this new perspective.
  • Common Ground and Community Finding common ground with others around similar experiences, problems and hopes, and together forging common cause.
  • Power Within Affirming the transformative and powerful knowledge that rises within us, that our lives matter and that we possess inherent worth, ideas and ability.
  • Speaking Out—Freedom and Expression Speaking out, using theater, art, writing and other means to give voice to what matters and what we have lived through; overcoming fear to imagine possibilities and make different choices in our lives.
  • “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”—Bell Hooks

    Safe Space

    A safe space is a process. It’s about creating a respectful place for dialogue, and listening to find where there is sensitivity and recognition about differences among people, where stereotypes and the reproduction of social hierarchies that tend to either privilege or silence individuals are consciously avoided. A safe space is a place where we can speak our truth, share stories about our lives, question taboos, and resist the shame that silences us. A safe space for dialogue allows for critical thought and meaningful connection between people to find common problems and solutions that tap into our know-how. By creating a safe space for reflection we are able to question the order of things, trace our paths of life, and build confidence. This process is key to developing deeper political consciousness and analysis.

    It was JASS who came in and asked us what was burning in our hearts, and then we started addressing the issue of deformation from ARVs [Antiretroviral drugs]. JASS has taught us how to put our voices together for collective action in order to name and shame the government, as well as to lobby for better quality ARVs. We wanted our dignity back.”―Tiwonge Gondwe, Malawian Activist

    For feminists and many social activists, change begins with personal lives, and with the lessons and insights about the power that is embedded in the ways we have made change under difficult circumstances.  Safe spaces build an environment of political trust where we can be open and honest in discussing fears, risks and conflicts outside of us and between us. Safe space must also include processes of relaxation, artistic expression, dance, laughter and other elements to recover from the burnout and violence experienced by activists. In some contexts, physical, emotional, and psychological violence can undermine political participation and silence women in particular.

    Safe spaces enable women to deal with their fears and sense of guilt, and to begin putting their wellbeing at the forefront.”―Malena de Montis, JASS Mesoamerica

    At its core, safe space allows people to examine how power plays out in their lives, and supports their efforts in building positive power (power within, power with, and power to). We create safe spaces that build solidarity, a shared contextual analysis, and an understanding of the gendered nature of power. We begin to recognize how negative forms of power, such as restrictive policies and norms, affect their lives. In the same vein, they also begin to step into their power by understanding that they are worthy and valuable, and that their voices and experiences matter. This consciousness-raising process builds their confidence and gives them a new lens with which to examine their lives—not as victims, but as people with the capacity to lead and mobilize for change.

    Setting up a safe space incorporates many components including the actual physical space. We need to ensure that the physical space is comfortable. For instance, if there are chairs, placement in a circle can be helpful to avoid creating or reinforcing power dynamics.  The more welcoming the space is, the better.

    Once the space is arranged appropriately, participants collectively agree on the principles that will govern their space. Core among these principles are the issues of confidentiality and consent, and of methods to deal with sorrow and pain. Participants have to trust that they can share their experiences freely, and that their stories will remain completely confidential unless they give consent.

    Tools For Creating Safe Spaces

    Moving Beyond The Tool…

    Be part of the conversation between Adelaide Mazwarira, Anna Davies-van Es, Winnet Shamuyarira and Valerie Miller – all part of the JASS community of staff, activists and allies –  as they reflect on the meaning of safe space and why it is politically essential, especially for those working with people whose voices are often suppressed, silenced or marginalized. This conversation illuminates how creating safe space(s) not only enables us to speak our mind, but also allows us to be seen and valued for our full selves.  In safe space(s) we can become human to and with each other, and with that tap into new levels of compassion, comprehension, creativity and power.

    1. I understand safe space as an environment that allows women’s voices and experiences to be expressed, heard, respected and validated, free from reprisal. Oftentimes, women don’t have spaces that allow them to talk openly, or to feel that their voices are valid and legitimate.
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    2. Valerie Miller Face
      For me, safe space is not only about creating a place where people feel trust and confidence, and are able to share at a very deep level, but it’s also about creating a place that allows people to be creative.
    3. For me, safe space is also about tapping into the power within by treating people as human beings, as worthy and valuable. It’s questioning the relationship between safe space and power. For example, negative power says, you don’t matter and your story is available for use by anyone, anytime. But positive power says, I am worthwhile, that how and when I want to tell my story matters.
      Anna Davies Van Es face
    4. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      How do you ensure a safe space among very different people?
    5. When creating safe space, it’s crucial that people come up with their own principles, for example confidentiality, punctuality and respect. You can get into spaces where people are talking about solidarity, togetherness, but they are not delving into what that unity looks like. As a facilitator, you guide the discussion so everyone understands these principles.
    6. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      When safe space goes right, what are the benefits, and what impact do they have?
    7. Safe space allows women to actually start engaging in their fuller sense, to start expressing how they feel, because more often than not, we are made to think about everything outside ourselves. I believe with safe space, we start looking at ourselves differently. In a space that allows me, to be me, I can also start looking at the person next to me in a different way. And, together we can see beyond our differences and start thinking about how to challenge the patriarchal system in a big way.
    8. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      When does a space stop being safe?
    9. When women and others we work with can bring their full selves into the open, we are also creating vulnerabilities. That’s why abiding by the key principles governing our space is critical. For example, a space stops being safe when we start judging each other, break confidentiality (sharing information outside the space, without consent) and allow identities to become a barrier to engagement.
    10. Anna Davies Van Es face
      Being non-judgmental is not allowing expressions that perpetuate oppression.
    11. What you’re trying to do in creating a safe and creative space is not only to allow people to share deeply, but to also challenge their ideas, and challenge each other. So this becomes a process of mutual inquiry. We want to be affirming of people’s experiences and background, but with a spirit of real inquiry.
      Valerie Miller Face
    12. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      I also think the casual nature of safe spaces is critical. Their informality is pivotal and conducive for allowing women to open up and learn from each other. Having different women in one space with different perspectives – and being able to voice those perspectives – is very powerful because they are challenging each other, but not in confrontational way, to look at the same issues a little differently. These conversations help to start shifting minds.
    13. So for me, a safe space is also about how we respond to vulnerability. And it’s a place where I can bring my vulnerabilities and feel that the space is able to hold and respond to that vulnerability.
    14. Anna Davies Van Es face
      You have to be prepared that people will either share deeply or not. It can’t be a therapy session. As a facilitator, you need to acknowledge those deep feelings and link them back to the patriarchal system. It is equally important to politicize our well-being by asking, how do we respond to someone’s story collectively and then put it back into the political space?
    15. Also, this discussion makes me realize that the creation of a safe space is not static. It’s an ongoing co-creative process between women. We are growing and challenging each other but it’s a journey we are taking together. This collaborative nature allows us to address issues that are making a space unsafe.
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
  • “In addressing issues of the heart, mind and body, you must bear in mind that it’s important to work with a whole person and not just selected parts.”—Hope Chigudu, Zimbabwe

    Heart, Mind, Body

    Heart-Mind-Body (HMB) is a political analysis and practice – inspired and shaped by many different people and groups – that puts our bodies, knowledge, feelings and safety at the center of how we understand inequality and how we build transformative change.  For feminists, HMB reflects a bold, even radical, affirmation of the value of women’s lives—from basic safety and security to self-care, wellbeing and resilience—as a foundation of movement building.

    Heart-Mind-Body is about understanding and affirming our wholeness and worth as an act of love and resistance given the toll that unequal and violent systems take on bodies and spirits. Caring for our bodies, health, sexuality, emotions, and intelligence is central to political work as it fosters vitality and love in our lives, organizations and communities.

    Heart-Mind-Body is also a framework for good community organizing and political action. If our strategies and communications engage people’s hearts, minds and bodieswith inspiration, joy, smart information, opportunities to shape the agenda and ways to move with usthey will join our justice cause and stay with us.”—Lisa VeneKlasen

    Much can be learned from women activists about what it takes to sustain our social and political change efforts. In response to the insecurity and risks women and women activists often face, many groups have recognized that wellbeing is critical to collective strategies that make women safer and stronger politically. The Heart-Mind-Body approach acknowledges the profound impact oppression, inequality and violence have on our bodies and on our sense of self. HMB centralizes strategies for safety, wellbeing, self-care, and renewal to sustain women’s vital organizing efforts in complex political contexts.

    One of the great contributions is self-care, which means putting your body as a woman defender at the center of the debate. Your body is political territory. It’s one of the first spaces for constructing freedom... for defining how to exist as a woman, a human being, a citizen in this struggle.”—Honduran Activist

    Prioritizing the wellbeing of individual women is essential for nurturing stronger organizations and real, sustained change. Integrating HMB into ongoing work means including in our analysis of power and specific issues their impact on our bodies and emotions as well as on our communities.  How we feel about difficulties in our communities is often something that really connects us to others. Indeed, emotions like frustration and anger which can be transformed by hope are key to organizing social change.

    HMB also involves sharing simple practices and skills for self-care with those who have survived violence and/or burn out. It means thinking proactively about security and safety planning. It also involves using HMB as a means to build solidarity within communities, organizations and even families, to work together to build strategies for safety and strength.

    Prioritizing our wellbeing as activists is crossing the line.”—Shereen Essof

    There are different HMB approaches that reflect and affirm the vital connection between the heart, the mind and the body that is a critical foundation for change.  In working with women, conversations about how power operates in women’s lives identify forms of power that oppress and subjugate them, as well as forms of power that can liberate, connect and build solidarity among them. These learning and reflection processes energize and challenge women, allowing them to appreciate their individual struggles and talents, to name and analyze the common barriers they face, and to come together to make a difference.

    I came here feeling like I would not belong. I was very nervous because women look badly on sex workers. But here in the circle I have found my space and my hope. I spoke to a lawyer and she helped me. I came here with a heavy heart and spoke to a counselor who helped. I did not know this circle would give me a chance and change for my life.”—Sex Worker and Activist, Zimbabwe

    Tools for Heart Mind Body

    Moving Beyond the Tool...

    Hear what Lisa VeneKlasen, Hope Chigudu, Adelaide Mazwarira and Shereen Essof from the JASS community of staff, activists and allies, have to say about Heart, Mind, Body.  They reflect on why, given the demands and risks of organizing, the commitment to valuing our lives, voices, emotions and bodies is essential not just for our survival, but also for our resilience, joy and the capacity to transform our realities.

    1. What is HMB and why is it important?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    2. Heart-Mind-Body is about rebuilding, re-imagining, recovering and learning. It is integrated into how we organize, our movement strategies, our collective security, and how we treat ourselves as activists. People change because something touched their heart. And what you feel in your heart, you tend to also feel in your whole body. So Heart-Mind-Body is a reminder that attending to our whole selves is part of good organizing and is social change in and of itself. Heart-Mind-Body affirms that people change through a variety of physical, emotional, and mental processes to build our energy together.
    3. And this process is vital because with activism, you often feel like you are running up a steep incline, with no time to rest, reflect and regroup.
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    4. We want to involve people in a way that they can move, they can talk, they can dance, they can respond. I think that the Body is a critical reminder that this work is taxing, exhausting, and risky. So, if our organizing doesn’t take into account all the ways our activism against inequality and our fight for social justice strains us, exhausts us, and sometimes puts us at physical risk, we are not succeeding as organizers.
    5. Doing this kind of work for change and peace means challenging power. Challenging power structures sooner or later results in violence. As activists, we often expend so much energy to survive, to create spaces and strategies that benefit wider constituencies and that sustain organizing and organizations, yet we fail to expend the same energy to take care of our own bodily wellbeing as well as to strengthen our spirits to continue our work for a world where we can all be free.
    6. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      I understand why HMB is important, but how or why does the disconnect between heart, mind and body happen in the first place?
    7. It’s easy to put work at the center of our lives. But along the way we can lose sight of the whole system, of ourselves, of sisterhood and of the essence of that which connects us as human beings. In the name of professionalism, we become isolated. We lose our creativity, audacity, energy and love of our work. The work itself loses meaning and we end up feeling perpetually angry, anxious over deadlines, fatigued and lonely. Heart-Mind-Body helps many of us realize that it is legitimate to bring who we are into the work we do.
    8. The belief that it is not justifiable to use resources such as time, energy and space in order to reflect and care for oneself, to develop one’s self-knowledge and optimize one’s strengths, is in and of itself a form of violence which women activists enact upon themselves.
    9. Any last words?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    10. Women activists from all walks of life are struggling to process emotional and physical trauma and stress. We have no choice but to make Heart-Mind-Body, both as a process and as a strategy, a vehicle for re-tooling and re-energizing women and their movements in new ways. It is an essential ingredient to instilling cultures of peace, activist leadership and women’s movement-building.
    11. The touchstone for all our work is the lives, experiences and dreams of women. A woman’s heart, mind and body absorb the grim reality of discrimination. For deep and lasting change, women’s whole selves must be at the center of leadership and organizing, a principle that gives meaning to the phrase, “from survivors to defenders.” When women are at the forefront of change, they don’t just address issues, they transform communities and systems.
  • "The 'personal is political’ is not only a feminist slogan from the 60s. It’s a basic starting point for doing effective political work and a foundation for bigger change in the world."—Lisa VeneKlasen

    The Personal Is Political

    The “personal is political” is a well-known feminist adage and rallying cry coined in the late 1960s. At its core, it asserts that inequality and the social structures and beliefs that are the foundation for power and privilege begin at home and are reproduced in our families. For women, the personal arena is a site where structural violence and inequality play out vividly. For example, domestic violence—an issue which was long viewed as a private matter—remains at the top of women’s rights agendas because—while laws have changed—police, the justice system and family institutions around the world continue to treat this issue as a private matter.  

    Feminists have mobilized women and men globally through direct action and many creative media tactics to communicate to the world that domestic violence is a crime and a public health problem.  

    The “personal is political” is a guide to formulating political agendas and communication strategies, and to organizing tactics for women and for everyone.  Addressing deep inequality should include—and often start with—ourselves and the context in which we are living, because our perceptions about ourselves, our social roles and what is happening in our families are all shaped by larger political and social structures.

    At JASS, we believe that real transformation cannot be achieved by solely changing laws or policies. Fundamentally addressing inequality involves more than putting a few more resources or a little extra income into women’s hands. We know that to achieve freedom, dignity, respect and the wellbeing of all human beings and the planet requires a deep and profound transformation of social and political institutions. This kind of change does involve the redistribution of resources. However, most importantly, it simply cannot be completed without transforming our family structures and ourselves—the hearts and minds of women and men.

    The “personal is political” is a useful framework for popular education methodologies and strategies.  The basic guide is to start with people’s experiences at home, even when dealing with seemingly big topics like militarization and consumerism.  These problems infiltrate and shape our lives. In many ways, the personal impacts not only give us clues about the structures of power, which is key for consciousness-raising, they also help us identify great communication and organizing strategies.

    Tools for the Personal is Political

    Moving Beyond the Tool...

    Why does this central feminist adage still have so much relevance for organizing today? Join a conversation with Valerie Miller, Alda Facio, Adelaide Mazwarira, Lisa VeneKlasen—from the JASS staff and community of activists and allies—as they talk about the origins of “the personal is political” and particularly how it helps us “discover” patterns of injustice and power imbalance where once we thought our experiences were just bad luck or our fault. And, most importantly, listen as they discuss how this critical awareness creates a foundation for deep and lasting change.  

    1. How would you define the “personal is political”?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    2. Valerie Miller Face
      When women first got together in consciousness-raising groups, one of the first a-ha moments was, “You’re facing discrimination or domestic violence in your relationship? I am too!” Women began to realize that their problems were not just personal; they were shared. So, in this sense, that makes it a political problem—a problem of the community.
    3. When we say the “personal is political”, we are affirming that the discrimination, exclusion and violence women suffer is not an individual problem that only concerns the assaulted, the discriminated and the excluded, but also is part of a system that dehumanizes all women. This is therefore a political problem that requires political solutions.
    4. Essentially, the “personal is political” is the core of feminism. It’s an inspiring way to help us understand how inequality works in our lives. It’s within our personal relationships where we experience an unequal balance of power, where we become accustomed to this imbalance. As women, we’re meant to serve, care for, sacrifice. It’s very hard to step out of those roles.
    5. And how does one connect this personal to political? What is the process?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    6. For me, a good example is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the early years of the epidemic, sex wasn’t talked about. The fact that women’s ability to negotiate sex is not universal was ignored. If the problem had been initially approached from a feminist perspective, it would have been clear that sexual relationships, sense of self, ability to know and control your own body are really important starting points for any kind of change. Addressing HIV/AIDS is not just about medicine.
    7. So do you think that the “personal is political” also helps to break this idea that the problem is outside ourselves?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    8. Well, when you think of any truly transformative social movement in history, those movements that have gone the farthest involved issues deeply rooted within personal beliefs and consciousness, issues that played out in our personal day-to-day choices. So, for instance, racism, women’s inequality, LGBTQ rights—all these issues are deeply felt in family relationships, in daily interactions and in our sense of belonging in any community. I think that the “personal is political” is important because when you disconnect a political problem from how you see yourself or how you live your life, the change you make is never going to last. It can never be sustained.
  • “The assumption behind transformatory potential is that the process of women working together and solving problems . . . will lead to empowerment, both collective and individual.”—Kate Young

    Common Ground & Community

    Common Ground and Community is about finding what we share with others as the basis for building collective power. Effective organizing demands safe spaces and open dialogue to identify similar experiences, issues, hopes, and alternatives to forge a common cause and to begin organizing.

    Finding community and common ground with others is an essential starting point for any change process. It can be liberating to discover that you are not alone with your problems and that you can work with others to change them. Often, people come together through the identification of common needs—from clean water to decent schools, from protection from violence to access to jobs and land. It is this self-interest that is transformed into a shared commitment with a group of people which sparks and sustains organizing efforts.  As critical as identifying common concerns is to the organizing process, finding the values and dreams we share with others is equally important. A process of examining our experiences, identifying common needs, understanding their systemic root causes and exploring how best to address them is an essential part of developing and embarking on a political mobilization strategy. Our common values and dreams for solutions and the future is what holds us together and sustains our organizing efforts through thick and thin. 

    If done effectively, organizing unleashes and empowers activists and leaders. It surfaces and generates knowledge about common heartfelt problems, and begins to weave the relationships essential for joint strategies and action to solve those problems.”—Lisa VeneKlasen

    Vital to building common ground is the creation of safe spaces to share worries and stories, to identify common challenges and to look at their causes, and to develop common solutions. These spaces enable people to talk about how they feel about these experiences, and also to imagine the kind of solutions that would make a difference. As they talk and hear from each other, common themes emerge. When they begin to analyze the root causes, they come to recognize the patterns of inequality embedded in the systems and the ways we think about social and political institutions.  They also realize that they can address these problems if they work together. This process is the foundation for building a common political agenda, strategies and organization to effect change.  As people imagine alternatives and solutions, it is important to bring to the surface – and affirm – common values, principles and dreams, which form the essence of what connects us to others despite our different circumstances.  These dreams are key to our long-term political agendas and to persuading others to join us.  

    Tools for Common Ground and Community

    Moving Beyond the Tool...

    Hear some reflections from JASS staff and community members—Lisa VeneKlasen, Alexa Bradley and Adelaide Mazwarira—as they discuss why common ground and community are the foundation for collective power, helping us come together across our many differences and act collectively for change.

    1. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      What does common ground and community mean?
    2. Women make up 51% of the global population. So, how do we mobilize the power of those numbers given that we’re all so different, and yet we all play a big role in our families and communities? We’re white, black, Latina, Asian, indigenous, from different cultures and from different classes. But still, there are some aspects of just being a woman which create common ground. Finding common ground is really about identifying the place where you can connect with others.
    3. For me this is really about anyone who has faced hardship discovering that others share the same stories, and feeling a shift from shame and isolation to a sense of anger about injustice, but also to a sense of hope and affirmation.
    4. Common ground often forms around shared problems and anger. That’s really where effective community organizing begins, by building connections and developing strategies with people with whom you share common experiences and frustrations.
    5. This process is integrally tied to power. As we find common ground, we recognize what is unjust or unfair and, because we have others with us, we can also begin to imagine challenging or changing those injustices. We also benefit from a sense of community. We have people who see us for who we are, care about us, hear us, and accompany us as we become stronger, and more assertive and involved. Finding common ground in our experiences and building community becomes the foundation for developing deeper politics and a more profound analysis of what happens to us.
  • "Power within is physical, emotional, and psychological. It is the power to dream, hope, forgive, and problem-solve. Without it, we don’t speak out and step up. We often believe that this is the most unstoppable power."—Lisa VeneKlasen

    Power Within

    Power within is about a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge. It is the capacity to imagine and to have hope. It affirms the universal human quest for dignity and fulfillment. Power within is strengthened by an understanding of power and the common good. To sustain the power within, we must continually question and challenge assumptions. When our power within is activated, it can transform our minds and our hearts.

    "I want to see change in the issues that affect women and their lives. I want to see the government put things in place to protect women and transform these situations. When I realized that I have the right to my life and when JASS helped me to realize that I have the power to claim my rights, it was a major turning point for me. I believe in the power within me and the power I have with my support groups." Mirriam Munthali, Malawian Activist

    Power operates on many different levels and affects our lives in many ways. In order to achieve lasting social change, we have to understand power in its various forms, seen and unseen, and we have to recognize the power we ourselves have to transform the realities around us. Change strategies focused on information, conventional lobbying and one-size-fits-all interventions are simply not enough. Our work seeks to uncover and confront the underlying interests, institutions, and ideologies that marginalize, silence and discriminate. And we aim to promote alternative ways of seeing and building positive forms of power (including power within) that can effectively challenge oppressive power, and the violence that sustains them.

    Recognizing and bolstering power within acknowledges the effects of oppressive power and the need for people to feel empowered, confident, fired up and connected. To tap into alternative forms of power, such as the power within, strategies must address the psychological and social dimensions of oppression and subordination which—because of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation and other factors—leave people feeling inferior, isolated, cynical, and often angry.

    Storytelling, poetry, music, dancing, spirituality, community, humor and critical reflection on our experiences can affirm people’s knowledge, feelings and sense of confidence, in other words, our power within. This experience in itself can serve as a nourishing force, helping people appreciate their personal worth and affirming their dreams and aspirations. All these expressions of life-affirming power are fundamental to harnessing one’s agency—or power to—the creative human capacity to act and to change the world.

    Tools for Power Within

    Moving Beyond The Tool…

    Hear what JASS activists, new and experienced have to say about “power within” – the power inside us to know and claim our own worth and feel confident. Tiwonge, Jessica, Sarah and Kwongu (Malawian activists with the Our Body, Our Lives campaign) share thoughts with Lisa and Adelaide from the JASS cross regional team—about how we come to understand that we have value, knowledge and much to offer, no matter what those with more power want us to believe. These activists also explore why our sense of our power within often comes in the context of finding power with others.

    1. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      What is the power within? Where can we find it?
    2. Like all forms of power, the power within is dynamic. There are times when you feel confident and strong, like your voice matters, like you matter in the world. And there are other times when you feel completely marginalized, that you shouldn’t speak up because it’s not your place. An ongoing struggle in organizing is how to tap into the feelings of confidence, hope, and possibility when you feel discouraged and silenced.
    3. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      So power within is an ongoing process? One doesn’t simply acquire it?
    4. Power within is a life long journey. It has cycles and stages just like the kinds of power you build outside in the world. There are times when you move forward and are strong, and there are moments of self-doubt and feelings of failure. And to me, power within is impossible without power with. Even in your greatest moments of self-confidence, you can still benefit from sharing something with others. It energizes you as you try to make change in the world, and in your personal life.
    5. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      And so how do you get power within if it also involves cultivating power with other people?
    6. To have the opportunity to talk about the situation within your community and the world, and to talk about your own life - that is the starting point of power within. Realizing that your own life has given you enormous amounts of knowledge and tools, to address issues, is critical to power within. Also ritual, joy, dancing and celebration are essential to power within because they generate energy that can sustain you in your activism.
    7. Adelaide Mazwarira Face
      How have you used power within to make changes in your life?
    8. My power is within me, but it is also with others for collective action. I utilized this power in two areas. First, for the first time in my life, I engaged our Member of Parliament fearlessly. I had meetings with him with members of my organization to demand our rights to resources in what we call the Constituency Development Funds (CDF) in Malawi. We know about those funds, and that they are ours. The second area is my personal life. I have managed to challenge my husband using the law to gain my freedom from violence. I shocked him; he never thought I would do it. Look at me now, I represent myself and speak for myself. This is huge change.
    9. Through the movement-building process, I have found my voice and my power within. I am able to use my voice on all the issues that affect women in my community. I became a woman activist.
    10. I used my power within myself to challenge a village chief who had called me and other HIV positive women ‘walking corpses’ when we asked for fertilizers. After, he tested HIV positive, he needed my help so I told him I would help but there were conditions. He was to call a meeting, explain that when he refused to give us fertilizers, he did not know what he was doing and apologize to the women he called ‘walking corpses’. He would declare his status and persuade people to go for testing. Above all, he would find bags of fertilizers for the group. I wanted justice. Only after doing all that would he be allowed to join our group as the first man to do so.
    11. When I started imagining a new reality, I imagined I was educated, able to speak English and with some good money in my bag. I refused to be diminished, suppressed, or destroyed. I refused to be warped by bigotry, tyranny, and pettiness. I refused! That is how I crossed the line of an inferiority complex and dependency on men. I am now a member of an HIV support group for sex workers. I know I am a feminist. My body is my own. That is what I tell my sex worker friends. My future plans include buying a plot of land back in Malawi, building a small house and supporting rural-based sex workers to learn to stand on their own feet.
  • “We must speak about our sexuality freely... The failure to do so may stand between women and justice.”—Rudo Chigudu

    Freedom & Expression

    Freedom and Expression is about the ways that we learn together and organize ourselves, tapping into all the different manners by which we express ourselves, using theater, art, writing and other means to give voice to what matters when words fail to capture what we feel and dream. It’s about having the freedom of movement, association and autonomy in decision-making including about our bodies, thoughts, sexual expression, choice and reproductive autonomy.

    We believe that unleashing voices takes a small step toward liberation and triggers change. Stepping out and speaking up has a multiplier effect: it inspires others to do the same and inspires each one of us to keep going. And because women’s voices are often not heard, the process must ensure that women’s voices are included in the heart of the broader struggles and agendas for justice.

    There is no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy

    In many of the places we work, there are deeply internalized social barriers to the freedom of expression. In Indonesia, for example, fundamentalist political and religious influences promote the belief that a woman’s role is in the home, that women should be protected and controlled. Fear of stepping out of these roles is silencing women, dictating how they may act and what they can wear. In response, FAMM-Indonesia, a young women’s alliance, is developing underground strategies for challenging shame and taboos about sex and sexuality, and for ending discrimination against young people. In Malawi, HIV+ women have overcome the silencing effect of shame and social blaming through in-depth work that affirms their stories and bodies. It was this work that gave them clarity and courage to demand respect as full citizens and to insist on better medicines, eliminating the old ones that were distorting their bodies.  In Zimbabwe, our partner—Katswe Sistahood— is supporting young women to challenge taboos surrounding sex, sexuality, and women’s bodies through theater and dance. The violent and repressive context in which they live discourages these young women from talking about their basic needs and dreams, much less from demanding respect, safety and freedoms. Katswe uses performance arts to unleash young women’s voices and courage to resist traditional roles and to break their silence. As Rudo explains, “saying the word ‘vagina’ in Shona is considered shameful in itself. Re-learning how to claim parts of our bodies as our own is a vital step in a strategy to politicize women’s personal experiences.”

    These examples hold universal lessons about breaking down the social barriers that prevent us from talking about certain subjects that may be critical to our rights and our lives. Overcoming fear and shame are key parts of the individual and collective empowerment processes, which enable women to speak out, contribute freely, and to create a better world. 

    How do we transform silence into voice? How do we transform the horrific into something that reclaims a sense of beauty that can catalyze other people in their journeys?" —Shereen Essof

    Activists use various strategies, including social media and creative arts (e.g. dance, storytelling, poetry), to access information, debate and create forms of mobilization.

    Tools for Freedom and Expression

    Moving Beyond the Tool...

    Rudo, Lisa VeneKlasen and Adelaide Mazwarira explore the power and liberation in finding our voices, whether in story-telling circles or speaking our truth in public spaces. To break open the silences we have suffered, we use art, stories, theater and public events to explore and explode the ideas of who we are, what we feel and how we see things more freely and more powerfully.

    1. Freedom of expression is a process, not a destination. An aspiration, a right and a perpetual effort—one that is shaped by a combination of big political forces, local cultures and contexts, institutions, resources and beliefs about whose voice counts. We’re always working to be free and for others to be free to express themselves fully and contribute to a better world.
    2. Why is a woman’s ability to find her voice so important to her freedom?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    3. Our voices matter for the visibility of our demands and experiences, to ensure that women’s perspectives and contributions are considered and recognized by our communities, decision-makers, policymakers and the media.
    4. What silences us?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    5. Inequality operates through cultural norms, unwritten rules…Overtime, women get the message that their voices are less valuable, that their greatest contributions to society are to look pretty, to take care of domestic matters and to reproduce. So, to speak out without shame, to have the right to be angry, to be strong, to be loud is a lifelong pursuit. Doing so breaks many cultural barriers. For people that are marginalized, speaking out takes a lot of courage and that’s why organizing is so crucial for making sure their voices are heard.
    6. And Rudo, how are creative arts an important part of expressing your voice?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    7. There’s an act of defiance in going onstage [to perform monologues, dance, war cries and songs]. Because everything about our stories is private, there’s something brave in saying, 'I’m sick and tired of pretending that my life is private when there’s nothing private about it.' There’s something courageous in saying that the privacy is actually killing me, that this private space is where I’m most violated and I can’t be silent about it anymore.
    8. Is freedom of expression an immediate accomplishment?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    9. Voice is two things. It is this power within and the realization that your own perspective matters enough to say it out loud. The second part is adding your voice to others’ voices, and having that union serve as a rallying force of anger and hope to realize change.
    10. Is there a time when it’s not okay to self-express?
      Adelaide Mazwarira Face
    11. Yes, self-expression is not about venting or pure individualism. Freedom of expression is a shared resource, whose value increases when you are confident in your voice, and when you know when and how to use it. Currently, the prevalence of social media has created an interesting dilemma. On one hand, the current culture promotes the “self," an individualistic notion of voice, where everything that crosses your mind has to be expressed. But alternatively, social media has enabled those whose perspectives are rarely heard, to find their voice. It’s really democratizing the possibility of being heard.