I had left my little baby girl with Ben to travel a short twenty minute cab ride to a barrio outside of Cartagena, Colombia. In that car ride I would travel several hundreds of cultural miles – leaving behind the bubble of hotels, overpriced restaurants, and tchotchkes to land in the heart of the neighborhood of the men and women who worked hard to make that bubble possible. Passing cinder block homes, street dogs, bike shops, and a few landfills, I arrived with Nadia Celis, Kate Brennan and Silvia Casabianca at theFe y Allegria school for boys and girls.
Jhon Jairo Narvaez had brought us there to share our stories of creating careers that helped fulfill our dreams for social justice with an after-school program for young girls. The school was beautiful – filled with art, inspiring posters and quotes, and kids running off their post-school day energy. I was taken back to my own days in Chicago public schools and the excitement of a whole afternoon ahead of me. After a short tour, we landed in the Tardes de Chicas (Girl’s Afternoon) classroom with eight 11 to 13 year old girls who liked to get out of the house and share crafts projects, learning, and other after school activities.
We opened by exchanging our dreams around the table. After short introductions, Nadia led us through an exercise of writing down our dreams and visions. Silvia invited the girls to close their eyes and envision meeting their 10 and 20 years older selves on a beach – what would they say to themselves? Wow. When I was 13 I would NOT have guessed my life would be here. By now I thought I would have been 2 or 3 more children deep into family making, and probably working in law or education. A career in politics and organizing was so far outside my experience, it was outside of my dreams. To be able to connect with these young girls, at the very start of their own journeys felt like such a blessing.
I loved watching the girls’ reflecting on their dreams and drawing their hopes in their notebooks. Angeli’s dream in particular touched me. She wanted to be a chef to continue the dreams her father hadn’t been able to fulfill. Though she and I were separated by years and continents, my dreams had ended up not being too different from hers. Becoming a community organizer has been a practice in taking up my torch from past generations; generations that traveled and moved to find a different life and to right the wrongs of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, that those generations suffered.
What would I share about my dreams and how I fought for them?
When my time came to speak (after an eloquent set of stories from Kate), I found myself drawn to share that my roots go back to my father’s history in a different barrio in a different country. As I learned more about the reality of his childhood, and the struggles of my eastern european family, I couldn’t simply pursue the “american dream” of wealth and luxury. The more I understood the injustices that my family and friends still faced, the more I felt called to change the lived reality of our systems of power today. I used a few analogies to share what I do now: helping individuals and groups become literate in the systems of power that undergird our system and the practices that give us the ability to change them for the better. With some help from Nadia, I think we got the point across.
Their biggest question for Kate and I: Were we married? Ah yes! Sitting where they sat and looking at this life I was unfolding before them, that seemed like a pretty good question to me. I shared that yes, I was married and I had a baby. I had chosen a partner who wanted to invest in my dreams and wanted to help care for our baby to support me in pursuing my dreams.
They looked and listened, observed and soaked in, as young girls are ones to do. I didn’t get a chance to hear how these stories impacted them. Maybe it would be a few years before they even would, if ever. Our time had run out and it was the moment for hugs, pictures, and warm goodbyes. I hoped that my daughter would be as outgoing and fun, bright and curious as they were. I held Angeli’s dream in my heart, and wished her the best in that dream and whatever dreams would come after it.
As I have returned home, the deafening weight of the inequities these girls face in the pursuit of their dreams has been resonating in my heart. This weekend I came across this story of a woman fighting for justice for women and youth in Iran. I couldn’t stop asking myself: how do I connect the work I do for social justice in the workplace to the atrocities and inequities these young women are facing everyday? What is the through line that leverages our work here for meaningful impact across thousands of miles of ocean? I know of many great NGO’s that are committed to this work, but their impact never feels like enough. I am left feeling that I want more for these girls and I want it right now. This is a hunger that will not be satiated, and a discomfort and unease that will not be calmed.
Do you have reflections on the international fight for women and girls? I’d love to hear them.