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Reaching Out - Profile of Jerri Lynn Fields


Originally published in:
The Hawk Eye (Burlington Iowa)
04/20/2003
BURLINGTON IOWA (THE HAWK EYE)

It's a Tuesday in early April, and Jerri Lynn Fields is busy — really busy.

First there's the Afghanistan problem. How does one get $325,000 into a country without a functioning banking system?

Then comes a conversation with an activist in India about a women's rights event planned next year in that country. Next are the e–mails to the Croatian defense minister, followed by an hour–long interview with a member of the press.

If that's not enough, Fields still needs to pack for a trip to Ireland, and perhaps do some reading about possible rape camps discovered in Myanmar. Then maybe, just maybe, she'll get to spend some quality time with her husband.

Fields is executive director of V–Day, a global movement to end violence against women founded by Eve Ensler, creator of "The Vagina Monologues." In little more than a year on the job, she has traveled to 13 countries, worked with Jane Fonda, met Secretary of State Colin Powell, made memories for a lifetime and witnessed some things she would rather forget.

It's a pretty good gig for a girl from Stronghurst, Ill.

"Sometimes," Fields says, "I just can't believe I get paid to do this."

Institutionalized violence

To understand the battle V–Day is fighting, consider the statistics. One in three women worldwide has been beaten, raped or abused. In South Africa, a woman is raped every 35 seconds. Two million young girls are introduced into the global commercial–sex market annually. Two Pakistani women are burned daily by fire or acid in domestic violence incidents. In America, a woman is battered every 15 seconds — four a minute, 240 an hour, 5,760 each day.

Centuries–old traditions of abuse continue in many corners of the world. In areas of Central Asia, the Middle East and South America, wives and mothers are murdered in so–called honor killings while government officials turn a blind eye.

Before a teenage Masai girl in Kenya can marry, the elder women in the village carve away her clitoris and labia, sometimes with a piece of broken glass. The circumcision, known in the West as female genital mutilation, makes sexual intercourse excruciating, so men see it as a way to keep their wives faithful.

"Violence against women has become institutionalized," Fields says. "If you walk out right now and look at three women, you need to just accept that one of them has probably had something terrible happen to them. That's an epidemic."

Fields was herself the victim of an assault, although she gives no details about the ordeal. She admits the assault affects the way she thinks and works, but denies it led to her current career.

"As someone who has experienced violence, I don't think I'm extraordinary," she says. "If the statistics are right, I'm ordinary."

As far as her mother is concerned, Fields was born an activist.

"I feel like Jerri always had a cause, always tried to fight for somebody that maybe wasn't as fortunate," says Janice Fields, who remains in the area with her husband, Larry.

That doesn't mean Mom and Dad imagined their daughter would head a global women's rights organization.

"Actually, we thought she was going to be a teacher," Janice Fields says.

Just a bureaucrat

Teaching was just what the younger Fields had in mind when she graduated from Southern High School in 1983. But by the time she had her English degree from Western Illinois University four years later, her outlook had changed.

Rather than going into the classroom, Fields spent another two years at WIU and got a master's degree in college student personnel administration. That led to a job at DePaul University and a new life in Chicago.

Before long, Fields got her first promotion, then her second. But the further up the DePaul ladder she climbed, the less she enjoyed her work.

"I was becoming a bureaucrat," she laments now.

Frustration led her to answer a help wanted ad for Horizons Community Services, the largest gay and lesbian service agency in the Midwest. She eventually served as the agency's director of youth services, anti–violence project director and director of programs.

Leaving Horizon, Fields was named executive director of Rape Victim Advocates, a rape crisis center in Chicago. It was during her three years there that she met Ensler, the woman behind V–Day.

The year was 2000, and "The Vagina Monologues" was a national phenomenon, featured everywhere from Newsweek to CNN.

At the same time, Fields was struggling to keep Rape Victim Advocates operational on donations topping out at $50.

"I needed to have people push the envelope and do something special — give us a lot of money," she says. "We needed to raise the bar."

She called Ensler and asked her to do a benefit performance of "The Vagina Monologues" during a tour stop in Chicago.

It worked. The city's elites paid up to $500 apiece to hear Ensler read three of the monologues and talk about violence against women.

Fields met another important person in her life during her years in the Windy City — husband David Burgess. The couple has been married two years.

Burgess is a information services guy from Michigan. It was his job transfer that took Fields to New York and V–Day.

Fields and Ensler had stayed in touch electronically since their first meeting. Once in New York, Fields kept right on sending e–mails. After eight months, Ensler offered her a job as V–Day development and communications director. That was in December 2001. Fields became the organization's second executive director four months later.

"Working with Jerri Lynn Fields has been one of the greatest pleasures of my career," Ensler says now. "She is fun, organized, a workaholic and completely devoted to the cause."

Fields is equally effusive about her boss: "She's my friend, she's my mentor, she's brilliant and she's passionate and all of those things make me want to do whatever I can to further the cause of V–Day."

Still shocking

To grasp the scope of Fields' job, it's important to know a little V–Day history.

While touring with "The Vagina Monologues" in the mid–1990s, Ensler often met women wanting to share their stories of abuse. With those stories as her rallying cry, the playwright formed V–Day in 1997 with a group of New York activists. The 'V' stands for Valentine's, victory over violence and vagina.

The first V–Day event, a benefit production of "The Vagina Monologues," took place in New York City on Feb. 14, 1998. The show featured Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close and Calista Flockhart.

In its first six years, V–Day raised $14 million, distributing 85 percent of the money to women's groups around the world.

Then there's the V–Day College Initiative. Students nationwide stage "The Vagina Monologues." The proceeds stay in the community for groups protecting women. In total, there will be more than 1,200 productions of the monologues this year.

V–Day does all this without an office. Staffers work out of their homes. It's Fields' job to keep the whole, happy mess running smoothly.

That's one half of her duties. The other half is fund–raising.

That could mean mining for new benefactors or chumming with V–Day's impressive list of corporate sponsors, including Lifetime Television, Procter & Gamble, Hearst Magazines and Marie Claire.

"Fund–raising is a big part of what I do," Fields says. "I need to raise money so that this V–Day movement can grow and we can give money to women's groups."

The giving is her favorite part. After all, that's where all those trips come in.

Fields and Ensler just completed nearly two months of travel on what they call the "V–Season Tour," attending V–Day events worldwide and looking for new causes to support.

The last leg of the trip took the pair to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Croatia and France.

Ensler has been working in Afghanistan since 1999 when, during the height of the Taliban's authority, members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan snuck her into the country under a burkha. This was Fields' first trip to the war–torn country. She estimates three of every four women in the capital Kabul still wear burkhas. They fear the Taliban will be return to power next week and execute them for showing their faces.

1 percent

"It was bittersweet," Fields says of her five days in Kabul. "The women there feel like something good has happened, but it's not over."

The Croatian defense minister is a woman, one of four females to head defense departments in European countries. Fields and Ensler visited her to pitch V–Day's 1–percent campaign, which encourages nations to dedicate 1 percent of their defense budgets to protecting women.

The campaign has been better received abroad than in the United States, where 1 percent of the defense budget equals nearly $4 billion.

"We're hearing so much about Homeland Security," Fields says. "We're being told to fear people from somewhere else, but for those of us who work in violence against women, we know that one of the most dangerous places for women to be is in their own home, their communities."

The most moving moment of the trip, and perhaps of Fields' life, was the V–Day celebration in Pakistan.

Armed guards patrolled the theater entrance as some of the country's top actresses performed "The Vagina Monologues" in defiance of a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by a Muslim cleric proclaiming the show violated Islamic law.

Ensler wrote one of the monologues, titled "My Vagina is My Village," after interviewing Bosnian women held in rape camps during the country's civil war. In language both lyrical and clinical, a young girl describes the torture she endured: "The soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me. So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart. Don't know whether they're going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain."

The Pakistani actress sobbed while reading the piece. So did the other actresses on stage and the 200 people, mostly women, who had braved possible retribution to sit in the audience.

As she watched, tears spilling down her face, Fields' mind was awakened to how such atrocities bind all women together. When an Afghan woman is beaten, a Masai teen circumcised or a Bosnia girl raped, it is a wound to humanity, she said.

"When I came back from this trip, what I felt like for the first time in my life was that I was a citizen of the world as opposed to a citizen to a country with borders and an affinity to only those who look like me," Fields says. "If I can't be connected in that way, then nothing is ever going to change and we're all going to continue to live divided."

V–Day's mission to end all violence against women can seem almost arrogant, certainly impossible. Fields doesn't care. She's too idealistic to stop fighting now.

"In Pakistan, when you meet a woman who takes off her scarf to show you her melted face because her husband threw acid on her, that's a heinous form of violence," she says. "I still get shocked everyday."

by Kiley Miller - kmiller@thehawkeye.com

Original article can be viewed at The Hawk Eye.