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V-Day: the ultimate Mother’s Day present (Vital Voice Newspaper)


Originally published in:
Vital Voice
05/09/2008

http://thevitalvoice.com/node/255

Daughters of Hope celebrating a rite of passage ceremony that solidifies a post-Katrina identity

By Joan Lipkin

New Orleans—This year, I decided to skip the card, flowers, or piece of jewelry my mother probably won’t wear. I wanted a different way to honor my 86 year old mother whose years of activism included starting an after-school study program for at risk youth on the Southside of Chicago, protesting the war in Viet Nam, supporting reproductive choice before Roe v. Wade and raising two feminist daughters and one feminist son. In early recognition of Mother’s Day, I headed to New Orleans to participate in one of the largest international gatherings about violence against women, V-Day to the 10th, held at the Superdome on April 11-12.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism said she was initially skeptical about having the event at the Superdome. “I think of it as a haunted house. But actually, it is exactly where we need to be. We are up against a mentality that says some lives are worth more than others.”

V- Day, short for “The Vagina Monologues” is like the little engine that could. Playwright, actress and activist Eve Ensler created this series of humorous and poignant monologues in 1996 in response to a friend who said she felt uncomfortable with her vagina. Since that initial performance, V-Day has turned into an international movement to end violence against women and girls, raising funds and awareness through benefit productions of Ensler’s play. A February performance in St. Louis directed by Stellie Siteman and performed with St. Louis area women sold out the Center of Creative Arts’400 seat auditorium, and was one of the more than 3,700 V-Day events that will take place around the world this year.

For anyone who might wonder if V-Day to the 10th is 70’s style recycled feminism for middle aged straight white women, the answer is a resounding no. This event also attracted several thousand young people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations--like dozens of teenage girls from New York’s Lower East Side Girls Club or the 14 member cast and crew from a college production of “The Vagina Monologues” from Texas A & M University.

There was quite a bit of mentoring going on. Jamie Hecker, a 59 year old clinical manager from Pre Term, an abortion clinic in Cleveland, Ohio said she helped pay expenses for Samara Knox, 30, a counselor and activist from her agency to share her legacy of activism. “I’m so glad I went,” said Samara. “I was feeling kind of down about what can be done and this was really encouraging.”

In a weekend that went by quickly, certain moments stood out. Like when Jane Fonda, said, “The problem is not men, it is a lack of democracy.” Or when Suze Orman said, “Ask me how it feels to be a very rich woman. It feels very good. And I want to help you learn how to get money, too.” Particularly stirring were the words of Dr. Denis Mukwege, the lone physician at Panzi Hospital which houses the only center for victims of sexual violence in Eastern Congo.

The Daughters of Hope, a group of New Orleans girls ranging from 13-17 years of age had their first graduation ceremony from a program called “Rites of Passage” in which they learned how to care for themselves physically, nutritionally, sexually and psychologically.

“This is a very important program because schools have backed away from dealing with the issues, with any realness,” said Adrienne Lombard, 36, a single mother who works as a water meter reader and whose daughter, Jasmine, 13, was graduating. “I learned a lot,” said Jasmine. “Especially about relationships. I can say no and respect myself.”

One of the most popular sessions was a story telling circle about LGBT lives with Ilene Chaikin, producer of the L word, along with actresses Jennifer Beals, Daniela Sea and Alexandra Hedison. Held in a cozy red tent, it encouraged conversation but left several hundred disappointed people outside. Personally, I would have traded intimacy for inclusion. When it comes to LGBT representation, we still have a way to go.

In a jam packed two days of extraordinary speakers, everyone had their favorites. For me, a panel of feminist men topped the list. Quentin Walcott, director of CONNECT in New York, said, “You can call (violence) a human rights issue, but when 92% of it is perpetuated by men, it is a male issue.” Bart Scott, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, said the birth of his daughter had made the issue of violence against women very personal for him and that he was determined to speak out despite the challenges in his profession. “A lot of people are taught to communicate through hitting. We need to teach them other ways to communicate. It takes a lot of strength to tell a buddy to stop, especially in sports.”

To date, the V-Day movement has raised over 50 million dollars and educated millions about the issue of violence against women and efforts to end it; created international, educational, media and public service campaigns, launched the Karama Program in the Middle East, reopened shelters and funded over 5000 community-based anti-violence programs and safe houses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Egypt, Iraq and South Dakota.

Violence against women takes many forms: Rape. Incest. Domestic Violence. Assault. Sexual Harassment. Verbal Abuse. Eventually, one in three women will experience some form of violence in her lifetime.

Organizers said the event drew an estimated 30,000 people, the majority of them in attendance at the culminating performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the New Orleans Arena. The star studded performance included Jane Fonda, Ali Larter, Rosario Dawson, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Beals, Christine Lahti, Doris Roberts, Calpernia Addams, Faith Hill and more. It was more show-biz wattage than I had ever seen up close and personal.

However, the real stars were the Katrina Warriors, some 1200 women who were coming home for the first time. There was a parade in their honor, and the Warriors had the best seats in the house. Earlier at the Superdome, there were a myriad of activities designed just for them. They could attend health screenings and consultations, learn stress relieving techniques, or chill out with a smoothie. All free.

Diane Sharper, a volunteer trauma therapist from Minneapolis wore a sign around her neck that said, “Want to talk?” Both her eyes and mine filled with tears at the sight of Katrina evacuees getting massages and talking to therapists, some for the first time in their lives. Generosity was in the air. I spotted yoga master Rodney Yee and designer Donna Karan of the Urban Zen Foundation among a virtual army of volunteer massage therapists from across the country. T Salon founder Miriam Novalle gave away 2500 cups of organic tea in one single afternoon.

Democracy Now host Amy Goodman broadcasted live from the event and activists from around the country had their own lounge where people could network. Code Pink, a female-initiated grassroots peace and social justice organization with 150,000 international members had a strong presence, including St. Louis organizer Laurie Meier who offered workshops on making art and props for demonstrations.

Eve Ensler has given a real gift to the local and global community in bringing together activists, performers, academics, journalists, community leaders and celebrities to talk across the various disciplines that tend to affect American society and the perception of womanhood. And, with an epidemic of violence against women on the table, we must have the courage to have the really tough conversations. As Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence said, “We need to go beyond building buildings. We need programs and we need money.”

From my perspective, making change cannot begin too early. Teaching girls and boys how to respect themselves and each other is critically important. But, it is also crucial to welcome men to the table, and to ask them to support redefinitions of masculine behavior and to commit to interrupting acts of violence, whatever form they may take. It will take more than a village, although the extended village of V-Day in New Orleans was an inspiring weigh station. It will take all of us, men and women, alike, to stop the violence. That would be the best possible Mother’s Day present, though in the end, I did decide to send my mother those flowers!

Joan Lipkin is the Artistic Director of That Uppity Theatre Company and a recipient of the James F Hornback Ethical Humanist of the Year Award. She may be reached at uppityco@att.net.