Women's Leadership Is Everywhere

A Conversation with Dessima Williams

Dessima Williams is ambassador of Grenada to the United Nations. Prior to that she was Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University. She is former Ambassador from Grenada to the Organization of American States and was a participant at the World Summit for Social Developments in Copenhagen, the Fourth World Conference on Women, and the NGO Forum ’95 in Beijing. At that time, Ambassador Williams was an Honorary Chair of the Massachusetts Conference on Women: Bringing Beijing Home, held September 1996 in Boston. She met with the Center’s staff several weeks before that conference to share her views on social change, women’s leadership, and grassroots movements. What follows is an abbreviated version of our interview with her.

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You have written about-and were a participant in-the New Jewel Movement’s efforts to create a participatory democracy in Grenada prior to the US-led invasion in 1983. Does the failure of such a “people’s power” movement offer any lessons for the emerging transnational civil society movement?

DW: In Grenada we learned how much society can help itself when there is a healthy, ethical alliance between civil society and the state based on participatory democracy. That was our dramatic departure from the usual sociopolitical organization of the modern state. We had a state apparatus and a civil and political society with the same orientation, the same set of commitments. We saw this same structure develop from a right-wing political orientation in Hitler’s Germany, for example. But in our case it developed from a left-wing philosophy, a philosophy of people’s power in the service of social justice. This is an important lesson for social change organizers and activists in the United States. It is not sufficient to simply protest or undertake humanitarian work at the level of civil society in order to change society; progressive movements and ideas must develop and flourish within the state as well.

The case of Grenada was unusual in that the movement’s primary constituency was not educated, middle-class, and politically active. It included in key roles those who are usually excluded from the political agenda: ordinary people. This is another important lesson for today’s progressives: We must have a commitment to educate and respect ordinary people so that they will be able to come forward and participate in political movements. Mainstream political culture tends to ignore and exclude those who are poor or working-class. And even when we do invite them to join us, we do so on our own terms. We must draw on the vision of those who might be materially poor but knowledgeable, and ready and able to lead.

Who Is Actually In Power?

You have coined the term “gendered global apartheid” to describe a global condition whereby “systems of power, opportunities, and recognition are divided so as to support and empower a worldwide minority while simultaneously taking away from and disempowering a global majority.” Are there any movements currently underway that are having a discernable effect on empowering the “global majority” — women and children?

The emerging social movements, unfortunately, lack an organizing theme tied to the needs of this historical movement and, therefore, have trouble coalescing. Women’s movements are clearly in the forefront, and feminist movements are making progress in particular societies and at the global level. Linked to the women’s movement is the peace and social justice movement — which has waned because, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is the mistaken belief that peace has come to the world.

There are biases against the world’s majority, the poor and women and children, in the political economy of the global system. At present there also seems to be a lull in worldwide concern about issues of economic justice, especially when compared to the 1970’s, when there was a consensus about the need for a new international economic order to replace both the colonial and the corporate structures. Concern is alive, though, in the most progressive sectors of the international movement. Movements for alternative economic systems have many different wings, so to speak. There is a wing in the United States called the Other Economic Summit, or Fifty Years is Enough campaign. (The fifty years refers to the Bretton Woods regime.) These movements propose a redrafting of the IMF, the GATT, the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and all of the other arrangements that primarily empower multinational corporations.

Of significance too is the socioeconomic analyses movement as a significant effort aimed at uncovering gender and other inequities — essentially, biases against the world’s majority, the poor and women and children — in the political economy of the global system. Thus, DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), a global network of feminist scholars and activists, has probed the embeddedness of a gender ideology against women, children, the environment, and sustainability in the structure of economic power. DAWN’s work, using as a point of departure the experiences of poor women, in turn educates and motivates poor women. By raising consciousness about the structural nature of women’s and children’s poverty, their work and that of others have created a real springboard for critical thought and action.

The human rights movement is another movement which is empowering the global majority. Economic rights are slowly being accepted as basic human rights nearly fifty years after the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the women’s international movement is itself playing perhaps the most significant role in dismantling gendered global apartheid — in seeking environmental and global sustainability, peace and demilitarization, and wages for household work, to mention just some of its objectives.

Indeed, the global agendas of the various economic change groups are beginning to converge. If you study the findings of some of the major UN conferences, you see that the analysis of the cause of poverty is shifting. They used to say that poverty was a result of overpopulation or climactic conditions, or that there was a culture of poverty. Now we are moving towards a theoretical framework that acknowledges a structural cause of poverty: power imbalance. Who is in power? Not so much the state, as corporations — especially the nearly unregulated transnationals. Not all corporate power is destructive, but greedy, irresponsible corporate entities are devastating many of our economies — especially in the (global) South-through downsizing, through privatization, and through the amassing of foreign debt.

To “purchase” cocoa from a small country for 40¢ a pound and return it as cocoa powder or chocolates for $2.40 a pound to people who cannot afford to buy it — that’s global apartheid. To pay an executive $20 million while minimum-wage workers make $4.90 an hour-that is not justice. And it’s not enough to be fair. The system must be just.

In the mid-1990’s the richest 20 percent of the world own, control, and/or have access to slightly over 83 percent of the world’s resources, while for the poorest 20 percent, the figure is 2 percent; 70 percent of the world’s population are poor, and most of them, (60 percent) are female. Under the current economic system, these gaps will persist and/or widen.

We must pay more attention to countries like Norway, where they are moving towards a much more equitable distribution of resources, while most of the world is still organized around 17th- or 18th-century systems of distribution. And we have to keep pushing that agenda of economic distribution.

Women As Problem Solvers

What leadership roles do you foresee women taking in these social change efforts in this decade and into the next century?

Women must take leadership through analyzing the present historical moment and determining priorities and through presenting ourselves as problem-solvers and change-makers. We must become much more visible and audible in debates: We need to have feminists speaking on "Meet the Press" or "Nightline" about the trade deficit, the debt crisis, poverty, and forestalling the construction and use of missiles. We can expect women to become increasingly prominent in the human rights arena-where a growing solidarity among women, especially between North and South, is especially noticeable. More women will emerge in positions of power in government and in non-governmental organizations. And women must insist on their rights of personhood. That is an important way of providing leadership by example to young girls and others oppressed in the family and in the home, which are the first places the female sex learns to be free or not free.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the South American author and Nobel literary laureate, said that the single most important thing that society could do to give the world a new chance would be to turn global management over to women. Why? Because women tend to be more holistic in their worldview, more oriented to fair play and justice. And so win-win outcomes are more palatable to us than winner-take-all outcomes or win-lose ones, because we know that “losers” are still members of the (human) family.

I don’t mean to romanticize. There are lots of women I wouldn’t want to see in office. But I’m speaking of women and men whose ethic is centered around justice and equality for all people. I think we have a small but significant cadre of women who have been formally and informally providing public leadership over the last thirty or forty years, and they need to be given a chance to express themselves in significant positions with more decision-making power. In the United States, for example, we need more women in Congress, in the judicial system, and in the executive branch. Particularly, we need to see more women in the corporate world and at the United Nations-women with direct access to money and power. We need more women managing all facets of life, from fulfilling traditional roles in the home to managing the very resources of the earth. And when we see the example of Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland and her cabinet, which is half-female and has feminists as ministers of defense, finance, and oil, we must study the policies that such a government is able to make, and these policies must proliferate.

We have been intrigued by your use of the term “explosion at the base” to describe grassroots movements aimed at fundamentally changing the status quo by empowering people to act on their shared values and improving the posture of men and women in relation to each other. Where and how do you see this “explosion at the base” occurring? What changes should it be seeking? From what source does its leadership spring?

This “social explosion” is happening as women and men, in rural and urban settings, take up the challenge of reconstructing their lives after the devastations of wars, drought, and the like. The change is basically one of more people acting on their own behalf, in a context of community-based organizing. It’s about people, indigenous people, becoming subjects, not objects, of modernity.

I believe that the strategic location for women’s leadership is everywhere. The leadership is everywhere. There are former refugee women in Cambodia who are forming NGOs and running for office to help bring attention to the need for medical care for millions of people. There are people like Rigoberta Menchú and the refugee organizers returning to plant and harvest and live in Guatemala. Children are being organized to fight child labor in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I believe that the strategic location for women’s leadership is everywhere. The ranks of this leadership generally come from within these oppressed communities themselves, where women and men become exhausted from injustice and inaction. What is important now is that we build communication, a dialogue, and a common agenda.

It is also true that a great cross-fertilization of ideas and agenda is occurring thanks to modern communications. This is how the women’s movement can make a difference, because it brings women in touch to share ideas. For instance, I can learn from what you are doing at the Boston Research Center and use that knowledge to benefit my own students in Grenada. That is why I take money out of my own pocket to circulate every newsletter that you publish. And in return I want to share with you the important work that we are doing in Grenada. That is why it is so important, so necessary, for us to be in contact. That is why it was so gratifying in Beijing last year to see that there was “an explosion at the base” — in agendas, in communication, in commitment. We were feeding off of each other, and things will never be the same. We must be modest. We must be patient. And we must have conviction. It takes a while, but change is definitely happening.

It Takes a While To Change Ideas

How can women raising children elevate the social value of their contributions, which are often made at an inconspicuous and unmeasured, but profoundly influential, level of society?

Educate and organize-yourself, your children. In this technological era, it is necessary for women to receive a comparable education in order to keep up. So if we are going to not just step forward but push forward and make real progress, we need to be educated as doctors, scientists, leaders, and professionals, as thinkers and as doers. But we also need to organize, because one woman’s efforts are simply not sufficient to make these changes. More and more, we need to encourage and educate our daughters and our young people, teach them the culture of collectivity and the joy of being in family and community; we need to go against this notion of the individual excelling at the expense of everything else.

As an Honorary Chair of the Massachusetts Conference on Women: Bringing Beijing Home, being held this September at Simmons College, what do you hope will be achieved by the many hundreds of women attending?

I think the call of the Forth World Conference on Women really touched people’s souls — its celebration of being female; its embracing end elevation of women’s ideas and experiences in building communications and nations; its belief in women as leaders. I have been encouraged by the fact that we didn’t let the experience in Beijing die-that now, a year later, it is not only alive but expanding. We have five years to completely implement the Platform for Action, and it appears we are really off to a good start here.

I have two concerns about the conference at Simmons College, however. First, what is the quality of our gathering? What is it that we hope to achieve? We have specified that we are “brining Beijing home” by doing an audit in Massachusetts, focusing on the twelve mandates of areas of concern listed in the Platform for Action, I hope our audit is successful, because it could form the foundation on which we can build a program to advance the status of women in this state.

My second concern relates to who we are reaching and mobilizing. How representative is the group that meets at Simmons, and how consistent is it with the need for change in the power balance? That is what Beijing was all about — changing the power balance through a gender lens and through an examination of the socioeconomic and structural ways in which women are oppressed. I hope we see women in various stations in life-including an adequate representation of those at the bottom of the economic scale, who have little in material terms. These people are strong organizers with a vision.

What would you like to see ten years after Beijing?

At a minimum, I want to see the very modest achievements laid out in the Platform for Action: women constituting 30 to 50 percent of the world’s leadership, the elimination of nuclear weapons and destruction of land mines, the elimination of racism in public and governmental policies and the worst forms of policy, universal education for all people. I want to see economic development that allows women to be independent and that is predicated principally on human need and sustainability rather than on minority interests and greed. If we have moved in that direction in ten years, we will have achieved our goals.

Since I was only one of two Grenadians to attend the women’s conference in Beijing, I felt responsible to do something in my country when I returned home. I didn’t know where to start, so I began in my own family, telling every woman in my family about Beijing and supporting them as best I could, with my guidance and my time. I started to examine my relationship with my family, to support the small-business initiative of my mother, and to organize the boys and girls in the community. Attending the conference gave me the clarity to begin taking small steps towards the big goals that I supported in China. You need to take action from the inside out, with your own self. It must be in your life, in your spirit, in your choices, in how you relate to people.

Didn’t Einstein say the hardest thing to do is to change one’s mind? So we have to move in tandem with the ordinary people on whose behalf we say we are acting.Of course, doing it this way and coming to that realization, you know it’s going to be slower. But we need to be more honest, we who are undertaking social change need to be more honest and perhaps more modest. We can’t do everything overnight. It takes a while to change ideas; didn’t Einstein say the hardest thing to do is to change one’s mind? So we have to move in tandem with the ordinary people on whose behalf we say we are acting.

You have to accept that you are only a small cog in the system. You are only doing your little part. It modifies and humbles your ego to realize that you are not going to make the whole damn thing happen by yourself or all at once.

There is also the question of personal sacrifice. When the system is reorganized, as it needs to be, will I suffer? Am I willing to pay the price for it? What am I willing to give up so that others may benefit?

Certainly the perspective that we assume as Buddhists is one of individual responsibility — that you start with a personal revolution, and that’s how we have a significant impact in our environment, starting with family and job and rippling outward.

In this society we have had no sense of our spiritual necessity, the necessity for developing our spiritual self for its own sake and as a base for being credible and successful in the public domain. But this is changing. Now we are seeing books on spirituality and international relations — which is my own field-and not even from the Buddhists. We’ve gone beyond a fixation on material culture to the culture of the spiritual, of the soul, of the whole self. We see, ironically, a certain retreat of the young, rich super-corporate male and female back to nature’s nurture in gardening, child-rearing and the like. It’s a good direction.

There is a heated debate going on right now about the role, mission, and leadership of the United Nations. What do you think is the true mission of the United Nations, and what unique and necessary qualities might a woman bring to the leadership of the UN?

I think the United Nations is poised to make a major contribution to the transition in world power, from just stopping or pre-empting wars to building peace and supporting diplomacy and development; from supporting a few powerful governments that pay the largest dues to allowing governments of different stripes to find a higher ground in the twenty-first century. And if we allow civil society and excluded society — indigenous peoples, small states — to join in and play a role in this transition, we could be headed toward the alternative world that I envision. If the UN can succeed in managing the transition effectively, this vision could indeed become a reality.

Is there the necessity of having a woman? Not unless that woman appreciates the historical moment and the historical task. We don’t want a woman for the sake of having a woman. I want us to think about women who have the qualities of modesty, honesty, and humility — who understand that they still have much to learn and can’t do it alone. Such women will have governmental, managerial, and diplomatic skills, of course, but their professional maturity will probably have been shaped in civil society — and in modest, holistic environments rather than big and powerful systems.

As for the UN itself: There is so much dialogue about the UN reform. It needs reform-but it also needs transformation. We need a world governing body dedicated to the new era that is dawning, on the side of people and the oppressed, against militarism and the waste of critical resources. If we could find a woman who appreciates this, she would in turn bring in a cabinet of like-minded women and men. Then we would see progress. One person can’t do it.

This is a very rich moment for me. I tell the women who have come before us to have faith in the new and future generations. For our part, we mustn’t fear the world. It has given much to us. It has invested much in us. I, for one, have been to so many global conferences. What does it matter, what good is all the talking, if it hasn’t changed me and invited me to give something back to the world?

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