Change Comes From Within

9 Mar

I had the distinct pleasure and privilege to attend a DC event put together by an international non-governmental organization, that featured notable speakers and panelists on global women’s issues.

Hundreds of professionals and scholars gathered to learn more about the pandemic of violence against women and the barriers to universal education for girls. We swapped stories and traded perspectives; we bonded and tweeted; we texted our friends to let them know how much they were missing.

As I settled in to my seat with my glass of wine and a few chicken cordon bleu hors d’ouevres, I chatted with a neighbor.

Afterwards, I overheard women (the event was 95% female) talking as well. Everywhere, women were chatting, networking, bonding.

But I noticed something else – something beyond the expected. Something disturbing.

For not only once, but several times, I heard a so-called “feminist” announce what can only be the kiss of death. In fact, it got quite ugly.

One woman commented on how much makeup a panelist was wearing, and how she needed so much more than another panelist. Also mentioned was the physical beauty of another panelist, and yet again another commented on a women’s height – or lack thereof.

While I was getting my food from the buffet, the mostly-minority workers and servers wordlessly moved throughout the crowd, stopping to offer a plate of appetizer bites to a group. Many of them were there, working almost in the shadows, but they were unnoticed by the people there. I passed by one woman who stood at attention near an entryway, ready to take your dirty plates or glass. I smiled at her and said hello, and while she smiled back, she definitely appeared surprised at my acknowledgement.

I observed many times throughout the night that several of the servers would bring someone a plate of food or take their drink or trash, and they would literally be ignored. Perhaps someone was having a conversation – but is it really that difficult to say, “Thank you so much,” and smile? Just addressing them for their effort and breaking that silence that carries with it the rank and file of status?

Based on the lacquered nails and pressed hair, as well as the otherwise well-groomed, well-dressed ladies of the crowd, I would have to guess that the vast majority of the audience were professionals and well-to-do scholars and grad students. Meanwhile, I was there with holes in my sleeves (I rolled them up), and a hemline that fell because the pants were old and cheap. My coat was less than $20 at a discount fashion store from where I used to live in Baltimore, and I sewed all the buttons on by hand after they fell off in the first week.

My necklace, which received numerous compliments throughout the night, was less than $10 at Forever 21, and I hoped no-one would notice that my fingertips and nails were a bit unkempt, given that I’m a guitarist and my nails are always a wreck.

As someone who put herself through community college over four years working mostly full-time, I have an appreciation of a dollar, an education, and of the difficulty of service work. Naturally, I try to tip well and acknowledge the presence of those who work in service positions. I’m usually even super nice if somebody screws up – fast food, waiting tables, etc – it’s hard work! But I couldn’t help but notice how often people, even in this broader context of social justice and awareness, tended to treat these people as invisible.

Between these observations and the disparaging comments some women made on other women, I walked away feeling less inspired by the good work being done for the cause, and more deeply concerned about the cause in general if those of us working for it are so conflicted and judgmental.

You may imagine the challenges posed by generational differences, and certainly our upbringings and socio-economic status. But I think as long as we don’t take a good look at ourselves, and do our own personal work on the equally valid cause of bettering ourselves and dropping the judgmental outlook, we will ultimately delay progress and perhaps even fail.

It brings me back to when I was a street fundraiser for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR. It was always the people with the Marc Jacobs bags, and the expensive froyo, and the five kids decked out in celebrity kidswear, that ignored me. It was always the homeowners with the biggest houses in the most “progressive,” expensive neighborhoods who slammed the door in my face.

But the guy on the street, waiting for his girl to come out of the church youth program? The guy with the styrofoam coffee cup, and the Timex watch? The guy who drove a schoolbus and made almost nothing? Or the international graduate student who used to live in Mexico, who won a scholarship to study in DC; also the working-class couple who grew up in a small town… These are the folks who became regular donors to save lives.

Because really, if you bought your four kids $28 worth of frozen yogurt after buying your coworker an iPod for her birthday, don’t you think you can spare $10 a month to save almost 200 children from starvation in Mali or Somalia?

It’s always those with the least to give who understand the importance of giving, and who are most in touch with compassion, because they are most acquainted with suffering.

This International Women’s Day, and for the rest of our time on this Earth, let’s each take some time to reflect individually on how we judge others, how we see the world, and how our own worldview and perspective is both shaped and limited by our own experiences.

That’s the whole point of gathering together, to learn – and to listen. Because we all have something valid to say – no matter what we look like, or if we are serving in the shadows.

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