A School for Organizers

Gloria selfie

Steinem and Mankiller School for Organizers

(Originally published by The Women’s Media Center)

| July 15, 2015

It was a collision of worlds: on-the-ground activists from across the country and archivist/academics in the same space for four days. It was an exploratory group brought together to help shape the future School for Organizers that was a dream of Gloria Steinem and Wilma Mankiller, a dream placed on the campus of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, because its Sophia Smith Collection houses a treasure trove of information about past activism. In the end, the activists found examples from the archives that could inspire them and keep them from reinventing the wheel, the academics were thinking about how to make their work more useful and understandable to activists in the present, and all valued being able to talk and explore together.

That’s exactly what the Gloria and Wilma School for Organizers had hoped for in this first gathering in late June. Fifty-two activist participants who work in the areas of reproductive justice, economic justice, and indigenous cultures and sovereignty came to the campus both to explore the history of their movements and to understand that they themselves are creating history every day.

Sandra Killett, the executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York City, said it was just “amazing to be acknowledged”—that it had been noticed that all of these women were on the daily front lines of changing society, and could use help. The “Gloria” of the School is writer-activist-organizer and alumna of Smith (and cofounder of the Women’s Media Center) Gloria Steinem. Wilma was Wilma Mankiller, Gloria’s dear late friend, the first woman Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and a major organizer of indigenous efforts to restore cultures and economic independence. The two friends had long talked about the necessity of bringing historical experience into the daily work of front-line organizers, and recognizing organizing as a time-honored calling that has changed history. According to Gloria, “Wilma knew how to create independence, not dependence. It is this gift that she wanted to pass on to future organizers, and her spirit and understanding that you and I can keep alive in the world.”

G&W photo
Gloria attended every session, answered every question, posed for every photograph. As Jennifer Guglielmo, a Smith professor and faculty adviser to the School, noted, it was a diverse and intergenerational group: from those in their 20s, just getting started in the field, to Gloria in her 80s. As an observer to the proceedings, I took pleasure in the number of people reporting out of sessions praising the work of grandmothers. Nine of the activists in attendance were indigenous women, including Kathy Wan Povi Sanchez, organizer of Tewa Women United of New Mexico. Elder Kathy led us in some moving spiritual work. “My big takeaway,” she said, “is the commonality of the lived experience in terms of the soul wounding of one’s identity. This leads to the struggle to right the wrong and work on social justice issues…the time is now for healing.”
At the first session, the organizers were introduced to the Sophia Smith Collection, considered by many to be the most esteemed archives of women’s papers in the world, including those of grassroots organizations like their own. Some were shocked to find their own names in the collected papers. Gloria’s papers, and those of all the organizations she’s started, are housed here, as are thousands of others. It was a magical introduction, as the Twitter feed from the conference proved:
@MalikaRedmond: Now having a rich conversation about using archives to understand the history of liberation. (Women Engaged, Atlanta)
@FLLatinas: We have to revision the way we record our stories and histories. (National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Florida)
@chazjewett: Domestic workers and farm workers were left out of employment protection laws, because they were mostly POC. (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, South Dakota)
@IreneJor: Delving into @domesticworkers organizing by YWCA 1915-39. (National Domestic Workers Alliance, New York City)
@PrisonBirthProj: Learning so much at the inaugural Gloria and Wilma school for organizing! (Prison Birth Project, Massachusetts)
“I thought the activists were thoroughly enchanted at the discovery that they could not only make history but use history in their ongoing efforts,” said Loretta Ross, veteran reproductive justice organizer (SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, among many) and writer, whose papers are included in the Sophia Smith Collection. “Every group of black women has had to deal with presidential politics. I want to know how [civil rights leader] Mary McCleod Bethune dealt with the Roosevelts. What did she do that could help me with President Obama? The same questions keep coming up.”
Ten years ago, Gloria and Smith historian Joyce Follet wrote up the first proposal for the School to be located at Smith. Four years ago, Sara Gould, former president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, took up fundraising efforts for the project. The project was fast-tracked after Kathleen McCartney became Smith’s new president in 2013. As she wrote to the first class of the School, and told them in person, “This is one of the most exciting initiatives of my presidency….. Gloria has long been a hero of mine. In the summer of 1972, I used my babysitting money to buy the fist issue of Ms. magazine. I found my voice through Gloria’s; my consciousness was raised and I never looked back.”
Joyce Follet and Sara Gould are now co-directors of the Steinem Initiative at Smith, which in addition to the School for Organizers has a Public History component, making women’s stories available; and expanded curricula for students at Smith. Gould’s reaction to the first session of the school: “I’m so pleased by the extraordinary connections among participants, who, given varying areas of movement work, might never have met, and shared skills, except for the School.” Follet elaborated that it was “sometimes rocky, it was hard, people groped their way towards the channels of communication.” But in the end, they made it.
Lauren Embrey, of the Embrey Family Foundation of Dallas, a major funder (along with philanthropist Anne Delaney) of the Steinem Initiative, attended the gathering. She was moved by “the feeling of connectedness and support that came through the diving into, the exploration and sharing of women’s organizing history.”
And what did Gloria Steinem think, seeing the first realization of the dream she and Wilma Mankiller had? “My first takeaway was the variety and depth and caring of the organizers who came together. My second was how much we were helped by sitting by a fire, listening to each other’s stories, learning we had a family of colleagues. “My third is the surprise of discovering how much we can learn from parallel work in the past. It’s like discovering you have a family that can shelter you and give you advice and support you. As Paula Gunn Allen wrote in The Sacred Hoop, ‘The root of oppression is the loss of memory.’ Maybe that should be our motto.”
The Gloria and Wilma School for Organizers will run for two more years in this pilot phase of the work. Sophia Smith archivists will be working with the organizers year-round to assist in the research—and continued making of history.

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