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.”