Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Women and Power at Omega Institute

A few weeks ago I attended the Women and Power Conference at Omega Institute, in Rhinebeck, New York.

It's becoming a habit, for me, to go back, year after year.   I love seeing old friends, meeting new ones, listening to inspirational talks and fantastic music, and moving my body to new rhythms.  For me, it's timely.  As a college professor, Women and Power coincides with the beginning of the school year.

What could be better than joining with women from all over the world, to share and learn more about women's global rights both in international political contexts and within the personal?  That's Women and Power's special gift--making the 'political' personally meaningful.

The line up of presenters included Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega; Sally Field, actress and humanitarian; Majora Carter, environmental justice activist; Eve Ensler, feminist activist and playwright; Isabelle Allende, writer; Chung Hyun-Kyung, Ecofeminist Buddhist and Christian Nun; Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parent; Bell Hooks, feminist writer and activist; and Gail Straub, women's and human rights activist, among many others.


Stories flowed and so did tears.  Women reached out to listen and hold each other and learn.

BRIDGES.  We learned of programs worldwide lead by women to build bridges, cross borders, and end prejudice and violence.

ARTS.  Women artists, writers, and musicians made a sacred space of and for creativity. Women drummed, cheered, danced and sang.

EMPOWERMENT.   Tales were told by NGO and GRASSROOTS organizers and business women of the good work they are doing worldwide.

SPIRITUALITY.  A wide variety of religious/spiritual practices formed a nurturing circle for the weekend.  Movement, yoga, breath work, meditation, prayer and drumming fed the spirit.

Some highlights:

The powerful speech by Eve Ensler about her cancer story, the need for speaking the truth (getting past the "Cassandra" myth) and about her incredible movement, One Billion Rising, set to end violence against women worldwide on February 14, 2013--V DAY. You can read her talk here.

Eve's rousing call to end rape and violence against women concluded with joyful drumming/music and five hundred women dancing.

A joyful moment happened when Chung Hyun-Kyung, Ecofeminist and Christian/Buddhist Nun- during her inspiring speech about the need to unite our world religions- bubbled up with laughter and exclaimed, "I'm having a group orgasm!"

Also to be noted and commended: Omega walks the walk.  Many scholarships are given to women from all over the world to attend.  Two years ago I brought four students on scholarship to Women and Power.  Lo and behold, I ran into one of these gorgeous young women, Saajida Stacker, now pregnant, with her little nephew and female cousin.  They came on their own to Omega, on scholarship.  I felt the blessings of passing the torch, to the babe in the womb, to the inner city little boy who played basketball while his mom and aunt participated in the conference.

Oh, yes, and there was fun:  yoga in the morning and afternoon, walks in the woods, and rowing on Omega's clear lake.  

At the Saturday evening gala celebration we listened to Isabelle Allende and Eve Ensler talk about how they move past the silences of female repression in their lives and work, and how they express the "female experience" in literature.

The evening closed with live award-winning music and dancing.

On the final day, we heard from Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, speak about the power and meaning of women's rights over their bodies.  Richard's words were poignant for me as an American woman, particularly during this presidential election period.  After listening--all weekend--to the stories about violence against women worldwide, and the dangers posed to women and girls in so many places on this planet, Richards reminded us that here, in the U.S., it really matters whom we vote for when it comes to women's health and human rights.

The thread of silence, violence, and oppression ran throughout the weekend--yet this was countered with inspiring stories of actions of and for healing, communication, reconciliation, and empowerment.

I left with a deep sense of gratitude and respect for all that women do across the globe to make radical change, and deep gratitude for the Omega's Women's Institute for bringing us together to learn of such remarkable work.

Will I come back again next year?  Oh yes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sandra Steingraber's Living Downstream

This Saturday, October 20, 2012, at 2:00 p.m. in New York City, Living Downstream, the film based on Sandra Steingraber's stunning book of the same name--will have it's premiere in New York City at  Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.  It will have its broadcast premiere in November on Outside Television.

Living Downstream follows in the tradition of Rachel Carson's groundbreaking, Silent Spring (1962).   Indeed, Steingraber has been dubbed by many as a modern-day "Rachel Carson."

Living Downstream, first published in 1997, fell into my hands about ten years ago, only a few years after my own cancer diagnosis and loss of both parents to cancer.  At that time I suspected that the cancer in my life and all around me had something to do with our poisoned environment.  Steingraber's book answered my questions about the connections between pollution and cancer and opened up a new world of understanding. 

Living Downstream ultimately lead me down a new path both personally and professionally.  Steingraber inspired my transformation from an English professor of the British Eighteenth-Century, to an Ecofeminist writer, activist, professor, and mother. 

Now, I show the film Living Downstream, and teach Steingraber's work every semester in my college courses. Not only is the research groundbreaking and impeccable, but her beautiful prose narrative makes otherwise tedious data accessible to lay people.  By bringing in her personal story of cancer into the mix, Steingraber turns scientific facts about pollution and disease into something everyone can relate to. 

Recently, I spoke to Steingraber and I asked her what she most wanted to accomplish in the film and book.

She said she wanted to achieve two things.

First, Sandra explained,  "I wanted to tell the story of  how chemical pollutants are playing an under-represented role in the story of cancer."

Second, Sandra said, "I wanted to show how the 'happy' story of even a long-term cancer survivor like me, is not necessarily a story of triumphalism.  Cancer is not a gift. It’s a massive waste of time.  It triggers post-traumatic stress syndrome." 

In Living Downstream, the book, Sandra goes back and forth between scientific data linking toxics to cancer, and her own personal cancer story.  The film tends to focus mostly on the personal, so for those less interested in scientific data, the film is a bit easier to get into.  The film is visually beautiful, too, and it takes the viewer into the daily life of the biologist and cancer survivor.  We see where Steingraber grew up in Illinois, we see Steingraber in her home in upstate New York, we see her cooking and eating with her family, putting her children on the school bus, talking to her husband, and running.  It's an intimate portrayal.

One of the most dramatic moments in the film takes place when Steingraber makes her regular visit to the urologist's office for the dreaded "check up." This scene was not in the original version of Steingraber's book.  In the book, after several chapters of scientific information, Steingraber shifts to a description of the moment she was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age twenty in her doctor's office. 

Chanda Chevannes, the filmmaker, and Sandra Steingraber wanted to replicate this traumatic moment  in the film, which they obviously couldn't do in a documentary.  So, instead, they filmed Steingraber's visit to a urologist's office in the present--thirty three years after the original diagnosis.  

In this scene, Sandra undergoes a cytoscopic test.  As audience members, we witness, first hand, the fear and anxiety of the cancer patient--that feeling, Sandra describes as, "standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down into the abyss." 

"Certain scenes in the film and my life," Sandra explains, "like the sound of cystoscopic instruments being pieced together and laid in a tray, and the sounds of the KY jelly being  squirted out into an ultra-sound-- these are traumatic triggers" that bring back that first dramatic moment of the cancer diagnosis.  As Steingraber says, "you never stop being a cancer patient."

After I  show Living Downstream to my college classes, and the lights come up at the end of the film, there is the inevitable question.


"Why," students rightly ask, "are we producing such dangerous chemicals and poisoning our environment and bodies, and why isn't the government doing something to protect us?  If Rachel Carson made the point in 1962 that DDT causes cancer, why do we still produce thousands of such chemicals that end up in our food, water, toys, body products, clothing, furniture, and building materials--and, inevitably, in our bodies--all these years later?"  

These are the hard questions that Steingraber forces us to ask and face.

Today, several years after the making and writing of Living Downstream, Steingraber has become a leader against hydraulic fracking in her home of New York State.  She joins Josh Fox, filmmaker of Gasland, and Mark Ruffalo actor and activist, Julian Lennon and Yoko Ono, and thousands of others. 

"Fighting for the environment is our most urgent civil rights and justice issue today," Steingraber says. "Environmental rights are in the order of the women's right to vote in the early twentieth century, the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth, or the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth.  I like to believe that if I had been alive (and an adult) during those time periods, I would have fought for those causes as well."

Steingraber recently gave away her Theresa Heinz award for $100,000 to anti-fracking groups and she spends all of her non-parenting time stumping for the cause. She gave away this money while she hasn't had enough income to put aside money for her own children's college saving accounts.

"My children's college savings account," Steingraber says, is a  "safe and healthy earth. We're walking with targets on our backs right now in my little village in upstate New York, as the fracking trucks roll through in preparation to start the drilling." 

Steingraber says she can't be a "hepafilter" to protect her children and keep the poisons out of their home and bodies.

Perhaps not, but Steingraber can act with her pen, her heart, and her voice.  And she does.

-This piece is cross-posted on Ms. Blog and Tikkun.