This month I had my first TED experience. And it was a first for TED too – TEDWomen. Whether or not we still need separate events dedicated exclusively for and about women is a debate worth having, but that I will reserve for another post.
I went to TEDWomen out of curiosity in the intersection of innovation, ideas and women. I went to engage with and to explore the diversity of who attends such events – from artists to athletes to politicians to activists. And I went for inspiration and new possibilities for collaboration. I found all of the above, but I also left embracing the paradox of discontent that comes from a gathering of still largely well-educated, privileged Westerners celebrating their roles in the world, largely without the voices of the disenfranchised. Again I am asking the question – who and where are the change agents? I found several and I found several missing.
I was deeply inspired by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, who spoke of being both a mystic and a warrior and called on us to eliminate the orientation of “otherness”, which continues to enforce a paradigm of separation, of us vs. them. We need more examples of mystic warriors.
I was mesmerized by Joan Halifax, Engaged Buddhist and spiritual teacher, who spoke of the multiple dimensions of compassion, including both strength and a soft heart. She spoke even of the wrathfulness of compassion that does not tolerate delusion, and that calls upon us to witness and then act upon suffering in the world. Why are we not teaching our children compassion, voting on the basis of compassion, she asked. Why does compassion not drive us in every action?
And I was enamored by Caroline Casey, a legally blind elephant handler and social entrepreneur working on behalf of the disabled, who called on each of us to believe in the right thing and embrace your unique self.
During one particular session, I was delighted to sit between two significant leaders of change for women. We listened to a surprise speech by Hillary Clinton, where she proclaimed the empowerment of women and girls was a core tenant of her foreign policy. She explained that she saw it as a national security interest, because countries that embrace the empowerment of women were both more prosperous and more stable. While this is an important priority, I was dismayed that we still have to use arguments aligned with national security to uphold the human rights of women. Things have yet to change as far as needed, if that is still our primary rationale as a nation. Expressing this to my two neighbors, the NGO leader indicated her satisfaction with the argument so long as it enabled the outcome. The other, a long-time feminist activist, refused to stand during the ovation, and commented that the US was very good at putting its finger on the success of women in the world.
I mentioned to both of them that right then, while we were sitting in our comfortable auditorium in the exquisite International Trade Center, Lisa Shannon, activist for ending sexual violence in the Congo, and four other dedicated individuals were holding a 24/7 vigil for five days straight in the freezing cold out in front of the State Department. They were calling upon the administration to assign a special envoy for Congo and to work with the international community to spearhead comprehensive security sector reform to ensure the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice and women are protected. What if, I proposed, we could get a cohort of attendees, including some relatively well known women leaders, to take a quick cab ride over to the State Department and stand with Lisa in solidarity? The NGO leader responded with practical hesitation, albeit no precise objection, advising us to have a concrete call to action first. The other jumped at the opportunity to walk the walk of what we were there at TED to support, and quickly moved to create a flyer and press release, coordinate logistics, and mobilize people to respond.
As the two of us handed out notices between speakers, I was shocked when one woman muttered at me, “That’s so annoying.” Well, it’s also so annoying that women are being raped repeatedly in the Congo, I thought to myself after I recovered. I felt a momentary reprieve when later Madeline Albright declared that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” And then I recognized myself “otherizing” again.
After passing out 400 flyers, the two of us were able to mobilize just three other people to join us in a cab for a quick trip through traffic and a five minute visit to Lisa’s vigil, before returning to the evening session of speakers. I was so grateful for these four other women who felt a sense of duty and delight in responding to a simple call for action. I felt such disappointment that within a conference for and about women – where people had expressed their interest through an application process and paid thousands to attend – we could not convene more willing to take such a simple step. Then I reminded myself that we each have something we are called to do, and it is not always the same. And perhaps I should be aware of my own orientation when one declares an event on behalf of women – TEDWomen was not actually TEDWomensIssuesandActivism, after all.
As we jumped from the cab and crouched together to take a photo with Lisa and her colleagues, I felt a level of guilt sinking in my gut – what in the world did our brief action offer the cause, and why do we feel we even deserve a photo documenting our 5 minutes of attendance? Later, my new activist friend remarked with content that we have to be satisfied that for every one person that shows up, you usually reach 100 others with the message. I suppose that is the hard work of activism.
One of my mentors, a Vietnam Vet, practicing Buddhist and mind-body practitioner once told me: “It is not the magnitude of the task, but the intentions that matter most”. Joan Halifax says that we can have no attachment to outcome. The NGO leader I sat next to was willing to accept less than optimal intentions if the outcome was realized. And the activist was satisfied with the action and potential exposure, despite the outcome in numbers.
So what does really matter for change to happen? The intention, the action or the outcome?
The next day I went back to spend a few hours with Lisa and her colleagues. I asked her what she thought. She responded that she’s always been surprised by the outcome when her actions are in line with her beliefs and when she’s simply put her best foot forward. The results have always been so much greater than she ever imagined. Here, her theory was proven again. Though she was just one of five people who were camping out on the State Department steps, she had ended up getting a meeting with the head of the Africa Division later that afternoon.
I suppose the formula is different for each change agent. Certain circumstances will move us, outrage us or motivate us, often without warning. And some will not. A vision of change for the common good will likely inspire and set our direction. Our role then, I believe, is to listen deeply to identify what our most unique contribution might be. Sometimes we don’t always have to act. But when we feel we must, we must also ensure our response is aligned with our highest intentions, and double check that our intentions are in service to that vision, not our own egos. Finally, we must let go of the results. For we are just one piece of a larger landscape of interconnected parts moving collectively toward an emerging reality that we cannot yet see.