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Her Own Room: Gloria Steinem, M.I.A., and Kimberle Crenshaw

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A few concerned and curious women and men gathered in a salon-like setting in the home of pioneering American feminist, Gloria Steinem, to hear the latest collection of stories detailing the violence that women, everywhere, face. Amongst a Nobel laureate, UN officials, activists, and scholars there are none of the 'turf wars' over information and representation that are disturbingly present in the human rights community. Only a collective commitment to broaden the struggle of one group by addressing the struggles that shape us all. On the table for consideration: Torture and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Probing questions help sketch out the lines of repression that will have to be broken to get to these individuals. Until Gloria claps here hands, Ok, we've heard enough! What can we do? Steering stimulating dialogue towards the realm of action, ideas and strategies offered advice to begin the end of violence.

There are those issues that have garnered significant attention and skewed awareness -- inspiring a funding swell towards the responses funders approve of. Even as mass graves were filling up, violations against Tamils in Sri Lanka never had that problem. The attention span was, just barely, two minutes long. Despite a natural desire to enter into a formulaic issue-driven awareness, perhaps the oversight has saved this struggle from the well-noted pitfalls of Big Awareness.

In her small room filled with the legacy of Gloria's feminist interventions, a handful of women looked closely at the lived experiences of violence - for some, experiences that mapped directly onto their own lives. The intimate interactions allowed for an examination of the most intimate form of violence - one that creates creative action, powered by powerful women.

A few weeks later, in a warehouse-like space where suffering was Super Sized, the Global Summit on Sexual Violence had the lofty goal of elevating problematic politicians to raise the profile of sexual violence in war. Despite their tragic expertise in the subject, Tamils existed only at the fringes, with others down at base camp drawn to the blinding light of celebrity stardom. Still, for those paying attention, there were valuable lessons to be learned. About the inner circles that inform, and the outer limits of conservative politics. UK Foreign Minister William Hague and Angelina Jolie made a public promise to examine his government's deportation of Tamils -- who waited patiently to reveal their trauma, while he re-considered exposing his hypocrisy. With thousands of people around to bear witness, this was an act that nobody saw.

In a far smaller space far from the sprawling sterility of London's Docklands, artist Maya Arulapragasam (M.I.A.), walked into an ornately cozy room filled with the type of politics that sought refuge in between the lines of her lyrics. A message that was continually displaced, mis-placed, by its translators. She is here because the event is not about her - or anyone of political or popular notoriety. It is a moment that seeks neither to confer status on Summit solutions, nor create consensus through conference.


The Canadian Embassy is hosting a reading, whose presentation was as simple as it was short. Bianca Jagger, Maryam A'dobo, and M.I.A. were to read direct testimonies of Tamils, for whom the violence bled into mind, body, and soul. Important people from the West, often asked for their statements, advice, and opinions, stood in silence as the uncensored voices fell heavy on each individual forced, momentarily, to bear the burden of their weight. There was only a small group assembled - the struggle wasn't stretched too thin, but was tangibly, deeper. M.I.A. reads again, at the end. Lending her voice she begins I have a child, I told them..., a detail that draws out her tears. Confronted with a life whose contours shaped her own, the story was personal enough to elicit pain, and distant enough to unearth an insistent guilt. And yet, at her most vulnerable, she owned the room.

Small spaces for social justice can be suddenly erected, or purposefully constructed. After developing an iconic legal insight Kimberle Crenshaw, found that critical aspects of race theory were reflected most accurately in familiar faces, with familiar politics. Nestled on the sands of a Jamaican beach where the thin threads of tourism erect a safety net for locals falling into poverty, a writer's workshop pushes the limits of creativity to locate new sites of resistance.

Erected in opposition to the structures around us, and within us - commitments to intersections of inequity are integrated into a daily life where writers (men and women) wash dishes, serve food, and embrace every individual as a part of this family. In a world where political communication is riddled with caveats, conversations are insightfully clear. Here, the voices of Tamil women are not speaking into the empty echo of detention halls. In the hands of the thoughtfully brilliant, they are gently placed into the sure grip of a tradition of radical thought, that has heard every word. With medical precision, Kimberle cuts off the blockages at the heart of the political message.

Engaged in a fierce policy battle where communities of color reject the condescending efforts of their Keeper, she insists that the seat between the authoritative and authentic voice be uncomfortable. Born in the comfort of this space, the writing that emerges is more confident, less apologetic. A room where political projects are constructed to take down the repressive forces that hold up structures of violence.