CSW54: New Media, Social Action & Women’s Economic Security

Motivating social action through social media was the subject of one of the morning sessions on Day 1 of the 12-day 54th annual Commission on the Status of Women, at the UN headquarters in New York. A panel of pioneering and accomplished women, from diverse fields of research, activism, and enterprise, offered a far-reaching exploration of the ways in which new media can help to effect change and improve the situation of women, around the world. Outreach, social networking, and informational access, were integral to the morning session’s discussion.

As social networking technologies have evolved, they have become not just user-friendly in the extreme, but have created a global forum through which individuals and communities, organizations and governments, can work to build connectivity among people, and share information in a way that promotes opportunity, liberty and stability for women in even remote corners of the world. Social networking tools decentralize the flow of information, allowing for a more flexible, dynamic application of global communications platforms, handing the control of access and information to the people who seek or require it.

The central thrust of the event was cogently distilled in Gloria Feldt’s call for women to “employ every medium”, take advantage of any communicative vehicle, using all the tools available, to achieve the most comprehensive and dynamic delivery of the message. But the discussion drew from a diverse range of experience and focus, bridging the distance between the strictly technological approach to social media, questions of Jungian psychoanalysis and cultural consciousness, and the community fabric as it is affected by banking and lending practices.

Olivia Calderón, California Legislative Director for the New America Foundation’s Asset Building Program, brought this last point forward, discussing community outreach efforts designed to ensure predatory lending practices don’t undermine individuals’, families’ or communities’ ability to build value and lay the groundwork for a stable, prosperous future. These programs require a communicative engagement and benefit from a social media outreach and decentralizing philosophy that privileges acting locally.

Feldt also suggested the need to act locally, explaining that while women complain of not being published as much as men in major newspapers, the most likely explanation is that they in fact submit a far smaller number of articles; she called on women to write to their newspapers, and to write for them, to publish and to create a base of discursive support for women and for women’s issues. Specifically, women could tap into grassroots networks with the aim of submitting at least 25 letters the to editor in support of every article published.

Tae Yoo, a Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs for Cisco Systems, works on her company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, building “public-private partnerships to create positive, sustainable change in education/capacity development and economic development”. She said the internet is “the most ubiquitous” mode of inclusive communication, where “groups can find each other, because they have common interests and strategies”.

Yoo also said new developments in technology and decentralized grassroots organization are “raising the bar for social media” in a way that can “empower women around the world” by promoting education, leadership, the building of constructive alliances and partnerships, as well as support networks fed by the technical resources of sometimes geographically remote individuals or organizations.

The Cisco Networking Program, for example, now operates in 160 countries, though Cisco Systems itself is only physically located in 70. Cisco opened the first Network Academies at Kabul University. As a result, women are able to learn that it doesn’t matter where one is, so long as one has acces to the infrastructure that allows for communication across borders. The use of social networking tools to provide access to a global network of potential collaborators, educators and sources of information, makes it possible to rapidly expand the resources available to remote communities, far beyond the limits imposed by geography and local economic and social trends.

Clare Winterton, Executive Director of the International Museum of Women, explained how her organization views “art as a winning strategy for gender equity”. The online museum uses thematically driven art exhibits to promote gender issues, educate people around the world and connect women and organizations that can play a productive role in driving progress toward gender equality and social justice. Winterton framed “art as an entry point” for allowing women to learn more about their world, about the world beyond their own experience, and about their role, or potential role, in that wider society.

A key question, she said, is how do we use art to bring new people to the table? “Women and men need different entry points and different touchpoints to really get inspired … and to take action”. She went on to say that “the way we communicate, whether that be through art, or through marketing … is something we really need to invest in as a movement … to create a bridge to action, to connect men and women around the world”. In a review of reaction to the use of social media to inspire action, she reported that over 70% of people said they experienced three personal changes, while more than 60% said they’d taken three steps toward action, as a result of the experience of gender-relevant online artwork and social networking. Like Tae Yoo’s work at Cisco, to foster education and empowerment of women and girls in Afghanistan and elsehwere, Winterton’s work explores the connection between economic standing and women’s rights and potential for decision-making and free exercise of personal agency.

Olivia Calderón’s work for the New America Foundation’s Asset Building Program, in California, also demonstrates the strong current running between economic degradation, social connectivity and women’s access to opportunity and security. Calderón explained how her father and mother came to the US from El Salvador and Mexico, respectively, in hopes of building an asset base on which they could create a world of possibilities for their family.

She said she learned from their experience how policy shapes the environment in which individuals, families and communities can build assets and translate their work into a more stable future. Public policy that allows for abusive lending practices undermines the freedom of individuals to tap their own talent and build a sustainable asset-base. In Sacramento, she has worked to establish an college-savings account for all children, so that educational opportunity will not be determined by geography or socio-economic status.

She also spoke of the ongoing work to create a portable IRA, allowing people to build a life-long pension they can carry from job to job, so their security in retirement need not be put at risk by one employer’s fortunes or misfortunes. Key to understanding the role of banking policy and community asset-building was the fact that “the financial market of the 21st century has two faces”. For higher income families, financial services outlets “trip over themselves” to offer quality services and financial security, while for lower income families, the picture is very different: predatory lending, unstable mortgages, check-cashing counters and abusive pay-day lenders.

Projects designed to counter the corrosive effects of predatory mortgage lending, credit card abuses and pay-day lenders, both require and help to protect community organization. They are designed to foster not just the building of personal assets, but also of value in the community and a connective frame of mind, where collaborative action allows for a more cohesive planning that protects individuals, families and the fabric of human talent and trust around them.

Jean Shinoda Bolen spoke of the need to integrate issues of gender equality into a conceptualization of social interaction in light of the circle, which is to say, not linear power dynamics or the convenient geometry of hierarchical structures. The circle prizes parity, symmetry, and connectivity, and allows for communication to occur across a more constructive non-vertical network of relationships. In light of the circle effect, Shinoda Bolen said that when women begin talking to each other, “the world changes for them”. They are awakened to the possibility of expanding the reach of their individual agency, building toward adopting spontaneous leadership roles and engaging in decision-making for a community broader than what they had previously understood as their own domain.

She also spoke of “putting a spiritual center in that circle”, coming to accept that in a sense, communicative expansion of one’s physical and psychological field of engagement equates to an “energy field”. Every circle formed is informed by circles that came before and will influence circles that come afterward. Communicative purpose, direction and intensity remains, and establishes a guide for future activity.

The Honorable Jackie K. Weatherspoon, who served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives for six years, explained that “New England has been the only region in the country that actually did an assessment of the platform for action for Beijing”. She also noted that as the people with the most knowledge, commitment and social capital, age, it becomes increasingly necessary involve young people, to inspire the same passion for a cause that brought the progress to date.

To engage young people, she spoke of events designed to function in a “cafe style”, with intimate, informal conversation, but in which the young people change location or groups every 15 minutes or so, to keep them engaged and expand their pool of shared interest. While teenage girls are experiencing real difficulties in their high-connectivity, media-intensive social environment—with cyber-bullying, depression, suicides, self-image crises, and the sometimes demeaning portrayal of women and girls in mainstream media—, social media offer one of the best means for young women to cultivate their own discretionary and leadership abilities, to find a place of meaning, and to inspire others to advance the cause of equality.

Elahe Amani, of the Women’s News Network, highlighted not only the effectiveness of social media in fostering awareness and by extension, social action, but the ways in which social media can provide women and girls with a greater sense of self-determination and courage, to allow them to speak out, to protest, to organize.

That cultivation of courage, that encouragement of the expansion of the reach of an individual’s voice, is one of the main attractions of social media generally, and a driving factor in the relationship of social media to inspiring and organizing social action and substantive change. Understanding the relevance of social media to the personal and social development of women of all ages can, or should, lead to a deliberate and coordinated effort to inform and reform the real-world experience of women and girls across the world.

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Originally published March 2, 2010, at CafeSentido.com

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