On Monday, March 11th, in a packed drawing room of the Manhattan Public Library, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office hosted its annual parallel event in collaboration with the Commission on the Status of Women’s 63rd session. The event, “Combating Structural Gender Discrimination Through Community-Based Advocacy,” drew a great turnout that resulted in standing-room only by the end.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Bobbi Nassar, Co-Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights, and included panelists Maria Lizardo, Executive Director of Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC); LaVera Sutton, tenant activist at Goddard Riverside Law Project; Kalyani Raj, Secretary General of All India Women’s Conference (AIWC); Kelebohile Nkhereanye, social entrepreneur and food advocate; and Ana Aguirre, Executive Director of the United Community Centers.
These panelists spoke about groundswell methodologies for combating structural gender discrimination, from a ground-up perspective – working directly in the communities with the people affected by discriminatory policies and ideologies.
Ms. Lizardo spoke of the importance of details, organizing, partnership, and doing the hard work that is not necessarily always exciting and enthralling, but is indeed always critical to the health of our communities. She highlighted the benefits of women in this steadfast work, as paragons of drumbeat consistency in “unappealing” trench work, “working, for the night is coming.” Ms. Lizardo works in advocacy surrounding the presence of lead in buildings, fighting for the health of children in homes and schools that are poorly maintained by the government. She highlighted how these failing infrastructures are overwhelmingly found in lower socio-economic neighborhoods, noting that one would not find these buildings in the heart of midtown Manhattan.
Ms. Sutton spoke of her work helping tenants defend themselves against abusive landlords. She noted how easy it is for landlords to twist the arms of their tenants when they have the support – directly, or through a blind-eye – of the state and city. Too often, tenants are abused and manipulated for the benefit of the wealthy, pushed out of their rent-controlled homes for higher paying tenants, or left in crumbling infrastructure.
Ms. Raj spoke of the breadth of her work which impacts the lives of 500,000 Indian women. She spoke of how her organization enters communities in India and gives power and agency to women, allowing them to run households, standing boldly in defiance of patriarchal oppressions. Whereas men failed to handle finances, women in these communities stepped into these roles, growing organically into leadership in the communities.
Ms. Nkhereanye and Ms. Aguirre spoke separately and stood together, in their capacities as community leaders and community garden organizers. They spoke of the critical necessities of fresh vegetation for growth and development, as well as pointing out the benefits of community gardening on community health – allowing youth, particularly young women and girls, in impressive quantities to join in the process of planting, growing, and being present and responsible for concepts larger than themselves. Often, these youth spend hours on end in their gardens, combating the school to prison pipeline and food insecurity in a single act.
After each panelist spoke, there remained no dearth of questions from the audience, spanning the entirety of the room. Questions ranged from the taxes on and availability of female hygiene products in India, Asia as a whole, and the Western world, as well as the recent documentaries of these critical issues, and spanned as far as the important but simplistic impacts of a New York City borough and a freshly grown tomato.
A sign of any good panel, the questions stretched over the allotted duration and barred opportunities for closing remarks, but all panelists echoed a unified theme throughout: the importance of attention to details, small tasks, large goals, and groundswell unity.