With the news being dominated by an increasingly rancorous political discourse, it is both refreshing and encouraging to see what can happen when actions speak louder than words.
The first week in March, I attended two events, each spotlighting important issues. On March 3rd, Vital Voices kicked off their Women Can campaign in conjunction with International Women’s Day. A press conference was held at the showroom studio of designer Diane von Furstenberg, who has been a strong advocate for Vital Voices. Her commitment is not just in the abstract. From March 2nd through March 8th, 10% of the profits from her worldwide boutiques and online sales were donated to the organization. In addition, von Furstenberg committed to making her store locations around the globe a venue for presentations by speakers from the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network. In her opening remarks she said, “All the things I believe in are embodied in Vital Voices,” adding that, “The support from women to women immediately resonated.”
A video was shown which contextualized the activities of Vital Voices. Their preeminent philosophy is that the skills of leadership can be mentored and passed on. This has become a reality through their programming, which since 1997 has worked with more than 5,000 nascent women leaders from over 150 nations in locations spanning Latin America, Africa, Eurasia, the Middle East, and Asia. Sound bites included interviews with the Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and Dona Shalala who declared that, “Leaders aren’t born, they are made.”
An important component of the Women Can agenda is the understanding that partnering with the business community is essential. Carly Fiorina, CEO of Carly Fiorina Enterprises, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Corporation, and Board Member of Vital Voices, was on hand representing the nuts-and-bolts thinking of the corporate mind set. She presented the premise (“driven by data, which makes it crystal clear”) that “if we want to solve problems, women must be engaged.” She stated, “By the year 2015, purchasing power in the developing world will be the largest market in the world.” Part of infrastructure is management, and as Fiorina pointed out, “We can’t get there without focusing on women.” She illuminated the point that if an individual woman was helped, she in turn would invest in her family, and then down the road…in a fund to help other women. Candidly, Fiorina said, “Investing in women is about enlightened self-interest.”
The next spokesperson was Lorie Jackson. For a lesser figure, representing ExxonMobil Corporation may have been a prickly task. A graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Jackson talked enthusiastically about the African Women’s Leadership initiative that ExxonMobil has underwritten at the cost of $1.5 million dollars. She described the three-part program that is engaged in fostering entrepreneurship among African women artisans; developing women political leaders; spearheading advocacy that would change and update existing laws that prevent women from being involved in a nation’s economic life. Qualifying ExxonMobil as “a research-oriented company,” she sited studies that have shown that educating girls and women allows them to become “drivers of change.” When I conversed with Jackson later, she underscored how rewarding it was for her to be playing a major role in implementing this agenda. “I believe in women’s capabilities,” she told me, “and here I am in an energy company, and I am able to do this.” Jackson continued, “We are maximizing the positive social impact of our activity.”
David Jones, Global CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide, the ad agency that is designing the branding and marketing for Women Can, contributed remarks from “a man’s perspective.” He related how he had seen doors shut on his sister, and didn’t want to witness the same scenario for his daughter. He observed, “There’s progress, but nowhere where it needs to be.”
Two beneficiaries of the Vital Voices network were present. Inez McCormick, human rights activist from Northern Ireland, underscored that “Vital Voices takes away away the loneliness of the battle.” Maria Pacheco, a 2007 Economic Opportunity Award Winner, said, “I saw that somebody cared about my dream.” She shared her realization that “Many hands change history.”
That thought resonated at the panel discussion held on March 5th at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea. With the tag line ”Retired Military Leaders Speak Out Against Torture and Abusive Interrogation,” I was interested in hearing about the Human Rights First campaign Elect to End Torture ’08. James Cohan opened the evening saying, “The gallery’s interest is in being pro-active.” He told me in a follow-up interview that he saw the donation of his space as creating “a platform for social action, to give Human Rights First an opportunity to speak of their agenda.”
At that time, HR 2082 – The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal 2008, was awaiting the stroke of President Bush’s pen. This law would bind the interrogation tactics of the CIA and all intelligence services to the United States Army Field Manual rules. These guidelines are unambiguous about prohibiting “acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, or exposure to inhumane treatment.” On March 8th, The White House issued a press release stating that the President had vetoed the bill on the grounds that, “The bill would impede the United States Government’s efforts to protect the American people effectively from terrorist attacks and other threats because it imposes several unnecessary and unacceptable burdens on our Intelligence Community.”
Executive Director of Human Rights First, Maureen Byrnes, introduced the program. She outlined the goal of promoting an enlightening conversation with the purpose of “protecting and defending each individual’s dignity.” Human Rights First sees the public as an essential partner in this quest.
The speakers included Major General Fred E. Haynes, USMC (Retired) and Brigadier General James Cullen, USA (Retired). General Haynes is a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, who served as a captain in the regiment that seized Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima. General Cullen has over 26 years of combined active duty and reserve service. He is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal. Devon Chaffee, an Associate Attorney in the Human Rights First Washington, D.C. office, has been a first-hand observer to the military commission proceeding in Guantánamo. She has testified before Congress on the legality of torture. She perceived that in her experience with lawmakers on the Hill, those in a position to make policy were afraid to “come out, for fear of being branded soft on terrorism.”
General Haynes started the discussion with a story about his experiences in Iwo Jima that illustrated the importance of handling prisoners of war with respect. He said that when he dealt with his troops he told them in simple terms, “Treat them the way you would want to be treated.” He upheld the conviction that, “If you treat people right, you are likely to get good information.” As part of the group of military personnel that has met with all the major candidates for the Presidency on this issue, he told the audience that they had requested, “When you give your Inaugural Address, point number three should be close Guantánamo Bay, no more renditions, no more secret prisons.”
General Cullen brought the force of his direct personality to his insights. “I don’t think there is any lack of clarity in the law,” he said. He gave a brief historical overview that included The Lieber Code of 1863, and included the point that “General Eisenhower was absolutely clear about abiding by the Geneva Convention.” For General Cullen, what he sees is that “our national conscience has become unhinged at the very top.” He explicated that soldiers are taught in basic training how to deal with illegal orders. He elaborated on the problem with putting forth one set of rules for the 19-year-old in the field and another for the 40-year-old CIA operative. “If you allow these dual standards, our enemies can properly, under international law, respond in kind on the 19-year-old. They have applied a precedent that can be brought against our soldiers.”
General Haynes reiterated, “The key to carrying out policy is people have to be held responsible from the top down.” General Cullen asked, “How did the train come off the track?” He responded to his rhetorical question without missing a beat. “ A boulder was put out by the Vice-President’s office.”
The need for citizens to become part of the conversation on a continuum of concerns has never been greater. Through personal action, their influence and clout can impact the larger picture. As Margaret Meade wisely said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”