Strength & Resilience

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Siblings on Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

Monday, April 15, 2019. A weekend of great early Spring weather in New York with temperatures ranging from the mid-60s to the mid-70s (on Saturday). The neighbors were out and about with their children, their partners, friends, and dogs in the Park and on the Promenade along the East River. Runners, bikers, strollers in the mix.

A friend captured this stunning panorama in a video of the city surrounding Central Park at sunset, followed by a final shot after the Sun has gone down.

The Social Calendar. It occurred to me, thinking about that term with “social” in it, how now more than a century after The Mrs. Astor, whose presence and activity in the late 19th century, defined the word (society) for the next several decades in this country, the word now is defined by philanthropic activity, i.e., helping others. A far cry from a ballroom with a limited capacity.

Which brings us to last Wednesday night’s International Women’s Heath Coalition (IWHC) which had its annual fundraising dinner, attended by 350 men and women from ages 16 to 90 (really), at the Ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Looking east across Central Park South from high above the Mandarin Oriental.
The cocktail reception at IWHC’s annual fundraising dinner.

I’ve attended this dinner for several years. It’s not a famous organization (to most of us) but they do amazing work helping and assisting women around the world on matters of health and human rights. This year they honored Marlene Hess with the IWHC Visionary Award for her unparalleled leadership as Chair of the Board and commitment to the rights of women and girls worldwide. Diana Taylor –a member of the IWHC board – opened the evening. Glenn Lowry introduced Hess.

Vartan Gregorian, Marlene Hess, and Diana Taylor.

Marta Alanis was honored with the Joan B. Dunlop Award, named for IWHC’s first president, for her tireless advocacy on behalf of women and girls in Argentina.

Alanis is a leading activist in Argentina. The founder of Catholics for the Right to Decide—Argentina and a co-founder of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, which captivated the world this summer as they took over the streets in Argentina with their green scarves, pañuelos, creating what is now referred to as the Green Wave.

Alanis was welcomed to the stage with a recreation of the Green Wave, with the crowd waving pañuelos. Green was the theme of the evening with guests in green suits, dresses, and jumpsuits.

Jessie Clyde welcomes Marta Alanis to the stage …
… with a recreation of the Green Wave.
Alanis receiving the Joan B. Dunlop Award.

IWHC is a coalition of hundreds of partners. They work with local women leaders in non-government organizations, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. They are enablers, providing funding and professional development so these women can build capacity, advocate effectively and bring about lasting change in their communities and countries.

In her acceptance address, Marlene shared her experiences engaging with IWHC’s grantee partners in Brazil. Brazil has an exploding, deeply diverse population. The new President elected last Fall, Jair Bolsonaro, wants to “curtail” civil society, which has always been very vibrant in the country. His platform is seen by many as a threat to the rights of non-whites, women, gays and political dissidents (anyone who is different).

The trip was to show the Brazilian IWHC partners support and solidarity. They met with female lawyers, economists, business and NGO leaders, and human rights activists. They heard directly from the Brazilian members about the existential challenges imposed by Bolsonaro’s new regime. Many found it alarming.

Stephen Heintz and Marlene Hess.
Fernanda Kellogg.
Francois Girard.

The visiting members were struck by two particular visits. One was a day spent with about 30 girls, ages 11-17 who participated in programs IWHC with a partner called Curumin. The programs include sports, writing and music. The adults talk to the girls about their lives and their bodies.

The visiting members met girls who took part in a writing contest called “My Body, My Territory.” At the meeting, where most of the girls did not speak English, they were asked to tell the visiting delegation what they liked abut the contest.

Each girl spoke. One younger girl talked about learning that her body “belonged” to her. She related how sometimes at night she could hear her father fighting with her mother, and how now, she, the young girl had the right to say: “ no, you can’t do that! It’s my body and my territory.”

She started to cry after saying that. It was clear to the adults that she was not referring to her mother, but to herself. Many of the girls around her embraced her, and many of the leaders had tears in their eyes. An older girl in the group said, “what I learned is I am the owner of my body. Men think they own girls but that’s not true. We are not tied to a pole.”

Many girls, the visitors learned, were and are sometimes easily abused by their fathers, their grandfathers, their brothers, their uncles and their boyfriends. The writing contest taught them they could: yell, push back, and that it was Their Right to say “No.”  The IWHC members know they cannot protect them, but they can “empower” them; help them to become resilient.

The guests at the dinner here  at the Mandarin Wednesday night were hooked on Marlene’s every word, as she detailed her transformative trip and the stories the young girls shared with her.

In the audience: Ellen Futter, Vartan Gregorian, Peter Nadosy, and Richard Salomon, Marnie Pillsbury, an IWHC board member; Dame Karen Pierce, the UK Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador Frank Wisner, Ambassador Isobel Coleman, and special guests b from Finland and Miriam Khiari from Tunisa; Aryeh Neier, a Board member since the very beginning with Joan Dunlop; and former Board chairs Brian Brink, Ellen Chesler and Kati Marton.

Jim Zirin and Kati Marton.
Vartan Gregorian, Marlene Hess, and Isabel Coleman.
Kati Marton and Ellen Futter.
Ray Kelly and Barbara Georgescu.
Michelle Truong and friends.
Marlene Hess with her son Peter Friedland and daughter Maggie Chi.

Then, this past Thursday, the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children held its annual Spring fundraising luncheon at the Pierre. This too, is an organization founded more than century ago by the man who also founded the ASPCA Henry Bergh, along with another prominent New Yorker of the day, Elbridge Gerry. Coincidentally, the ballroom of the Pierre where the luncheon is held sits on the land once occupied by the mansion of Mr. Gerry.

This too is a growing success story more than a century later where age-old problems in human relationships are being addressed more dynamically and in many cases more successfully. The luncheon was opened by remarks by two of the NYSPCC’s devoted volunteers, event co-chairs and board members Valesca Guerrand Hermes and Elizabeth Mayhew.

Valesca Guerrand Hermes.

Mary Pulido PhD., the organization’s Executive Director then took the podium to give guests a brief update on the major accomplishments the NYSPCC has made in the past year.  Their programs are “thriving.” “Everyday at the NYSPCC children and families are healing from the ravages of child abuse and neglect. Our services in New York City reached close to 9,000 children, parents and professionals last year. Thousands more children benefited world-wide as our programs are being replicated. Our education services to PREVENT children from experiencing child sexual abuse are in high demand.” (My italics). She reminded the guests that last year’s luncheon guest, Olympic gymnast, McKayla Mahroney, spoke of the horrific abuse she endured by Larry Nassar, the team doctor.

That luncheon event was her first public statement.  Hundreds of other gymnasts were inspired by her courage to come forward about their abuse experiences.  Another result of that was that the NYSPCC was selected  to develop and conduct child sexual abuse prevention training for all of the gymnasts, their parents and coaches at the elite, Olympic level — with the goal of eradicating child sexual abuse in the sport.  It can and MUST be stopped and we are up to the task.

Dr. Mary Pulido introducing Tara Westover and Stephanie Ruhle.

Dr. Pulido then introduced this year’s guest speaker: “Tara Westover is an American historian and writer known for her unique and courageous education journey. She was born to Mormon survivalist parents opposed to public education. She never attended school. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother until Tara decided to get an education and experience the world outside of her community.”

In a conversation with Stephanie Ruhle, Tara explained that after taking a class in psychology she realized that her father’s paranoia was just part of his mental illness.

An abusive older brother, who also was loving and caring 90% of time, drove her towards getting an education of understanding.

Her mother taught her to read.

She never went to a doctor.

Herbs were her only source of medication throughout her childhood.

Tara Westover and Dr. Mary Pulido.

She recounted how when her father was badly burned while taking a gas tank out of a car before the demolition of the car, he did not seek medical attention other than the herbs Tara’s mother prepared for him.

The outside world was to be avoided at all costs.

She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom, and continued learning for a decade, graduating magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008. She subsequently won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned an M.Phil. from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. And in 2010 she was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Four years later Tara was awarded a Ph.D. in history.

Her new book, Educated, is an account of the struggle for self-invention. Educated was long-listed for the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and had spent 32 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Former U.S. President Barack Obama named Educated as one of the books on his summer reading list of 2018.

At the conclusion of the conversation, Stephanie asked Tara to sing for the guests. There was not a sound in the room other than Tara’s angelic voice, which was received with a standing ovation.

A Good Day in New York.

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