Last night, in the trendy Drink,Shop,Do cafe in central London with Annie Lennox and women from the music industry, I found myself thinking that the activism I've been involved with for twenty years has too often been missing a key ingredient: fun.
The evening started on a somber note. 'I am a feminist' Annie Lennox began, 'because of the facts':
• 1 in 3 women will be raped, beaten or otherwise abused at some point in her life
• Every 2 seconds, a girl, not yet 18, is married - that is 15 million forced marriages a year
• 2 out of 3 of the world's extremely poor people are women
• The global gap between men and women's income is still 24%
• Women do more than twice as much unpaid work as men
• Only 22% of elected leaders globally are women - in poor local communities it is often far less (for example in Myanmar there are virtually none)
Annie's call to action was at a meeting of some 40 young women involved in the music industry in the UK, who have come together in Annie's organisation 'The Circle' to empower women and end poverty globally.
I was there because these dedicated women have - on top of their busy jobs, in their 'spare' time - raised close to £30,000 for Oxfam's A Vote For Women project in Myanmar. Their specific goal is to raise £60,000 to support 3,400 women to have the skills, confidence, and knowledge to take part in the November 2015 elections.
These elections - the second only in 25 years of conflict which have left Myanmar one of the poorest countries in the world - are an unprecedented opportunity for women to help reshape Myanmar for the better after decades of military rule. Despite having a stellar female leader in Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, currently, only 2% of Myanmar's elected leaders are women - with virtually no women leaders at local level. Attitudes about the role of women are extremely restrictive. The current government actively promotes the saying 'A woman can bring a whole country to collapse' as Burmese folklore. But Oxfam's partner Women's Organisations Network has taken on the challenge to not only to train and support women to speak out, but also to transform society so that people will listen.
The women in Myanmar are doing this in fun and clever ways - they've run a nation-wide song writing competition for lyrics on women's leadership, with winning entrants seeing their songs recorded, shot to music videos alongside famous national celebrities, featured at a big concert on International Women's Day and played on TV and radio. And now they have negotiated to have those songs broadcast to commuters on buses across the country. You don't have to understand the Burmese lyrics to feel the power of these pop videos depicting women in all kinds of traditional and non traditional roles.
'Stop the violence, leave the discrimination, stop the barriers, We will make new history for the future of Myanmar Women' and 'Hands of cradling are full of power' Lyrics from Myanmar competition winners
Circle members then shared how they had managed to - in just three months, as volunteers - raise half their target, £30,000 pounds, by using their celebrity networks and friends to gift, sell, and buy. The energy in the room rose as the women described the chaos, madness and fun of pulling off 'Rumble in the Jumble', many of them devoting weeks of scarce time to creating an event which drew in thousands of both pounds and people.
What struck me was how these young women activists and musicians - in both Myanmar and London - were creating fun, creating joy and community - while also making such a difference. I have also made great friends and felt we made a meaningful difference through the years of marches, sit-ins, canvassing, civil disobedience. However, I'm not sure those forms of 'fun' will ever attract the majority.
These women were following on from the legacy of Annie who is both a wildly successful artist and a passionate activist, using what is fun for millions of people - her music - to bring the messages of feminism far wider than we ever could. Now she is building a mechanism - the Circle - through which this combination can be taken forward by thousands of others.
The members of this Circle are building networks and connections to help them and their cause, using their skills and passion for music and communication to reach wider audiences. This, I thought, is the solidarity movement of this generation - people joined by common passions and interests gaining fun and fulfilment for themselves while also helped enable that for others. This is the way that we are going to be able to transform ideas and beliefs.
I can hear the critique from activists I respect: how are pop music videos and celebrity jumble sales going to change the deep structural causes of poverty and sexism?
I think it is by combining hard work on change- which is usually long and difficult - with fun and fulfilment. 'It was totally exhausting - let's do more'! said one of the organisers. 'Let's do something rad' another member concurred. The use of the term - which I took to mean 'cool' as much as 'radical' - was at the heart of the difference between movements I've been part of that attract a small minority, and the movement we need that builds and sustains a diverse majority.
The critiques of the limits of celebrity activism have some merit. But the conversation within this group of women was far from shallow or self serving. Annie Lennox sparked a conversation about meaning of language by claiming the label 'feminist' and critiquing the notion of 'charity'. Radio DJ Gemma Cairney analysed privilege and made the case for why circle members should mentor younger women in the music industry to understood that taking action for a better world was as important as their careers. She described in moving ways how deeply her own thinking had been transformed by learning from women in Sierra Leone. (You can also hear Gemma's stories from Sierra Leone through her Podcasts at The Pool)
We'd started with facts, reported back on raising funds and awareness through fun, but ultimately Annie said, this work is all about fulfilment.
'My work as an activist for justice is more fulfilling than all the fame, money, and success I have enjoyed. Coming together with women like you, to empower women across the world, feeds my soul - it empowers me. This is not charity. It is an investment - when we invest in women in South Africa, Myanmar, DRC, we are investing in a better world for all of us'. Annie Lennox
I came away inspired - yes, by Annie, and yes, by the brave and creative women in Myanmar. (this I expected) But also inspired by the women in the Circle who have created their own brand of feminism/activism that uses common interests to make a difference in a way that is impactful, fun, and fulfilling. This is not to discount in any way the generations of feminists who have fought often in extreme isolation to win the rights we as women and men enjoy today. Nor to discount that there are deep structural causes of poverty and sexism go beyond messaging and changing ideas and beliefs. Our movement can and must be born in the facts and a vision of structural change- but be all that much more powerful by being sustained by the fun of common interests and the fulfilment of community and connection.
CORRECTION: This blog previously claimed 300 million women a day die as a result of domestic violenceSuggest a correction