Valentine’s Time’s Day has always been a weird holiday for me for lack of a better word. This Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2013 I decided to do something different, something I will never forget – I attended One Billion Rising. The event was put on by Girls For Gender Equity (GGE) Youth organizers, a Brooklyn-based intergenerational grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the physical, psychological, social and economic well-being of girls, women and their communities. GGE partnered with the Brooklyn YWCA and Vibe Theater Experience, a performing arts organization that empowers teen girls through the creation and production of original performances.
Many others and I were invited to Strike, Dance and Rise with millions of women across the globe to demand an end to gender-based violence. I had no idea what that meant or how that would look when I RSVPed for the event. After leaving the event, I realized that the element of what we were doing could not be imagined but instead must be lived.
What I wasn’t planning to see was the large variety in ages present in the room. The youngest of us RISING, STRIKING and DANCING was seven years old. The room was filled with middle schoolers, high school youth organizers from GGE and the Sadie Nash Leadership Institute, adult organizers, and older women who were residents of YWCA.
After a game of GGE’s rendition of BINGO we were invited to learn the One Billion Rising Breaking the Chains Dance. Always taking the opportunity to get some aerobic exercise I decided to join in. After the umteenth step I decided it was better for me to take a seat and watch. I watched teenagers teaching both children and older women this dance. When someone missed a step complete strangers in the audience were there cheering them on. I even observed two teen women who had never met each before that day helping each other learn the steps. I highlight this because as an organizer who works with bullying and horizontal hostility, I can’t express the significant value of seeing two young women join hands to break the chains that seek to restrain them from achieving their potential to succeed in this world.
After dancing we were invited to share words on why we RISE today. Women and men of all ages took the floor to speak on why they were present. A young woman from Vibe Theater Experience spoke about wishing she could be there for a friend who had bruises “that were so strategically placed” in seventh grade. She expressed that she listened to everything her friend was saying, but not was she wasn’t saying. A resident of YWCA rose for her friend that died at the hand of her abuser in 1973. She made it a point to tell us “that sometimes we have make it our business.” Participants rose for their sisters, their mothers, their classmates and their friends. One of the youngest to rise was in middle school. She rose to commemorate the third anniversary of her sister who was killed by her boyfriend. Another middle schooler talked about being bullied in school and how that affected her. She left us with an important message about finding our space and how not only do we have to be there for each other but for also for ourselves. She said, “I have my room, and there I’m not nerd, I’m not geek, I’m just my beautiful self.” As a person who is at least twelve years older than her, those words still resonate with me and touched the 10-year old in me growing up in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. Exactly one day after the Reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act was passed in the Senate, it is extremely clear that violence against women is very well alive and present right here in Brooklyn, NY. Like Natalie Gyte, I was skeptical about coming together for yet another Eve Ensler movement to “dance” away violence. Gyte says that the movement does not acknowledge the “root causes” of violence like patriarchy and the control and subjugation of women’s bodies. I argue that my experience with One Billion Rising did in fact address a major issue that leads to the maintenance and perpetuation of gender-based violence –Silence!
This event was a space where no one’s experiences were dismissed or discounted. I do not know a space where 10-year olds can stand in front of complete strangers and voice their reasons for rising against violence. I don’t know of many spaces where women of different colors, creeds and ages feel that their experiences are validated, seen as authentic and an integral part of what we need to move forward. A space where our elders murmur in agreement with a teenager in a pair of Jordan XIII’s when she talks about racing up a flight of stairs in her junior high school prom dress and ringing all the doorbells in attempt to save a friend involved in sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. So no this was not a space where women just “danced”! It was a space were we worked collaboratively, shared impromptu teachable moments, cried, laughed, took up space and demanded that our voices be heard. It was the space, where some of us did not have to speak because of our sisters shared our stories, although we had never met before. We were somehow singing the same song, in our own voices, each taking a different verse but always in harmony. My experience in breaking the chains was a divine moment in breaking the silence that Audre Lorde says will not protect [us]! It was the energy in that room that caused us to rise in voice, in song, in movement (a first language for some), in love, in vision and in solidarity.
Nearing the end of the event I convinced our birthday girl, a beautiful bright-eyed seven-year old to cupid-shuffle with me. It was while I held her hand to kick, kick when I realized why I do this work. Brushing a tear away from my face and walking it out, I realized that she is why I go hard in the paint everyday so that girls like her can live in communities free from violence. Where young black girls voices and experiences are validated. Where she has complete control over her body and the right to lead a self-determined healthy life!
“It is our Duty to fight….It is our duty to win. We must love… and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
– Assata Shakur