Rhinebeck, New York, USA - The Omega Center's annual Women & Power Conference is one of the most celebrated gatherings of women in the world. Known for diversity of speakers, teachers, and others involved, the event is dedicated to empowering women to bring hope, healing, and change into their lives and to the world around them.
The Conference is the product of co-founder of and senior advisor for the Omega Center, Elizabeth Lesser, who presented one of the two evening keynotes at the first gathering of the three-day event.
At the culmination of the conference, a significant news-breaking announcement was made: after years of planning and consideration, the Omega Center is embarking upon establishing a Women’s Leadership Center. With a proposed budget of some $14 million dollars, the core group announced they already have $9 million in hand.
A second news-breaking announcement made at the event relates to the Center’s intent to be as inclusive as possible: the awarding of scholarships to young women leaders who are economically challenged. This year, 100 full scholarships were granted. Next year, however, that number should dramatically increase as it was announced that $35,000 had already been raised for this purpose- nudging out the prior years’ fund raising figures of $10,000 and $15,000.
Awareness and participation certainly are on the rise: Women & Power 2010 drew a sold-out audience of about five hundred women- and a few very wise men- from places as far away as California and Colorado in the US, and Australia and New Zealand.
"I came for an opportunity to step out of my day to day life,” attendee Molly Hall shared, “and be in an inspiring and empowering environment and with women who make a difference.“ Hall had come all the way from Parker, Colorado to be at the Conference. She would later share that she had been assumed to step in with siblings and take over her father’s West New York Irish pub. Preferring not to take on the family business, she ran- all the way to Colorado. It wasn’t an easy journey for her at first, and this is a familiar report from women who have dared to refuse the status quo- an experience shared, it seemed, by most all of those who gathered at Women & Power 2010.
Speakers from the media, arts, and entertainment arenas at this life-changing gathering included New York City artist, sculptor and critical Omega supporter Sarah Peter, Pat Mitchell, CEO of the Paley Center for Media and former president of PBS, Gail Collins, New York Times op-ed columnist and author of When Everything Changed: the Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present,* poet Elizabeth Alexander, (who participated in President Obama’s Inaugural ceremonies with the unforgettable reading of her poem “Praise Song for the Day” which can be seen at http://freedomeden.blogspot.com/2009/01/elizabeth-alexander-praise-song-for-day.html) and Grammy Award-winning recording artist and found of Righteous Babe Records, Ani DeFranco.
Speakers and participants from the teaching and humanitarian arenas included Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Foundation, Dr. Annie McKee, founder of Teleos Leadership Institute, Leymah Gwobee, peacemaker and the subject of the film *Pray the Devil Back to Hell,* Sainab Salbi, author of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam and founder of Women for Women International, Jennifer Buffet, president and co-chair of the Novo Foundation, Edit Schlaffer, founder of Women without Borders and the initiative SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism), Malika Saada Saar, founder and executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, Jana Long, founder and director of Power of One Yoga, MacArthur Fellow Lateefah Simon, teacher and social activist Phyllis Rodriguez, and former astronaut Mae Jemison.
Lessser joked with the crowd in opening remarks, referring to "light summer reading" as she described it: a collection of works by "dead white men," including Zen and the Art of War and similar "Machiavellian" books, all written with a male perspective on leadership. Her purpose in this was to share how important it is for women to take on a "Cassandra" role- that is, to have the capacity to see and know what is needed for change. How we might all become "Cassandra's" by finding a "new consciousness" leadership was a key theme at the gathering.
“Men have been leaders in most endeavors,” Lesser told the audience, “but I’m not advocating the end of men. We just need to deconstruct leadership… and evolve as ‘new conscious’ leaders.” She cited the fact that statistics prove that when women and girls are educated and empowered all sectors are improved. We are probably all familiar with the adage: “Teach a man to fish and you teach a man to fish. Teach a woman to fish and you feed an entire village…” This was certainly borne out by way of the stories presented and shared throughout the weekend.
“Women’s leadership style tends be more about ‘tend and befriend’ rather than ‘command and control’,” Lesser explained. “And women are better team players. These are signs of ‘new consciousness’ leaders.” A former midwife, Lesser used the analogy from the childbirth process to exemplify how women can successfully reach toward embracing and putting into action their superior leadership style. “In childbirth,” she shared, “that muscle called the cervix at the end of the uterus must stretch to an amazing degree (to accommodate birth),” Lesser said. “Reacting in fear when we have to stretch,” she added, “not trusting change and chaos, we hinder growth. If we can deliver life, we can deliver this new story of leadership.”
Each of the speakers at this amazing event had a potent message of growth, change, and taking control. Pat Mitchell spoke of her dream- that we would tell our stories,- and that we might all embrace the media and use it for the good of forwarding issues of concern for women and, so therefore, for all humanity.
Elizabeth Alexander shared her outstanding poem "Praise Song of the Day" and others, and Ani DeFranco shared music with lyrics reminding us to "take a swan dive to lead." Gail Collins reminded of the important of historoy- or, more accurately, "her-story"- bringing to mind the women who struck ouf before us in non-traditional enterprises. All unsupported, for the most part, in their endeavors, and often even discouraged by others, they brought about much good. It's important that we become involved to the greatest extent possible so as to be a part in making history.
Jennifer Buffet spoke of how each of us can and MUST usher in the feminine in our own lives- women and men.
Following Lesser’s message of encouragement to effect change, Leymah Gwobee’s address to the crowd was a battle cry. Gwobee (who has since been awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize) worked in her Liberian village to do, as the media states, “the unimaginable” by way of “ordinary people.” Gwobee and supporters brought Muslim and Christian women together in prayer and silent protest to force a resolution during stalled talks to end civil war. This brought peace to their community. And this brings a real, modern-day meaning to Psalm 44:3 which states "It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory..." Gwobee's story is a fascinating one, and she is a bold and engaging speaker, striking a sharp image both on stage and screen in her colorful native garb. She received several rounds of spontaneous applause as she encouraged women not to “wait for the patriarchy to redeem women’s rights.”
“We assumed- like our wedding rings are on a satin pillow- that we’d be taken care of,” Gwobee told the rallying crowd. “But patriarchy, at some point, figured us out. They strategized and pitted us one against the other to keep us from protesting the treatment of our sisters in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan…”
“It’s time for us to bind together,” Gwobee exhorted. “Our womanhood is what binds us- no matter our race, religion- and we need to be more radical. There is nothing wrong with stepping out and saying that we are taking our space…. You need to take it because the men won’t give it,” she added. “We need to redeem our time…” Gwobee mentioned she’d had discussions with male leaders and that, despite men wanting to help and empower women, the conclusion is that it’s just not going to happen on its own.
“We’ve never really understood the word ‘empowerment’,” Gwobee told the crowd after her address and whilst she was in conversation with Lesser. “I’ve been told (by some men),” she explained, “that to empower they have to give up some of their power. They tell me they want to empower us but they don’t want to lose any of their power.”
Annie McKee gave the first keynote address the second day of the Conference, taking up the issue of "power," and extolling the crowd to use skills and power for world betterment by way of using resonant leadership. She explained that this form of leadership is comprised of emotional intelligence ("EQ"), ethics, power for the people, and mind-body-heart-and-spirit thinking. It is uniquely feminine in origin, and it is often derived from overcoming struggles that previously caused fear. McKee, a mother of three children who, at one time in her life found herself sitting in an empty house, crying, after having moved her family thousands of miles away from what they knew, shared that she had been lonely and frightened despite the boldness she'd exercised in making the move and leaving poverty behind.
“You can’t be brave until you’ve been really scared,” McKee offered. “And you can’t lead until you know what it means to be powerless… finding the source of our leadership means looking at our stories.” In her own situation with moving, she got up and decided she could “do it” because she didn’t want her children, on their way home from school soon, to see her undone.
“That which you hold dear- call it goddess, intuition, whatever- is needed by the world so we can step out,” McKee stated further. “‘Power’ is a dirty word in some places…,” But power isn’t bad. Power is good if you use it for the good of other people- if you use your power to bring wealth, happiness and clarity to others.” What comes to mind here is 2 Timothy 1:7: For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. (NIV)
Gwobee, a single mother of four children with no college education- who once slept on a hospital floor after delivering one of her children because she had no money for care- encourages that "anything is possible if you just press on." A fan of Gospel singer Yolanda Adams, Gwobee says that listening to Adams' powerful "Never Give Up" energizes her.
“That’s when I remember that, in whatever I do, I am a constituency of mothers, daughters, sisters, etc., who may never get to do this (speak and share their stories with other women). It’s not about you,” Gwobee told the crowd, “it’s about those women and the issue of their rights, peace and security for all.”
The unifying themes for the weekend included identifying and protesting injustice whenever possible, standing up for what is right, taking risks in the name of identifying wrong doing, and having the courage to use feminine power to change the world for the better. In the words of Carla Goldstein, director of the Women’s Institute at Omega, “Ultimately, leadership is about how power is used, for what purpose, and with what end result—is it being used to uplift humanity and preserve the planet, or to secure the interests of the very few? Cultivating leadership models that uplift all of humanity is at the heart of our work.”
Workshops were offered at the midpoint of the gathering and included:
Resiliency in Challenging Times, with Sharon Salzberg and Cheri Maples, Beloved Community: Leadership, Collaboration & Women, with Akaya Winwood, How to Lead with Love, with Sierra Bender, Activism in Your Own Voice, with Amy Richards and Marianne Schnall, Nature, Story & Purpose: A Compass for Navigating Leadership, with Nina Simons, Body and Soul, with Maya Breuer and Jana Long, Giving Voice to Trauma: Spiritual Surrender and Leadership, Shaima Khinjani, Suad Mansour, Loung Ung, and Gail Straub, A Leader Must Be Loyal to Herself: Empowerment Through Writing, with Marta Szabo, co-director of Authentic Writing and a staff member at Omega, and Own Your Finance, Own Your Life, with Manisha Thakor, MBA, CFA.
Szabo’s participants could be found far and wide on the beautiful Omega campus outside the Conference main gathering, deep in thought and writing to capture ideas for leadership action they'd like to take. Thakor's workshop included a perfect blend of practical tools for immediate action to cut spending and also appropriately apportion it- two things that should be done to improve financial positioning even if one's income is not increased in any way. She also gave some wise-woman insight about how women think and feel about money. Bender's early morning "Goddess power hikes" offered before each days' programs were uniquely energizing, empowering, and totally awesome.
Media partners for this event included Feminist.com(www.feminist.com), WAMC Radio (51%) (www.wamc.org/prog-51.html), WE-News (www.womensenews.org), World Pulse (www.worldpulse.com), and Feministing.com(www.feministing.com).
Supporting organizations included the Paley Center for Media (www.paleycenter.org, the NoVo Foundation (www.novofoundation.org/wordpress/), Women Without Borders (www.women-without-borders.org/), and The Women’s Conference (www.womensconference.org
Founded in 1977 by Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D. and Elizabeth Lesser, Omega is a non-profit, educational retreat center in New York’s Hudson Valley, offering workshops, professional trainings, and wellness vacations designed to foster lifelong learning, inspired living, and community building. It houses unique facilities that combine an earthy, sort of “indoor camping” feel for dorm residents with the creature comforts of welcoming public spaces and wholesome, healthy, and incredibly delicious dining.
Omega is well known for the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), a state of the art water reclamation facility and environmental education center that brings together waste water recycling, clean energy, green architecture, and other sustainability elements that can be replicated locally and globally.
More information can be obtained by visiting the web site at www.omega.org, or by calling 800/944-4444.
Text and some images ©2010 M. D. Caprario - All Rights Reserved
Interior images courtesy of The Omega Center
M. D. Caprario is an author of books for women, an editor of books by and for women, and a journalist working in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles covering books, film and other good things in the entertainment world, people, places, and things that are of interest to women, and people and projects seeking to change our World for the better. Reach her at [email protected]