Each year I treat myself to the Auckland Writer’s Festival. It’s a week-long event, but most of the activity is centred around Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions. This year’s theme was “Read the World” and focused on questions of identity, perception and migration (voluntary and involuntary) from a range of New Zealand and global authors. Carmen Aguirre, Vivian Gornick, Herman Koch, Jeanette Winterson, Helene Wong, Giovanni Tiso, David Fisher, Janet Wilson, Julian Baggini, Hirini Kaa, Jean-Christophe Rufin, and Janna Levin were just a few of the stimulating speakers at sessions I attended.
Perhaps the greatest highlight was seeing Gloria Steinem. At 82 years of age, she has been an icon for me and others for decades and she shared several stories from her life as an activist. One included her attendance at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. He had finished his planned speech and was about to leave the stage when one of the women organisers shouted out to him, “Tell them about your dream!” His ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was not only impromptu in its delivery, but in its construction. She also spoke at length about Native American activists she’s worked with and admires.
I was touched most by her responses to audience questions. One young woman (22 years old) explained how difficult it was to find others who identified as feminists. First, Gloria recommended that she see beyond labels to the substance of what people stand for. As much as she is comfortable calling herself a feminist she said that what was most important was that people recognised barriers to people achieving their potential. Equalist, womanist, human rights activist, she said it doesn’t matter how they label themselves or if they refuse to do so as long as they’re taking action. Then she asked if 10 people would be willing to stay after the session to meet up with the young woman and dozens of hands shot up. She left with a smile on her face and plans to share a wine with new-found friends.
Another young woman who was only 14 years old said she already feels overwhelmed by the issues facing young people today. Gloria gently suggested she find one issue at her school that needed addressing, something simple that everyone knew was a problem. Then, create a group who will work towards making a change. She reminded her that no one person is the answer to any problem. Circles of support remind us that it takes a team to bring about change and to support each other through the challenges. I thought in both instances her suggestions were very empowering to those young women.
I left feeling thankful for my own circles of support. I am surrounded by friends and family near and far with shared histories. There have been plenty of laughs and tears in my life that make up a rich tapestry of stories. Those stories and the people in them define who I am. They are my past, present and will be an integral part of my future.
More to come…