“I’m always looking forward to the next mealtime wondering what remarkable people I will talk to,” said one woman at the Awakened World 2012: Engaged Spirituality for the 21st Century conference in Rome and Florence, Italy, October 13-21, 2012. Two hundred spiritual activists had traveled to Italy in order to broaden and energize their passion for peace and justice through interreligious and spiritually engaged conversations. I realized how much I also was treasuring these informal personal exchanges within the larger context of the conference.
The richness of Awakened World 2012 was almost dizzying because the participants were as fascinating to talk with as the 15 facilitators from The Association for Global New Thought, primary sponsor; The International Interreligious Peace Council; and The Interreligious Engagement Project; and the 39 invited core leaders. At mealtimes there was a continual intermixing of these facilitators and leaders with the 150 participants. My experiences of talking with Professor Hyun Kyung Chung about feminist theology, being embraced by Sister Joan Chittister when she saw me in my clergy (Episcopal, retired) collar, listening to Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche who just retired as Prime Minister of Tibet-in-exile, and sitting beside South African Activist Ela Gandhi as she talked about her grandfather stimulated, challenged and inspired me. The conversations with other participants grounded and connect me through our relatedness.
The conveners of the conference had intentionally shifted from a traditional format to an enlivening rhythm between panels and small discussion groups rather than keynote speakers followed by questions and answers. In Rome each small group of 20-25 people focused on one of four Domains: Reconciling with the Other, Transforming Society, Embracing the Earth Family, and Rediscovering the Sacred. The Domains were then broken down into four stages appropriate to that domain. We discussed each stage in consecutive Domain group meetings. In Florence members of the four Domains were blend into new groups so that we could cross-pollinate our ideas and broaden our thinking. Each group included at six to seven core leaders and facilitators.
On the third day of our explorations, my particular passion for justice was awakened. As I was listening to one of four panels of core leaders from each Domain, I began to feel irritated. The presenters seemed to be droning on. I realized many of them were not representing the thinking from their small groups as they were supposed to do; they focused on repeating their own stories as they had been invited to do in the context of the larger sharing in their small groups. Then I began counting by gender the names of the panelists in the conference booklet. The irritation I had felt became stronger. Of the fourteen panelists, ten were men; four were women. I flipped to the back of the booklet where there were bios of the invited core leaders, then to the facilitators’ and organizers’ bios: of the 54, I counted 14 women and 40 men.
By now, my heart was racing faster as it always does when I am compelled to be vulnerable by speaking the truth of my experience without knowing what others are thinking. As my anxiety sky-rocketed, Barbara Field, the convener from New Thought, announced that there would be no time for the planned discussion period. It was implicit that panelists had not respected their allotted times—and no one had stepped in to correct them. I shot up from my seat and gave my gender counts; then I made explicit that participants had not been given their time because the “experts had overshot theirs. The biggest take-home for me was other women coming up to me and saying, “I had been counting the gender disparity too.” And “Did you notice that the people who introduced each of the panelists and those that thank them were overwhelmingly women, handmaidens to the men?”
A small group of women had already organized a pre-conference gathering called WAVE: Women Awakening to Vision and Engagement where 80 women had gathered in circles and shared first one-on-one and then as a group. Now women wanted to gather in circle again to access what had happened. Each woman contribution was recorded on newsprint and later shared with the conveners. The next morning the conveners responded to my challenge which had been echoed by many others. They opened the session with ample time for participants to share what they had learned during the plenaries and in their small groups.
On our last day in Rome at our news conference at the Campidoglia in Rome, Jack Canfield was one of the core group members who spoke publicly. He said he had finally gotten it about women’s voices being heard equally with men’s. He proclaimed himself to be “a radical feminist”.
If connections were truly made on this deeper level, perhaps the world had awakened just a bit to the profound plight of women in patriarchy: that women are, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written, “Half the Sky” and the work of spiritual activists for justice and peace in the 21st century must begin with “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”