When Voices Rise: Wisdom from a Sisterhood in the Downtown Eastside and beyond

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By Idelette McVicker | Twitter: @idelette

On Sunday, February 13, hundreds of thousands of women across Italy gathered to demand the resignation of prime minister Sylvio Berlusconi. Their voices rose together: “We are asking for all women to defend the value of our dignity, and we are asking men: If not now, when?”

This past week I listened to the voice of an unnamed woman calling in to Anderson Cooper on CNN about the uprising in Libya. She did so at the great risk of losing her life, but she did it anyway, saying: “Either we get freedom, or we die trying to get it.”

Two weeks ago, similar brave beautiful voices rose up from the streets of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. Women and men took to the streets for the 20th annual Women’s Memorial March, a march to commemorate thousands of missing and murdered women in Canada.

Trisha Baptie, abolitionist, activist and founder of EVE (formerly Exploited Voices Educating) wrote this as her facebook status that day:

“Will remember today. Will miss you today. Will mourn and weep today. Will rage today. Will find solace in solidarity today. Will loudly and proudly sing the Woman’s Warrior song today. Will be grateful, thankful and breathe deep for I am alive today. Mostly I will find another year’s worth of strength to keep putting one step in front of the other as we stand up and say: “Our women are not for sale.”

In Vancouver, February 14 is now a day for remembering, a day of rallying and a day of solidarity.

To commemorate the day, Trisha also pointed me to a short film called Survival, Strength, Sisterhood: Power of Women in the Downtown Eastside, created by Alejandro Zuluaga and Harsha Walia. It documents the 20-year history of the Women’s Memorial March and says: “By focusing on the voices of women who live, love, and work in the Downtown Eastside this film debunks the sensationalism surrounding a neighbourhood deeply misunderstood, and celebrates the complex and diverse realities of women organizing for justice.”

Yep, it’s a 32 minutes, but worth every minute.
[WARNING: Some coarse language.]

Survival, Strength, Sisterhood: Power of Women in the Downtown Eastside from Alejandro Zuluaga on Vimeo.

After watching the film and taking notes, I noticed some thoughts surfacing. Here’s what I heard, learned and sparked off these beautiful women:

1. Gut-felt honesty. “This is probably one of the most honest places in the world.” No need to impress. No need to win favour. No need to live up to any expectations. In the Downtown Eastside it’s okay to be myself–to come as I am, and bring only myself. Make-up, no make-up, fancy clothes, no fancy clothes, addicted, not addicted, money or no money. // It’s a place of seventy-times seven chances.

2. Invisible. Since the 1970s over 3,000 women and girls have gone missing or have been murdered in Canada. This past year alone approximately ten women were murdered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and 32 are still missing. The comment that struck me is this: “It’s very surreal that this is a place where women can go missing and nobody pays attention.” // It’s time to listen, hear and truly see.

3. Everyone belongs. The Downtown Eastside is said to be the poorest off-reserve postal code in Canada and approximately 16,000 people reside in these two square miles. What is not always known is the sense of deep community that spans these streets and lives. Like one contributor said: “To me it is the family-oriented district to the lonely and the homeless.” // Kinda sounds like the Kingdom of God, doesn’t it?

4. Wise. Every time I go somewhere and think I might have something to give, whether it’s across two bridges to the Downtown Eastside or across the world in Africa, I am humbled by how little I really know and how much I still need to learn. One voice expressed it like this: “Those of us who come to support this space with the best intentions, soon realize: we are the ones being taught.” // Good intentions may compel me to cross the street. Humility is the only place from which I get to enter.

6. Story. Whether it’s abuse, addiction, residential schools, marginalization, poverty or any other injustice, one voice reminded me: “Everyone’s got a story.” Story helps me gain understanding, insight and hopefully compassion. // I want: More “us”, less “them.”

7. Caring. These women know suffering, but they care about so much more than their own suffering. I loved her voice who said: “Women all around the world are suffering. It has to stop.” // Yes, yes and another yes.

8. Deeply committed. After the murder of a woman on the streets, these first women gathered and raised their voices. They did not find a welcoming space, but they persisted in spite of it. In fact: “The first women marching had objects thrown at them from passing cars.” Their deep commitment outlasted the negativity and gathered support. Last year, over 5,000 people marched through the streets of the Downtown Eastside–people who believe that women should be treated with dignity and respected–including me and my young family. // I honor that.

I also want to join my voice with the narrator in the film to honor the women who started marching and who still march:

“With every heartbeat you carry dignity.

With every breath we see your humanity.

With every step we join you, so you may walk free of violence and injustice.”

I believe in this kind of world: where women are visible and voices rise together for change.

About Idelette:
Idelette is founding editor of shelovesmagazine.com. She’s a bit intense, granted, but she’s getting to be really okay with it. She was born and raised in South Africa which shaped her longing for justice and freedom for everyone and a deep, deep love for Africa. She also worked in Taipei as journalist and discovered that Heaven might look like lingering over oohlong tea in the mountains of Chiufen. She moved to Vancouver, Canada a month before the millennium turned. (Her Land of Milk and Maple Syrup.) She is married to Scott, has three young children and loves Sisterhood. She blogs at idelette.com and tweets @idelette.

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Idelette McVicker
I like soggy cereal and I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women. I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth. My word last year was “roar” and I learned it’s not about my voice rising as much as it is about our collective voices rising in unison to bring down walls of injustice. This year, my own word is “soar.” I have three children and this place–right here, called shelovesmagazine.com–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen. Give me sweet chai and I think I’m in heaven. I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 11 years ago. I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us. I blog at idelette.com and tweet @idelette.
Idelette McVicker

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