Day 2 of 3, Do Power Differently, 2017 Women & Power Retreat

FullSizeRender 2The Women & Power Retreat organized by the Omega Women’s Leadership Center (OWLC) is still going strong and bursting my heart open with love and inspiration. The weekend got a great start Friday night, setting high expectations for the rest of the weekend. Saturday did not disappoint as I was filled with respect and admiration for the women who graced the stage.

This morning began with the same communal energy from last night. A quick poll of the audience revealed that women had traveled from all over the globe to come together. The nations represented here this weekend include Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Rwanda! I met a birth doula who had driven all the way from Kentucky. There were also women from Maryland and Tennessee. The group was ethnically diverse as well, and it was so nice to see some men in the audience, young and old.

The day began with a heartfelt keynote from Sharon Salzberg, who is one of the world’s best-known meditation teachers and also a core staff member of the OWLC. Sharon guided us through a brief session of mindfulness meditation and spoke about how she came to be a meditation teacher. Her stories touched my heart, and they also touched on the themes of universal vulnerability, suffering and resilience. She shared very wise advice about how we can disconnect from our inner critic, and reconnect with our personal truth. By the end of her talk, my heart felt open. What a nice way to set up the rest of the day.

Next was a panel discussion called Turning Pain into Power. I would have loved for each of the panelists to give their own one-hour talk, so rich are their life stories. Simply knowing who these women are should give you an idea of how engaging the discussion was. First we were introduced to Tia Oros Peters (Shiwi), who is the executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, and has spent decades engaging in social and environmental justice. Next, we were introduced to Gwen Carr, who was  moved to become a community leader and activist when her son, Eric Garner, was murdered by police.  Then we heard from Norma Bowe, a registered nurse who, among other impressive feats, founded the community service and activist group, Be The Change. The moderator was Eva Tenuto, founder and executive director of the TMI Project.

These women shared their deeply personal stories of trauma and resilience. I was surprised by how I could in one moment shed tears over stories of grief and despair, and in the next moment feel tremendous hope and inspiration. Overall the panel was uplifting and gave me some ideas about how I might become more engaged in in my community and co-create positive change in the world. One of the things that stayed with me the most was when Gwen said, “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

The next panel (just as impressive as the last one) was about the ongoing creation of The Women’s Building in New York City. The Women’s Building is being constructed from a former women’s prison, designed by women, to serve women. It will even be built by women. By this point in the retreat, I was actually wondering if my heart would be able to handle any more love and inspiration! I’d never worried about that before, but if I’m going to worry, this is a good thing to worry about. Oh, what a tremendous group of women this was! Carla Goldstein moderated a discussion with Sharon Richardson (founder and executive director of Reentry Rocks), Yasmeen Hassan (global executive director of Equality Now), Judaline Cassidy (the first woman to be elected to the Examining Board of Plumbers Local 1 Union), and Pamela Shifman (executive director for the NoVo Foundation). The audience learned about the role each of these women are playing in the creation of the Women’s Building, and we watched a very moving video. Here are some videos about the project for you to enjoy.

After a nap and a healthy and delicious lunch, I headed back to the main hall for the afternoon program. I’m willing to guess that you’ve heard of MoveOn.org. It was cofounded by Joan Blades, who also cofounded LivingRoomConversations.org and MomsRising.org. Joan introduced us to Living Room Conversations and guided us through a few exercises so we could practice having conversations in a way that facilitates collaborative engagement among people who have different opinions. We only had about 10 minutes to practice but it was a lot of fun and it was just a preview of her break-out session, which would happen a bit later in afternoon.

There were six break-out sessions to choose from, all teaching practical skills for us to practice in our day-to-day lives. Before splitting up into these sessions, we got a brief introduction to each one by the presenters, which was very helpful.

  • Life Through Prose-Colored Lenses, by Aja Monet
  • Courageous Communication, by Diana Adams
  • Turbo Kick Live, by Veronica Domingo
  • Walking Meditation, by Sondra Loring
  • Nature’s Workshop, by Alisha Mai McNamara
  • Living Room Conversations, by Joan Blades & Debilyn Molineaux

We had plenty of time to rest and have dinner before the evening program. This break came at the perfect time because the night was high-energy and big fun!

The keynote tonight was given by superhero Anna Deavere Smith, who impressed us with her talk and dramatic performance. If you aren’t familiar with this powerhouse of a woman, please read her bio linked above, because she is worth knowing about. I’ve also linked her TED Talk here. Her perspective on the #DoPowerDifferently theme of the retreat, and her theatrical performance, were simply magical. As soon as her time was over, entire rows of the audience leapt to their feet to cheer for her. She got the biggest standing ovation of the night and we continued to hoop and holler in appreciation until she left the building (she had to catch a flight back to California as soon as she was finished).

The appreciation kept flowing from the audience after Carla Goldstein returned to tell us about how the OWLC was born, and about all the different organizations they work with to support, guide and feed the advancement of women all over the world. As she explained, in the 40 years since The Omega Institute’s inception, half a million women have come to to the main campus to participate in programs. When those women were asked what was needed in order to make positive change, leadership was repeatedly mentioned. Thus the creation of the OWLC. They have a goal tonight to raise $50,000, to be used to bring 50 women to next year’s Women & Power Retreat who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. It was heartening to see how many people in the audience contributed to this fundraiser to invest in the future of other women. Paying it forward feels so good, and it had us primed for the final event of the night.

In fact, the night ended on an almost ecstatic level and I’m still buzzing on that energy as I write this. Women of the World gave a concert and by the end of it, the audience was going wild. The singers in this quartet are from Japan, Italy, India and Boston (her family is from Haiti). As such, they sang one song in Japanese, another song in Italian, a song in a Haitian language, and one inspired by the musical sounds of India. In fact, they have a repertoire of 31 languages and tonight they also sang a song from Argentina, and one from French Canada. For this concert, they were joined by two men, a percussionist and a guitarist, who told the audience how important it is for women to have the support of men when doing power differently. I was glad to hear this message from a male perspective and again noticed how much I appreciated that there were men in the audience of a women and power retreat.

The music was beautiful and rousing and the energy in the room was contagious. It felt like a party. It was a party of sorts, because it was a really a celebration. Women of the World got a jubilant standing ovation, with three songs still to be performed! They eventually closed their concert with an old Negro Spiritual and it seemed like everyone in the audience jumped up, threw their hands in the air, whooping and clapping to show their appreciation. People all over the campus must have heard this! My goodness, what a fantastic evening. So joyful.

After a day like today, and all that happened last night, I’m sure tomorrow will be incredible.

 

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Day 1 of 3, Do Power Differently, 2017 Women & Power Retreat

FullSizeRenderThe opening night of this year’s Women & Power Retreat by the Omega Women’s Leadership Center just finished and I’m feeling inspired, loved and powerful. From the moment I stepped out of my car and onto the campus of the retreat center, I knew this weekend would be one to remember.  An Omega staff member was greeting guests in the parking lot with a couple of Hawaiian leis around his neck and a ukulele. Yes, this feels like it will be another life-changing weekend in Rhinebeck.

After settling into my cabin, I walked down the hill to the main hall where all the main events of the weekend will happen. I needn’t have known where the main hall was; I could have found it by following the sounds of laughter and jubilation. The energy in that space was fantastic! Hundreds of women of different colors (and some men too) filled the floor. Music filled the air. A curated art installation filled the walls, representing 14 women and their thought-provoking work in the fabric arts. Everyone I mingled with was approachable and friendly, and the air was pregnant with a collective anticipation of the experiences we would soon share.

Carla Goldstein (co-founder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center) opened the retreat with an exploration of this year’s theme: Do Power Differently. She beautifully stitched together the different aspects of this concept, even explaining the significance of the stitches in the art on the walls. As she explained, this is the 15th year of the conference and they recently decided to start calling it a retreat instead. This is why The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies was created. It’s a retreat center. And, as Carla described, the schedule for the weekend was designed to allow people to truly retreat. To step back, get a different view, practice new things, practice self-care, self-healing and personal growth. The atmosphere on campus really is unlike any other place I’ve been. People here are encouraged to meet new people, learn from each other, learn new things about themselves, and reconnect with their innate wisdom. It’s a refreshing change and when I’m at Omega, I feel like I’m part of a gigantic family.

This sense of community started at the very beginning of the program when a microphone was passed down a randomly-selected row of the audience. Each woman in that row told us where she was from and why she chose to attend the retreat. A few were from the local area, but one woman had traveled from Canada and another had come all the way from Spain. But all of them were friends and they each explained that they had met up at the retreat to celebrate their friend’s 50th birthday. Finally, the birthday girl herself stood up to introduce herself, and the entire audience showered her with loving cheers and applause.

Next on the schedule was a song – an opening blessing – by the award-winning a-capella group, Women of the World. They’ll give an entire concert tomorrow night, but this one song gave me chills because their voices were so pure and powerful. A quote from their website: “By making music together, we have made beautiful friendship. In this spirit, we celebrate the beauty of diversity. We sing for not just tolerance, but wisdom, respect, and joy.”

The keynote for this evening was given by Elizabeth Lesser, who co-founded The Omega Institute 40 years ago. You may also know her from her best-selling books or her appearances on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah Winfrey. My goodness, what a wonderful and clever speech she gave! This was my first time hearing her speak in person and it was the kind of experience I’d expected from her. Elizabeth has a way of getting right down to the center of me with her words, and speaking to a part of myself that feels like it shares the same mind and soul with everyone else in the world. She shared her approach to women’s leadership and how we can become part of the solution to the world’s problems by healing ourselves and helping to heal others. It has to do with emotional intelligence and finding your voice, connecting to your truth, and connecting with the people around you.

She guided us through a brief meditation to connect with our emotions, and as soon as she had us put our hands on our hearts, I cried a little bit. Then she had us hold hands with the person next to us. That was really nice. You might think it would have been awkward to hold the hand of a stranger, but not in this space. The woman whose hand I held was indeed unknown to me. We’d only exchanged a few pleasantries earlier in the night, but by the end of this meditation when it was time to un-clasp our hands, I leaned into her a bit while she gave my had a good squeeze, and we shared a hearty laugh. It’s not surprising that things like this happen at Omega. Their programs have a way of bringing out parts of ourselves that are usually hidden, and inspiring interactions with people in ways we don’t typically experience in day-to-day life.

Based on the standing ovation Elizabeth received on this opening night of the retreat, I’d say she inspired the entire audience. I do recommend you look her up on YouTube to hear what she has to say.

The evening closed with a discussion between Elizabeth Lesser and Loung Ung, who is is most recently known for a movie she co-wrote with Angeline Jolie. First They Killed My Father (available on Netflix) is an adaptation of her biography, and we watched some excerpts during the discussion. Long and Elizabeth talked a lot about Loung’s life, genocide in Cambodia and domestic violence in the USA, but the theme of it all was resilience, love, family and community. I can’t imagine what it was like for her to lose both of her parents and 20 family members to war, or the ways in which she changed when she was forced to be a child soldier, or what it was like to be transplanted to Vermont at the age of 10. Though the discussion was very serious and explored some disturbing topics, I sure did feel a lot of hope for the future by the end of it. The current political and cultural climate has left me feeling a bit overwhelmed lately, but after this first night of the Do Power Differently retreat, I already feel energized and optimistic about creating a better future.

Oh my goodness, what a night! Tomorrow’s schedule is packed and I have a feeling I’ll be floating around on Cloud 9 all day. I’ll post a summary of the day’s experiences. Stay tuned…

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