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 strong start Friday night, setting high expectations for the rest of the weekend. Saturday did not disappoint, as I felt full with respect and admiration for the women who graced the stage.

The morning began with the same kind of communal energy from the night before. A quick poll of the audience revealed that women had traveled from all over the globe to retreat together. Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Rwanda. I met a birth doula who had driven 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 started 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 mindful meditation and spoke about how she came to be a meditation teacher. The stories she told touched my heart, and they also touched on the themes of universal vulnerability, suffering, and resilience. Sharon gave some very wise advice about how to disconnect from the 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 up 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 this 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 Gwendolyn Carr, who was sparked into becoming a community leader and activist when her son, Eric Garner, was murdered by police.  After her, we heard from Norma Bowe, a registered nurse who, among many 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.

Together, these impressive women shared amazing 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 engage more in in my community and co-create change in the world. One of the things that stuck with me the strongest was when Gwen said, “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

The next panel was just as impressive, 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, and it will even be built by women. This panel discussion had me wondering if my heart would be able to handle much more love and inspiration. What a tremendous group of women!  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 (first woman to be elected to the Examining Board of Plumbers Local 1 Union), and Pamela Shifman (executive director for NoVo Foundation). The audience learned what role each of these women are playing in the creation of the Women’s Building, and we watched a moving video. Here are some for you to enjoy.

After a delicious and nutritious lunch and a nap, I headed back to the main hall for the afternoon program. Have you heard of That was cofounded by Joan Blades, who also cofounded and 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 share differences of opinion. We only had about 10 minutes to practice, but it was a lot of fun and it was just a previous of her break-out session that would happen a bit later in afternoon.

There were six break-out sessions to choose from, all teaching practical skills for us to take with us and 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 up and have dinner before the evening events, which was good because the night was high-energy and big fun!

The keynote tonight was given by super hero Anna Deavere Smith, who stunned us with her talk and her 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, was simply magical. As soon as her time was over, entire rows of then audience leapt to their feet and cheered. 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 done).

The appreciation kept flowing from the audience after Carla Goldstein returned to the stage 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 campus to participate in programs. When the women were asked what was needed to make change, leadership was repeatedly mentioned. Thus the creation of the OWLC. They had a goal to raise $50,000 that night, to bring 50 women to next year’s Women & Power Retreat who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attend. It was heartening to see how many people answered the call and made an investment in the futures of countless other women. Paying it forward feels so good, and it kept the energy in the room up. And it continued to go up with the final event of the night.

The night closed out on an almost ecstatic level, and I’m still hopped up on that energy as I write this. Women of the World gave a concert and the audience went wild. The singers in this quartet are from Japan, Italy, India, and Boston (her family is from Haiti). As such, they sang a song in Japanese, another song in Italian, a song in a Haitian language, and a song 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. It’s worth pointing out that these men are the husbands of two of the singers, and they discussed how important it is for women to have the support of men when doing power differently. The music was absolutely beautiful and rousing. The energy in the room was contagious. It felt like a party. It was a party of sorts, because it was a celebration. Women of the World got a wild standing ovation with three songs still left to perform, and by the time they closed out the night with an old Negro Spiritual, everyone jumped up, threw their hands in the air, screaming and clapping to show their appreciation. People all over the campus must have heard all of this hoopla. My goodness, what a fantastic evening. Joyful and ecstatic!

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



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 got out, 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 be. 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. The air felt 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 did a beautiful job stitching together the different aspects of this concept, even explaining the significance of the stitches in the art on the walls. As Carla explained, this is the 15th year of the conference and they recently decided to start calling it a retreat instead. This is what The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies was designed for. It’s a retreat center. And as Carla described, the schedule for the weekend was put together 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 talk to strangers, connect with each other, learn from each other, learn new things about themselves, or reconnect with their innate wisdom. It’s such a refreshing change from the rest of the time when people seem to be buttoned up tight and avoid interacting with other people. At Omega, I feel like I’m part of a gigantic family.

This sense of community got off to a strong start when, during Carla Goldstein’s welcoming talk, a microphone was passed down a randomly-selected row in the audience. Each woman in that row told us where she was from and why she came to the retreat. A few were from the local region. One woman had traveled from Canada. Another had traveled all the way from Spain. But all these women were friends who had decided to meet up at the retreat to celebrate their friend’s 50th birthday. What a nice feeling when the birthday girl herself stood up and the entire audience showered her with their 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 subtly 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 this was. This was my first time hearing her speak in person and she delivered the kind of experience I had been expecting. 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 as the rest of the people on this planet. She shared her approach to women’s leadership and how we can become part of the solution to the world’s problems be healing ourselves and helping to heal others. It has to do with emotional intelligence and finding your voice, connecting to your truth, connecting with the people around you.

She guided us through a brief meditation to connect to our emotions, and as soon as she had us put our hands on our hearts, I started to cry. Then she had us hold hands with the person next to us. That was really nice. You might think it would have been awkward, but not in this space. The woman I held hands with was practically a stranger to me. We had only exchanged a few pleasantries when we sat down, but by the end of this meditation when it was time to un-clasp our hands, I leaned into her shoulder a bit and put my other hand on top, while she gave my had a good squeeze and we laughed together. It’s not surprising that things like this happen at Omega. The programs there have a way of bringing out the parts of you that are usually hidden, and connecting with people in ways you don’t typically experience in your day-to-day life.

I wrote two pages of notes during Elizabeth Lesser’s keynote, but as I write this, it seems silly to try to outline it. I do recommend, though, that you look her up on YouTube to hear what she has to say. Based on the standing ovation she received on this opening night of the Women & Power Retreat, I’d say she inspired the entire audience.

The evening closed out with a discussion between Elizabeth Lesser and Loung Ung. Loung is recently best known for a movie she co-wrote with Angeline Jolie that is available on Netflix. First They Killed My Father is an adaptation of her biography, and we watched some clips of it during the discussion. I’d been taking notes all night but had to put my pen and paper down for this discussion because it was so intense. They talked a lot about Loung’s life, genocide in Cambodia, 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 how 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. I can’t begin to imagine what it might feel like to live a life like hers, but I sure did feel a lot of hope for the future by the end of her discussion with Elizabeth. The current political and cultural climate has had me feeling a bit overwhelmed and numb lately, but after this first night of the Do Power Differently retreat, I already feel energized and optimistic about creating a better future.

Damn, 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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