From the President 

Arlene Johnson, President, International Women's Convocation

Arlene Johnson

Semillas de Poder” – Seeds of Power comes from an old Mexican proverb that translates “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”   This aptly describes the resilience and determination of the 60 women who attended IWC’s amazing four-day Gathering in Bolivia, November 12-15, 2015.

Our theme for the Gathering was Women, the Earth, Climate Change, and Spirituality.  Despite a few language barriers, we were able to express our concerns and hopes in small Global Sisters groups with the help of two excellent translators, Michelle and Geraldine O’Brien from La Paz.   Empowerment of women was a recurring theme, along with the determination to fight the devastation of climate change and the promise to stay connected in order to meet those challenges.  Both Carmen Capriles, founder of Reacción Climática and Kiyomi Nagumo, regional coordinator for Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network gave impassioned talks about the challenges for Bolivian women.  Both attended the UN Climate Change Summit in Paris about two weeks later and shared updates with us on Facebook.  A recent BBC news article validated many of the Bolivian women’s concerns.  It indicated that “Bolivia’s second largest lake, Lake Poopo, has dried up due to drought caused by the El Nino phenomenon and the diversion of water from tributaries mostly for mining and agriculture.” Telemundo was very interested in our Gathering and sent a TV crew from La Paz to interview the organizers. Renee Hills and Beth O’Connell have both written articles about their experiences in our newsletter.

We came together as total strangers at the Gathering, but at the end there were lots of hugs and even some tears as we exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to keep in touch through our Facebook page, Semillas de Poder.  This herstoric Gathering could not have happened without the diligent work of several women. For planning this meeting and making it such a success, a big thank you goes to Olga Flores, Veronica Flores, and Carmen Capriles in Bolivia, Rev. Greta Brown in Brazil, as well as Rev. Carol Huston, Laura Nagel, and Zsófia Sztranyiczki with IWC in the U.S. We were very fortunate that Renee Hills of Australia was among the participants and that her husband James documented the Gathering, producing a high-quality professional video.

Congratulations to the women of Romania! They have finished five very successful Leadership Training courses under the guidance of Gizella Nagy and Kinga Győri along with assistance from IWC board member Tina Huesing. See their full report on page 7 of the newsletter.

We are very pleased that a Leadership Training School is now taking place for women in the Khasi Hills, India and they have successfully completed their third training under the leadership of IWC board member Elgiva Shullai. A report follows on page 4.

Our board members, staff and volunteers are now turning their full energy toward plans for our Third International Convocation, scheduled for February 16-19, 2017 at Asilomar Retreat Center in California. Please mark the dates on your calendar and plan to attend this exciting international gathering of women.  We are currently identifying sponsors for the Convocation and raising scholarship funds to assist women with travel expenses from other countries.  Many congregations have signed on to celebrate International Women’s Day on a Sunday near March 8th and will devote a plate collection to help with IWC’s efforts.  If your congregation has not signed up yet, there is still time.  Contact our executive director at for more information.  We will appreciate any and all donations for this effort.


Semillas de Poder – Seeds of Power:  IWC’s Gathering in Bolivia, November 12-15, 2015

Renee Hills, President, Brisbane Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Australia

Olga Flores Leads Worship at Gathering, Yungas, Bolivia, Nov 2015Olga Flores carried the glass vase around the circle and each woman poured in water as she voiced her hopes, joys, sadness, and inspirations. The vase was absolutely brimming when Olga placed it on the table reverently, saying it now contained our collective blessings.  She reminded us of the many qualities water brings into our lives: healing, refreshing, sustaining, cooling, purifying, relaxing, releasing of emotions, and beautiful expressions of nature as in the sounds of waves or rivers. We should love and respect water, she said. This was a UU Water Service with a difference.


30 UU women from North America, Europe, and Australia met with 30 UU and liberal religious Bolivian women at a historic Gathering organized by the International Women’s Convocation in the Yungas region of Bolivia. The conference theme, Mujeres, Tierra, Cambio Climático y Espiritualidad – Women, the Earth, Climate Change, and Spirituality, attracted a diverse group of amazing women, representing grassroots organizations and individuals working to advance women’s and environmental rights, and justice for indigenous people in the region.


It was Olga Flores’s idea to come to Yungas. She wanted to bring the Bolivian women to a beautiful place in nature, away from the crowded, sometimes dirty cities where many of them lived. A human rights activist and leader of a small UU community in La Paz, Olga first connected with the IWC when she attended their first Convocation in 2009 in Houston, Texas. The idea of a Bolivian women’s gathering took shape after Olga addressed the IWC Annual Meeting at the UUA General Assembly in Salt Lake City later that year, where an Action of Immediate Witness was approved for her struggle to declassify military archives in Bolivia.


IWC Gathering, Yungas, Bolivia, Nov 2015Each day began with a welcome to the sun, followed by Tai Chi and simple worship. The first day’s stone ceremony honored the Earth. Each woman placed a stone saying where it came from and what it represented to her. Water, as mentioned, featured on the second day and Air on the final day together with the Fire of our collective goodwill and commitment for change generated by our shared rich experiences.


Thought-provoking presentations by Carmen Capriles, founder of Reacción Climática (Climate Reaction) and Kiyomi Nagumo, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) coordinator for the region, revealed the challenges faced by Bolivian women. Olga Flores called for women to stay connected to their spirituality as a way of combating the irrational demands of an increasingly materialistic and capitalistic system that was damaging the environment. Dr. Susan Walsh, Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Service Committee presented their Seeds for Survival project, which works with small-scale family farmers — many of them women — in the poverty-stricken, mining-damaged mountains in the Potosi Department.

The Gathering’s success will be measured by outcomes from Global Sisters small group process: the deep group sharing and discussion between women from all walks of life and vastly different cultures. Women’s leadership and empowerment, water shortage, and environmental education emerged as priority issues from the six Global Sisters groups.


My group was a mix of Bolivians, North Americans and me. The Bolivians spoke Spanish, which most of the rest of us did not understand. Skilled translators Michelle O’Brien translated the Spanish simultaneously into the English speakers’ earpieces and the English consecutively for the Spanish speakers.  Facilitator Eliana Flores (Olga’s sister) was one of the women trained in the process before the Gathering. The IWC’s attention to translation and facilitator training was commendable.


After sharing our primary concerns and stories, we selected the most important topic to action, through an effective pair-wise comparison process. Our group settled on Women’s Empowerment.  I was shocked at the discrimination, paternalistic attitudes, and domestic violence described by the Bolivian women. Workplace harassment seems common, especially if one runs for political office. Government action reflects paternalism. For example, many communities now sport bright green astro-turf soccer fields, spectator seating and floodlights, all built with public funds. Olga and Kiyomi both raged against such facilities that favored men and boys, while the villages lacked running water and flushing toilets and women died in childbirth at home because they lacked access to health care.


Global Sisters Group, IWCOur group decided we must continue to communicate and support each other. Our Facebook group Semillas de Poder (Seeds of Power) has become the post-Gathering connect tool. You can find us here: The name derives from a Mexican proverb:  “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”


Our other actions included:

  • investigating the IWC model of leadership training and capacity building, already used so effectively in Transylvania;
  • sexuality education through Our Whole Lives (OWL) program;
  • campaign training for women who wanted to enter politics;
  • being open to receiving and giving support to each other.


There was such a buzz and exciting cross-fertilization of ideas when all hopes and actions were shared on the last morning. The feeling of optimism, shared understanding, and determination to change the lot of women in Bolivia was palpable. We had truly been inspired and transformed as we shared and learned about each other’s lives.


For me, the only Australian, the Gathering was an unforgettable experience: smiling, welcoming Bolivian faces; stumbling conversations across the language barrier; exposure to the realities of women’s lives in Latin America; new UU friends from around the globe, and a deep respect for the IWC women who accomplished so much with so little.


And I still have a few drops of the water that Olga collected that second day, representing our collective experiences and blessings to share with our Brisbane Fellowship in Australia when we celebrate our Water Service early in 2016.