Renee Hills, President, Brisbane Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Australia
Olga 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.
Each 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.
Our 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: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1504421383185807/. 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.