Burnham: The Absence of a Gender Justice Framework in Social Justice Organizing

stargirlTwo things are happening with this post. First, I’m playing with a new program – Embedit – that lets me embed marked up files. (See below. It’s ugly but it works.)

Second, I’d really like to generate some interaction on this topic of Gender Justice in Social Justice Organizing.

With a few decades logged now in the faith-based social justice scene, I’ve noticed that gender justice has fallen by the wayside as a core component of faith-based social justice work. There’s been a resurgence of misogyny – especially in conservative Christian rhetoric (which has seeped into popular cutlure). There’s been a resurgence of the teaching  called “complementarianism” (as opposed to egalitarianism) among many mainstream evangelical churches. (As one blogger puts it: “Complementarianism is a complicated series of intellectual gymnastics justifying the assignment of authority to men on the grounds that authority is but one among many roles played by human beings.”) And my beloved Catholic church still can’t accept that Mary Magdelene was the first apostle and should be the model for women in the priesthood.

Many of the younger folks I meet really have little-to-no gender justice analysis – and find no need for any. But as the young women get a little older and begin to encounter patriarchal power resistance, then they are totally confused about what they are experiencing.

I found Linda Burnham’s paper – while inadequate on the faith perspective – to be insightful and challenging. What do you think? (See some of her key quotes at bottom.)


“I have observed, over many decades of activism, that it is possible today to consider oneself a committed social justice organizer or human rights advocate yet have no functional understanding of how sexism operates.”

“I have witnessed the frustrations of women who are working in the context of mixed-gender organizations, networks or coalitions. Too often their efforts to introduce gender issues are resisted or undermined, or, despite their interest in incorporating a gender lens, they can’t figure out where to begin.”

“Staff and leadership development are rarely conceptualized or implemented in gender sensitive ways.”

“The presence of women in leadership is no guarantee that a gender justice framework will be in play.”

“For the purpose of this project, my working definition of a social justice organization is one whose social change work is based on the presumptions that:
(1) Problems of inequality, injustice and discrimination are not primarily individual and attitudinal but are based, more fundamentally, on structural, systemic and institutional inequities.
(2) Visions and strategies for change have to target the structures, systems and institutions that sustain and reproduce these inequities.
(3) This means directly challenging the power(s) that is vested in the status quo.
(4) A core strategy for doing so is to empower, mobilize and organize grassroots constituencies, implementing a bottom-up theory of change.”

“Several of those interviewed felt either that gender was rarely, if ever, incorporated in their organization’s work; or that it was incorporated in unsophisticated, unskillful ways; or that it was only brought up for consideration in relation to potential sources of funding.”

Interviewee: Gender is generally not incorporated. We have a highly developed race analysis and training for members and staff in race analysis. It’s constantly integrated into our framework and analysis of issues, not just a matter of strategy and tactics. But this level of analysis doesn’t exist in terms of gender.

“Two respondents mentioned that gender had come up in terms of funding strategy. When organizations approached women’s foundation they would emphasize the inclusion of women in a particular programmatic initiative, while having no functional analysis of gender, no gender-specific programming, and no gender-specific measures of evaluation. In other words, gender was used as a “funding hook” without any organizational commitment to developing consistent gender politics.

Interviewee: When women operate in an arena where there are women and men, women don’t control the discourse; we’re the add-on. At the same time, women-only spaces are marginalized. Gender is still regarded as a special interest; it’s dismissed into the gender ghetto.

Interviewee: We’ve made it to the first stage: There’s more women’s leadership and a rhetorical commitment to gender equality and against patriarchy. But, we haven’t figured out how to navigate the second stage. How do we lead on gender issues in multi-gender, multi-racial formations?

Interviewee: In the older generation, there was a lot more identification with feminism, along with a critique of mainstream feminism. No one really identifies as a feminist anymore. Some people think there’s already a level of equity and there’s no need to struggle over it anymore.

Interviewee: My generation has a set of cultural politics with no structural analysis, either on race or gender.There’s nowhere for folks 20-35ish to get that. It’s all about culture and identity and the oppression Olympics. Cultural and representational issues become a stand-in for structural analysis. We have to identify interventions that match the scale and nature of the problems.

“Male dominance was expressed by men calling the shots,bypassing the process and speaking on behalf of everybody. When women raised objections to this behavior they were in turn criticized for being out of touch with their own ethnic culture.”

Interviewee: When people don’t handle it [bad gender dynamics and practices], it backfires into the organization and we have no analytical handle or tools to figure out how to deal with it. As with race, if you don’t handle it, it will handle you.

“The absence of a gender justice lens means that the leadership of women and women of color is not identified as an explicit goal; those organizations that are using a gender lens are marginalized; and the case for gender sensitive organizing has to be made over and over again, with little momentum gained.”

“Two of those interviewed spoke to age as a complicating factor in addressing gender dynamics. Specifically, as young women they had encountered situations in which older men used their extended experience and status as quasi elders as a cover for undermining the work of younger women or shielding themselves from criticisms of sexism. One activist tagged this as “patriarchy 2.0,” i.e., not a blatant violation of gender practice, but a way to maintain their status and take up space while undermining the women who were doing the work. In this dynamic, younger men were paralyzed. They saw it, raised it to the women, but said nothing to the group or to the older men. They were complicit in sexism because they valued their strategic relationships with the older men and didn’t want to be on their shit list. It was confusing and silencing.”

Wow! Let me know what you think by sending me your comments.

Do I Prefer Analysis to Silence?


Contradictions have always existed in the soul of [individuals]. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison. –Thomas Merton

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton (FS&G, 1956, p. 80-81)

Analysis: How The Mainstream Media Portrayed the 2005 Kidnapping of Nonviolent Christian Activists and Why It Got It So Wrong

Ekklesia's Simon Barrow
Ekklesia's Simon Barrow

Simon Barrow at U.K.’s Ekklesia (an independent Christian news briefing service) has released an excellent analysis of how mainstream media is addicted to the dominant war narrative and how “alternative” media is better suited to report on the ongoing complexities of a story.

Using the example of the 2005-2006 kidnapping of Christian Peacemaker Team members in Baghdad, Barrow unpacks why the mainstream media was incapable of reporting a story that didn’t fit with their news formula.

While major news outlets failed, “alternative” media – primarily religious outlets who understood the alternative script in operation – were consistently better situated to report accurately and provide the best framing of the unfolding story. These alternative media sources included Ekklesia, Sojourners, the Mennonite Weekly Review, and even Vatican radio.

Barrow’s analysis is a must read for anyone involved in truth-telling in alternative media sources or anyone who wants to understand how to deconstruct the mainstream media. Barrow reveals the “story under the story.”

Here’s an excerpt from Barrow’s report, but I recommend reading his whole article titled Writing Peace Out of the Script.

For the Western news media, North American and European hostages in the Middle East are big stories because they personalise and dramatise what may otherwise seem like one endless series of nameless tragedies in faraway places. They become, in fact, mini-soap operas with their own recognizable cast of heroes, villains, victims, and clowns. Their stuff is the daily drama of hopes and despairs writ large. Their setting is an exotic but mostly unexamined stage. No one knows how long the mini-saga will last, but everyone realizes there can only be two outcomes: tragedy or triumph.

In the meantime, minute attention is paid to the twists and turns of the story — or, in the absence of any real news, what people think the story is or ‘should be’. And it is in these terms that the conventions of ‘the narrative’ and ‘the script’ are written by those who have to keep people watching and reading. They are experts at their craft. They know what communicates and sells to a broad or narrow audience, and they know how to tailor the plot details to the kind of story that can be told — and the kind of story that cannot.

The ‘dominant narrative’ (the generally accepted version of events) is frequently established in the earliest stages of an event and this was certainly the case in the CPT Iraq hostage situation. At its starkest, it went something like this: “A well-meaning but essentially naïve and ill-prepared group of peace activists — Christians who are fish out of water in a conflict-ridden Muslim environment — have been kidnapped by a militant group after political advantage or money. By being there and being caught out, these Western activists have caused danger to those in contact with them. If they are to be freed, it will most likely be because of financial inducement, diplomatic effort, or military bravery. Some admire their intent to bring peace, but hardheaded realists know that they are at best misguided and at worst irresponsible. Their chances of getting out of this alive are limited, but if they do it will be a warning to fellow activists that they should keep their idealism out of the real grown-up world of politics and violence. This is a war on terror, not a playground for wishful thinking.” …

Again and again, the dominant narratives of our time, most especially what theologian Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” assert themselves in such a way as to write peace and peacemaking out of the script. This is only to be expected. Expending a lot of energy raging against the machine is likely to be futile. The appropriate response is not despair or collusion, but the cultivation of what the late Archbishop Helder Camara once called “small-scale experiments in hope.”

Such experiments arise from the constructive but vulnerable witness of persons like those who serve with Christian Peacemaker Teams in situations of seemingly intractable destructiveness — and above all in the local people whose ongoing resistance to the powers that be is the only final source of alternatives, when attempts to impose external ‘solutions’ by force inevitably break down. To be effective, however, alternatives need to spread. To spread they must be heard. And to be heard they must be re-inserted into the script, written out of it (in the sense of inscribed within and scribed without) — not written off, or written away. This is a vital ongoing task, both within the media environment, in terms of the practicalities of conflict transformation, and in relation to public policy on interventions in situations of conflict.

Read the whole article here. To read one of my articles on CPT in Iraq, check out Raising An Army of ‘Peculiar’ People.

Religion, Workers, and the Economy

youngstown-steelI really appreciate the class analysis from the folks over at Working-Class Perspectives, a blog from the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. They are doing contextual analysis – and sometimes, contextual theology – from the heart of the Rust Belt.

Here’s an excerpt from Religion, Workers, and the Economy by Brian R. Corbin, looking at the Pope’s new encyclical Charity in Truth. Brian is director of Catholic Charities in Youngstown and blogs at brianrcorbin.com.

Since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic social teachings have provided moral and ethical guideposts for economic behavior.  Of particular importance, have been the Papal Encyclicals on the economy that have sought to protect the working class and their institutions in the face of unfettered capitalism.   In Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Church goes a step further by providing a critical analysis of neoliberal economic thought and the problems of globalization while reiterating the need for basic protections for workers and unions.

The pope writes explicitly that justice abhors great disparities in wealth and that societies need “to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”  Employment, however, needs to be “decent work.”  Benedict writes that  such work  “expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman; work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.”

To read my column on the encyclical, see A Love Letter From the Pope.