by Adelaide Rutendo Mazwarira on October 18, 2018 at 1:25 pm

When I first sat down to interview Margaret VeneKlasen, I was very nervous. I wondered whether it was even appropriate to ask this 90-year-old woman with an inspiring legacy this simple question, “Marg, how did you become bold?” It felt rhetorical. I imagined that she would answer, “Really, Adelaide, what do you mean? I woke up like this!” Clearly, my imagination is fond of Beyoncé, but that is beside the point.

You see, Marg is a badass. Her presence alone is striking. In JASS, we call her our biggest fan, and for good reason. In 2015, she was honored in Santa Fe, New Mexico, her hometown, as one of the city’s Living Treasures. It is hard to picture her as anything less.

Meanwhile, Marg was waiting, ready for the interview. So I chucked my inner dialogue, pieced together my own confidence, and went for it, “Marg, how did you become bold?” She answered with swagger: “I know how I became bold. It is because I was a good athlete. When I stepped on the field a long time ago, I was the best and it gave me confidence. I was just a little kid. I just loved playing ball,” she explained. “We have to be good at something to gain the confidence to do other things.” Boldness, in other words, is not bestowed, but something to practice. To learn. To hone.

Marg over the yearsDecades later, Marg is still an athlete and more. She plays tennis, skis, sings and tap dances (she had a tap dancing troupe for 3 years)! The confidence she gained from sports early in life led to her steadfast promotion of women and sports as a way of building leadership and community. In her 50s, she became a businesswoman, and she is a life-long community organizer and influential civic voice in Santa Fe. She is also the mother of five—four sons and one daughter, JASS Executive Director, Lisa VeneKlasen. Marg took her passion for sports and created the first-ever soccer league that included girls in Santa Fe. Today, thousands of girls play soccer all over New Mexico. Marg reminds us that sports represent much more than being a jock. They teach us the life lessons our parents cannot: how to accept victory and defeat, that for every person who questions or stifles your capability is someone else who encourages you to push boundaries, and that we are never alone. Above all, sports teach us how to be part of a team and to lead collaboratively.

When I asked Marg what inspired her involvement in sports even to the present day, she did not hesitate two seconds before explaining matter-of-factly, “Because not being able to do something scares me. If I don’t do something, I’ll go down the drain.” The apple does not fall far from the tree in the VeneKlasen family, for Lisa, Marg’s daughter and JASS’ Executive Director, could have easily given the same response. It is clear that many of the life lessons Marg learned on the sports field as a kid later permeated her parenting abilities, notably raising a truly subversive daughter who has charted her own path of boldness. Lisa, who was featured in 2017 publication 200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World, is a fearless leader who brings incredible love, energy and brilliance to JASS (an organization she co-founded) and social justice work. These qualities, Marg explains, have always been evident in her daughter. Indeed, when asked what she admires most about Lisa, Marg responds that it’s her work ethic, ability to get things done and form meaningful connections with and among people from all over the world.

It may come as little surprise, then, that JASS has such widespread impact in building connections and a sense of belonging across all kinds of borders and boundaries to build collective power for justice. JASS, as Marg notes, “gives women the confidence and awareness that we can make a change. There is nothing that can stop us. Things might slow us down, but they can’t stop us.”

This could not have been more pertinent for this moment in the world. At this point in our chat, Marg grew quiet and I could see the wheels turning in her head. We paused as she collected her thoughts and prepared to dispense more wisdom. “I can’t emphasize enough for women to step up and to never, ever take a backseat,” she stated. “Step up because it’s right. My husband used to say, ‘This world won’t be worth a damn unless women lead us’, and I truly believe that – not to belittle men, that’s not what it’s about. But there’s an inner strength that we’re given as women that prevails.”

I ended the interview feeling inspired, curious and eager to find and express my own boldness. We are all good at something, right? Sometimes it is easy to feel inadequate among those we admire, but we all have something to offer. Whatever it is, let us practice it, hone it and use it to make the world a better place. We need each other.


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by JASS on October 1, 2018 at 4:35 pm

By Audrey Lopez Valdivia

"Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world.” This is what U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in June when he overturned precedent that had granted asylum to migrants fleeing domestic violence. It made me think about one of the women I met when I was working at a refugee resettlement agency. She had fled El Salvador, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women, to escape a husband who had sexually and physically abused her for years. After an arduous journey to the U.S. in which she suffered violence and extortion, she now awaits an asylum hearing. I thought how now, following the Department of Justice’s new guidelines, a system that should have offered her protection has instead turned its back.

Her story is not unique. Thousands of women flee indescribable violence and hardship. Right now, the U.S. is offering them hostility instead of safety, refusing to accept accountability for a crisis it was instrumental in creating. From the 1954 overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected government to supporting the re-election of the Honduran president in 2017 in spite of massive electoral irregularities to the War on Drugs, the American government’s actions – past and present – are inextricably linked to the epidemic of violence and instability in many Central and Latin American countries.

This reality is compounded by gender. The UN considers Latin America and the Caribbean the world’s most violent region for women. Widespread gender-based violence is fueled by hyper-masculinity – the idea that physical strength and aggression are what it takes to be a man – and organized crime. In Central America, two out of every three women who are murdered are targeted because of their gender. Central American and Mexican women who migrate report that they cannot rely on authorities and public services to protect them. A UNHCR study found that of 160 women they interviewed in U.S. detention, 40% never reported a crime at all and the 60% who did received little help. Sometimes the police themselves are the perpetrators.

The danger of violence does not disappear after women leave their home countries. In fact, some studies have found that up to 80% of female migrants experience rape and sexual assault during migration. I recall my interviews with mostly young girls who cited harrowing violence as they made it across the border: beatings, threats, forced miscarriages. For some migrants, gender-based violence continues even in detention. Between 2010 and 2016, 30,000 complaints were filed with Department of Homeland Security listing a wide range of abuses while in immigration custody. 

It is extraordinarily difficult to meet strict U.S. asylum law requirements, and denial rates for the Northern Triangle Countries and Mexico are among the highest. When women are deported, they tend to struggle with reintegration. First, they must live in fear that their former abusers will find them. If they lack the means to relocate to a different town, they risk re-victimization. Mothers who left their children in their home countries as they tried to seek asylum face stigma, and other mothers are deported with their kids left in detention in the U.S. These women often experience a devastating psychosocial impact from returning to their children empty-handed or returning without them at all.

While this reality is grim, women throughout the region are fighting back. As early as 2015, a wave of demonstrations echoed throughout the region, as feminists united behind #NiUnaMenos (Not One Woman Less). Their demands are basic: to live their lives free from violence, and to take back their sexual, labor, and citizen rights as women. More and more women have become vocal about their sexuality, and are educating others to do the same. In a region that is historically conservative and considers sex and sexuality taboo, this simple action is revolutionary. More women are embracing these topics because they are seen as directly related to how society views women and their place in decision-making spaces. Women are organizing against injustices affecting their daily lives: forced disappearances, justice for missing or murdered family members, femicide, corruption, land defense, gang violence, and everyday stories of harassment (#Cuéntalo). Women are organizing because they refuse to be spectators. They know they cannot rely on the government or security forces, and as a result, they have taken matters in their own hands. Women across the region are building their own networks, demanding change and accountability. Due to women’s activism, things are slowly changing, but gender-based violence persists. 

This much is clear for now: With ongoing violence, the current migration crisis is not disappearing, and more women will continue to flee to and be rejected by the U.S. in search of safety. Once professing itself a beacon of hope for people seeking refuge, the U.S. can no longer claim that title after Sessions’ announcement to stop offering protection to women escaping domestic violence. Central American governments need to listen too. They need to start believing women and invest in their safety. They must also take a stand against gender-based violence by establishing proper protection mechanisms. They have to engage with activists in exhaustive conversations related to gender to change cultural attitudes towards women. They need to punish the perpetrators of this violence. Until this happens, men will continue to kill women with near impunity on a daily basis. Central America and Mexico – and the United States too – have become places in which too many women’s lives don’t matter. It’s time for a change.

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by JASS on June 15, 2018 at 4:35 pm

Written by Laura Carlsen


Today we talk about strategies. The day begins with JASS’s presentation on the power framework. What do we know about power? Lisa VeneKlasen, JASS Executive Director, explains that power is dynamic; that it’s an ever-changing relationship; that it’s not a closed system in which if someone wins, another person loses. She points out that it is important to distinguish between types of power: power over, power to, power within, and power with - this positive power that’s capable of transforming reality towards our vision of a better world.

We share several examples of the different forms of power and the need to do a power analysis alongside the analysis of context, in specific terms. The purpose of the power framework is to strengthen our organizations and our collective power, so it’s really important to expose and name the visible and invisible powers that operate in our communities.

We break  into groups by country to talk about the situations we face with one basic question: What would help us to move forward? The discussion helps us to better understand each person’s battles. The list turns out to be very long. The next question seeks to shorten it in practical terms: What are two things that JASS can provide?

Between these two questions, we highlight the following areas of joint work:

  • Building power to and new leaderships: The importance of continuing to work on "the construction of collective power and leadership - because we believe in it and for protection." In this, the Alquimia School has played a key role and the framework of power can be used to clarify both the capabilities we have and the powers we face.
  • Advocacy: We need to work for better laws, justice, forms of protection and precautionary measures when necessary, and further deepening of international advocacy work. Opportunities include CEDAW’s evaluation of Mexico in July and the possibility of including a paragraph on the impact of extractive industries, and the relevance of advocacy work in the United States and Canada where extractive companies have their headquarters.
  • Improve and broaden communications work: Narratives are fundamental to be able to communicate to others and to understand our own history as movements and organizations. We need to craft the stories that can not only reach the minds, but also the hearts of the people. We need to strengthen communication capacity in all our groups with more distribution and information to larger audiences. In many cases, we have to shift a false dominant narrative, taking into account that in a difficult world our message is more appealing when it’s positive. One of the participants proposed, "We invite people to be part of taking care of the world" to motivate the youth and the community in general to participate and expand the movements.
  • Research and information: We need help in collecting information about extractive companies operating in our regions. Patricia mentioned that JASS is working in alliance with CMI! to analyze the companies and their decision-making mechanisms. At certain moments, specific information can be key to advancing the movement.
  • Training and education: We need training in the legal framework in our countries-- what the laws say and how they are implemented, who is responsible for enforcement, which institutions and officials one should look to. We want to understand better how neoliberal capital operates and the processes of exploitation and extractivism.

We note that our organizations and communities have skills and knowledge that we can rescue and promote. "The grandmothers have a lot of wisdom, but they often depart with this knowledge," says Miriam. We talk about creating "living schools", participatory diagnostics, and teams of technicians to support knowledge-building. One priority is the task of drawing up "baselines" to register the current characteristics of the communities and measure future impacts of extractive industries.

  • Protection and care at a personal and collective level: This includes safety and protection measures and also self-care. We want to live life fully and freely in all areas and all moments, and this means finding tools to face challenges on all levels, the personal and organizational. We need to overcome the fear that can cripple us as individuals and movements—the fear in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec after the earthquake, the fear in Honduras caused by persecution and assassination, the fear of repression and criminalization. We can identify external and internal protection mechanisms that the community already has-- like recovering traditional medicine, ceremonies and spirituality--and develop a capacity for rapid response with selected allies.
  • Exchanges and alliances: We need a database of like-minded organizations, with contacts and references, to better know the strengths of each organization, to coordinate efforts and to map potential allies. We need to strengthen links at the national, regional and international levels with other women in other regions, such as learning more about the anti-extractivist movements in South Africa and developing more direct contact. We can also develop partnerships with specialists - in the international legal field, the UN, the IACHR, scientists and scientific organizations, technical support, etc. on local, national, regional and international levels.
  • Meetings of women: Gatherings of women give us strength and ideas, such as the Gathering of Women Who Struggle in Chiapas. The National Indigenous Congress in Mexico has been holding meetings of women who fight against extractivism in their lands and we have to continue to organize gatherings between women defenders of the land and territory. Having organizing spaces for women is fundamental to growing and strengthening our movements.
  • Technical support: Honduran women identify a great need for an interdisciplinary feminist team that would have ideally a communicator, lawyer, engineer, biologist, agronomist, doctor, psychologist and researcher. This team can help with documentation, research, legal care and defense, and also train other women to increase skills within the organization.

We come to the conclusion that there’s a firm base built between JASS as an international and regional organization and women's organizations that fight against extractivism in the region, a base of work and trust. Lilian says, "Some organizations divide us, they accuse us of being radical feminists ... I thank JASS because I have been able to get to know the experience of other compañeras, and that gives me strength."

Three days of learning, reflecting and dreaming together come to end. Felicita highlights the challenges, "We have a double fight - defending the rights of women and defending the territory is double work."

Patricia Ardón of JASS reminds us that "part of building a horizontal relationship is to be honest about what we can do and we cannot do ... What we have to do now is define what we can do." Lisa closes by pointing out that as JASS "we’ve had the privilege of continuing to build with you" and concludes, "We’re trying to articulate capacities locally and globally. Our struggles are incredibly difficult, but with the relationships of trust and the networks that we’re building we’ll be able to do a lot more."


*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.


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