Beijing Circles addresses women's issues at first national conference

October 16, 2007

A movement has arisen that is on its way to encircling the globe. "Beijing Circles," based on the Beijing Platform for Action which addresses global issues affecting women, have been forming in Episcopal churches around the country, and the first national conference was held October 12-13 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


About 40 women -- and a few men -- gathered at St. James on the Parkway, Minneapolis, site of the first Beijing Circle in the state. They came from seven states and several denominations. During the gathering, which was sponsored by the Episcopal Church's Office of Women's Ministries, participants heard from national leaders, learned of the experiences of the Minnesota women, and left with a commitment to bringing more and more people "into the circle" to help create awareness and change them for the better.

Starting from a platform
The Beijing Platform Plan for Action was developed at the Fourth World Conference on Women, sponsored by the United Nations and meeting in 1995 in Beijing, China. It contains 12 "planks" -- critical areas of concern -- ranging from the increasing burden of poverty on women to violence against women to stereotyping and gender inequalities to discrimination against the girl child. The Beijing Platform was signed by 189 UN member nations, but that was just the beginning.

Ten years later, in reviewing the progress made on the areas of concern identified in the Beijing Platform, a small group of women from the Episcopal Church were so deeply moved by their experiences at the 2005 gathering of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW - Beijing +10), that they dedicated themselves to inviting their sisters in their part of the world to share in their discoveries. From that commitment, the Beijing Circles were born (from the Beijing Circles Resource Booklet).
Beijing Circles are now being formed across the United States by women who want to learn how the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) issues are related, how they disproportionately affect women and children, and how women around the world can work together to resolve them. The October conference was the first of several events being planned, including a multi-day conference to be held in early 2008.

The Rev. Susanne Watson Epting, executive director of the North American Association for the Diaconate, and Kim Robey from the Office of Women's Ministries conducted the program. One speaker included Aviva Breen, a member of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights who was also part of that group's delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where the Platform was born.

Conference registrants included an Iraqi physician working in Kurdistan. While she could not attend physically, she was, at one point, in "instant messaging" contact with the Minneapolis attendees, thus coming into the circle as well. "I am proud of you, part of you, and I want to connect with you," she wrote.

Connecting within and without
The Beijing Circle at the host church of St. James on the Parkway was formed in November 2006. The Rev. Margaret Fell, priest associate at St. James, had attended a 2006 UNCSW as an observer. She returned home eager to convey what she had learned. Then, in what she calls a stroke of "divine providence," she received the Beijing Circles Resource Guide in the mail.

At St. James, a group of eight women has met once a month, spending each gathering learning about and discussing each of the Beijing planks. A second Minnesota circle also formed three months ago at St. John the Evangelist in St. Paul, where Fell served last summer during the rector's sabbatical.

There is no standard operating procedure for the circles. The St. James circle has focused on education in its first year, learning and gathering information which can be later used for action. Robey and Watson Epting noted that other circles may take a different approach. The two uniting factors are the desire to join with others to improve the lot of women around the world, and the use of the "circle" concept for meeting and reflection.

"With circles, there is no leader," says Margaret Fell, noting that everyone can see everyone else in a circle. "You can't hold hands in a pyramid."

Learning the Beijing Platform -- and the circle
The Beijing Platform is the content, and the circle is the process, organizers noted. After viewing a video, "Shall We Gather? Anglican Women Together," and hearing from the representatives from the Office of Women's Ministries as well as members of the St. James circle, participants were ready to work on the concept on their own. They divided into four small circles and studied the first Beijing Plank on the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women. The resource booklet connected each issue of the Platform with scripture and prayer, providing facts, quotations, a Bible passage, and reflections.

The circle groups learned of how poverty is linked to other Beijing planks and to other Millennium Development Goals, both around the world and here at home. They learned that in Africa, for example, most crops are grown and most water and firewood are fetched by women. When a family member falls ill with AIDS, the women must stay home as caregivers, and the family can lose its food and water resources. They learned that 37 million people in the U.S. live in poverty -- often invisible to many until a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina strikes.

Karin Spencer of St. James discovered a new circle, in a sense, when she commented that in coming back to this issue after nearly a year, she saw how much it was connected to the other eleven planks her circle had studied since.

Several spoke of how difficult it could be not to take action immediately. They were not alone. Writers of the resource book note "that our faith compels us to speak and to act. But we don't always ground those actions in the stories and traditions of our faith, and...don't always take time to affirm each other in those actions and pray together."

Others talked of what would come next. Members of the St. James group spoke of their ideas for next steps as they complete their study of the Beijing Platform. The very last session of the conference was a discussion of resources, including sharings and suggestions from participants, and ideas they could take home as they began their own circles. The same enthusiasm that was present at the start of the gathering still hung in the air, and the energy was palpable. All were eager to take home what they had learned and to share it with others.

As Fell had noted the night before, "The circle unites us. It's a bond between women here and around the world. We connect within the circle and to others around the world."

Completing the circle
One of the circle guidelines noted that each circle gathering should open and close by hearing each voice, and the conference was conducted in the same way. At the beginning of the weekend, participants had been asked to write on a large newsprint tablet what they felt they brought to the circle, and to move a single flower to a vase by the tablet. In the closing worship, each one then told of what he or she was taking away. The comments reflected the excitement of carrying on the work begun at the conference.

Participants were also invited to contribute to the final prayer. Then each picked up that single flower, and carried it out into the world.

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