'Beijing Circles' gathering discusses female empowerment

September 29, 2008

Women from across the Northeast braved torrential rains to travel to Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 26 to 27 for the Beijing Circles Gathering. Brought together by a desire to explore ways women can work together to bring about positive change related to issues affecting women locally and globally, the 50 women attending this conference shared an interest in learning about the Beijing Circles resource. Developed by Anglican Women's Empowerment (AWE) with support from the Office for Women's Ministries, Beijing Circles encourage local and global action around the Beijing Platform for Action, a blueprint for women's rights adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing.


Mary McCarthy, from Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, an ardent supporter of the Millennium Development Goals, came to the conference seeking ways to encourage dialogue between Amherst's interfaith and secular communities. A recent experience with an interfaith scripture reading group was "both enlightening and frustrating," said McCarthy. "While the act of listening was powerful, I missed the opportunity to talk about what we were hearing. At last summer's Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross' conference, Phoebe Griswold talked about Beijing Circles; I'm here to learn if this might be a way to initiate dialogue among women in Amherst's interfaith and secular communities."

An open panel discussion explored how women's leadership can work to restore God's creation using the Beijing Platform for Action as a blueprint. Participants were invited to join panelists Jane Gould, Phoebe Griswold, Iza Hussin, Lallie Lloyd, and Hilary Rantisi as they shared their experience working with and for women.

"Growing up in [the District of Columbia] in the late 60s and early 70s, activism around women's rights was a way of life for me and my family," said the Rev. Jane Gould in response to the questions: Why and how are you involved in working with women's empowerment? What is your context in which you do your work? Gould, who traveled to the 1995 Beijing conference by train from Helsinki with women from 40 countries, is rector of St. Stephen's Memorial Episcopal Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, a diverse city and "port of first entry for many immigrants. St. Stephen's is a pluralistic church, keeping our doors, hearts, and mind wide open."

Phoebe Griswold recalled how she developed "gender glasses" early in her husband's term (1997-2006) as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. "We were being briefed in preparation for a trip to Jerusalem; I looked at the list of church leaders we were scheduled to meet with and noticed there were no women on the list. When I asked why, I was informed there were no women in leadership positions. I immediately asked if I could meet with women during the trip." From this experience, Griswold learned to ask "where are the women and the men in this situation I am going to?"

Later in the discussion, Gould asked: "The Beijing Platform suggests that by investing in women, communities will be transformed. In churches, we often do a fair amount of talking, but don't always get to action. What gets us moving, calls us to action?"

Lallie Lloyd, author of Eradicating Global Poverty: A Christian Study Guide on the Millennium Development Goals, told of a man who spent ten years in Europe, who on returning to the United States was shocked by the country's isolationism. In his despair, he prayed, and then called three friends for support, which led to his convening a conference in 2001 around the MDGs. His despair, and subsequent action, led to the adoption of the MDGs as a priority for the Episcopal Church at the 2006 General Convention.

Concern about the negative influence our culture has on girls today led Priscilla Hooper, director of religious education at St. James Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut, to reach out to the Girls' Friendly Society, a parish-based program offering positive guidance from adult leaders and help to develop values and experiences supporting growth and friendship. Hooper, and GFS president Lois Frankforter, came to the conference to discover if the Beijing Circles model might be adapted for use with girls and preteens.

Saturday morning, following Morning Prayer, Ambassador Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and president of Hunt Alternatives Fund, shared her experience working to integrate women into peace processes. While ambassador to Austria, she hosted negotiations and international symposia to focus efforts on securing peace in the Balkan states. "While helping resolve the conflict in the Balkans, I became keenly aware of the unwillingness of the international community to use the enormous pool of talented, well-educated women peace builders to help resolve the conflict in Yugoslavia," said Hunt. When she asked why, she was told that Yugoslavian women were not ready to serve in this capacity, despite having the highest percentage of women PhDs per capita in Europe. Later, she recognized that she could have insisted that women have a presence at the peace talks.

In 1999, Hunt founded The Initiative for Inclusive Security, "Its cornerstone has been the global network of women peace builders. My primary goal was to connect its members to policymakers, business people, representatives of multilateral corporations, and journalists. Over the last decade, these leaders have led major efforts to create stability in the most volatile places in the world."

Following Ambassador Hunt's address, participants divided into small groups to try out the Beijing Circles method. Kim Robey, program officer for Women's Ministries and Leadership Development with the Episcopal Church, described Beijing Circles as a resource arising from Anglican Women's Empowerment's (AWE) work related to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women's annual conference.

"The idea of Beijing Circles arose from the recognition that while the issues of the platform are critical to changing the culture for women abroad, we have the same issues here at home. The Beijing Circle Resource Guide is designed to help us work in small groups to reflect, discuss, and pray about the issues raised in the Platform and then discern what actions to take," explained Robey. "The circle is the process, and the Beijing Platform is the content."

Practice circles formed around platform topics related to violence against women, decision making, safeguarding the environment, and the girl child. Robey suggested the groups begin their work by reading the section in the Beijing Circle resource that related to their topic. The room was silent as women read the material, then waited, unsure of how to start. In the environmental group, EDS student Hilary Greer, relating this feeling of uncertainty to "art as process, it isn't important what it looks like, just that we start."

Later, reflecting on the circle experience, Greer said, "Starting this discussion from our own experience helped us to move these issues from abstract things that affect other people, to the stories of our lives, which gives us power to move forward, to take action. For me, this means looking to start a Beijing Circles group at EDS."

"I first learned of the circle method at Episcopal Divinity School," said Zena Link, a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, and recent EDS graduate. "The Beijing Circles experience encourages movement-centered leaders; women in conversation and relationship with each other, informed by faith, with room for spiritual reflection and honoring one another, I can't help but want to be a part of it."

During the closing Eucharist, Robey said, "This is a movement whose time has come. Women must be at all the tables of decision making because they bring skills that most men don't."