I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No-one’s ever going to keep me down again
Whoa, yes I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I’ve gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman…
My personal story of success
Having accepted the invitation to be the guest speaker at BPSA by Keri Davids as part of the Diversity and Inclusion programme for which she was responsible, I realised with a start that the by-line for the talk was to share my personal story of success. The programme was themed around the International Women’s Day challenge- Be bold for change’.
For a moment I was thrown into a flat spin! Could I claim my story to be one of success? I don’t really use ‘success’ as a yardstick to think about my own life and work. But, I accepted the challenge and found it to be a useful moment of reflection.
What is success?
Success is a relative term. In the work scenario it implies having achieved certain career goals, possibly with the accompanying financial benefits associated with success. On a personal level it might mean having access to a certain lifestyle made possible by having achieved the aforesaid career goals and being remunerated for it. In organisational or company terms, it implies a healthy bank balance, resulting from successful products or outputs which are able to generate steady income for the organisation or company.
So, when I think about my own success, I am not sure that I can tick the above boxes. I have seldom used the ‘success’ metric when thinking about my life, but, on the happiness index, in whichever way one is able to measure this objectively, I think I score quite high.
I will not lie: sometimes I do aspire to certain creature comforts that are beyond my economic reach. I have moments when I think that winning the Lotto will help me to resolve all of the things that make life difficult! But these are fleeting moments and do not constitute my entire reality.
In thinking about successful aspects of my life particularly in relation to my job as director of the District Six Museum, I had to find indicators that could serve as a yardstick against which I could attempt some measurement. I arrived at the following: (1) a consistent values-based approach, combined with (2) a commitment to integrity as being two crucial factors for me in my life and work. These have been two of the main driving forces on personal, professional and organisational levels. It is not always easy or popular to hang onto values and integrity, especially when ways to earn money in the non-profit sector are so dependent not only on sales, but also on the goodwill of others.
I would like to digress briefly at this point, to say a word about the non-profit sector of which District Six Museum forms part. I prefer the term ‘not for profit’ which more positively articulates the intentions of the organisations which are located in this sector. ‘Non-profit’ carries with it the connotation of being a deficit position (‘non’) in relation to the normative position (‘profit’). The sector needs to be named in terms of what it is doing, not what it is not doing.
Some of the challenges to values and integrity have arisen out of the need to remain financially sustainable. For example, we have felt compelled to decline opportunities to earn income from offers which seemed to constitute a commercialisation of people’s stories in our archive, which are mostly stories of trauma. There have also been requests to use archival prints to adorn walls in spaces from which people were dispossessed. These seemed to fall into the ‘heritage as decor’ category, not linked to an attempt at deep engagement to illuminate our understandings of current issues. Interestingly, declining such offers has often created the impression that the Museum did not need the money which is not the case. For me, the measure of integrity arises from being able to make such a decision despite needing the money.
In a context where tourism is regarded as one of the main economic drivers of our economy, it has been hard to hold onto the stance of not being oriented towards tourism – while simultaneously being respectful of and grateful for tourism. Engaging tourism on our own terms continues to be hard. But it is possible and it has been worthwhile.
Being a woman
As a woman director in this city, it has not been easy to make that argument. Many times I got the impression that people thought that maybe I ‘did not get it’ when I took certain positions and would proceed to lecture me on my short-sightedness, assuming that I did not understand the business-side of things. I have always tried to listen with depth in search of understanding where the points of synergy lie, and make informed decisions from that place of understanding. For the most part this has worked in my favour.
I have had to unlearn many of my old habits as I became aware that occasionally I was responsible for undermining myself.
Being of a naturally (or is it conditioning?) nurturing nature, I have had to sometimes literally sit on my hands to stop myself from always being the one to offer hospitality at meetings. Not a problem in itself but when non-reciprocal, expected and gendered – it does become problematic. I have had to remind male counterparts that women are not genetically wired to take notes, send reminders or organise schedules. I do these things because I am good at it; I do it for my benefit and because I find that it makes my life easier. My intention is not to provide an assumed service to others who make no effort.
As a woman, I have to continually resist being over-supportive to my colleagues. I have had to be at pains to explain why saying to me ‘you are like our mother’ does not make me feel good about myself even when the intentions are good.
I was fortunate to have had my political awakening in the late 70s and early 80s at a time when I benefitted from wonderful role-modelling, social analysis and guidance. In the civic and women’s organisations I first became aware of the saying ‘a woman’s place is in the world’. It included a gradual evolution into an understanding that men were not the enemy, but systems which kept us in defined roles were to be challenged and overturned.
My version of ‘bra burning’ together with other young women of my age was a rejection of anything that reeked of femininity in its narrow sense. We frowned at blow-dried hair, lipsticks, high heels and mini-skirts. We wore afros, khaki pants and parka jackets. To this day I still cannot tolerate overtly floral fabrics whether for clothing or furnishings. This choice is based less on what is aesthetically pleasing, and more on what we regarded as being feminine. (At a furniture store recently I was browsing in the upholstered furniture section and being guided towards a particular section by a shop assistant I asked her not to show me anything floral. Astoundingly, her response was ‘what kind of a girl are you??’)
I think that I have grown from a state of suppressing of all feminine urges to a state of embracing and being empowered by being female, in ways which I hope are non-exclusive (although sometimes aggressive) and which is enabling of others.
Being bold for change
So what does it mean to be bold for change? How does this relate to a woman’s story of success?
Bold steps do not always have to be the big, visible acts cheered on by crowds of supporters. They can be the small, out-of-the-box steps that arise out of our awareness that we can make a difference, and that we can be part of heralding change. Boldness stems from our awareness that we do not have to be constrained by the ceilings that tend to bound us. Bold moments are defined by the specific circumstances that we find ourselves in. What’s normal for you can be bold for me and vice versa.
In reflecting on the place of District Six in the story of our city’s history, a programme participant Evadne Abrahams shared her thoughts. She was not from District Six in the residential sense, but could still testify to its significance in her own life and that of her family. It was a centre of cultural life, of knowledge, debate and socialising- a place where community was constantly being remade. She used the metaphor of District Six being the yeast in the city. This image has always stuck with me, and has come to the foreground as I am thinking about boldnesss and change. Yeast agitating invisibly to bring about a drastic change in the dough within which it is buried, reminds me of the ways in which we can be bold. Silently, invisibly, imperceptibly bold. Overcoming our own invisible ceilings in as we realise what we can both overcome and achieve. Incubating from within a small space we can all give rise to something big.
So my bold steps might seem small but they have meant the world to me. They have been very personal but also have an organisational and professional dimension.
You might be able to identify with a way of thinking that seemed to dominate my life for a while, a way of thinking that always seemed to defer doing things because it never seemed to be the right time. As a wife and mother of three, as a leader of a demanding organisation, I caught myself constantly deferring things that I wanted to do because I was always busy with something else that needed doing. My bold moment might seem quite ordinary: it was the simple realisation that crises were never going to be finite and would always demand resolution. It was a realisation that ‘now is the time’ combined with ‘it’s now or never’ ( to quote from a struggle slogan and a song respectively!) that spurred me on thinking about ways to seize the moment.
From an organisational and professional point of view, it was the decision to not even consider closing the Museum down even though we had no money in the bank to speak of. Once that decision was made, it cleared the way for us to think about the description of being a ‘going concern’ took on a new and rejuvenated meaning. That was a decidedly bold step – to insist on protecting the values which were central to our work, which put into perspective the realisation that no cash in the bank was a temporary setback. Not conceding to defeat helped us cross the financial hurdle.
On a more personal level, with a start I realised that more of my life was probably behind me than was ahead of me! I needed to take charge of my time, life and health in a more deliberate way and at the age of 52 I joined a running club. I have always been committed to an exercise-filled lifestyle in my mind but have never really acted consistently on that commitment, always believing that I would get to it at some later stage when I had resolved a number of other issues. ‘Now is the time’ flitted through my mind, and that spurred me to act immediately and out of that awareness I have been able to sustain a measure of consistency and am about to run my 3rd Two Oceans half-marathon race in April 2017.
Having said that bold steps do not have to be something dramatic, I should mention that I did something somewhat dramatic: I challenged myself to do a paragliding jump from Signal Hill. People do this all the time so it might not seem particularly bold, but for me it was given a number of personal issues that I had to overcome in order to do this. I also did it as a fundraising challenge for the Museum and achieved the financial target that I had set for the jump.
Lastly, a bold step for me was to apply for a four-month fellowship in the US which would enable me to do some research and writing that I had put on hold for a long while. Again, possibly not such a bold step for some people but for me who had never been away from work or family for more than two weeks at a time, it was a bold step and signaled to me, colleagues and family that so much more was possible and within reach.
I would like to explore more ways of being bold and continue to shatter, bit by bit, the layers of invisible ceilings that constrain my thoughts and actions. It is an exciting process which holds much potential for joy and satisfaction, and I wish the same for you all- that you discover ways in which you can be quietly bold and break through the things that hold you back. Define your own boldness and act on it.