Every summer, Plan USA brings together women leaders of grassroots organizations from all over the world to provide a four-week training in leadership, business skills and project management, as part of their Global Women in Management program. This year ArtCorps was invited to provide a one-day session in Creative Leadership. Our group was made up of 28 participants from 22 different countries including Tanzania, Madagascar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Ukraine and Russia. Never before have I led a training with such diversity and I was extremely excited and curious about what the group dynamic would be like.
I arrived a day early to observe the training and make final preparations. They were deeply engaged in a reflection about the role that gender plays in shaping the kind of access that people have to resources, information, rights and decision-making power. This was an astute group of women who understood power dynamics and had all struggled to overcome these challenges and become woman leaders in their countries. The power analysis would serve as a good foundation for our session on the following day.
As women walked into the room for the ArtCorps training, they were invited to make a creative name tag with a symbol that represented one of their key leadership qualities. Colorful symbols like flames and lions appeared representing their power, passion and courage, along with others that illustrated strengths such as listening, observation and love.
We engaged the women in a discussion about the role that our intersecting social identities play in shaping our confidence, style and experience as a leader. We explored different social categorizations and the kinds of messages that we have received about our value based on these categories such as race, gender, age, religion, marital status and socio-economic status.
The women created visual mandalas using collage images, pastels, charcoal and colored paper to represent the cultural assumptions and beliefs they have internalized or resisted around their different identities. They shared their mandalas in small groups, reflecting on how these messages have impacted their leadership roles. Stories and emotions poured out through their artistic representations which created an opportunity for them to find commonalities across lines of vast cultural difference.
The women then chose one limiting belief to explore in an Image Theater exercise in which they sculpted another woman into a physical shape that would illustrate the impact of that belief on their body and mind. This image could be enhanced with a phrase or movement. As we walked through the gallery of human sculptures, we heard messages like:
“I can’t be an astronomer, I’m a girl,” “I have to be perfect,” “I will never be good enough,” and multiple variations of “I shouldn’t exist.” Most of the shapes were bent over with their eyes lowered and body contracted into various positions of shame, defeat and fear. Tears flowed from the eyes of nearly every woman as they walked slowly through the room and witnessed the pain of having internalized such destructive messages that have, for centuries, held women back from their true power and potential.
As the group processed some of these shared feelings and experiences, the women began to discover a deeper sense of solidarity with each other, along with a fierce desire to liberate themselves and others from these crippling beliefs. We moved into the next phase of the activity in which the women re-sculpted the images to embody what it would look like, feel like and sound like to heal these wounds that have been passed down for generations. Arms opened, eyes looked up, shoulders pushed back and hearts leapt forward as women personified positions of empowerment and wisdom. This time the tears were of joy as they saw their capacity to transform themselves and heal. They identified specific actions such as self-care practices and peer circles that could support this transformation, and they expressed their commitment as leaders to mentor other women.
The women ended the day by making masks that signified their life purpose. Images of stars, bridges, hearts and trees asserted their power to be beacons of light and inspiration for their communities as well as peacemakers, visionaries, healers and teachers. In addition to their deep personal conviction, this collective exploration of Creative Leadership reminded us that we need to work together and uplift each other in order to overcome the many challenges we face. We expressed this through a loud and passionate group stomp to close the session. Women held hands and rhythmically stepped back and forth from one foot to the other uttering a primal sound with each stomp of the foot, gaining momentum and volume until we ran into the center of the circle, arms held high and with a fierce roar of collective liberation! One participant voiced the general sentiment, “By myself, I can accomplish a lot, but as women united, we can truly change the world.”
Aryeh Shell is ArtCorps’ Education and Training Officer.