by Laura Waleryszak, V-Day College & Community Campaigns Manager
The last time V-Day celebrated an anniversary, I was sitting behind a glass window in the New Orleans Arena box office, organizing piles of tickets for that night’s performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” Tens of thousands of people had descended upon the still-struggling city to join V-Day for SUPERLOVE, a weekend–long reclaiming of the Superdome and The Big Easy for the women of NOLA and the Gulf South.
It was 2008, V-Day was turning ten, and I was its newest staff member. It had been an energizing weekend merging art and activism, the likes of which I felt certain the world had never seen. Activists and thinkers, artists and philanthropists coalesced for one weekend to break the silence surrounding sexual violence, and to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to leave with the individuals and organizations doing the work on the ground in New Orleans. At weekend’s end, our staff of twelve breathed a collective sigh of relief and wondered out loud to one another what could possibly top this effort on future birthdays of the movement. That is, if V-Day lived to see another major anniversary; it has always been our goal to “go out of business”, when violence against women was no longer a social ill epidemic in nature.
I moved to Chicago, and V-Day carried on, each of us working from home offices scattered around the world to keep costs low. I watched in awe as grassroots, volunteer activists worked to transform their communities and college campuses annually, with more than 5,000 V-Day events per year. We launched major campaigns to support the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who suffer terrible atrocities at the hands of militias using rape-tactics in an under-reported civil war, and to rebuild the women’s movement in Haiti after its devastating earthquake.
We carried on, but violence against women, and misogyny in all its troubling forms, also carried on, at a seemingly unprecedented pitch. Despite the widespread nature of gender-based violence, speaking out about rape or domestic violence was still treated as taboo. Even though perpetrators rape or abuse 1 in 4 women in this country, and 1 in 3 globally, the work to end this violence was still categorized as a special interest.
I first heard Eve Ensler publicly introduce the idea behind One Billion Rising in the fall of 2011, to a sold-out crowd at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. She wanted the staff there, as we would be among the first harbingers entrusted to transform vision into reality.
Eve spoke about surviving cancer, and the subsequent urgency she felt to end the violence. She imagined a single day on the planet during which violence against women and girls was the loudest and most important issue that anyone could be thinking about: a massive, synchronized action to proclaim “Enough!”
She shared that, through the time she’d spent with the women survivors of the Congo, she’d observed and experienced firsthand the healing power of dance. These women, who had suffered unthinkable violence upon their bodies, would nonetheless incorporate dance into their daily routine, taking back ownership and power of their bodies, finding a way to exist joyfully despite having endured profound violence and darkness. Eve called upon the one thousand people in Grace Cathedral to join the one billion around the world who would be dancing together for V-Day’s 15th anniversary.
Later, on a conference call, our small staff struggled to wrap our minds around what exactly we were being asked. “We are talking about one BILLION people dancing. One billion, literally?” “Yes.”
What if people don’t want to dance? How will we connect this action to ending violence against women? How will we reach new countries, and large countries where V-Day is lesser known? How will we reach one billion, and measure it? Is this even possible?
Some of us resisted; I resisted. I lost sleep, even. I scrambled to a find a precedent for what we were proposing- there wasn’t one. I worried that our efforts would be futile or seen as fluffy, that cynicism would run too deeply among those best poised to help us to engage their participation. Despite my fears, I was asked for my trust. No amount of small or cynical thinking ever changed a major problem, so I moved through the internal balking, and gave in. I surrendered, and when I did, it started to become easy.
By easy I do not mean low-maintenance; thus began a full year of pouring every ounce of energy into developing and spreading the OBR campaign around the world. But it became easy in the sense that nearly everyone I reached out to about the concept jumped on board, understood, and offered talents or services. It seemed there was a universal frustration with the continued reports of rapes, mutilations, the politicizing of women’s reproductive organs, etc, and an eagerness for some way to shake up a status quo that treated such reports as unavoidable.
I also learned how totally I can trust V-Day’s impressive network of activists around the world. We handed over this seed of an idea, devoid of the usual list of guidelines and rules that accompany standard V-Day events, and they began to plan events for 2/14/13 as unique as the parts of the world where they resided. We asked for their “reasons to rise” and were both heartbroken and inspired by the stories of personal experiences of violence that poured into our email inboxes. SUPERLOVE was inclusive, but this movement was expansive. We gave over control and watched the momentum build beyond our greatest expectations.
In the meantime, I was also working on the flagship OBR event in Chicago. Working in a home office can be isolating, and I welcomed the opportunity to connect with women’s and human rights’ leaders in the city I’d called home for four years, some for the first time. I shared the production duties with a small core group of inspiring Chicagoans and feel confident that the now-strengthened alliance between us will lead to positive, tangible changes to address violence in our city.
On the day-of, I fought back tears as I stood in Daley Plaza, shivering in the February cold, watching the space all around me fill-in with smiling, dancing people of all ages, holding homemade signs, wearing red scarves, speaking animatedly into news-cameras about their experience and what brought them there today. By the time a group of several hundred began dancing to “Break the Chain”, the plaza was packed with supporters as far as I could see. Every second, my phone was alerting me to a new update, image, or video clip of smiling survivors and allies, dancing in throngs with different backgrounds.
What happened in Chicago was a microcosm of what occurred globally; alongside the main rally and daylong celebration, there ended up being myriad Risings all over the city. Along with a flashmob on every college campus in Chicago, there was an event at University of Chicago live-streamed for the world to see, a flamenco flash mob in Union Station, a lunchtime DJ-ed event, and multiple evening gatherings around the city and suburbs. Such is a true sign of a cause that resonates deeply.
At day’s end, one woman approached my Chicago co-producer and told her, “I’m 62 years old and I’ve been waiting for a day like this my whole life.”
It turns out I had been waiting, too.