The Working Waterfront

How do we bring a feminist approach to our work?

Assumptions about relationships, power must be rethought

Rob Snyder
Posted 2019-03-13
Last Modified 2019-03-13

By Rob Snyder

My daughter’s favorite new baseball cap has nothing to do with sports. It is light blue with the word “Feminist” embroidered across the front in hot pink. Her enthusiasm for the feminist movement is exciting to me, but according to her, it is cause for concern, confusion, and fear among some of her ninth-grade classmates.

The two of us have had some interesting conversations about how feminist ethics are expressed in the world. For instance, we have spoken about how I work for an organization dominated by women leaders and focused on a coast where women are often the primary drivers of change. We’ve celebrated having Gov. Janet Mills in office—the first woman elected as Maine governor—and Hannah Pingree of North Haven taking a lead role in policy development for the new administration. 

I am writing this column on the eve of United Nations International Women’s Day—what better time to pause and reflect on how feminist ethics show up across the coast of Maine and in our work at Island Institute?

To start with, we need a broader view of feminism. Framing feminism as a movement focused on women’s empowerment in society is important, but overly narrow.

When we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 each year, we recognize the need for a shared and balanced approach to human rights for all people. Noted feminist Gloria Steinem explained, “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

How might feminist approaches framed as “human rights for all” inform community development here on the Maine coast? For the Island Institute, bringing a feminist agenda to our work includes bringing consciousness and careful attention to conversations, decisions, and behaviors. 

At a high level, it is about holding one critical question present at all times. We should continually ask ourselves how power dynamics are at play as we move through the world. Power can take many forms, such as in the prevalence of old gender norms, control of financial resources, access to networks, and access to information, among others. Internally, the Island Institute runs inclusive and transparent decision-making processes, paired with policies such as parental leave regardless of gender or sexual orientation. 

Whether inside the organization or out in the world, I often reflect on the privileges and experiences that shape who I am, who I am speaking with, and who is not in the room as a result.

What do I need to do through my work to ensure that less dominant voices aren’t silenced or overlooked? Are some groups of people accessing our organization’s resources at the expense of others? If yes, have we thought through the consequences? Are we reviewing our approach to engaging communities so that we include as diverse a group of people as possible before we make decisions?

Practically speaking, a feminist approach includes asking ourselves if we are holding a meeting in the right place to maximize audience diversity. It can also include taking the time to identify and reach out to people who may not be the elected officials, but have networks and influence that run deep in a community but are less visible.

On International Women’s Day, I will travel to Brighton, England to spend four days in a conversation focused on well-being, ecology, gender, and community. Above all, we will be rethinking how we care—in the broadest sense of the word—for each other in communities. We will be talking about how communities organize themselves and their livelihoods in order to look after each other and the environment.

The timing is critical. As we deal with great changes in the world, we need to stay grounded through focusing on our responsibility for shaping each other’s health, welfare, and protection, while also providing for the need we all have as humans for affection and love. How is this being accomplished through our community economies, our state and national policies, and through our treatment of each other, regardless of our differences?

This year’s International Women’s Day’s theme is “Balance for Better.” It is a call for equal rights, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. My personal responsibility, then, is to make sure that I rigorously consider how every conversation I have and every action I take will move the Island Institute and our partners toward achieving this goal.

Please join me in determining what actions we can take to move our communities and organization toward this shared goal. 

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. Follow Rob on Twitter @ProOutsider.