Interview with Delphine Criscenzo

The “Peacemakers series” on Beyond Violence brings us personalities or movements that have inspired the non-violent movement or have inspired us in our pursuit for non-violence and a more inclusive approach to development. This article is dedicated to the role of women in non-violent movements and the role of technology in allowing a more multicultural understanding of the World.

World Pulse is a leading network that uses digital media to connect and amplify women’s issues globally. Over 60,000 people from more than 190 countries are connecting through their online platform, and if you are interested in talking about women’s empowerment, citizen journalism, violence reduction and other gender discussions, this is the place to go. I had the pleasure to interview Delphine Criscenzo, Outreach and Training Associate of World Pulse and the Voices of Our Future Program. Journalist, activist, feminist and overall powerhouse, Delphine sat down with me to discuss the principles around World Pulse and their everyday challenges.

NL: Delphine, could you tell us a little bit about World Pulse and the principles behind Voices of Our Future?

DC: World Pulse started as a magazine in which women from all over the world could share their stories. Jensine Larsen, our CEO, was travelling to places like the Amazon or Burma and she was really interested in women’s stories and the challenges they face in their communities. She was struck by the willingness of women to share their views simply because for some of them it was the first time they were asked. From a magazine it evolved and is now a huge community of women. In 2007, we started an online community. If you enter World Pulse, you can log in, create your profile, blog, read other blogs, but most importantly build connections – we have over 20,000 women and men participating – and creating change through citizen journalism and by promoting Women’s empowerment. Voices of Our Future (VOF) began four years ago out of a strong push of those participants to develop skills to share their stories. In that sense, the program is training on citizen journalism and digital empowerment. We select 30 women every year to go through a pretty intense 6-months long program, in which they learn to write articles, to express their voice and vision for the future to global audiences, plus we really encourage them to strive for a solution-based writing which means they share their perspectives on the problems and really engage in a conversation about the possible solutions.

NL: Do you think this process of storytelling is relevant to peace, or at least in peace negotiations, where women’s participation tends to be very limited ?

DC: For a very long time women have been excluded from any dialogue of peace, but at the same time, women find themselves as one of the main targets during war, whether it is rape or the burden of supporting their household since the men in their lives were killed or severely damaged by the conflict. Moreover, when those situations happen women are left with the burden of the grievance and the mourning, but also of redefining their place in the families. However, even though the conflict seems to take power away from women, they are very ingenious in the way that they claim their agency back and improve their lives, their families and their communities. For these reasons, women are more likely to have a broader approach of the conflict and engage in non-violent alternatives. Women tend to push for reconciliation and peaceful solutions. In our digital age, we have more access to those stories. For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been in war for over 20 years at this point, and women have been victimised by this war for 20 years, so they have create a community amongst themselves, but now increasingly they have tried to engage policymakers into a peace process.

NL: Does having a program that encourages women to speak on their own terms, topics and perspectives help bridge the divide between North-South discourses?

DC: Absolutely. Women have been excluded from a lot of debates worldwide, however it has been worse for women in developing countries. One of the reasons for that being, a lot of developing countries have modelled their way of governing and the vices from European/North American structures. In a program such as VOF where women are discovering – and when I say women, I mean beyond the actual participants, I include myself and everyone at World Pulse (even though we are running this) – this sisterhood. Basically, it is a community of women who think like me, have the same desires, hopes and dreams that I have. Even though we have different challenges – I’m not at all suggesting our realities are the same as those of women in rural Nigeria, for instance -, we have realised that together we can make some incredible changes happen. First, you realize you are not alone; that there can be a system in place for you to feel nurtured, loved and that you belong to something bigger than yourself. So, that is what the program does, it encourages these women to believe in themselves, increases their self-confidence, improves their skills as leaders and we walk along with them. So, it is connection, confidence and just this bigger community of incredible women and men who are willing to transform words into actions.

NL: Well, as you said, patriarchy has its expressions in many ways, in some situations it’s aggravated by poverty and other inequalities, but it’s all part of the same phenomenon. So, it is also interesting to find this collective way to overcome it. However, in programmatic terms, what challenges have you faced running this project?

DC: So, one of the biggest challenges we face is directly related to the fundamental principle of existence of World Pulse. We have created this platform for women to express themselves, but also for them to be heard. One of our goals is to find partnerships. When women write on World Pulse they usually only get read by other World Pulse community members. We want people at the New York Times, Huffington Post and other outlets all over the World to also pick up those stories. But, what we have found is that many of those outlets would see our stories as “too raw”, which is a way to say it is not edited to cater to their audiences. However, what we try to argue is that this is exactly the point. I’m also a journalist, and as a journalist you can go out and ask somebody somewhere to tell you his or her story, but whenever that happens I will filter that to where I come from, my biases, my understanding and her story is not going to be fully accurate. And as a journalist, I will be aware of that. So, that is why what I think journalism also replicates many inherited ideas from patriarchy and imperialism. We tell women that they can be journalists because they are experts in their own realities. Now, our challenges come from making mainstream media realize that those voices are as or even more worthy than somebody that may have written a book on a specific topic. For me, running Voices of Our Future, one of the issues that I have encountered is the lack of confidence. Many of the women in our program have been told time and again that their voices are worthless or that their ideas didn’t matter. And I definitely can relate. I have a Sicilian background and women are still taught they have a specific place in society and they have to behave in a certain way. My job also involves reassuring that their voices are worth it, if nothing else, because I want to hear it.

NL: Does that stem from the belief that empowerment of women in general comes from individual empowerment to try to break those societal barriers? It is very hard to empower women; if we are still replicating those discourses that women’s voices are less valuable.

DC: That’s exactly right. And it is why we are spending time and energy trying to form partnerships with mainstream outlets and organisations. Trying to make them understand the value of women’s narratives. I think some institutions are ready to face their history of gender disparity and colonialism and some are not. A lot of organisations are still structured in a very hierarchical and liberal way , like the United Nations and they are seen as the solutions to all problems. And I think there has to be alternatives. At the same time, the answer to this problem should not rely only in the shoulder of women, much like racism or other patterns of discrimination. It is like asking white people why they are against racism, it’s not just for the particular group that is being discriminated. It is human rights issue. It shows that we have standards as a society and we will not tolerate oppression. It takes a lot of work and energy to deconstruct those discriminations and preconceived ideas, but it’s our job, as a society, to do it.

NL: Do you think the lack of enthusiasm from the mainstream media of picking up those stories is somewhat derived from the lack of female representation in major media outlets and editorial boards?

DC: This is one of the reasons, most definitely. But when women get to positions of leadership, if they are the only ones, they tend to follow this system that is already in place. It is really hard for women that are alone at the top to find allies and say “hey, this is really not working for women”. Some women are doing it, but it is taking a long time. So, it is definitely an issue. It is the lack of women in power, but also the systems that prevent women to achieve those roles. From CEOs to State leaders I dream of the day that I can actually relate to the person in charge.

NL: Well, let’s hope some day those editors will realize that the same type of perspective in their stories all the time makes for a very boring read. But going back to World Pulse as an online community, what do you think is the role of online communities in this new wave of activism and peace movements?

DC: I think when you are able to understand that there is a lot of communality in what you are experiencing and what the rest of the world is experiencing, there is a very powerful bonding or healing process that happens. I’ve worked a lot here with domestic violence survivors and time and again I hear them say “I didn’t know I was being abused”. And the reason they didn’t know they were being abused is that they were cut off from all forms of communications with the outside world. Moreover, they may have grown up in an abusive environment and thought that this was normal. Once you realize that the challenges that you face are not unique, you realize that you are not by yourself and you can find some allies to help you overcome whatever issues you face. Maybe you can replicate a successful experience. But I think that’s why the digital world is being used by activists. They can connect, they can express themselves in a level that they could never have done before. The Digital World can be used for cyber-bullying, trolling and hate speech as well. However, at the same time, there is this movement for peace and change.

NL: Even though we are outgrowing these geographical borders of ours, there are still some very present limitations such as censorship and repression. Sometimes it is just easier to send your voice to the world than do it at home. Our final wrapping-up question: what are the three topics that are most discussed in World Pulse?

DC: First, it’s easy, gender-based violence in its many forms; violence against women, domestic violence, sexual violence, rape as a weapon of war and so on. Second, I would say environment and its consequences to women’s livelihoods. And third, I would say political participation.

NL: Thank you so much for your participation and I hope people will go and check out World Pulse’s work.

DC: Thank you.

Originally published at Beyond Violence on 21 November 2013

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