All posts by Susan Burgess-Lent

Buzzwords into Buzz Saws

On days when I lift my head above the torrent of details at the Women’s Center, I check out a few sources of current thinking, especially as relate to women’s experience.

I’ve found a lot of insightful articles in Wear Your Voice magazine. However, a recent article left me wondering about their editorial oversight. Where does a righteous rant cross over into hate speech?  In particular, when does the buzzword  ‘intersectionality’ become a weapon rather than a rallying cry?

At Oakland Women’s Center, 73% of our members are Black, with an increasing number of Latinas. Every day brings a new twist in the ways their lives are shaped by abuse, exclusion, and poverty. Our job is to find a path through the damage to begin the healing, and then eventually mobilize their full power as women.  It’s a slow process, fraught with fearful setbacks. The women have taught me more than I can say about patience, about the pointlessness of ‘expectations’, about the power of believing in their  essential value and uniqueness.

All women, no matter their ‘class’ or purported social privilege, share the millennial-old burden of second-class citizenship. This manifests in a whole range of painful ‘practices’, from the egregious violence of genital cutting and forced early marriage, to the quotidian undermining of self-worth by both men and by battalions of women who’ve not yet understood and embraced the value of sisterly support.

It’s important to me that publicly posted essays deliver insight and/or inspiration. Ranting for its own sake merely provokes anger, confusion, doubt.  We’ve already got too much of that in major media.

What’s needed is a lot less rant and a lot more doing to improve women’s lives. Time has never been more of the essence.


Where I Work

You can’t find a mailbox to save a life within a mile of my office in West Oakland.  Liquor stores, purveying basic food groups, fried chicken, and junk-for-consumption at exorbitant prices, occupy a corner about every four to six blocks.  Similarly, churches, mainly of the Baptist persuasion but including some esoterica, loom on major streets or sit tucked discretely within a former residence or storefront.

The end of the month, eviction time, brings a new tide of worn, cheap furniture and household flotsam to the curbs.  Taggers industriously deface the architecture of the area, along with any signs or furniture they happen upon.  Hardly a storefront or wall is spared the lurid, outsized scrawls, some reminiscent of lettering. Murals, however, usually don’t get graffitied, as if painting that requires more than a few reckless, angry minutes deserves dispensation.

The potholed streets, a patchwork of attempts at asphalt first aid, provide challenge courses for defensive driving. City parks sprout grass and weeds knee-high before Parks and Rec can be prodded into half-assed mowing.  Drivers of speeding vehicles, as well as pedestrians hobbling along heaved sidewalks, routinely toss food wrappers and other trash in their wake.

A once-thriving Black community, West Oakland suffered successive refashioning by earthquake and transit infrastructure. It feels like a place that could be vibrant, but has been left to wallow glumly in lost aspirations.

Every day at Oakland Women’s CenterBW Oakland street, deep in West Oakland, I discover a new variation of the damage that poverty and discrimination have wrought on women. Childhood abuse, usually a multi-generational legacy, homelessness, inferior education, domestic violence, single motherhood, custody battles, self-medication with any drug that can be had, and monumental anger behind a façade of getting by, often with an overlay of faith in God.  I do not doubt the palliative benefits of religious faith, but I prefer to trust the goddess in the woman.

I am one of the few White women at a Center that attracts primarily Black women. I devote myself daily to understanding their painful – and sometimes joyous – realities. I help them find what they need. Often I ponder the ‘legitimacy’ of a White woman helping Black women. Given the egregious nature of their burdens, it seems necessary for willing assistants of any color to step forward. I am willing.

March – then move your money where the power can grow

The Women’s March in Oakland was one fabulous event:  at least 60,000  – and up to 100,000  – people of all ages and ethnicities turned out to send the message: we will do what it takes to defend and advance women’s rights.  At least 1.1 million marched in California alone, and worldwide, about 5 million.

crowd-nasty-signThe economics of demonstrations are sobering.  One five-hour event can cost upward of $200,000.  Consider the hundreds of Marches on Jan 21st, and we’re talking millions of dollars to take to the streets for one day.

How do we translate that action into the nitty-gritty work?  By supporting organizations whose daily effort is to build the power of women.

Oakland Women’s Center in West Oakland, CA opened in May 2015.  165 women, mostly low-income, are now registered members.  They bring to the Center the full spectrum of issues born of poverty:  homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, domestic abuse, trauma from dysfunctional families, lack of education, and chronic health problems. We work with each of them them to find solutions, a path forward to the lives they want.

Four to six new members register each month. The Center needs to expand service capacity. Yet, we have few assured sources of funds even to sustain the current level of operation – and not for lack of effort

It’s the eternal conundrum of non-profits in general, and women’s organizations in particular.

Can we look to the rising womanist tide to sustain the work? That’s our best-case scenario. Building a bigger network of contributors is our challenge. Who’s out there to help?


Sisters in the Shadows

Written in April 2013

In one of the most painful and astonishing years of my life, I’ve learned two real kick-in-the-stomach lessons:

The “No Donkey in the Ditch” Rule

When you develop and launch a vision for a project, you must insist always on the highest possible standards for problem solving. It is the elemental nature of The Work. A big vision will not tolerate half-assed solutions on the road to full expression.

The “Wrinkles Rule” Rule

I’m mightily relieved to know there are places in the world where advancing age accrues social benefit. Traditional (though somewhat eroding) Kenyan reverence for the wisdom and pace of elders informed me that I’ve been no slouch about learning the ropes of humanitarian work. In fact, at 61, I’m damn sure of the exceptional quality of my wisdom. So kudos to Kenyans for enabling this insight. That said, I also endorse firmly sidelining an elder who’s a self-absorbed grouch, autocrat, cleptocrat, or general pain the ass – in order to reinforce the best of this tradition.

Working in Africa, where the sublime and the wretched flow side by side on horrific roads, spending my days with people whose practicality and humor I adore, always leaves me saturated with wonder and bewilderment. Though my soul finds grace in its spiritual home – Africa – my mind roils at circumstances so vastly degraded from what I’ve lived. I know the women (in Nairobi) struggle to view any potential for their lives.

Still, we are all women and in that have much in common.

In general, we think first of our children and their welfare, even above our own.

We know we are vulnerable to the random casual brutality of men.

We’ve learned to carry our traumas secreted in the locked closets of our thoughts, or to dull, but not obliterate, them with alcohol or drugs.

The woman in us who can do anything is powerful beyond imagining; still we are learning together how to become her.


The massively unmet needs of poor women, particularly black women, have fueled my thinking since I began working in Africa two decades ago. In my hometown, Oakland CA, I see as little progress stanching the pain.

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve grown more intimate with the realities of the sisters’ piled-on issues. Obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, breast cancer, addiction, abuse (historic and current), custody battles, low-wage quicksand jobs – because finishing high school never happened.

owc-logo-colorHealing the accumulated trauma requires a lot of courage. And support.

Every woman’s gotta pitch in to bring up every other woman.

Then we actually can reshape a vibrant future around what women are uniquely capable of doing. We are so much more than we’ve learned to be.