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Women Leading the Way

fistPersistence, perseverance—and sometimes plain pestering: these are some of the strategies that helped Mallika Dutt and Jane Golden become successful activists for their respective public-interest passions. Their far-ranging and sometimes feisty discussion about “Women Leading the Way” was part of the festivities celebrating the official ribbon-cutting and opening of The Diana Center on February 3. The panel was organized by The Athena Center for Leadership Studies. As Kathryn Kolbert, the center’s director and the panel’s moderator notes, one of the goals of The Athena Center is to “showcase inspiring women leaders who have used their energies to make the world a better place. Both women have been incredibly creative in their work.”

                  Dutt is founder and United States director of Breakthrough, an international human-rights organization that addresses issues like violence against women, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, immigrant rights, and racial justice through popular culture, media, community education, and leadership development. The organization runs programs in India and America. Golden is director of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has designed and installed more than 3,000 murals throughout the city, transforming local communities and inspiring residents.

                  “The underlying philosophy is to articulate women’s rights as human rights,” explains Dutt, a longtime human-rights activist who once worked for the Ford Foundation. She showed several award-winning Bollywood-style videos that were designed to deal with the problems of violence against women and the stigma of HIV/ AIDS, as part of public service campaigns in India. “Usually we talk about how culture and religion constrain and restrain women’s rights,” says Dutt. “This all began as an experiment to take cultural experiences and create a human-rights culture. The way that media shapes your life will be absolutely critical to create human-rights solutions.”

Golden, who grew up in a “mural-friendly household where my parents always talked about the art created during the WPA,” was an artist who channeled her impulse for social change into public art projects. She first worked on public murals with teenagers on probation in Santa Monica, California. When Golden moved back East, she started working with teenagers from inner-city Philadelphia as part of an anti-graffiti campaign.

                  “I could put kids to work,” says Golden. “There weren’t opportunities for [those] who had talent, and interest, in art. What I love about murals is that you have many, many stakeholders; you engage with the community. Murals become a tipping point, turning around communities.... That was my epiphany.”

                  For both Dutt and Golden, these leadership lessons could be applied anywhere. “Leadership is about you, wherever you are,” insists Dutt. “It’s how you treat everybody. It’s not about violators/victims. Human rights is about where you start as an individual. Leadership is whatever you can do in the space you occupy to bring human rights home.”

                  For Golden, it’s about “tenacity and perseverance, hope and faith, the determination one has to cultivate.... It’s the kind of courage that has to be summoned, with the patience to understand that it may not be everything you want. Leading is about moving forward no matter what.”

-by Merri Rosenberg '78