This is Where it Starts: The Importance of Spaces for Women’s Empowerment
By Anita Peebles
Recently, I found myself in a preschool classroom juicing oranges with a bunch of four-year olds. I complimented one little girl, saying, “I like how you are using both your hands and your strong muscles to juice the orange.” A little boy promptly responded from across the table: “She doesn’t have strong muscles.”
In my head, I heard: “She’s a girl.”
All I could think was: this is when it starts. It starts with someone telling a girl “you don’t have strong muscles” or “you’re not pretty” or “you’re not as smart as the boys in your class” or “you can’t play soccer as good as a boy” or “you’ll never have a boyfriend” or “you can’t be president; presidents are men” or anything else that intends to and succeeds in breaking a young girl’s spirit.
In my life, I have had the privilege of having been encouraged in academics, told I was beautiful, and given the tools to take ownership over my education and creativity. Many girls across the world do not have that privilege, and I strive to make it part of my work to extend the basic human right of integrity and self-determination to girls from all walks of life. The work of helping a girl see her worth in more than what she wears or how valuable she is in the eyes of a man or who she loves goes far beyond making sure girls can go to school. It is also providing resources for her to build the life she desires, including healthy and accessible food, affordable and local healthcare for non-male bodied people, scholarships and support circles of women who will lift her up and help her not become broken down by the world.
Scarritt Bennett creates these types of spaces.
Last year when I was contemplating what I was going to do post-college graduation, I stumbled across the Belle H. Bennett House on a volunteer website. I was looking at pages upon pages of faith-based volunteer service programs when this program caught my eye for one reason: it was named for a woman. It wasn’t the name of a well-known saint or martyr, but I clicked on it anyway…what I found in the description resonated so deeply, I knew something like fate or God had led me there.
One of Scarritt Bennett’s values and priorities is women’s empowerment. As a young woman about to graduate from college but not quite ready to pursue graduate studies yet, I knew I would benefit from becoming involved with an organization that placed such focus on cultivating transformative spaces where the leadership of women is not incidental but planned and meaningful. I pictured the Belle H. Bennett House as a place where young female-identifying people could gather together in a mutual relationship of challenge and support, building a strong community of women in a world where we are often taught to break down other women to build ourselves up. We would share meals, work out cleaning schedules, explore our new city of Nashville, and have companions for the joys and sorrows of post-grad life. ‘BHB would be perfect for me’, I thought.
And it is. In so many ways I am blessed to be here in Nashville and here at Scarritt Bennett. In Scarritt’s monthly book club, I have learned that there is value in every opinion expressed and in every silence held solemnly. The women who come together to discuss “The Red Tent” and “The Bluest Eye” and “Year of Wonders” and “Americanah” are each kind, brave, strong and compassionate in their own ways–and in our sharing together. In our Tuesdays in the Chapel and Sunday night Vespers and All That Jazz worship services, I witness the multitude of ways the Holy Spirit lives, moves and has its being in our beautiful and diverse community of Nashville.
But I am especially blessed to be here in fellowship with BHB. In this community, I am not insulated from the pain and violence that permeates our world, but I am surrounded by others who lift me up so that together we can all respond to hard situations with a united voice for justice and peace. As I am doing the hard internal work of recognizing the insidious reach of patriarchy in my personal life and in the way our Western USAmerican society works, I have a group of strong women beside me, prompting me to ask the hard questions and stand up for myself.
(Elena made me this awesome sign after I preached at the Academy of Preachers’ 2014 Festival of Preachers at Belmont University)
My beloved housemates refuse to see the world in dichotomies, refuse to accept one flat answer for hard questions, are always seeking out the complexities and the compassion in difficult situations. They remind me not to take myself too seriously, but also encourage me not to brush off power plays. They remind me that there are many different ways to be healthy and take care of my body and that there is not one type of “beautiful” or one way to be a woman. They remind me that I am my best thing, and that there is no pain, no triumph, no sorrow, no joy and no laughter that our community cannot hold.
***I would like to recognize that there are many ways to define “woman” besides simply a female-bodied person. I do not wish to be essentializing in my use of the word “woman,” and I want to recognize that I am still learning about the ways that gender and gender presentation are constructed and understood in our culture. If anyone has resources they’d be willing to share with me so I can learn more, please send them to me!
Anita Peebles is a native of Michigan. As a Belle H. Bennett House Fellow, Anita works with Plant the Seed, a not-for-profit program that creates outdoor classrooms in community and school gardens to educate and empower under-resourced young people. She also works in the Education, Programs, and Connections Office with Marie developing Environmental Justice offerings at Scarritt Bennett. Anita has a B.A. in Religion and Environmental Ethics from Oberlin College and is discerning a call to ministry.