Navigating the Language of Power

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On September 28, 2013, men and women from all parts of the San Francisco Bay Area gathered at Dominican University of California for the first of three sessions of the 2013-2014 Building Bridges of Understanding conference: The Roots of Women’s Leadership: Leadership, Faith Traditions and Social Justice.  A percentage of all proceeds from event registration is donated to Amnesty International toward causes related to women’s rights and equality, connecting this conference with the efforts of women across the globe.

The first session, Navigating the Language of Power, brought participants into conversation Dr. Laura Stivers, Rayona Sharpnack, Dr. Mairi Pileggi, and Sister Carla Kovak (see bios below).  The event addressed many questions, but returned repeatedly to a central inquiry: From where does truth speak?  Rather than simply exploring existing definitions of power and potential alternatives, this event deepened into questions about the root source of power, and ways to enliven the true voice of a human being.  Swami Vedanana opened the morning with a meditation and silent reflection, and as attendees sat in silence together, a stillness settled over the room that would return throughout the day.


As she welcomed everyone to the event, Dr. Nahid Angha invited participants to remember the influence and importance of grandmothers, and the contributions, spoken and unspoken, of women around the world in movements for peace and justice. She emphasized the importance of education, since it is education that will transport human rights and freedom from theory to action.  Each woman who presented offered something of her own experience locating power within herself, and understanding power as something each of us is born with, in our hearts.

Dr. Stivers offered many metaphors and images frequently used to image God in different religious and philosophical traditions, and illustrated many ways we use language either to oppress or to empower.  With the inclusion of the perspectives of a wide variety of scholars, she drew attention to assumptions and biases embedded in our worldviews.  Her comments begged the questions: How can we behave in ways free from the imprint of patriarchy, history and self-limiting beliefs?; What is the image of God, and how can we know it?  


Rayona Sharpnack followed with a discussion of the ways men and women can come together in full partnership within families, organizations, businesses and other social institutions.   She too focused on removing barriers and inherited blind spots in our consciousness that prevent us from recognizing and speaking from our fundamental unity.  Given that we are “contextual beings,” she said, it is our responsibility to attend to how we make meaning, and what we want to use our conversations for.  Rayona emphasized the generative potential of language – the way we can use language to create new worlds, rather than to describe what we see around us.  She closed her talk with the words of poet Audre Lorde, who said in a speech entitled “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”:

“… for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit in a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.  And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled my to scrutinize the essentials of my living.”


Drawing upon her own life experience, Dr. Pileggi introduced a shared session with Sister Carla as a Quaker meeting, in which all attendees practice sitting together in silence in what is often called “expectant waiting,” until someone is moved to speak.   This silence provides an opportunity for all present to become inwardly still and to clear the activities of mind and body that usually fill our attention so that greater spiritual receptivity is available.  In this practice, each person finds his or her own ways of entering deep stillness during a meeting. Speaking out the silence, Dr. Pileggi offered reflections from her participation in Quaker communities, and as a woman working to provide spaces for new types of communication.  Sister Carla echoed with stories of her journey as a Dominican Sister, also reliant upon silence for insight and wisdom.


Attendees also shared their stories, reflections and inspirations, and following the presentations, sat together to generate ideas for new ways to come together, including a public interfaith mediation series that now takes place at Dominican University on the first Thursday of each month. The event closed with the music of Ya Elah, bringing the day into the space of sacred sound and joint voices.

Presenter Bios:

Screen shot 2013-07-13 at 4.06.30 PMSister Carla Kovak joined the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael nearly 50 years ago in 1964.  After her initial years of training and college, she became an educator working in elementary schools as a teacher and principal.  In the 1980’s her focus shifted to ministry with young adults.  She companioned young women as they discerned their call to religious life and later traveled to various university campuses to give retreats and days of prayer.  Eventually she began working as a campus minister at Dominican University of CA.  Presently, she teaches a class on social justice and mentors students in their search for meaning, spirituality and how their gift of self can make a difference in our world.

Mairi Mairi Pileggi is Director of the Gender Studies Program and Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Dominican University of California.  She teaches courses in Feminism and Ecology, The Gendered Body, Gender and Media, Indigenous Ecological Perspectives, and others. Her research interests focus on the intersections of feminist theory and environmental communication.  Understanding the relationships between humans and non-humans, especially within the concept of wilderness, is at the core of her current research.  She has published numerous chapters and articles, and spoken in diverse settings nationally.  A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), she holds a Ph.D. in Media and Communication from Temple University.

Screen shot 2013-07-13 at 4.15.12 PMLaura Stivers is Professor of Social Ethics and Director of the Graduate Humanities program at Dominican University of California. Laura received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, her M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion, and her B.A. from Saint Olaf College.  She is the author of Disrupting Homelessness:  Alternative Christian Approaches; Co-author of Christian Ethics:  A Case Method Approach; and Co-editor of Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World.  Laura serves on the leadership team of the Marin Interfaith Homeless Chaplaincy and works with Standup for Neighborly Novato to promote affordable housing in Marin.  She also gets students involved in the community through service-learning classes.  In her academic discipline Laura serves on the Board of the Society of Christian Ethics and was a past President of the Southeast Commission for the Study of Religion.

RS 72 dpi_RayonaRayona Sharpnack founded the Institute for Women’s Leadership in 1991, drawing on her successful careers in education, professional sports, and business.  She has become an inspirational teacher, coach and mentor for executives in multi-national companies, government agencies, emerging businesses and non-profit organizations.  National publications such as Fast Company, Working Mother, and The New York Times have showcased Rayona’s leadership model.  Rayona’s book, Trade Up! 5 Steps for Redesigning Your Leadership & Life from the Inside Out, has enjoyed sustained success with individuals and organizations across the U.S. and internationally.  She is also one of several featured authors in the groundbreaking book, Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, and along with Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, in Goddess Shift: Women Leading for Change.  Her innovative work earned her an appointment as Chairwoman of Leadership Development for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women’s Leadership Board.  Rayona’s newest work is focused on Engaging Men to Advance Women.  She is co-founder of the Gender Allies and author of several articles on creating the full partnership of men and women in all organizations.

Screen shot 2013-07-25 at 2.09.16 PMMusical Guest: Ya Elah is an exciting new spiritual music ensemble based in the Jewish tradition. Ya Elah’s music endeavors to inspire compassion and unity between diverse faiths and cultures through its settings of sacred texts and poetry. This ensemble of female vocalists and multifaceted instrumentalists performs the original compositions of Artistic Director Bon Singer. Ya Elah offers full concerts and workshops of music with rich textures in harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, and improvisation. Audience participation is often encouraged as Ya Elah seeks to move and inspire its audiences, not merely to entertain them.


Building Bridges of Understanding Series (now in its 12th year), is a cooperative and educational program of the International Association of Sufism and Dominican University of California, Humanities Department, sponsored by Marin’s faith traditions and partially funded by the Marin Community Foundation.  Members of the Program Committee are representatives from Marin’s faith traditions, and have been collaborating to bring the Building Bridges of Understanding series to Northern California communities for over a decade.

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