Women’s Leadership and Global Awareness

Building Bridges of Understanding Series 2013-14 Presents:

Women’s Leadership, Faith Traditions, Social Justice: The Roots of Women’s Leadership


“No human being lives independent from the rest of the human family.”

The third event in the Building Bridges of Understanding Roots of Women’s Leadership Conference at Dominican University in San Rafael was packed despite the first major rains the Bay Area has seen in months.  Attendees included women and men of all ages, educators, students, administrators, therapists, physicians, medical researchers, activists and grandparents.


Sherna H. Deamer, master of ceremonies, opened the event with the suggestion that there is no more important subject than Leadership and Global Awareness in our time, particularly as it relates to the education, human rights and self-expression of women.  Sherna mentioned the work of the Building Bridges program, and the new Scholarship Program.

Suzanne Sadowski provided an opening meditation on the meaning of one of the shabbat prayers.  She led participants in a breathing exercise, and closed with The Merger Poem by Judy Chicago.

Dr. Nahid Angha began her introductory remarks by recognizing the Building Bridges committee members for their work, and thanking all gathered for their participation.  She said, “History tells us that every culture and era has benefitted from the efforts of many dedicated men and women.  These people have worked tirelessly to protect human rights, regardless of race, gender, culture, religion, socioeconomic status and all those characteristics that divide us.  These individuals made sure that the practice of equality and honoring rights are recorded in the book of law.  Yet there is a difference between the written law and the practice of law, there is a difference between recorded history and the mind of human.  When we truly honor humanity we truly honor equality and rights.”

Dr. Angha went on to say that we “need to rethink our standards for political correctness to truthfully honor humanity in all of its variations and diversities,” part of which means “to actually begin to honor and acknowledge the important roles that women have played in the development and advancement of cultures and civilizations.”  In this respect, she said, “we are fortunate to have outstanding women with us today who will share their wisdom and experience on the importance of global awareness and transformation.”

At the close of her remarks, Dr. Angha introduced the new annual Building Bridges Scholarship Award offered to a Dominican University undergraduate student of humanities and cultural studies whose scholarship and service reflects the spirit of Building Bridges of Understanding. Dominican faculty members in the Humanities and Cultural Studies departments select the recipient of this award.  Dr. Angha noted that “This scholarship award is a recognition reminding our young generation that the community is proud of their work and recognizes their efforts.”


Facilitators: The Rev. Carol Saysettee, D. Min and Bob Reynolds introduced the morning and afternoon presenters and led questions and answers session.

Ethel Seiderman was the first featured speaker, and began with stories from her early life in the Bronx, NY.  She remembered the impression her mother made upon her life by instilling values of justice and insisting on human rights.  Ms. Seiderman suggested, “Immigrants all over the world have shared the same values and that is…Our children will do better than we do. Our children will have every opportunity to rise.”  She recalled a Mark Twain quote: “Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions and dreams,” and a comment by Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Ms. Seiderman said the according to her own life experience, these quotes are incorrect – people do set their mind to making you feel inferior.  According to Ms. Seiderman, the job of all those gathering, and the whole world, is “to insulate and help women and people who cannot rise us alone.  They need allies with them.”


Ms. Seiderman spoke about the American ethic of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and noted that other countries do not operate that way.  She emphasized traditional values of family and work, which remain strong in other countries even as they seem to fade in the United States.  She explained ways to help bring new people into an existing group by allowing them the time and space to find their own way into comfort, without too much pressure.  Recalling examples from her own life, Ms. Seiderman expressed her joy at seeing people move from the periphery of a group to the center on their own terms, and the strength that comes of supported yet self-directed action.  She ended with a quote from Booker T. Washing: “Success is not measured by the position you reach in life. It is measured by the obstacles you overcame,” and a second from Dr. Martin Luther King: “The ultimate measure of a person is not where he or she stands at times of comfort and convenience, but where we stand at times of challenge and controversy.”  Ideas presented in this talk will appear in further detail in Ethel Seiderman’s forthcoming book, Steps to Democracy.

Sr. Elizabeth Padilla shared the morning panel with Ms. Seiderman.  She began by saying the topic of Global Awareness from a spiritual perspective was dear to her heart, and spoke about her involvement with the Pachamama Alliance.  Sr. Elizabeth remarked about how fortunate the Bay Area people are because they have choice, and said there are many places she has visited around the world where there is no choice and no opportunity for social mobility, and where people do not have medical facilities or a roof over their heads.  Many of these issues are addressed in the Green Teams and Action Circles of the Brahma Kumaris, which Sr. Elizabeth has been actively leading for many years.

Sr. Elizabeth also spoke on social activism and volunteering.  She remarked about the value of listening and how there is a burnout happening in these groups, especially as many of the issues we face begin to seem too big for us to impact.  She believes the all of us as a collective create an environment that allows good and bad to happen, and invited each of us to recognize our responsibility to work for the betterment of humanity and the environment, and to monitor and address injustice.  According to Sr. Elizabeth, “The Feminine is particularly suited to carry this weight because feminine energy is patient, cool and resolute.”  She said that to protect innocence, we have to protect our own innocence.  In her opinion, a global awareness from a spiritual perspective means stepping back from drama and taking the opportunity to see ourselves as spiritual beings; to see ourselves as light, pure energy.

Drawing upon the metaphor of a lake, Sr. Elizabeth said, “If we imagine a calm lake, in stillness, we can see different levels.  We can see the surface, what we need to do today.  We can see our reflection and we can see all the way to the bottom.  If the waters become disturbed, how can we see any of this? How do we see the world or the gems at the bottom of the lake?”  She suggested, “We don’t know who we are.  We think we are our creation, but that is temporary. When our creation rules us and we no longer see with that still clarity, we take a fixed position rather than taking a stand for unity, seeing the human family.”  According to Sr. Elizabeth, “The greatest service we can offer comes from when we recognize who we are.  We are the guardians and the custodians of the new era, and leadership has to come from a place of connection inside of us.”  She reminded all gathered to remember of the importance of taking time to meditate every day,  and of looking into the “still lake” of ourselves to find connection to ourselves and our work.

Building Bridges Award

Before lunch intermission, Dr. Nahid Angha presented the winner of the first annual Building Bridges Award to Domincan Senior, Kendra Woodglass, on behalf of the Dominican University Humanities and Cultural Studies and Building Bridges Program Committee.  Dr. Angha expressed her appreciation to Kendra for her service to humanity, and hold her, “Keep up the good work!”  Kendra thanked everyone Building Bridges and Dominican for the award, which, she said, “kind of caught me off guard.  I did not really think that what I have been doing would be something I would get an award for, so it was a really nice surprise to be the first recipient of this honor.”  She shared details of her work with children and communities, and expressed her sense of connection to the notion of building bridges, without which, she said, we would be like commuters without the beautiful bridges that connect one side of the Bay Area to another, taking a boat or swimming alone to find the other shore.


Afternoon Session:

Deborah Santana began the afternoon session by explaining how she came up with the title for her talk, Why Not Another Mandela?  She recalled speaking to her partner about the death of Nelson Mandela and how it was such a loss for the planet.  He replied that contrary to being a loss, he believes that people will now take inspiration from Mandela’s example, study his life and extend his effort and his path with their own studies and work for justice. Ms. Santana said she has been incredibly fortunate to work with people who care about equality for all, and  described meeting Nelson Mandela in Oakland in 1990.  She described the influence he has had on her life since she became active in protesting apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, where she witnessed the displacement of black South-Africans into shanty towns.  With images and stories, Ms. Santana recalled the ways Nelson Mandela and others began to peacefully protest apartheid, drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha, a process of active but peaceful resistance.


Mandela was eventually sentenced to prison and on that day, gave a four-hour speech in which he said: “I have cherished the ideals of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities.”  Ms. Santana asked: “What gave Nelson Mandela the inspiration and tenacity to work so many decades to free his country, to endure 26 years in prison, and to emerge as a global voice for the oppressed?  Can we all be Mandelas?  I say, yes.”  She then turned to the example of Pakistani activist Malala, and her passion for education as a basic right for young girls: “Her shooting and her refusal to stand down from what she believed was right brought to light the plight of millions of children around the world who are denied education today.  Can we all be Malalas?  I say, yes.”

Ms. Santana described the work she does through her nonprofit organization, Do A Little, with the Daraja Academy in Kenya.  The academy is a high school for girls from many tribes in Kenya, now studying together in an unexpected model of peace between tribes.  She quoted Kofi Annan of the United Nations, who she reminded us, has said that “the education of girls is the single highest returning social investment in the world today.”  In closing, Ms. Santana led an exercise in deep listening inspired by activist Joanna Macy.  She asked the audience to break into small groups and discuss four questions: 1) What most concerns you about your world or your home?  2) If you knew you could not fail, what would you most want to do to heal it?  3) What resources do you have to do this? 4) What will you do this week to make a change to move towards this healing?

Dr. Lois Merriweather Moore was the final speaker of the day.  She referred back to early family memories, connected to Ethel Seiderman’s comments about her mother’s strength.  Dr. Moore recalled how her mother had defended her against the school administration for (successfully) taking too many units one semester.  She said she knew her mother could not change the ruling, but remembered the way her mother showed her to “speak your truth.”


Dr. Moore reflected on role models from the Bible, including Queen Esther and Rahab.  Both of these women overcame personal limitations and saved their people.  “We are bigger than the labels people put on us,” she said, “All we have to do is not accept them.”  According to Dr. Moore, “We should not live selfishly.  Don’t think you can’t do anything. Yes, we can. Some of you may say about leadership, ‘that’s not me.’  Who told you?  Who put those thoughts in your head that you cannot make a difference? You have no idea what God has planned for you once you open yourself up and say I am willing to try that.”  Dr. Moore also mentioned two other women she has been privileged to meet.  The first was the Hon. Aloysia Inyumba, who was in the parliament of Rwanda in the 1990s, during the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis that killed almost a million people in 1994.  She described how Aloysia, who sat on Rwandan reconciliation councils, worked to help heal her country.  “God had a plan for her,” Dr. Moore said, “God put her where she needed to be to make a difference in the world.”

Throughout her remarks, Dr. Moore stressed that we don’t have to be a particular faith or religion to make change; we can do it because it is the right thing to do.  She said: “When we are talking about social justice and doing what needs to be done, it doesn’t come down to one’s faith or color or ethnicity.  It just takes something in you that runs deep, something that anchors you, something that is bigger than you.”  She ended her talk with a special thanks to Dr. Angha who she said is among her “historical women who are making a difference in the world,” as well as to the Building Bridges program its work and award encouraging the next generation of world changers.

In Summary: All the speakers united around some common themes: strong women who made deep impressions early in life change us; the importance of connecting to something bigger than one’s self that can help us transcend personal limitations and hesitations; and the importance of finding leaders who can set the example and for those who can become leaders of the next generation.

This session, like previous sessions was well-attended by an audience that was both active and appreciative of the information being shared. The Question and Answer period was lengthy and enthusiastically pursued.  The session closed with some beautiful music, three invocations, performed by Sr. Elizabeth Padilla and her friends, Fern Jeffcoat and Kyoko Kimura of the Brahma Kumaris.


A percentage of registration fees for Building Bridges are always donated to Amnesty International towards programs that promotes equality and advocate for human rights.

SisterElizabethPadilla-small1Sr. Elizabeth Padilla, the Program Manager for the Anubhuti Mediation & Retreat Center administered by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization (BKWSO), is a spiritual student and educator since 1985. Elizabeth designs and facilitates retreats, seminars and workshops on such topics as Stress Management, Healing Relationships, Self Empowerment and Forgiveness. She has been involved with the BK Environmental Initiative since 2010 and has been facilitating and promoting Awakening the Dreamer Workshop in India and Internationally with the BKWSO. Sister Elizabeth is a talented singer and a theater artist. She is now fulfilling her life’s dream by reaching the heart and spirit though her songs and work.

Screen shot 2013-07-13 at 5.39.35 PMDr. Lois Merriweather Moore is Vice President of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Millennium Scholars Alumni Advisory Council.  She is an Adjunct Professor in the International & Multicultural Education Department of USF.  Her field of interest is educational empowerment with a global perspective on social justice.  Besides two books and numerous articles, she has presented research at international conferences and observed educational programs in Mexico, Italy, Spain, and Cuba.  She is a member of the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame and a former Trustee of the Marin Community Foundation.  As part of Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s Women and Power: Leadership in a New World program, she traveled to Cairo, Egypt to observe The Association for the Protection of the Environment, whose focus is developing environmentally sound waste management and recycling techniques, and empowering women to build better lives for themselves. The organization is a full service program offering on-site employment, child care, and education for impoverished women garbage collectors.

deborahDeborah Santana is an author, philanthropist, advocate for peace and social justice, and mother of three extremely loved children.  Her first memoir, Space Between The Stars: My Journey to an Open Heart, was published in March 2005.  Ms. Santana founded Do A Little, a donor-advised fund at the San Francisco Foundation in 2008 that supports women and girls in the areas of health, education and happiness.  She has received many awards, supports varied organizations, and has traveled widely, encountering everyone from Nelson Mandela to young school girls in Kenya.  Ms. Santana believes life is to be lived with integrity, compassion and love. She tells her personal stories to share her strength and encourage others on the journey. For more information visit:  www.deborahsantana.com

Screen shot 2013-07-13 at 5.46.14 PMEthel Seiderman is nationally recognized for her creative approaches to childcare and family, establishing cooperative nursery schools tied to parent education programs.  Under the auspices of San Francisco State University she directed the nurseries in the Cross Cultural Education programs, and established and directed one of the first infant care programs in the state, the Florence Crittendon Infant Center, geared to providing quality childcare to teenage mothers while they finished school.  In 1973, she founded the Fairfax-San Anselmo Children’s Center which has served as a model for other programs throughout the nation.  The Center consists of the infant-toddler program, pre-school and after-school programs, and the “Get Well Room.”  Her exemplary Parents Service Project provides workshops, support groups, respite care, and family events, all of which contribute to enhance the  leadership and sense of competency of low income families from diverse backgrounds.

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. (Biographies available here http://ias.org/buildingbridges/building-bridges-of-understanding-committee/)

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