AN IDEA BECOMES A MANTRA BECOMES A RISING
by Susan Celia Swan, V-Day Executive Director
I can remember when Eve first called about One Billion Rising from Congo. I was in the middle of planning a thousand person event at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral where an audience would come to see Eve speak. Just the week before she and I had briefly spoken about what we might plan for V-Day's 15th anniversary, February 14, 2013.
"Susan," she said. "I did the math, if one in three women are beaten or raped in their lifetime and the population is 7 billion that's one billion woman violated. ONE BILLION RISING. On our 15th anniversary, let's ask one billion women and the men and women who love them to strike, dance and rise to demand an end to violence against women and girls. We need to move the needle on the issue, we've made an impact but we need to shake things up." We spoke and I quickly understood the power of what she envisioned by showing the number of women affected by violence against women, our ability to invite the network of V-Day activists to take this on and make it their own, and also the power of the phrase ONE BILLION RISING.
In the way that "The Vagina Monologues" became my guide 15 years ago when I first saw Eve perform the play, One Billion Rising immediately connected for me. While we would work – and I realized we would have to work very hard to reach and mobilize ONE BILLION – the phrase itself held incredible meaning for me, representing the women and girls I had met in the past 15 years and the countless women I would never meet but whose stories I knew intimately because of the violence they had encountered.
It was my new mantra. By just saying it, inviting people to say it and understand it, we were accomplishing a key goal of the campaign – showing the world how central the issue of violence against women and girls was by showing them how many women had been affected. Eve felt strongly that if we could pull this off, the issue of violence against women and girls would never be marginalized again.
Little did we know how people would react. There tended to be three reactions:
1. Logical – How will you ever get one billion people to rise? Full disclosure on this point. As Executive Director and Eve's work partner in crime for almost 15 years, I felt a huge responsibility – as did our core staff upon hearing one billion. At 3:00AM on my Blackberry I searched to see who else had already reached one billion. Facebook? 750 million users at that point, although they would reach one billion users just the month before OBR when the billion zeitgeist seemed to take full hold. Twitter? 175 million. It became clear that we would utilize Facebook and Twitter heavily for engagement in addition to inspiring and at times producing events large and small, global media coverage, and more. If we encourage activists to tell and share their own stories, we would be able to SHOW THE WORLD WHAT ONE BILLION LOOKS LIKE.
2. Immediate - I'm in! This response invariably came from our activists and dedicated Board, who were generally off and running before we could put the phone down.
3. Anger/fear - What do you mean, how can you do that? How can we ever reach that many people? ONE BILLION it turns out is a mobilizing spark to many, and a scary concept to others. People got mad. Some actually got angry at us for the audacity of our goal. Of course, Eve and I would reply, you should be angry, but not at us for saying ONE BILLION but angry at the fact that there are one billion sexual violence survivors on the planet today.
"We need a bigger boat."
V-Day prides itself on accomplishing a lot with a small core team, and an army of volunteers. We immediately knew that we would need to expand our team with activists who were passionate and could work fast, at V-speed as we say internally. (V-Speed is a phrase used so frequently in V-Day that the year before ONE BILLION RISING, staffer Shael Norris coined VSAP because V-Speed wasn't fast enough.)
We started by contacting our superstar activists, and immediately engaged 10 coordinators in key regions including the United States, Central and South America, UK, Europe, Africa, Asia. Eve recognized that rural women, unions,and workers had to be the core of the campaign. We invited writer/activist Laura Flanders to help us reach every major labor union in the US and she did!
Digital and online would be a centerpiece of the campaign, as it has always been for V-Day. We engaged a digital strategy firm. Eve's vision was to create a digital base that rivaled and made larger V-Day's existing base of activists or our "ground game" as its known. For those who aren't familiar with V-Day, the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, every year thousands of college and community activists produce benefits of The Vagina Monologues and other artistic works and films curated by V-Day to raise awareness and funds for local grassroots anti violence groups in their communities. Over the past 14 years, this base of committed activists have raised over $100 million dollars that goes directly to their community.
By widening our outreach to unions, environmental groups, to companies like Zumba and MTV, women's groups from Planned Parenthood and NOW and over 13,000 groups in the end, we could reach one billion. In addition to this global, multi sector outreach and digital/social media plan, we needed the media. CNN and Associated Press immediately supported us when we decided to announce officially the campaign on February 14, 2012 with Eve in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles on the same day (due to the international date line something our team would come to know intimately). She did interviews in Sydney before getting on the plane and immediately upon landing in Los Angeles. A truly global launch.
It's not branding it's expanding
Within two weeks, activists in over 142 countries had signed up for One Billion Rising. This was more countries than we had tracked to date in V-Day's previous 14 years. Activists loved the idea, and immediately understood that One Billion Rising could lift up their current work, not take away from it. The global platform would make each voice, each organization more visible. Eve and our team knew from past experience with V-Day, that activists would bring their unstoppable creativity to the campaign and that would carry into their communities and expand OBR ever further to places we couldn't yet imagine.
For the next weeks and months we reached out – to activists, our board who made connections and moved mountains, friends and non profit groups, and more. We planned a tour for Eve at hot spots around the globe. We expanded our team and hired a campaign project manager. Developed the concept for video testimonies called "I Am Rising" and launched the series with The Guardian newspaper out of London featuring Jane Fonda, Rosario Dawson, Ruby Wax, Stella Creasy, Ai-jen Poo and other incredible activists. Eve wrote a commentary piece to launch the campaign and Robert Redford, who had called us asking how he could help, filmed a video for the series. Anne Hathaway and Glamour worked with us to have Anne on the cover of the January issue to spread the word and invite even more into the campaign. Eve did the interview with Anne in NYC days after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC.
Eve woke from a dream with a video concept which she created with Johannesburg based filmmaker Tony Stroebel that ignited the campaign and went immediately viral. The three minute video illustrated for people what One Billion Rising could look like. The video was heart breaking and a call to action – it made RISING real for those who watched.
From the beginning, Eve was convinced we needed an anthem and songwriter and music dynamo Tena Clark heard the call. She wrote "Break The Chain," auditioned and recorded teen singers and dancers to sing and film the music video. Tena enlisted her dear friend, dance icon Debbie Allen to do the choreography! Tena gave the song to the world, and not only did the video and song go viral, but activists from around the world recorded it in their native languages. Singers and songwriters were also inspired to write original songs for the rising, and the playlist grew daily!
Eve had written a piece for men called the "Man Prayer" and asked Tony Stroebel to create a short film of it. Tony worked behind the scenes and in late January, two weeks before the rising, we launched it.
The "One Billion Rising" video became the spark, the "I Am Rising" videos the shared story, the "Man Prayer" poem recognized the men who have been working on this issue and invited even more men into the campaign, and the "Break The Chain" music video and dance the organizing tool that would take One Billion Rising to 207 countries on 14 February 2013.
The moving pieces were many and required love and attention and many early morning meetings and calls. I grounded myself from trips to Central and South America and India and Bangladesh so I could manage the campaign from my San Francisco home office. Those who know my love of travel recognize this true commitment to the campaign, but that is what One Billion Rising created in so many.
Moments I will never forget – 3:30AM Conference calls with Europe, Asia and Africa. European Parliament creating a Vagina Lobby and dancing. Countless activists telling us their plans, dancing, community building, local media, Facebook groups, always with a happy surprise – a local business helping out, local politicians engaged for the first time. Dedication. Laughter. British MP Stella Creasy introducing national sex education legislation inspired by OBR. Brilliant organizing and ideas and love being shared by women and men all over the world – acting in unison without knowing one another, always sharing the same goal. PR teams based in NYC, London, Brussels, and Joahnnesburg. Website deadlines, racing between meetings at Twitter and San Francisco City Hall. India rising. Transformation happening even before February 14th came. Thousands of emails, documents, analytics, webpages, introductory calls, and more.
In the end, we moved fast and kept true to the mission. We laughed and we cried and we kept going with a spirit that was beautiful, at times manic but always meaningful.
In the fall, the Steubenville Ohio gang rape story broke and gained major press attention. In December just as Eve arrived in Kerala for the beginning of a three city tour, full of speaking engagement and events in Trivandrum, Mumbai, and Delhim, Joyit Singh Pandey was gang raped and murdered. As the Delhi tragedy captured front pages around the world, sparks that would become the rising were already in place in tens of thousands of locations planned by local activists.
These high profile attacks fueled our fires and brought ever more people to the campaign.
For those of us who've worked years to end violence against women and girls, we know that these attacks happen everyday, and that few make the international news. We would rise for Steubenville and for Jyoti and for every woman and girl whose name we'd never know. We would rise for one another, for our daughers, mothers, friends and sisters. WE WOULD RISE BECAUSE WE HAD TO. Nothing else made sense.
Planning for the days of was a challenge in and of itself. Due to the global nature of the campaign, the day was actually a 48 span across the planet as February 14th would first happen in Australia and then cross the world. Team meetings were held to plan coverage and our social team discussed how they would stay awake for 48 hours.
We prepared for the final wave and media onslaught that was set to begin when Eve arrived in London for a high profile London Rising event on February 4 produced by long-time V-Day organizers Monique Wilson and Rossana Abueva and starring board member Thandie Newton, Anoushka Shankar who just weeks before filmed a poignant "I Am Rising" video sharing her own personal story, accompanied by a series of high profile media appearances by Eve and V-Day celebrity board members – Jane Fonda on Piers Morgan, Thandie Newton on CNN and Channel 4, Rosario Dawson on Lawrence O'Donnell and Anne Hathaway on The Tonight Show, and more…Internally, we prepared for the expected influx of emails, tweets, FB posts and more that were sure to come in.
And they did. Emails flooded in up to the day of One Billion Rising joining the campaign or letting us know how they were rising. From women who had never realized they could get help. Emails came from women and men who had no idea what V-Day was, and for many One Billion Rising was their first experience with activism. One woman who called my cell was a former lawyer now stay at home mom in a middle class community in the US. She asked if it was too late to organize something in her town. Of course, it isn't I said, and asked her about what she envisioned doing. Within seconds she shared her plan and that she already had a few dedicated and talented friends at the ready and a town that hadn't had frank discussions about sexual violence in the past. With simply a few words of encouragement, she was off and organizing!
Momentum continued in this way, heartfelt and strategic. Our team rallied activists to live stream their events so that we could curate two days worth of risings via onebillionrising.org. At the same time, activists were asked to film their events for an upcoming One Billion Rising documentary project, and share them with the world on February 14th to show the world WHAT ONE BILLION LOOKED LIKE. On the day of February 14th, activists from three additional countries wrote in saying they were rising bringing the total to 210 countries, more than the United Nations officially recognizes. Videos and pictures flooded in on V-Day's Facebook page and Twitter feed. By the end of the day, Twitter impressions were over 500 million and #1billionrising had trended in 7 countries, including multiple times in the US and UK. Media impressions in the US alone exceeded 600 million.
MTV ran OBR spots on their Jumbotron in Times Square, women lit butter lamps in Bhutan, girls danced EVERYWHERE. The elderly danced, disabled women and men, women who had never told their story.
News stories from Mogadishu, Austin, Manila and thousands more locations streamed in.
I left my desk only to join the over four thousand people who rose on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. It was magical. After the event, a young woman who held a sign that said "I was raped and I've never told anyone" grabbed me to tell me she "had no idea how healing that would be." We hugged tightly. Advocates danced and felt supported by one another and by the togetherness of the crowd. The movement master Paul Hawken attended the event and later wrote to Eve: "I have been to rallies and events in the Bay Area since I was 13, and have been to them all over the country. What was extraordinary was how the political establishment spoke of and understood One Billion Rising…They were not saying the right thing, they were embodying it…I have never seen such joy at an activist/political event or rally. The diversity of participants had permanent grins on their faces. The dancing was tribal and ecstatic. It set the mark for all future events in my mind, no matter the cause…I want joy, dance, embodiment…The clarity of the speeches at City Hall, and no doubt all over the world, was a demarcation. An era ended. A new one began. It was palpable. I am sensitive to how people speak. I listen to speeches all the time in my work. I listen to the sound, not just the words, and this was the sound of irrevocable transformation."
Paul's words held true around the world. Activists were uplifted and moved to immediate action.
One Billion Rose together and with such unity and beauty that all we can do now is continue to RISE.
PS – One week after One Billion Rising, the Violence Against Women Act passed in the United States, after intense partisan fighting. V-Day was invited on a thank you call with The White House along with other groups who had worked behind the scenes.