I had the great pleasure of interviewing self-described “warrior for women’s rights” Susan Burgess-Lent in her Oakland home. Susan is the Executive Director of Women’s Centers International, a non-profit that develops community-based organizations managed by and for women living in poverty. We sat on her retro pink vinyl restaurant-style booth and chatted about life, work and women.
Women’s Centers International focuses on four goals: education; skills training; business training a.k.a. livelihood; health and sexual violence. The centers are managed by and for women living in poverty, giving these women the tools they need to eventually branch out into their own business ventures. The Baraka Center in Nairobi, Kenya, has been open and thriving for over two years now, with 572 registered members. The first U.S. center will open this year in Oakland. Susan recently raised $12,000 for the center at the hugely successful Sewn Seeds Cycles of Fruition Fashion Performance and Benefit at the California Ballroom. She told me the problems women face in Oakland are similar to the ones faced by the all women her organization serves: “How do I support myself? Education, high blood pressure, family, illiteracy and sexual violence.” The Oakland Women’s Center will provide low-income women from local communities with job training and skills, sexual violence and health education and business acumen.
Susan told me repeatedly that she wished she had known what she knows now when she was 30. Her advice to young activists and any young person with a dream is, “Don’t give up. If you found the thing that electrifies you, go with that. Nothing else will make you happy. Don’t get hijacked by self-pity. When you’re doing the thing that you’re supposed to do, the people you need show up. And the earlier you do it, the better.”
Susan is a role model for women everywhere. She has done it all, from a twenty year career in broadcasting, to writing two books, to founding Women’s Centers International and raising her daughter. What does “wear your voice” mean to her?” I see it two ways: in terms of find your voice, be proud of your voice, women tend to censor themselves and we need to stop. The other thing is fashion, I do think the way you dress reflects your soulfulness, it is reflected in body decoration.” Encouraging women to speak up for themselves and tying it into fashion? You are a perfect fit for Wear Your Voice Mag, Susan, and we can’t wait to check out the Oakland Women’s Center.
Interested in getting involved in the Oakland Women’s Center? Susan wants to hear from her! You can contact her directly at [email protected] or 510-507-4424 or visit http://www.womenscentersintl.org/