Native American Dr. Leslie Gray practices psychotherapy informed by principles of indigenous healing

By Jessica Semaan

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the    Woodfish Institute   . Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

There are times when you listen to someone speak, whether through a book or in person, and you resonate with every word, yet you realize that you could have never articulated them, or connected the dots to get to them. 

This was me, that Thursday morning, during my Transpersonal Psychology class, when Dr. Leslie Gray, a visiting instructor, came to share with us the Native American medicine wheel. As soon as she entered the classroom, I was jolted awake. Her powerful posture and fast movement captured the class’ attention. Her eyes that feel as if she is looking through your soul, and the no nonsense, preciseness and wisdom of her words, left many of us still talking about that three-hour experience weeks after it happened. 

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the    Woodfish Institute   . Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

She had asked us not to take notes, as in her tradition teachings are transmitted orally. Suffice it to say, this is the class I remember the most. I felt compelled to ensure that her words and her wisdom reach more people, especially women, so I proposed to interview her for Seismic Sisters. We met up at her office in San Francisco. 

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist who has studied with medicine people and elders from various tribal backgrounds. Based in San Francisco, she is also the executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute


Jessica Semaan: Can you share a little bit about your path to where you are now, specifically starting from a clinical fellowship at Harvard to practicing psychotherapy informed by principles of indigenous healing?

Dr. Leslie Gray: Though I was pursuing an education in social sciences, I had been around indigenous healing and always had both going on in my head at the same time. A turning point was when I read a book by H.F. Ellenberger titled, “The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry”, in which the author purports to trace contemporary psychiatry from shamanism to hypnotism to mesmerism to Freud. The book starts with the description of a great Kwakiutl healer. As I read on however, it began to dawn on me that what was being described was not an evolution but a de-evolution—moving away from a sophisticated application of the spectrum of consciousness for healing to a binary notion of "conscious and unconscious".

I presented a paper on shamanic healing in my first year of graduate school, and I was fortunate that the professor understood it because my classmates laughed nervously at what they perceived as primitive. Oddly, tolerating the temporary discomfort of their laughter seemed to clarify for me my own indigenous background and worldview. I decided then and there to seek out traditional healers and learn from them. I was lucky that the first healer I learned from was wise, gifted and highly skilled. That provided me with a standard that I applied in subsequent years of studying with elders and healers from other tribes.

Semaan: What does it mean for women to come into their power? Could you speak about how you define power in that case?

Gray: In this conversation we are limited by the English language, which makes it difficult to discuss situations with equal distribution of power. In English the word "power" is used equally for personal strength and for dominance over others, unlike the case in some other major languages. In the U.S. right now when a woman talks seriously about power, she is often responded to as if she were seeking to be authoritarian, whereas when a man talks about power he is simply responded to as an authority. And then women are made to fear the dreaded B word, and begin to behave in ways that weaken them in order to avoid being seen as controlling or dominant. In the West, fear of being labeled and rejected goes a long way toward stunting women's dreams and accomplishments, whether within the realms of business or healing.

Semaan: Many of our readers are actually women in the workplace. What do you have to say to them about their own power and how that could look?

Gray: That's where indigenous spirituality comes in. The indigenous relationship to spirit is immediate and personal. It employs a broad array of consciousness alteration techniques including contemplation, ritual movement, trance states, direct hypnosis, plant medicine, et al. that can allow ordinary reality to recede long enough to directly access spirit. Male controlled state religions basically tell you that access to that which is holy should be mediated by a cleric, a priest or guru or rabbi, etc. and those are usually men. With indigenous methods, a woman can strengthen herself directly, can receive power directly. When she has that rock solid center of spirit, she becomes less dependent on external approval.

Semaan: Do you think men are afraid of our power as women?

Gray: I don't think there is a shred of benefit to be derived from trying to look into male heads or hearts. You can't rely on someone identifying as a man, or having male genitalia, as accurate predictors of their respect for women's power. Nor can you rely on females to respect it. We need to make direct changes to a system which is permeated with misogyny. And we need to do so now. You cannot wait for an oppressor to take their foot from your neck, you must throw it off. On the societal level this means political elections and institutional promotions, but it starts with the individual woman getting in touch with her own ground of being and infusing the power that comes from that into her specific interests and abilities.

At the core of all that is finding your courage. Courage starts in the heart. The word comes from the French word for heart, "coeur". This is not something you acquire from academia or social ranking or work. You need to get to a still place in yourself to access the strength that is our inheritance from Mother Earth.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the    Woodfish Institute   . Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Dr. Leslie Gray is a Native American psychologist and executive director and founder of the Woodfish Institute. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Semaan: I wanted to touch a little bit more on a different topic, on chronic pain, for over 70% of the people who suffer from chronic pain are women. I've been reading a lot about how women’s pain is diminished or silenced. I was wondering if you have some thoughts about where could the chronic pain come from, especially when there is no clear medical explanation. 

Gray: Over the years I've had many referrals for chronic pain, partly because I had some success in turning around chronic pain in myself that was the result of a car accident. It's a complex topic that is physical/psychological/ecological/legal/pharmaceutical. Long term pain particularly highlights our divorcement from nature, because its remedy is often less about technical interventions and more about healing over time, which is not the focus of Western medicine. It involves the complexity of doing what it takes for the immune system to maintain equilibrium after reparative interventions. Also, powerlessness results in pain which becomes expressed somatically. It would be very interesting to see the degree to which women suffer from chronic pain in comparison with men once women have equal power in the U.S.

Semaan: I recently watched a documentary called “The Edge of Democracy” by Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa. She's documenting what has been happening in Brazil with the imprisonment of Lula da Silva and the fall of president Dilma Rousseff, the rise of their equivalent of Trump and how the new president is pulling back on enforcement and environmental protection of the Amazon, leaving it open to increased exploitation. The film suggests we are at the end of democracy. 

Gray: Democracy is so much older than the handful of years in which European hierarchical values have attempted to overrule Indigenous egalitarian values in the Americas. In the U.S., the brilliance and endurance of Iroquoian democracy led to it being studied and copied by the European colonists. By 1776, Benjamin Franklin had attended the governmental meetings of the Iroquois for 13 years and his accounts of these proceedings were among his most popular books. Key to the Iroquoian system was equal governing power between women and men and the prohibition of slavery. In my opinion, the "Founding Fathers’" disparagement of those who devised this ingeniously balanced democracy as a group of “ignorant savages" led to terrible errors from which the U.S. still suffers hundreds of years later.

We were telling those who were trying to form a union like ours that you need to have a "spiritual center" to your democracy for it to last. Unfortunately, the European colonists reduced this noetic insight to "religion" insisting on "separation of church and state". It is in fact about reverence for the principle of balance in the universe. They created a democracy built on the subjugation of women, indentured servitude and slave labor. Moreover, the spiritual void was then filled with profit, rather than balance, as the core value. In this they created a system similar to communism in that they both rest on economic determinism.

Semaan: We often stick to systems we have because the only alternative to democracy is fascism or communism.

Gray: It's a false alternative. The concept of balance of power goes by the wayside in both. We've had a chance now to look at communism in practice, and its forms of government seem to lead to similar tyrannical tendencies, i.e. dominant hierarchies with women as second class citizens. They both engage in uncritical and usually unspoken acceptance of a pyramid model of human relations rather that the model of a circle. It is important for all structures of governing, and of political activism, to examine the underlying model of their endeavors. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for readability.

Jessica Semaan is a freelance writer, author, poet and performer living in San Francisco. Chronicling her journey of healing from trauma, she has over 50,000 people following her writing on Medium. Jessica’s debut book. Child of the Moon was published in 2018. She also is studying to become a psychotherapist.

Dr. Leslie Gray, Executive Director and Founder of the Woodfish Institute, is a Native American psychologist who has studied with medicine people and elders from various tribal backgrounds. She advocates and embodies a new vision of health care—the integration of ancient healing and modern medicine. Dr. Gray has a private practice in San Francisco, California, teaches workshops and seminars worldwide, and conducts travel/study programs to ancient sites. She has lectured at universities including the University of California at Berkeley, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and California Institute of Integral Studies. Telephone: (415) 928-4954, San Francisco, California. Email:

  • The views, practices, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the individuals involved in the article and do not necessarily represent those of Seismic Sisters.


The World We’re Dreaming: A night of art, poetry and sisterhood

By Casey Loosbrock

SAN FRANCISCO – Four visionary artists grabbed the mic at “The World We’re Dreaming,” a Seismic Sisters night of art and poetry on April 14, 2019 in San Francisco. The event featured artists who are creating culture in turbulent times and dreaming up a new world filled with art, love, respect, and justice. Performances by Jessica Semaan, Samsara Shmee, Juliana Delgado Lopera and ASHA sudra showed what art and social justice look like when lived together.

The World We’re Dreaming - produced by Polina Smith, video by Mister WA.

The Bindery, a unique venue on Haight Street, created an eclectic ambience for the event with its high ceilings, walls covered in books, vibrant art and tchotchkes. The lounge was cozy and intimate, the mismatched chairs, warm lighting, and vintage bar cart added to the scene.


The first artist, Jessica Semaan, performed two poems from her new book “Child of the Moon” entitled, ‘To become the woman I am’ and ‘I am not mentally ill.’ The former is a reflection on her evolution as a woman and her struggles within overlapping cultures and systems of oppression. “I had to see that my head is full of voices that are not mine. Voices of systems of whiteness, colonialism, patriarchy. And every day I must purge,” she said. This poem was performed accompanied by a heavy and hypnotic hand-drum beat. The second poem was performed along with Semaan belly dancing. This piece hones in on the idea of collective responsibility. It begs the question: how can you not be mentally ill when you live in a world ravaged by war, famine, and climate change? She concludes, “If one of us is ill, our whole world is ill.”

Asha for Seismic Sisters

ASHA is an artist, educator and revolutionary. She shared from her new book of poems titled “Crawling in my Skin” and rhythmically performed her pieces. She spoke about how she used to feel ashamed of her heritage, but now feels the need to wear her lineage on her sleeve, quite literally, referring to her tattoos as “cultural graffiti” and understanding it as a sacred art form. ASHA’s work is influenced by hip hop music, from the way she phrases her stanzas to the way she referred to ‘Ants’ - her favorite poem from the book - as “the single if this were an album.” The poem is a reflection on how the artist sympathizes with ants, how colonies of ants move throughout homes because they are forced from one place to another, their numbers dwindling because of poison, and how habitat destruction has taken away their historical places. She finishes with, “I might give up and just let the ants win.”

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Shmee, the next artist, is a storyteller and performed a spoken word piece about their identity. They explored the idea of their own name, referring to the classic “rose query,” which was made even more relevant due to the setting—Romeo and Juliet was displayed prominently on a nearby bookshelf. They touched on the power that comes from choosing a name, explaining that ‘theirs’ is what feels good to say, as well as the combination of ‘she,’ ‘me’ and ‘he.’ They explained that self-acceptance has required time and experience, and though it was not easy, it was worth it. Shmee concluded with, “My growth is a resurrection.”

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 The last performer was Juliana Delgado Lopera, a Colombian writer, historian, speaker and performance artist who has written three books, “Quiéreme,” “¡Cuéntamelo!” and “Fiebre Tropical.” Lopera told deeply intimate stories about her experience growing up in a matriarchy in Colombia and how the performance of female sadness was a huge part of her cultural upbringing. She spoke about the art of finding the humor behind everyday sadness and often sprinkled slang used in drag circles, like throwing shade and spilling tea, among others. Lopera told the audience about how Catholicism’s prevalence in Colombia has made the Virgin Mary the only female role model women have, making martyrdom the most sought after form of female sadness.

After the performances, there was a panel discussion in which audience members could interact with the artists. The talk soon focused on the artistic process. Shmee emphasized the need to attentively listen and observe in order to make art that means something to everyone. Semaan spoke to the need to embrace the uncomfortable, saying “screw the silence, let’s talk about it.” Intuition in young people is what ASHA draws inspiration from, stating that their passion is contagious. Lopera said that today’s political climate makes her feel the need to just create more art and to make sure more people feel seen and heard.

Kim Christensen, founder and editor of Seismic Sisters, summed up the evening like this, “Resistance is important, but we can’t just resist. We need to be in creative mode too.” She explained, “We are here creating new culture—creating the world we want.” This is the world we are dreaming.


Casey Loosbrock is a freelance writer. Photos by Tumay Aslay.

Women’s Caucus draws crowd at California Democratic Party convention

By Kim Christensen
Photos by Tumay Aslay

SAN FRANCISCO – Christine Pelosi brought out star power and her cool mom – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – to fire up the Women’s Caucus event at the California Democratic Party convention on Saturday in San Francisco. Under the theme #MyChoice, the protection of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights were highlighted as top political priorities and got big cheers from the room. Squeezed in tight, the crowd heard speeches from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other key Democratic party leaders. 

Christine Pelosi and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surrounded by a crowd at the Women’s Caucus event at the California Democratic Party convention, on June 1, 2019, in San Francisco. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Christine Pelosi and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surrounded by a crowd at the Women’s Caucus event at the California Democratic Party convention, on June 1, 2019, in San Francisco. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Three 2020 presidential candidates showed up - Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders - to tout their commitments to fight for reproductive rights. Senator Kamala Harris rode a wave of cheers on her way to the microphone, remarking, “This Women’s Caucus is so damn badass!” Harris talked about fighting for women to make decisions about their own bodies and about her equal pay plan that would require companies to show that they are paying workers fairly. 

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar emphasized that she is a successful Democrat who could win in red states and she absolutely believes a woman can beat Trump. At the end she quipped, “As we like to joke . . . may the best woman win!” Bernie Sanders arrived with a mini-parade of supporters, spoke about fighting abortion bans, and made a promise only to nominate Supreme Court justices who are “100 percent in favor of defending Roe v. Wade.”

Senator Kamala Harris (center) and Calif. Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis (right) at Women’s Caucus event June 1, 2019, at California Democratic Party convention at Moscone Center, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Senator Kamala Harris (center) and Calif. Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis (right) at Women’s Caucus event June 1, 2019, at California Democratic Party convention at Moscone Center, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Tumay Aslay

California’s Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, and Controller Betty Yee spoke to the energized crowd of activists, as did San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Kimberly Ellis, former Executive Director of Emerge California and candidate for California Democratic Party Chair, made her pitch for the leadership job. She called out the need for a “culture shift” in the party and an end to corruption and sexual harassment. Ellis ultimately was not successful at the Convention, which elected union leader Rusty Hicks to lead the state party.

Christine Pelosi was re-elected Chair of the Women’s Caucus at this event, which was co-sponsored by Planned Parenthood in keeping with the #MyChoice theme. Christine Pelosi noted that Planned Parenthood is widely popular and well-respected in the country, but their “opponents are trying to ruin the brand of Planned Parenthood.” 

Elizabeth Warren for President supporters with “Warren Has a Plan for That” t-shirts and signs, June 1, 2019, at California Democratic Party convention at Moscone Center, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Elizabeth Warren for President supporters with “Warren Has a Plan for That” t-shirts and signs, June 1, 2019, at California Democratic Party convention at Moscone Center, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Speaking out against the wave of abortion bans flooding the states in the South and Midwest, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “These bans cannot stand!” “Here’s the thing, we just have to win the elections,” Speaker Pelosi said. “These are desperate people. I don’t know why they have a problem with women advancing.” 

Her speech was interrupted by a few calls from the crowd to “impeach!”- but she continued focused on the theme of protecting abortion rights and Planned Parenthood. “Tip O’Neill said all politics is local. No, it’s very personal,” said Pelosi strongly. “They are saying to women, we are going to control your bodies.” 

Speaker Pelosi urged women in the room to “know your power” and also to “elect a Democrat president of the United States, a pro-choice president of the United States!” The theme of this Women’s Caucus was on point, as abortion rights are quickly becoming a driving political issue in the 2020 campaigns.

Oakland’s Radical Monarchs Spreading Their Wings and Raising Fists for Social Justice

By Karen Gullo

A group of young girls of color wearing brown berets and brown Girl Scout-style sashes across their chests look at a photo of author, activist, and model Janet Mock. Their eyes grow wide when they’re told Janet was assigned male at birth and is transgender. Earlier, the girls had been asked to describe how gender roles of men and women are depicted in entertainment and advertising. 

Males are always the superheroes, women are housewives, said one. Males control women and women seldom control men, said another, adding that men have cool secret handshakes. “Society says women have to have big breasts, long hair, and small noses,” offers a 10-year-old.

The discussion about gender stereotypes is part of a journey for the young girls, who meet regularly to discuss racial and gender equity, share experiences about growing up as people of color in tumultuous times and, importantly, become activists for social justice.

This is heady—and heavy—stuff for 8- to 12-year-olds. But this is the Radical Monarchs, an Oakland-based activism organization for young girls of color with a mission to empower girls, teach social justice and equality, and make radical contributions to their communities.

“It’s really important to create these spaces for girls of color because their voices haven’t always been heard,” said co-founder Anayvette Martinez.

Radical Monarchs at San Francisco International Film Festival after the screening of “We Are The Radical Monarchs” documentary film. Photo by Karen Gullo

Radical Monarchs at San Francisco International Film Festival after the screening of “We Are The Radical Monarchs” documentary film. Photo by Karen Gullo

The organization’s story is the subject of the documentary film “We Are The Radical Monarchs,” recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the film follows the group from its founding in 2014, through its earliest years with a core group of 10 girls, two founders, and no budget, to a successful and celebrated force for social justice activism in Oakland with new troops planned for San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond.

“We Are the Radical Monarchs” chronicles the young girls—particularly Lupita Martinez, Amia Carillo, and DeYani Dillard—as they march, fists raised, for LGBTQ and women’s rights. They are seen organizing to raise awareness about racial injustice. They discuss how it feels to be left out and made to feel different. They support each other, and talk about what ‘pride’ means. They each do something that expresses their appreciation for their culture—Amia performs a traditional dance, and Lupita models a traditional costume.

They make posters and banners, and participate in rallies protesting discrimination against and detention of immigrants and other people of color. They speak at San Francisco City Council meetings and knock on lawmakers’ office doors in Sacramento to advocate for affordable housing (an issue directly affecting the girls living in Oakland). They earn badges for Radical Pride, Radical Bodies, Radical Roots, and Radical Beauty that they display on their signature brown vests. They learn about Black Lives Matter from co-founder Alicia Garza, who speaks at their graduation ceremony. They hear about the work of the Black Panthers from former member Cheryl Dawson.

They also go camping, learn to set up tents, and journal about how they’ve changed since school started. Their feelings of empowerment grow, replacing doubts about themselves.  

“I used to worry about how I looked,” said Amia. Now she feels proud of her culture. “You don’t have to try to change yourself to make everyone like you.”

The film also stars the group’s two founders, community organizer Anayvette Martinez and educator Marilyn Hollinquest. The organization’s curriculum of building confidence, self-love, power, beauty, independence, and activism is their vision for an alternative scouting club for girls of color.

Martinez first came up with the idea when her daughter Lupita, then a fourth grader, expressed interest in joining the local Girl Scouts troop.

“When I saw what the troop liked like, I said, ‘I don’t think that’s for you,’” Martinez said. She wanted her daughter to be part of a group that focused on issues that specifically affect young women of color, and talked to her daughter about starting a new kind of troop. Lupita was excited about the idea, and kept reminding Martinez, a single mother working 60 hours a week, about pursuing the idea. Martinez knew she needed a partner, and reached out to Hollinquest—the two had met years before at San Francisco State University, where they both obtained graduate degrees in ethnic studies. 

Both are strong females who grew up in conservative families. Martinez was born in San Francisco; her mother was from Nicaragua and her father from El Salvador. In the movie she talked about struggling in school, and being told by a high school counselor that college wasn’t for her. Her father said she should stay home until she got married. Martinez followed her own path, attended UCLA and SFSU, and got into community organizing in a big way, sometimes ruffling the feathers of men who didn’t easily accept females in leadership roles.

Radical Monarch parent Jessica Allen (left) and Monarch Neveah Kelly after the screening of "We Are The Radical Monarchs" at Castro Theater. Photo by Karen Gullo

Radical Monarch parent Jessica Allen (left) and Monarch Neveah Kelly after the screening of "We Are The Radical Monarchs" at Castro Theater. Photo by Karen Gullo

Hollinquest, who is African American, is from a mostly white Tulare County farming town and said she was raised in a Pentecostal, patriarchal, conservative family.

 “Women were in the background,” she said. Looking back, “I would have loved a troop like the Radical Monarchs.” With an undergraduate degree in community studies from UC Santa Cruz, and a masters from SFSU, Hollinquest went into teaching, community organizing, and nonprofit work.

When it was founded in December 2014, the Radical Monarchs was called the Radical Brownies, but the name changed after the Girls Scouts of America said it was causing confusion with its group. The girls who formed the first troop chose the name monarch.

The group’s founding came on the heels of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Eric Garner, after a New York City police officer put him in a headlock. Studying those incidents and the Black Lives Matter movement, and discussing how communities can respond and affect change became the troop’s first unit of inquiry.

“Social justice is optional at schools, but it should be required,” Hollinquest said during a presentation to educators. “If we want to evolve this society we need to teach social justice now.”

The group has earned praise from activists like Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and criticism from Fox News pundits, including one who said the girls should join the Brownies and learn to sew rather than be turned into “little racists.”

The praise is greater than the criticism. The troop has been profiled in The Guardian (reading the piece gave Goldstein Knowlton the idea of making a documentary film about the Monarchs), PBS, SF Weekly, BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and The Real. “We Are the Radical Monarchs” premiered in March at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and has been screened at film festivals around the country.

The group has received a multi-year grant from NoVo Foundation (co-founded by Peter Buffett, son of investor Warren Buffett), is hiring new troop leaders, and plans to form new troops in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley.

Martinez and Hollinquest have faced questions about whether an activism group only for girls of color is excluding others. They are unabashed in their commitment to and belief in their vision.

“The reason that we have a separate girls group as opposed to joining the existing ones is because we didn’t see anyone talk about social justice,” said Hollinquest in the film. “And also talk about young women of color’s experiences explicitly, like specifically address them as opposed to doing a general girl culture, all girls’ experience. It’s important to have this.” 

Karen Gullo is a freelance writer and former Associated Press and Bloomberg News reporter covering technology, law, and public policy. She is currently an analyst and senior media relations specialist at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.

Sol Sisters Brought Female Empowerment, Art, Music, and Wellness to Oakland for Its Third Annual International Women’s Festival

By Nicole Masaki

The Sol Sisters International Women's Day Festival in Oakland was the place to be for anyone wanting to spend a Saturday in the Bay Area celebrating and honoring women's achievements. The atmosphere at the March 9 event was creative, inspiring, and supercharged with the work of women and girls from all backgrounds intent on taking control of their destinies. The festival honoring International Women’s Day (IWD) showcased women-owned businesses, singers, dancers, rappers, artists, wellness workshops, and other activities to nourish the heart, mind, soul, and body.

International Women’s Day is a celebration that dates back to 1911, when women were fighting oppression, inequality, dire working conditions, violence, and discrimination. The first IWD events were held in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, and soon spread to Russia, Europe, the U.S. and beyond. While we live in times very different from the era that saw the first IWD celebrations, gender inequality and female oppression are still ever present around the world. IWD is just as important today as it was in 1911, and is observed with marches, protests, rallies and teaching events in small towns and big cities around the globe. The holiday has no boundaries based on country or single person or single group. Rather, it has always been about collective efforts to fight for gender equality.

Sol Sisters is a nonprofit organization founded by mental health clinician Christine Coleman. As she worked as a counselor to low-income students, Coleman realized that families were reluctant to engage in therapy, which was considered taboo due to culture stigmas. She began working with other professionals to bring wholistic health, healing, and empowerment services outside of traditional therapy settings to women and girls of all backgrounds. Sol Sisters partners with local nonprofits to provide workshops about wellness, love, beauty, and self-worth to under-resourced women and girls. Each year the organization offers community events in fitness, beauty, mentoring, and mental health. Sol Sisters’ mission is to provide holistic health services to enrich, empower, and evolve women of all backgrounds.

Tahitian dance team. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Tahitian dance team. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Sol Sisters’ IWD expo-style festival was held at Oakland Impact Hub, a co-working space on Broadway. The venue is known for hosting events that celebrate and empower the community, as well as providing a welcoming space for many tech and local business entrepreneurs. A wide variety of women-owned businesses were on hand. From young entrepreneurs making their first sale, to women who have made their passion a profession, the festival represented women from many different backgrounds and stages of life. Attendees had the opportunity to sample foods from bakeries and professional chefs, learn and embrace holistic healing methods, pick up empowered women clothing, and collect original art from local Bay Area artists. But better than just purchasing products, attendees had the opportunity to interact with entrepreneurs and creators, and ask about their stories, their backgrounds, how they came up with the idea for their business, where it has taken them, and share their own thoughts on the Sol Sisters’ experience.

The expo itself was only half the experience at the festival. Sol Sisters also had a showcase of artists performing on stage, including slam poets, a young all-girl dance group, singers, and a competitive Tahitian dance team. Performers came from all over to share their talents. The main headliner, music artist Samiere, travelled from Los Angeles to perform. A singer-songwriter, activist, author, and San Francisco native, Samiere shared a part of her own story in every song she sang. The performances really exemplified that there’s no age requirement to feel empowered or empower others. Girls aged 12 to 17 formed the dance group Mini Mix’d and used dance to connect to the community and build respect for each other and themselves. While each performer brought a unique perspective to the event, I could use the same words to describe all of them—empowered and unstoppable. Artists shared not only their talents but also their stories and inspirations.

Leilanii Rose, a community based performance artist. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Leilanii Rose, a community based performance artist. Photo by Tumay Aslay.

Throughout the day exhibitors ran four separate workshops, each with a different focus. Entrepreneur London Wolfe inspired women to show up and be fully present by aligning masculine and feminine energies within themselves. Her mission was to help others break through to the life they desire most. Regina Evans led a workshop based around healing for survivors. Shahidah Al-Amin Zareef led a workshop dedicated to empowering mothers and addressing the unique self-care needs of mothers. The final workshop of the day was led by Ris Tena, who talked about ways to balance masculine and feminine energies, the importance of nurturing both, and ways we can challenge ourselves to use these different energies more.

Stephanie Archayena, Expressive Arts Coordinator of Sol Sisters . Photo by Tumay Aslay

Stephanie Archayena, Expressive Arts Coordinator of Sol Sisters . Photo by Tumay Aslay

Stephanie Archayena, Expressive Arts Coordinator of Sol Sisters, was the one to meet for this event. For her the best part was, “witnessing how devoted, beautiful women can just come together and collaborate, and seeing the teamwork—it really does take a village to bring something about like this.” And I would agree with Stephanie there. It is truly incredible what we can accomplish as individuals, but what is more powerful is what we accomplish when we work together.

Nicole Masaki is a freelance writer.

Meet the Bay Area Women in Tech Fighting Bias in AI

Artificial Intelligence - the Technology That’s Changing Everything On The Planet

By Karen Gullo

Artificial intelligence systems are impacting the lives and futures of millions of Americans, whether they realize it or not. We’re not talking about AI technology that helps Netflix predict what movies you want to watch. This is something much bigger. AI is being used by corporations, government agencies, and law enforcement to decide who gets a loan, a job, a spot at the local school for their kids, entry into the country, and jail time if they’re arrested. When AI systems make biased, unjust decisions, it has real-world consequences for people—namely women and people of color. That’s because AI systems, for all their promise to transform fields like health care and education, can and often do perpetuate the inherent biases—such as gender inequity and racial discrimination—we see all around us.

“There’s so much potential in AI to be used for good, but if these systems have bias it could not only mirror inequities but also exacerbate them,” said Tess Posner, CEO at AI4ALL, an Oakland nonprofit whose mission is to increase diversity and inclusion in AI.

Tess Posner - CEO of AI4ALL. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Tess Posner - CEO of AI4ALL. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Posner is among a group of innovative female creators in the Bay Area who are at the forefront in the battle against bias in AI. They include social activists, data scientists, and academics from diverse backgrounds. Some have been coding since grade school, others have run city-wide data operations. What they share is a commitment to raising awareness and finding solutions to end bias in AI. They are spearheading programs to provide tools for spotting and mitigating bias in algorithms, providing programs to give women a seat at the AI table, and urging companies to focus on ethics and diversity in AI programs.

“I think people didn’t understand how big of a problem it is,” said Ayori Selassie, a San Francisco-based software engineer, applied AI expert, and CEO of Selfpreneur, which provides consulting and workshops about methodologies she has created for personal development and the ethical use of technology. “When AI is the gatekeeper, when it grants permission or makes a prediction about whether or not you get a life-saving drug, that’s real world.'“

Ayori Selassie – applied AI expert and CEO of Selfpreneur. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Ayori Selassie – applied AI expert and CEO of Selfpreneur. Photo by Tumay Aslay

AI enables computers to make decisions, which normally require human expertise, by analyzing data, recognizing patterns and trends, and using that learning to predict outcomes. A simple example: Amazon suggests products you might like based on the company’s analysis of what you’ve purchased in the past. But what if the data in AI-based loan application programs is biased, incomplete, or discriminatory? What if the creators of AI algorithms are biased?

Researchers have found that AI systems will spit out biased decisions when they’ve “learned” how to solve problems using data that’s exclusive and homogeneous—and those mistakes disproportionately affect women, people of color, and low-income communities. The AI field is littered with examples of AI systems that discriminate.

Amazon scrapped secret AI recruitment software its engineers created around 2015 that was supposed to simplify searches for new hires. Turns out the software was biased against female applicants. It had been trained to find good candidates based on patterns from resumes submitted to Amazon over a 10-year period. Since the majority of Amazon’s applicants were male, the system “learned” a preference for men and downgraded female candidates.

MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini studied the accuracy of commercially available AI-powered facial recognition software. Face recognition systems use algorithms to pick out specific details on a photo of a person’s face, such as chin shape, and convert them into mathematical representations that can be compared to other faces. In a study published last year, Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League at MIT, found that the systems were more likely to misidentify the gender of dark-skinned women than white men. One system misidentified gender in 35 percent of darker-skinned females.

Algorithms used by courts and parole boards to assess the risk that defendants will commit further crimes were found to show bias against black defendants in a study conducted by ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization. The news group looked at the risk scores of thousands of arrestees in Florida and checked to see how many were charged with new crimes in the two years after their arrest. The 2016 study showed that the algorithms mistakenly predicted that black defendants would commit future crimes. Black defendants were 45 percent more likely to receive higher risk scores than white defendants. Meanwhile, white defendants were mistakenly rated as lower risk more often than black defendants. These risk assessments are used to determine which defendants should be set free and which should be sent to jail.

“We know bias exists in every data set, but our society hasn’t come to grips with that,” says Selassie. “We need to admit we have a problem and start working together so that we have some standards that work.”

Ayori Selassie at Oakland Impact Hub

Ayori Selassie at Oakland Impact Hub

Raised in poverty in West Oakland and homeschooled by her single mother with seven other siblings, Selassie got into computers when she was 11. Her mother gave her a book on Basic programming and had her go through the lessons one by one. Selassie taught herself how to code and at 16 was running her own tech startup. She worked as a web designer early in her professional career and founded a pre-incubator in Oakland that connected local entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds with funders. Today she’s manager of product marketing at a major software company and an activist for gender and racial equity in tech.

Selassie got involved in AI randomly more than a decade ago while working as an analyst calculating rates for utility clients. She saw the potential for AI to solve big problems like reducing industrial carbon emissions, but had major concerns about AI applications being developed at tech companies by small non-inclusive groups of data scientists and advanced developers.

“I call it AI happy feet—you find really cool applications for this innovative technology and it seems really helpful until you identify that it doesn’t work for all segments of your population,” said Selassie. “If it doesn’t work for women your tool is sexist. If it doesn’t work for black people, Asians, your tool is racist. The amount of bias in these systems is severe and it can really hurt people.”

The solution, said Selassie, is what she calls social solution design, a methodology for ethical decision-making. The idea is to involve inclusive groups of stakeholders—customers, policy advisors, community members, diversity experts—in every step of product development and validation to ensure that bias is detected and fixed at the outset. Companies test for bugs and vulnerabilities before releasing new software. Selassie maintains that they should also have a multi-stakeholder process for detecting racial and gender bias in AI systems. To that end, she consults with companies about how to implement ethical decision-making processes and runs AI workshops for nontechnical business people so they can learn about the technology and collaborate with developers and other stakeholders in the design of AI systems.

Identifying and mitigating bias in AI is critical for governments, which have a duty to be transparent and accountable about how they use technology. As San Francisco began looking at developing algorithm-based tools for big data projects, concerns about bias in AI were paramount. Every day brought a new story of some AI service across the country gone wrong. Joy Bonaguro, who from 2014 to last fall was the city’s first chief data officer, sought a solution, but didn’t find much in the way of practical guidance for assessing the ethical implications of using algorithms.

“We saw ethics pledges and policy papers, but we needed something very hands on and practical,” said Bonaguro. “I proposed that we adopt a municipal standard, a code of practice as opposed to a code of conduct to move the idea forward.”

The city partnered with John Hopkins University and Harvard University to develop and launch last year a first-of-its-kind Ethics & Algorithms Toolkit for governments. It’s essentially a process-based risk management approach to using AI responsibly, says Bonaguro. The toolkit, which is available online, takes users through a series of questions to help governments understand the ethical risks of using algorithms and identify what can be done to mitigate the risks. Users are asked to identify who will be impacted by the technology, the risks of the data being used to “train” the algorithms, among other questions, to come up with a risk score of low, medium, or high. Mitigation strategies are recommended for each level of risk.

“There’s a lot of what I call hand-wringing about the problem,” said Bonaguro, who’s now head of people, operations and data at Corelight, a cybersecurity company. “I personally just love turning that into something practical.”

Women hold only 26 percent of tech jobs, and the stats are even worse in AI. Like the tech industry as a whole, there’s a massive gender gap in the field of AI. Only 23 percent of U.S. professionals with AI skills are women.

Tess Posner and her 10-person team at AI4ALL hope to change that. The nonprofit’s mission is to increase diversity in AI by giving young people opportunities to take classes and work on research projects in AI at universities around North America. The program aims to increase the pipeline of underrepresented people in AI and tech, including women, who will go on to jobs and leadership roles in tech.

Tess Posner in downtown Oakland. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Tess Posner in downtown Oakland. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Based in downtown Oakland, AI4ALL partners with major universities like Stanford and Princeton and funding from tech companies to offer summer residential programs in AI studies to ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders from diverse and underrepresented populations. No programming experience is necessary and financial aid is available at universities that charge tuition for AI4ALL camp (not all of them do). The students spend two to three weeks in university AI labs working with professors and graduate student instructors on research projects, attending lectures and field trips to tech companies, and learning to apply AI to real world problems. Classes in computer science, Python language programming, neural networks, and social bias are offered, as well as mentoring and career counseling. Two hundred and fifty young people, the majority young women, have attended AI4ALL camps since they began four years ago.

“It’s taking people who are usually totally left out and setting them up with cutting edge technology,” said Posner, former managing director of TechHire, a White House initiative to help underrepresented Americans start careers in tech.

“We need to address the bias issues to reach the full potential of AI.”

AI4ALL was founded in 2015 by Stanford AI Lab Director Dr. Fei-Fei Li, Dr. Olga Russakovsky, assistant professor in computer science at Princeton University, and Dr. Rick Sommer, executive director of Stanford University’s pre-collegiate studies program.

Today ten universities, including UC-Berkeley, UCSF, Boston University, Arizona State, and Carnegie Mellon, offer AI4ALL summer camps for 300 students, where they have participated in projects including natural language processing to aid disaster relief and writing algorithms to detect cancers in the human genome. Posner says 61 percent of the program’s alumni have gone on to start their own AI projects.

Later this year, the organization is launching the AI4ALL Open Learning Program, a free online curriculum about the basics of AI and how it can work in your daily life. The project is funded by a grant from The goal is to teach AI to young people and encourage them to use their skills in their communities. AI4ALL did a pilot project, with middle school and high school students with no prior exposure to AI, to develop computer vision projects that used neural networks (a set of algorithms molded loosely after the network of neurons in the brain) to learn images. The students learned how this technology is utilized in digital tools that help blind and partially-sighted people identify objects, texts, or people in front of them. Posner says the goal is to have 1 million users of the Open Learning Program within 5 years.

Rebekah Agwunobi was 13 and a high school freshman when she attended the Stanford AI4ALL camp in Palo Alto. A native of Washington state, Agwunobi had been coding since she was in the third grade after her mother put her in a JavaScript class. So she was no stranger to computers or programming. But the AI camp opened her eyes to concepts she hadn’t considered.

“In terms of being exposed to new technologies, I had never really thought about social advocacy in tech until I entered the program,” she said. “It was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had—all the mentors were about supporting diversity in tech.”

AI was new to Agwunobi, and it was something she never thought she could do, in spite of the fact that she had been working with computers, coding for years, and got interested in AI in middle school. She remembers being the only African American and female student in computer science classes, feeling isolated, and not knowing where she stood. She didn’t know where to begin learning about AI, there were no classes available to her in elementary school and she thought it was too complex to take on herself. She applied to AI4ALL camp and got in. The experience demystified the technology, and the support and mentorship of her camp mates, the graduate students and faculty, made her realize she was capable of taking AI on.

“No freshman is confident, but the program empowers you and then you think, this is something I can do,” she said. “We really supported each other. It’s not just ‘girl power,’ it’s that we’re working together and learning.”

She was introduced to various AI based projects during her two weeks at camp, including computer vision, self-driving cars, and applying natural language processing to disaster relief. She came away with a keen interest in AI research. The following semester at high school she created a directed study class about machine learning, a branch of AI, where she applied general techniques she learned at Stanford. Agwunobi learned about different applications in machine learning in areas like art generation and music.

She says the camp cemented her beliefs in advocating for diversity and gender equity in tech and STEM. She now participates in hackathons, and is helping to organizing the annual MAHacks, which is open to high schoolers from diverse backgrounds. She teaches all-girl coding classes and obtained an internship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab working on an AI-project to gather data on the pretrial process of courts to evaluate how judges behave when setting bail for criminal defendants. The data can be used in efforts to reform the bail system and fight mass incarceration.

Agwunobi is now applying to colleges and deciding her next move (she’s leaning toward law). Her takeaways from AI4ALL camp are both complex and insightful.

“Yes, we need to increase diversity in tech and other fields,” said Agwunobi. “But I can also work in environments that are homogeneous and bring a different perspective.”

Karen Gullo is a freelance writer and former Associated Press and Bloomberg News reporter covering technology, law, and public policy. She is currently an analyst and senior media relations specialist at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.

Lesbians Who Tech Summit Took Castro By Storm

By Karen Gullo

Thousands of badass, tech-savvy women took over the Castro earlier this month, descending on the heart of San Francisco’s gay community for the annual Lesbians Who Tech (LWT) + Allies Summit. On the sidewalks, in shops and cafes, and in tented venues pumping with music around Castro Street, women from as far away as South Africa were out in force for three days of keynotes, workshops, networking, recruiting, and mentoring events to celebrate LGBTQ+ women. LWT’s mission is to increase visibility and intersectionality, and change the face of technology.

From left to right: Amy Taylor, president and CMO at Red Bull North America, Moj Mahdara, CEO and founder at Beautycon, and Cindi Leive, Senior Fellow at University of Southern California, journalist, and former editor-in-chief at Glamour. Photo by Tumay Aslay

From left to right: Amy Taylor, president and CMO at Red Bull North America, Moj Mahdara, CEO and founder at Beautycon, and Cindi Leive, Senior Fellow at University of Southern California, journalist, and former editor-in-chief at Glamour. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Now in its sixth year, the LWT gathering was founded by a visionary woman who wanted her colleagues in the tech industry to have a conference for LGBT women, trans and nonconforming individuals, LGBT women of color, and others underrepresented at tech conferences and LGBT spaces.

“I started Lesbians Who Tech six years ago now because, I’m starting a company, I’d been in the LGBT space, and I felt like I didn’t have a squad. I didn’t have other queer women to talk to, to talk to about starting a company,” LWT founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford told a crowd of 6,000 attendees from the stage of Castro Theater. Last year Pittsford founded, which helps underrepresented techies find jobs.

LWT founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford. Photo by Tumay Aslay

LWT founder and CEO Leanne Pittsford. Photo by Tumay Aslay

“I’d go to a lot of tech events, and you know, they look a lot like this,” she said, pointing to a photo projected behind her of young men in collared shirts and hoodies. “And so, I started to wonder, I mean, maybe there just weren’t any lesbians in tech. But it can’t be—we like geeky things.”

Turns out she was right. “There are 50,000 lesbians and nonbinary folks and allies around the world,” Pittsford said to thunderous applause, celebrating LTW’s fast-growing global tech community.

Kara Swisher, Recode co-founder and The New York Times columnist, and Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Kara Swisher, Recode co-founder and The New York Times columnist, and Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Today, LWT + Allies is the largest LGBT technology community in the world, and its annual Summit is the largest professional LGBT gathering in the world (and the largest event for women in tech in California). The organization has events in 40 cities around the globe, and through its Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship, has taught 100 gay and nonbinary people to code. Windsor was an IBM engineer and lead plaintiff in the landmark case in which the Supreme Court struck down federal law that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman.

During the three-day conference, sponsored by dozens of tech companies and corporations, from Google to Walmart Labs, attendees could see product demos and network with vendors at the LWT “tech crawl,” and meet mentors at a career and mentor fair. Recruitment zones with vendor booths were open all day, while breakout sessions featured speakers, most from tech companies, giving talks about engineering and app development, scaling startups, AI and machine learning, cybersecurity, and changing the culture in Silicon Valley.

Diedra Nelson, Chief Financial Officer of The Wing. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Diedra Nelson, Chief Financial Officer of The Wing. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Frivolity and great storytelling were in abundant supply:  A hula hoop contest between audience members. An inspiring talk about sharing your access to power to improve communities by the fabulous transgender activist Angelica Ross, who cat-walked her way onto the main stage in all black and stiletto heels. Laurene Powell Jobs recalling a meeting with President Trump about immigrant rights and keeping DACA, where he said, “I really like your dress.”

 The keynotes on the main stage of Castro Theater were deeply inspiring and often uproariously funny.  Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs spoke about trailblazing, leadership, and fighting bias and exclusion.

Abrams talked frankly about still being angry about the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, which she narrowly lost to a Republican amid allegations of voter suppression.

“I’m angry and sad, but I don’t know how to be still anymore. Because I believe we can fix what is broken and we can make right what is wrong,” Abrams said. Not surprisingly, she said the biggest threat to democracy is voter suppression.  

“Voter suppression works by convincing people, either in practice or through a psychic sense, that they don’t count. And what tech is designed to do is break barriers,” she said.

Facing down gender and race inequity in tech takes guts, especially for women just starting out in their careers, said Carin Taylor, Chief Diversity Officer at enterprise software company Workday, who spoke on a panel about redefining Silicon Valley culture.

“It’s pretty simple,” she said. “Be brave. We are fearful to have conversations with people, especially around race. For me it’s about how do we shed away those stereotypes of who we think people are and really step into having those conversations.” What’s more, there need to be more STEM programs for elementary school children and a more welcoming environment for young women interested in tech, said Taylor.

Jasmine Shells, CEO and co-founder of Five to Nine. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Jasmine Shells, CEO and co-founder of Five to Nine. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Many speakers urged the women in the room to push beyond the fear and assumptions they may have about being different and embrace their power.

Historic Castro Theatre. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Historic Castro Theatre. Photo by Tumay Aslay

“I remember the early struggles I had. I was just out of college and was thinking about running for local office,” said Senator Baldwin, the first openly gay person elected to Congress, the first woman to represent Wisconsin in Congress, and the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate. She wanted to run, she said, but there were no role models and she truly believed she would have to make a choice between going into public service and living life with integrity as an out lesbian.

“Then I kind of figured out I could do both, and doing both didn’t mean I was going to lose an election. I did both and won,” Baldwin said on the main stage. “We are better when government and our legislative bodies reflect America.” That means more women at the table, including mothers, those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault, those who have experienced discrimination.

“We need those people at the table… it changes the conversation,” said Baldwin. “When you’re in the room the conversation is with us. When you’re outside the room, the conversation is about us. And that makes all the difference.”

Baldwin said she would be reintroducing the Equality Act this month and believes it will be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrats are in control. The act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity to its provision.

“It will be historic when it passes the House, but I have a feeling we have more work to do in 2020 before we get the Senate to pass it and a president to sign it into law,” she said. The 2018 midterms, where a record 117 women won elections across the country, shows that things are changing.

“A lot of great stuff happened in 2018, and no one is letting up.”

Women’s March 2019: Joy, Fury, and a Nancy Pelosi Sighting

By Kim Christensen
Photos by Tumay Aslay

Feeling emboldened after the big gains in the women’s wave election in November, thousands gathered for the third Women’s March in San Francisco on January 19, 2019.  A mix of emotions from joy, fury, rage and defiance, to sisterhood, friendship, solidarity and humor were reflected in the marchers’ signs and slogans. Mayor London Breed and Congresswoman Barbara Lee spoke to the crowd in front of San Francisco City Hall, urging them to stay active and “stay woke” as Lee said.

Sharing the stage were artists, poets and leaders from an array of movements and organizations including the Native American Health Center, San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Transgender Initiatives, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Planned Parenthood NorCal, Global Fund for Women, Coalition on Homelessness, Young Women’s Freedom Center, Spanish Speaking Citizens’ Foundation, Muslim social justice leaders, and activists raising awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Women's March 2019  (14 of 45).jpg

After two hours of speeches, the crowd’s energy was boosted by joining the walking wave of women on Market Street led by Native American and Indigenous women. Pink pussy hats were sprinkled throughout the crowd, along with giant Ruth Bader Ginsberg faces on sticks bobbing up and down. The Supreme Court Justice’s ‘Notorious RBG’ meme was still going strong, as were well wishes after she suffered a few broken ribs. 

Young feminists in training – kids in red wagons, strollers, baby wraps, on shoulders and on foot – showed off their art skills on posters. One girl carried a “Pelosi Power!” sign with a hand-drawn portrait of Speaker Nancy Pelosi topped by a little gold crown. She was surprised when people started waving at her and she looked back to see Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself marching down Market Street. Other signs in the crowd said, “Stay Strong Nancy!”

"Speaker Nancy Pelosi at San Francisco Women's March" photo by Tumay Aslay

"Speaker Nancy Pelosi at San Francisco Women's March" photo by Tumay Aslay

Amy Morgenstern, a local artist attending her third Women’s March in San Francisco, was encouraged at the energy and turnout Saturday. “The good feelings actually started on the BART train, where women had a chance to chat and enjoy each other’s signs and creativity,” said Morgenstern. “This shows the importance of assembly and community.” 

Women's March 2019  (3 of 45).jpg

Large crowds also gathered for the Women’s March in Oakland and San Jose, numbering in the thousands. Over 100 marches and rallies were held in cities and towns across the U.S., with sister marches popping up around the globe again this year. While the Women’s March started in response to the shocking loss of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, it also launched a global movement of solidarity and protest reflecting women’s general dissatisfaction and fury over patriarchy and abuse of power. It was a match that sparked a feminist wildfire around the world.

WOMAN MADE: Seismic Sisters Art Show

Hailey Gaiser’s Mother

Hailey Gaiser’s Mother

“WOMAN MADE: A Seismic Sisters Art Show” was the centerpiece of a party celebrating the launch of Seismic Sisters Magazine. Hosted at 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco on October 12, 2018, the night was filled with art, music by B-Side Brujas, and an unforgettable live performance by Rhodessa Jones. Twenty Bay Area artists, some established and some emerging, contributed to the WOMAN MADE Art Show curated by Tumay Aslay. Neon artist Meryl Pataky and wood sculptor Aleksandra Zee showed pieces alongside fiber artist Hannah Crawford, who brought her “Bust” and “Vocal Chords” sculptures. 

Aleksandra Zee’s wooden squares

Aleksandra Zee’s wooden squares

Hailey Gaiser’s glowing “Call Me Mother” painting set the stage for an evening filled with woman power and creative fever. Audrey Bodisco’s exquisite watercolors “Booby Trap” and “No Two Alike” celebrated the beauty and variety of breasts. Louise Alban’s ceramic sculptures “Flow One, Flow All” hovered near paintings and multimedia art by Melanie Alves, including two life-size pillow sculptures of women’s bodies that invited viewers to sit down and reflect their thoughts in a journal. 

Shannon Tallcouch’s luscious red “Fallen Petals” vibrated with energy, as did Olivia Krause’s bright paintings with one named “It’s Not a Date.” Carissa Potter Carlson showed several sweet and lovely illustrations including “May You Feel Safe.”

Photographers showed a collection of works, including Lorena Jimenez revealing glimpses of the Tenderloin, Buu with her powerful and sensitive portraits, Ashley Habr with striking portraits of women in Africa, and Tumay Aslay with street photography. Painter Miranda Evans sold her first piece and is feeling encouraged to fully dive in and make her career in art. Graphic designer Tori Seitelman showed colorful prints in addition to having designed the WOMAN MADE Art Show poster. Conceptual artist Amy Morgenstern capped off the show with her “Becoming Plant” multi-media work of art.

Over 300 guests attended the art party celebrating the launch of Seismic Sisters Magazine. See artist bios and a virtual gallery of the art work at “WOMAN MADE: A Seismic Sisters Art Show.” A portion of proceeds from the art sales went to The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, directed by Rhodessa Jones.

Rhodessa Jones and The Medea Project: A Sisterhood of Healing

A Sisterhood of Healing
By Kim Christensen

Cast members of The Medea Project rehearse “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” Photo by Tumay Aslay

Cast members of The Medea Project rehearse “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” Photo by Tumay Aslay

Rhodessa Jones revels in the full range of her glorious womanhood. She’s the Great Mother, performer, artist, writer, creator and leader, healer and political activist. In touch with her sexuality and commanding others to delve and explore and demand their own pleasure. “It’s about the flesh, your flesh”, she says, and what happens to crack a woman’s soul when that flesh is violated.

Jones and her theater group The Medea Project are ready to reveal that and more in a new play “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” at Brava Theater, October 25 - November 4, 2018 in San Francisco. The show explores the tragedy of domestic violence, digging into what it feels like to be abused, trapped, and betrayed by the person you once loved and trusted. It examines how the trauma of domestic violence sends out shockwaves that reverberate to negatively impact the family, community, and culture. The play asks how do we reckon with the damage and evolve our society to prevent this from happening in the first place?

As an artist and activist, Rhodessa Jones has been exploring the harsh realities of women’s lives for over 40 years. Looking for a path forward toward love, healing and social change, Jones carved one out herself by creating The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. The project began at San Francisco County Jail in 1989. Jones was hired to teach Jane Fonda-style aerobics to incarcerated women to give them a healthy group activity. They were not amused and immediately shut down. 

Jones tried other techniques to get the women in touch with their bodies and emotions, to open up, as well as to build trust as their teacher. She started playing simple games, some familiar from childhood like ‘red light – green light,’ to cut through the tension and create a sense of play. Once they started moving their bodies, Jones found herself coming up with creative prompts and cues, like a theater director. 

While this was progress, Jones felt there was more to tackle, that there was a greater barrier and a deeper need among the women. The real hurdle was emotional as well as physical. It was the unearthed sexual violence and trauma experiences that most of the women carried around in their bodies and souls. That had to be dealt with and Jones helped them process that trauma in a tried and true method – a women’s circle. With a little more skillful prompting and encouragement, Jones witnessed the stories come pouring out of the women. A tsunami of pain.

While speaking out about previously unutterable crimes and experiences had some therapeutic value in itself, Jones recognized that there needed to be a next step to process and heal from these experiences. So the women began writing down their stories, editing and honing them, sharing them in front of the women’s circle, and ultimately turning their work into a group theater performance. That is how The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women was born. The troupe has been performing consistently for 29 years, both in jails and on the outside  at theaters around the country. 

Rhodessa Jones, Founder and Artistic Director of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Rhodessa Jones, Founder and Artistic Director of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco. Photo by Tumay Aslay

The Medea Project performers are a mix of currently or formerly incarcerated women, professional actors and playwrights, and creative artists and souls who find themselves drawn in by the group’s unique artistic alchemy. The troupe meets at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco to rehearse and develop new material in their collaborative style. A magnet for free thinkers and spirits, The Medea Project attracts other artists and groups who want to blend efforts. 

Their new play, “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon,” was created in collaboration with the Women’s HIV Program at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. Jones has been working with the university program since 2007. Doctors and public health researchers saw firsthand that giving women with HIV medication alone was often not enough – they were still dying at higher rates than expected. They discovered that trauma - both physical and psychological traumatic experiences, some in the past and some ongoing – was often linked to how the women contracted the virus and the thing that kept their patients from making progress in their health and recovery. 

Searching for a therapeutic tool to help Women with HIV address unresolved trauma, the University researchers contacted Rhodessa Jones and The Medea Project. Jones brought in her theater program techniques and began working with women living with HIV. Creating a safe supportive space – a sisterhood – from which the women could then begin to process and share their stories of trauma proved to be life changing for many of them. It broke the stigma, silence and isolation that had kept many trapped in a spiral of despair. Jones knows from decades of experience that art, storytelling, and theater is good medicine and can save lives. 

The researchers at UCSF saw the potential of this therapy and conducted a study to analyze the impact of The Medea Project on women living with HIV. In addition to finding benefits to disclosing HIV status in this kind of supportive group, other positive “impact themes emerged from the data: sisterhood, catharsis, self-acceptance, safer and healthier relationships, and gaining a voice,” stated the report on the study led by Dr. Edward L. Machtinger and published in the Journal of Association of Nurses in AIDS Care in 2015. 

This latest performance piece marks the return of The Medea Project to Brava Theater, which hosted their acclaimed “Birthright?” play in 2015. The concept for “Birthright?” grew out of a series of conversations with Planned Parenthood. The play explores the relationships between sexual violence, trauma, rage, speech, healing, love and empowerment through access to women’s health care including birth control and abortion. The play became the focus of “Birthright? – The Documentary” a video produced and directed by Bruce Schmiechen, as well as a resource / discussion guide for public education purposes.

Rhodessa Jones is an artist who has invented her own therapeutic technique to help women work through trauma. Mining the pain by telling and crafting deeply intimate stories of experiences many assumed were too terrible to utter. Then sharing them with stunned audiences, resonating with souls in the seats, and wresting control and power over these experiences. Rhodessa Jones is designing new pathways toward self-love and healing through a sisterhood of support. 

Jones is generous and shares her techniques broadly, working with women in South Africa prisons, lecturing at universities, and collaborating with academics, physicians, and public health researchers. A San Francisco Bay Area treasure, this woman’s art and social influence are reverberating out across the globe. 

See Rhodessa Jones and The Medea Project perform “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” at Brava Theater, October 25 - November 4, 2018 in San Francisco.

She the People Summit 2018, Women of Color Gather in Power

Kim Christensen, San Francisco
Photos: Tumay Aslay

Holly J. Mitchell, California State Senator

She the People came roaring into town Thursday determined to shake up the political landscape by investing in the leadership and collective power of women of color. An energized crowd of about 500 squeezed joyfully into the Julia Morgan ballroom for the first “She the People Summit 2018” in San Francisco. The standing room only, sold-out event featured movement leaders and living legends, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta. “We are in the presence of our very own royalty” said Holly Mitchell, California State Senator.

Kimberly Ellis, Founder of Unbought-Unbossed

Activists from 36 states across the nation flocked to the summit, which was a mix of rollicking rally, power networking event, and get-down-to-business political strategy session. Political stars shared the stage with soon-to-be famous leaders and activists. Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, UltraViolet, Higher Heights, ROC United, Native American women, domestic care workers, LGBTQ activists, and immigrants were among the diverse organizations and movements represented on stage by speakers at the event.

Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, shared in her speech, “I believe that black people deserve to be powerful in politics.” She observed that “this summit is in the legacy of black women coming together to set our own agenda.” Garza offered a new economic vision, saying “we need to transform the economy from one that is predatory to one that is rooted in care.” The caring economy was called for as a paradigm shift by other speakers as well, including Ai-Jen Poo, Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance. The Alliance is working on groundbreaking family care legislation to address the current and coming need for in-home care of elders of the Baby Boom generation and beyond.

Tram Nguyen, DeJuana Thompson, Montserrat Arredondo, and Tory Gavito talk tactics

Speakers included rising star Kimberly Ellis, founder of Unbought-Unbossed, which she designed as “an incubator for the next generation of political disruptors.” Ellis is also the former executive director of Emerge California, which has become one of the most effective training programs for Democratic women who want to run for office. (Emerge “sisters” who went through the training include U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.)

Political tactics and strategies were hot topics at the event. Moderator Tory Gavito asked her panelists to get specific about how they were able to “leap over the old boys club.” Holly Mitchell, California State Senator, challenged each person in the room to take action, “do one thing when you leave the room,” such as sign up for a phone bank or donate to a woman candidate. Mitchell said, “In California, don’t assume it’s all good. Sisters, we got work to do.”

She the People tapped into something powerful as about 500 women from 36 states came to the summit, and many more tuned in to the live stream, according to founder Aimee Allison. She the People Summit got the details right too, providing a “Quiet Room” for nursing / pumping or general downtime; a red carpet-style media room for photos and on-camera interviews; as well as a lady DJ spinning woman-power tunes.

Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter by Tumay Aslay

Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter by Tumay Aslay

About She the People

She the People is a new political network. Its stated mission is to “advance our democracy by calling women of color fully into their fierce and loving leadership and collective power.” It highlights “women of color as the drivers of a new progressive political and cultural era.” She the People was founded by Aimee Allison, a San Francisco Bay Area leader, speaker, writer, activist and expert in women of color in politics. Allison is also the President of Democracy in Color and host of a popular podcast of the same name. She dedicated a recent podcast to telling the story of She the People. [You can link to the Democracy in Color Podcast here. ]