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Wisdom across the Generations

By Mary Liepold and Alicia Simoni

Peace X Peace is founded on women’s wisdom. We believe this out-of-whack world will tilt toward sanity when enough of us share what we know in our bodies and our brains, listen to each other, and raise our collective voice to build cultures of peace. That belief gave rise to a set of principles that we’ve been pulling to the front and making more explicit in 2010. Here are the first three, the foundation:

* Women’s perspectives and expertise are required to build sustainable peace.
* Each individual has equal standing and all have wisdom and experience to share.
* Peaceful cultures are founded on justice, equality, and cooperation.

Perspectives and expertise: that’s women’s wisdom. It’s where we stand, what we’ve seen and heard and absorbed, and what we know how to do. Relationships where each has equal standing are the best places to share that knowledge and grow the critical mass that will create cultures of peace. These relationships, like the cultures they can give rise to, are just, equal, and cooperative.

Because of the difference in age between mothers and daughters, mentors and mentees, their relationships may seem asymmetrical. Ask any mother or mentor, though, and she’ll tell you she gains as much as she gets.

Within our small Peace X Peace staff and in all our relationships, we value the gifts that flow across the generations and strive to balance our individual strengths and challenges. Younger staff members (like Staff Writer and Community Manager Alicia, 30) are gifted, energetic, and quick to pick up on new technology, while older ones (like Editor in Chief Mary, 65) bring decades of experience―and try hard to feel wise when the tech challenges mount. We both asked women we know to talk about mothers, mentors, daughters, and mentees and to share the lessons they treasure most.

Mothers and Daughters
Most of us have mixed feelings about the messages we received from our mothers―especially in a world where women’s roles and the options we have to choose from are changing rapidly. In an interview with Mary, a young Palestinian woman who is studying conflict resolution in the US describes a relationship that will sound familiar to women in many cultures. J. (as we will call her here) asked us not to use her name out of consideration for her mother’s feelings.

“Throughout my whole growing up, the formation of my identity, what I wanted most was NOT to be my mother. I wanted to be more rational, more powerful, more educated than she was. She did not have a chance to fulfill herself, her own desires, and it affected her relations with me and my brothers. Her only desire is to be a good mother, to support us in every way she can, and of course, now we’re grown, to have grandchildren. If I were to ask her what else she wanted out of life, I don’t think she could tell me. I don’t think she has another vision.

She was always overwhelmed by problems and she relied on us kids to support her. It was the way she responded to my desires, saw my way of living my life as a problem for her, that pushed me to the extreme in wanting to be different.

I have five brothers, older and younger. When I tried to act like them, to be independent, I got punished and they didn’t. I was frustrated as a little girl, and when I was an adolescent it was a crisis. I tried to sit down with her and tell her about things I learned in school, and she wasn’t getting it. We had different minds.

Now as an adult I’m starting to see and accept the ways I’m like her. I know I have to just be sometimes, to observe more, to accept life as it is. I don’t want to build my identity on negation; I just want to be clear and honest about the negatives.

And she’s amazing! Because we challenge her, she’s trying to adjust her viewpoint to narrow the gap. Since I’m in Washington this semester, she asks about Obama, about the health care debate, even about the cherry blossoms. We’re coming closer. When I go home in a week or so after being away, our relationship will have shifted again. I honestly don’t know what to expect, because we’ve both changed.”

J. feels awkward about all this, so I (Mary) tell her she’s not alone. Many of us don’t really appreciate our mothers until we’re adults. And daughters who are encouraged to excel have their dissatisfactions too.

Lesley Pocock, a member in Australia, publishes materials for medical education.

“My daughter (a clever girl who is now a volcanologist and exploration geophysicist at University of Southampton, UK) was enrolled in a massive, long-term survey of the physical, mental, and social development of girls when she was in secondary school. The whole family was involved―and it brought out some interesting issues about mothers and daughters. Very briefly, I was a young mother in a newly ‘emancipated era’ (70s/80s). We were told to tell our daughters they could do anything and so we did. In the case of my daughter, I knew she had the capacity to do anything, so I genuinely believed in her.

I was a working mother (but part time when the children were small) which was also a novelty. (And later my daughter said, “How do you think I became so strong and independent? It was my role of “supermum” she attributed this to.) But the interesting part was, in the survey interviews, her only complaint against me was, ‘Mum thinks I can do everything!’ ”

Mentors
Mothers are given. We choose our mentors, so they shape us―and we them―in different ways. Alicia’s father played a key role in her development. Mary’s mentor and role model was her 10-years-older sister. For J. it was a brother.

“With five brothers, I spent my life in a masculine world. I was closest to the brother a year older than me. And curiously, when I think about it, the qualities I admired in him were what some might call feminine qualities. He was very interested in listening to my experience. He was very good in school, and he loved to draw; he was drawing all the time. I used to ask for his approval of all my ideas. Now it matters much less; I don’t need that any more.

You know, this business of building an identity had another angle for me as a member of an oppressed minority group in Israel. You try to accept the majority’s values, because that’s how you’ll succeed, and at the same time build your own identity as being different from them. There were some Jewish women I admired, but they couldn’t be role models because I couldn’t be like them.

There was a first grade teacher I loved, and who loved me. She was very sensitive and encouraging. Then she quit teaching. So no, I guess I never had one long-term role model. And I think that was a choice. I need to be me, a person who works with conflict and makes something out of it. That’s why I’m working on an advanced degree in conflict resolution.”

While the relationship between mother and daughter is often rife with expectations, mentors can surface in unexpected ways, with unanticipated wisdom to share. Alicia, like Najuan, never went looking for a long-term role model. However, in 2008 when she met Zandile Nhlengetwa she discovered what it means to look to someone as a mentor. Alicia was hired as part of the Women PeaceMakers Program to document Zandile’s life story as a peacebuilder in South Africa. A survivor of the political violence that affected her home province of KwaZulu-Natal, Zandile designs peacebuilding projects for communities that have experienced high levels of violence, both during apartheid and now in the post-conflict era.

The bond that gradually blossomed between Alicia and Zandile was something neither of them anticipated. Because of what Zandile refers to as her “baggage from South Africa,” she initially anticipated that Alicia―a young, white woman―might patronize her and push her to do things she did not want to do. Alicia, on the other hand, did not realize the extent of the emotional baggage she carried from her own mother’s death. She could never have anticipated the ways Zandile would help her heal and in the process become like a mother.

“Nearly three years later, it still means the world to me when I open my email inbox to find a message from Zandile addressed, ‘To my dearest daughter, friend, confidante Alicia,’ or signed, ‘Have a lovely day, Love Mom.’ Each of these words―daughter, friend, confidante―carries incredible significance. I am humbled that she thinks of me in these ways.”

Several years ago Zandile, together with several other women, formed the Harambe Women’s Forum. Zandile’s son had been killed and the sons of these women had been imprisoned for his death. She said to them, “My son is dead. Your sons are like dead in prison. We all have something in common: we don’t have our loved ones. What brings me to come here is that we are all mothers. We are women.” Together these women now consider themselves “wounded healers.” They have each experienced great suffering and display continual resilience in the face of HIV/AIDS, poverty, and violence. It is because of their hurt, they believe, that they are able to understand and help others.

Women’s wisdom doesn’t mean always knowing what to do or say and it’s not just what is there in moments of unwavering strength. For Alicia, it was the vulnerability that Zandile shared―her sadness, anxieties, and fears―that made her such a strong, powerful example.

“Zandile’s courage to acknowledge both the strengths and weakness within herself became a model for me. She taught me that the ability to see and acknowledge both the good and bad in ourselves and others lies at the heart of peacebuilding. She is someone I look up to with a great deal of admiration and respect. It is unbelievable to me that she admires me too.”

Words of Wisdom
The celebrated Dr. Dorothy Height, who died last week at the age of 98, was a mentee of Mary McLeod Bethune (b. 1875), the founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Dr. Height assumed the presidency of the NCNW in 1957 and served until 1988―over 40 of the organizations 75 years. Bethune’s Last Will and Testament was originally published in Ebony magazine in August 1955. It begins:

“I LEAVE YOU LOVE. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. . . . “Love thy neighbor” is a precept which could transform the world if it were universally practiced. . . . Loving your neighbor means being interracial, interreligious and international.”

We asked Peace X Peace Executive Director Molly Mayfield to share a few words from the mothers, mentors, and heroes in her life. Like Mary McLeod Bethune, Molly puts love first. Her eight personal principles:

* Put love first in everything you do.
* Life isn’t fair. So find a way to deal with it – usually allowing space for love to be at the front of whatever you do softens the blow of realizing that life isn’t fair.
* Take care of your parents.
* Siblings can be your friends.
* Floss.
* You have the power to change how you feel. If a situation makes you unhappy, or envious, or angry, the one thing you can always change is how you react to it.
* Change is inevitable.
* Don’t frown too much. It gives you wrinkles!

Here are some nuggets of wisdom that Alicia likes to live by:

* Assume the best of people. And forgive them when they fall short.
* When speaking, be truthful, gentle, helpful, kind hearted and timely.
* And to quote a favorite song of mine (by Beth Orton):
“What’s the use in regrets
They’re just things we haven’t done yet
What are regrets?
They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet.”

And here are a few from Mary:

* When in doubt, be kind. Err on the side of generosity, inclusion, absolution.
* Balance is vital. And you find it in the pattern of years, not days or weeks. With a lover, with a baby, with the work that claims your best, it’s OK to be temporarily off balance.
* Work and pray for peace.
* Never pass up the chance to experience a new taste, a new place, a new person, or a new challenge―except when you must.
* Never say never.

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