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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Empowering Women Through Communication

By: Jennifer Blank Hecht 
A strong, intelligent, well-spoken woman makes time for me amidst the chaos of running an organization and moving to a new location in a few days’ time. Boxes and garbage bags surround her desk, as her phone is ringing, but she wholeheartedly welcomes me with tea.

Catherine Cooke at FWIN offices
Just twenty years ago, Catherine Cooke formed  Foyle Women’s Information Network (FWIN) taking foundational relationships built by women in segregated communities to the next level of building alliances—together—making the community stronger. They created freedom of movement so women could make their way into each other’s communities and feel safe. The group provides an opportunity for women of all generations to discuss health, education, and leadership and to learn skills to better their lives—from writing a CV to learning to be a DJ!

In 2009, several women were chosen from around the world as delegates to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Due to all of her work on empowering women in Northern Ireland, Catherine was selected. In addition to being a delegate, Catherine was chosen to participate in two weeks of leadership training with Hillary Clinton, political consultant, Bob Schrum and US senators. She is now helping to create a European pilot program to increase the voice of women in politics.

You may be wondering how Catherine made it to this point…how does a woman born in the Fountain, a few years before The Troubles of Londonderry/Derry eventually meet the former U.S. Secretary of State?  

Catherine grew up like other children in Northern Ireland.  Her best friends were all of the same community—Protestant. Her father was a B-special in Ulster Special Constabulary. When she was four years old, her family was threatened and ultimately had to leave the city. They moved into a new house that her mother loved and her father hated.  He sorely missed his home and community.  Her parents decided to return to Londonderry, despite the difficult times. 

St. Augustine's Chapel in Londonderry
Discrimination for Protestants was prevalent, the economy was poor, and it was impossible to find a job or a home in one of the top ten deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Eventually, the Dean of the Cathedral at St. Augustine’s Chapel provided her father and mother with the opportunity to be caretakers of the church. The family cleaned and cared for their House of God. To this day, she is part of the community at St. Augustine’s chapel.

When she was 19, she married a Protestant man and settled into a cozy home with four daughters.  A few years after living there, and five days before Christmas, the IRA planted bombs on Catherine’s street.  Windows were shattered. Doors were blown off.  A neighbor was killed, and many homes were demolished.

What is a mother to do when she walks out her door and bombs are an everyday part of life?  How can she protect her sons and daughters? The mothers of Catherine’s community knew they had to take action. Some of the community mothers began to collect 50p from every house to fundraise for community development. They began to take children from both communities on outings together. Catherine gave the 50p, but she was not ready to give up her children to the field trips.

As the community group grew, they needed a typist to gather notes and send out letters. That was something Catherine felt she could contribute.  Little did Catherine realize this one action was the avenue, which would eventually lead her to become the amazing pillar of the community and role model.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, this group of mothers was not relevant to officials. If you weren’t elected, you didn’t have a voice. But these women continued to fight and believe in their cause, as well as to build trust with other mothers on opposing sides –and they finally got a seat at the table to share their perspectives.

They were starting to make a difference. When Loyalist paramilitary became violent one day, the group of mothers approached them and asked them to “please exercise some leadership.”  The mothers began to share stories about current activities and how they could keep both communities safe, as well as keep youth out of criminal activity.  When her Loyalist friends and family angrily questioned why she was crossing solid boundaries to work with their enemies, she posited, “When you go into the stable of horses, you don’t come out a horse, do you?  You are the same person as when you went in.” Catherine did not change her identity, but she listened and began to communicate in order to gain perspective and provoke change.

Catherine and other women changed the environment that male leaders were accustomed to and instead, utilized dialogue and empathy to understand how to move forward.  According to Catherine, “Sometimes you don’t have to raise your voice or hand,” but rather talk about how you feel.

She believes there is still work to be done. Women are still not active in politics. As much as FWIN does to support female youth and get them ready for leadership and public life, sometimes they are more sectarian than the older generation. They still fight for orange or green. Catherine believes that until politics change and people begin to vote for the person rather than the party, in many ways, there will be more of the same. In order for the peacebuilding process to continue, female perspectives need to be heard and utilized.

Toward the end of the interview, I asked Catherine if there is anything she wishes that outside communities knew about The Conflict.  Immediately she answered that she wants Americans to understand that 1969 should have focused on Civil Rights for both parties. She feels Americans only hear the Catholic side of the story—when everyone lost family members and homes—everyone was grieving for the community that was lost.
FWIN's cow artwork demonstrates a jigsaw puzzle that when connected brings everything (the community) together.
Catherine and FWIN have made great achievements on bringing women together. And while she could stop there and be satisfied, she continues to use her life experiences, dialogue, and empathy to mentor others on how to make LondonDerry/Derry—and the world—a better place.

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