At the Skirball, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and Families Take Action

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About the Exhibition: I recently attended a press preview of the exhibition, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, at the Skirball.  Based on the bestseller Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the exhibition educates and inspires.  Like the book, it raises awareness about pervasive violence against women, human trafficking, and maternal mortality.  It’s also a call to action, demonstrating how individual and collective efforts can positively impact women’s lives.

At the preview event, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof walked us through the galleries.  He told us about the women whose lives are portrayed in the show – women he knows and wrote about in his book. And that’s what makes Women Hold UP Half the Sky so compelling.  It makes the issue of women’s oppression suddenly very personal.  The exhibition tells the stories of real women, in real circumstances, whose lives were changed through education, economics, and self-determination.

These women now have a name, a face, and a story.  On wall labels, we read about women like Mamitu Gashe – a woman from a remote village in Ethiopia who suffered a debilitating complication after her first pregnancy. We learned about her incredible transformation from an uneducated patient to a top surgeon who now runs the hospital’s training program.

The exhibition also gives oppressed women, whose suffering is all too often silent, a voice.  Artist Ben Rubin’s original soundscape fills the galleries with the melodic singing and speaking voices of Rwandan girls and women he interviewed.  At video and audio stations, women tell their stories in their own words. In one video, Goretti Nyabenda (see video), a mother of six, gives a moving account of the hardships and domestic abuse she endured before a microloan of $2 enabled her to create a successful banana beer business.  Now she is a key community advisor who helps women and men in her village.

This notion of  “paying it forward” is a major theme of the exhibition.  According to Kristof, sometimes life’s realities are so shocking and difficult to face that we just tune them out.  But, he says, “We can act.”  Visitors are given many opportunities to take action on behalf of women and girls. At the joinFITE station, I used a code on my admission ticket to make a $1 microloan to a women entrepreneur. Later, I received a photo and email about Maria Elena, the 49 yr old single mother who received the loan for her small grocery business.

At the wish station, we wrote wishes on blue note cards for women and girls facing difficult situations.  Our wishes will be added to the Wish Canopy that floats above the exhibition. This striking sculptural installation by Layer is comprised of 1500 interlinked translucent pieces forming sleeves to hold visitors’ handwritten wishes.  Overtime, the exhibition’s clear canopy will gradually turn blue as visitors’ wishes collectively “hold up the sky.”

Suggestions for Families:  Although there are no graphic images or depictions of violence, some of the experiences described in the show are definitely not for young children — atrocities like genital mutilation and sex trafficking are difficult subjects even for adults.  The exhibition’s flexible design, however, makes it possible for family visitors to avoid this content. Using the Skirball’s map of family-friendly stops, parents can take older kids (recommended for 8 yrs +) through the advocacy, action, wish, and soundscape stations. As I discovered on a return visit to the Skirball, families can have a meaningful experience when visiting these areas.

Navigating through the galleries, families were drawn to the joinFITE station.  Using tablet computers, kids logged in and made their $1 microloan to a women entrepreneur of their choice.  Like me, they’ll receive an email about the women they’ve helped and periodic updates.  These emails give families an opportunity for follow-up discussions at home after their visit. Kids also made wishes and watched the compelling Girl Effect video (be sure to watch it below), by the Nike Foundation.

On their way in and out, families stopped by the exhibition’s Holiday Pop-up Shop (open through December 31).  The shop has great handcrafted items made by women around the world.  Their purchases will support over seventy-five organizations helping women and their children. All of these experiences demonstrate what Women Hold Up Half the Sky is all about – that the smallest bit of help can literally make a world of difference.




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