Archive for Allyn Gaestel

Newly released book, Souls of my Young Sisters, celebrates women’s personal journeys and empowerment

By Allyn Gaestel

Souls of My Young Sisters is an inspiring book written by young women, for young women. The stories the authors share are glaringly honest and brutally real. Women speak of their struggles ranging from domestic violence to heartbreak, body image and career trials. But these women are all survivors, and they share the inspiration that pulled them through dark times with other young women.

Candace Sandy, one of the authors of the book explained: “For young African American women, there are staggering statistics about single motherhood, about poverty, about HIV. As we get older, about heart disease and strokes. There is also this amazing power of when these women get older they become the center of their families, they are cleaning up messes of their family, and taking in other children, they are the influencers, they may not have anything but they are going to give anything that they can to the children in their lives…so what we want to try to do, through the voices of the young women is to say look, first let’s know who we are and then let’s take control of how we’re being positioned and what our stories are.

The book is written for women in the twentysomething range, which perhaps explains why it spoke to me so deeply (I being a twentysomething woman), but Sandy hopes the stories will transcend the pages, and women will speak to younger sisters about it. She said: “the thirteen year olds are acting pretty much like eighteen year olds and unfortunately in some communities you may have twentysomethings with a 13 year old. So we’re trying to have honest dialogue with these women and hopefully they will start having dialogue with the younger people in their lives to be able to dispel the myths.”

The stories are framed as first-person accounts of struggles women have overcome with an emphasis on what pulled them through and how they used these challenges to become stronger individuals.

Starr Murrell’s story speaks on her heartbreak when she found out the man she had been centering her life around was simultaneously engaged to someone else. She had pulled away from her career as a dancer and model to focus on building a home with him, only to find herself with nothing when the truth came out.

She had never shared her story until Sandy invited her to a focus group during the early stages of the book’s development. From speaking with the women in the room, she found her voice and was inspired to incorporate an honest and open portrayal of her life into her work in fashion, media and acting. “This whole process is very cathartic, it’s been therapy…writing all these feelings down and reading them back to myself, you kind of see the growth and you see where you were and where you are now. It’s great. I see a stronger woman, I see someone who is more confident and independent, and also someone who is more loving and able to not hold on to grudges or ill will.”

Aleia Moore survived a horrific car crash as a child, and was not expected to live, but with therapy and perseverance she was able to rebuild and go on to academic and professional success. She is already a published author, and her collection of poems “Pieces of Me” has been available since October. Speaking to me at a posh press event for the book at Covet lounge she said: “As we can see, with therapy and prayer and perseverance everything turned out well, and the gist of my story is that if you’re dedicated and you work hard and you continue to press on, that you can overcome anything that’s put in front of you”

The women framed their stories as gifts and messages to other people. Everyone spoke of the hope of fostering sisterhood and letting people know they are not alone in their struggles. Kimberly Cooper, another contributor wrote of her process of finding her own support through faith to get through the death of both of her parents by the time she was 22, and her first big heartbreak at 32. She emphasized the need to foster community among women: “When sisters get together there is a healing power that comes through that, so I absolutely feel that this can speak for women as well, I mean these are our stories, I’m a woman.”

Cooper called herself a “vessel” and tries to be as transparent as possible with her struggles so that others can learn from her honest portrayal of her journey. “We carry the burden of a lot and we need to be encouraged too, we need to know that it’s ok, we need to know that tomorrow’s going to be a better day, we need to know that we’re not alone.”

While the book is written by and for young women, the messages are meant to transcend any barriers. Sandy said: “We want to just kind of work on us, and the word ‘us’ isn’t limited to African-American women, we embrace all women, because we’re going through a lot.” Murrell reflected, “I think any one, young women, young men, the older demographic, I think anybody that picks up this book “souls of my young sisters” will be touched or moved by it in some sort of way.”

The authors have high hopes for the book, which is now available in stores and online. They aim to make the New York Times bestseller list. There may also be a second edition, and hopefully a book geared toward even younger women.

Souls of My Young Sisters is a follow-up to Souls of My Sisters, which was released to critical acclaim in 2000. Starr Murrell is also hosting a blog talk radio showed inspired by the book, which will air Thursdays at 11pm at

What Makes a Feminist Artist?

By Allyn Gaestel

Last month Paradigm Shift organized a Feminist Artist Showcase at China 1 in Alphabet City. Facing a packed house, musicians performed a diverse array of musical sets, from spoken word to folk to reggae.

The range of performances underlined the diversity of the feminist movement, and the space for self-definition and expression within the movement. I was curious to discover what brought all these people together under the umbrella of “feminist art”.

Performers appreciated the audience’s warm reception and the opportunity to perform in a feminist space. Ricky, from Twilight of the Idle said, “It is important to have a specific place for feminist artists to perform. Women and queer and trans people, which many feminists are, have to work harder to find an audience. We get taken less seriously than straight cisgendered male artists and musicians. We get heckled by audience members, and in some cases believe it or not, by the very person who booked us in the first place.”

Jennifer Ortiz, a spoken word performer and doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center explained that it is important to support feminist artists in safe spaces, but they also need to expand their audience to spread their message. “I feel it is important for feminists to have their own performance space, however, I am afraid that if feminist works are only displayed at such events, it may in essence be ‘preaching to the choir’. Feminist works need to be showcased at other venues in order to ensure that the message reaches those individuals, particularly young woman, who are unsure or confused as to what feminism truly is.”

The question of reaching out to broader audiences and spreading the feminist message through art was a central theme repeated by many artists. Chantilly said that much of her art doesn’t take an overtly feminist tone, because that isn’t what “hits home” for her listeners. “In a way, I feel like it’s not very productive to write exclusively on feminist topics (music-wise). You can only reach a certain niche of people that way, and at that point you’re just preaching to the choir. To me, the best way to reach people is to write whatever’s in your heart, then embody your ideals in the way you live and set an example.”

Numerous artists emphasized actively living feminism through performance and beyond. Katina Douveas said, “being a feminist for me is being extremely sensitive and vigilant to all forms of oppression, and then doing something about it.”

Jennifer Ortiz explained her own self-assertion as a feminist: “I believe that being a feminist is to take pride in being a woman and about fighting against the grain of societal expectations. In society, women are too often pressured to follow societal rules which tend to be biased in favor of men; being a feminist requires living by your own set of rules that emphasizes being a woman.”

While many artists feel somewhat outside the mainstream music world with their loaded messages, Julie from Twilight of the Idle is optimistic about the feminist art movement: “it’s only a matter of time before a feminist movement becomes concurrent culture.”

And Katina Douveas emphasized the breadth of the feminist movement. “I really believe we all have a feminist inside of us, somewhere, and that deep down, we all know that honoring “differences” and speaking up for those silenced, and for our own silenced voices is really in all of our best interest.”

Feminist artists are working throughout their lives to spread their own definition of feminism. Supportive spaces play an important role for nourishing these activists as they continue to assert themselves in less receptive venues.

Twilight of the Idle is hosting a CD release party Saturday, May 15 at 8pm at Collect Pond 338 Berry St. in Williamsburg.

Contacts for the performers are listed below:

Hosted by Laura Joy, Acoustic Folk Pop & Membership Coordinator, Paradigm Shift

BASTET – “Belly Dance For Change”, Experimental belly dance troupe

BARNACLE BILL, Folk / Soul / Reggae

CHANTILLY, Singer-Songwriter
Picture Feist and Joni Mitchell jamming in a Brooklyn warehouse

JENNIFER ORTIZ, Spoken Word Poet

JULIA WELDON, Folk Indie Rock

KATINA DOUVEAS, Spoken Word Poet

MS. INDIA.M, R&B/ Soul / Jazz / Alternative

TWILIGHT OF THE IDLE, Queer Cabaret Wordrock

View event photos on facebook!

Paradigm Shift Event Coverage- Sex Work and Human Rights: Feminist Advocacy Strategies- What would an ideal world for sex workers look like?

By Allyn Gaestel, Paradigm Shift Staff Writer

Sex work advocates from around New York gathered at The Tank March 30 for a wide-ranging conversation on human rights, feminism and sex work in New York and internationally. The audience started out quiet. Christina Cicchelli, a porn actress and panelist asked the room “How many of you watch porn?” The whole panel raised their hands, but few audience members did. Cicchelli responded, “In your mind I’m sure you’re saying ‘yes!’ But you can’t raise your hand right now.”

The panelists each introduced themselves and spoke of their individual work as sex work advocates. Experts ranged from lawyers to youth advocates and media liaisons. Later, as the question and answer period warmed up, audience members asked provocative questions that took the panel in new directions. One question was about what all these activists and advocates were working for, what were their long term goals, and what would the sex work industry look like if they could have it how they want.

The responses demonstrated the specific emphases the panelists have in their work, but the overriding theme—one that fits so perfectly with the question of the links between feminism, human rights and sex work—was that a utopian world for sex work would be linked to a utopian world for everyone, with justice across the employment sector, equality in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and respect for youth. The responses were inspiring and quotes are located below.

This is a central issue for those interested in any movement building, it’s not a question of empowering one group or making specific changes for a certain population. Rather, everything is linked, and all of society must be engaged in movements to push through positive change. For exploited sex workers to be empowered, they must have options in and outside of the sex industry, and for sex workers by choice to do their job in peace, society must break down the barriers of stigma and criminalization.

Audacia Ray works for the International Women’s Health Coalition, is a respected author and co-founder of Sex Work Awareness.

“For me that question is larger than just what the sex industry would look like, it’s a question of what employment would look like. I would like to, in my wildest dreams, see a world where people can be compensated for all different kinds of work in a way that gives them actual real choice about how they want to spend their working days…I would like to see a world where women and trans people are able to get good employment and good wages in parts of the world and work that is not the sex industry and be really truly be able to choose between sex industry work and other work”

Christina Cicchelli writes for $pread magazine in addition to her work in porn and other industries.

“As a current sex worker let me tell you what my world is going to look like….Small things could ultimately change the way that we talk about sex work. In the beginning I told you, really I can only talk about pornography. In a different world I could tell you about other professions without feeling as if I’m going to get incriminated against by somebody in the audience or somebody listening, that is a big difference in terms of the way that we can even have this discussion with people who are currently in sex work.

And as someone who is currently running her own business, a big thing that I’m learning about is even finding ways of selling my content without breaking any laws…if you’ve ever used paypal or godaddy things that you would normally use just to sell your business, for me it would take much longer and it would cost me more in the end because of the work I do. Granted, it might be legal in some states, and granted in society’s mind pornography isn’t really thought of as having any of those particular issues, but for me just being somebody who has been in the porn industry and has started out I can tell you that the way I handle my business, it’s discriminatory. I’m not doing anything wrong, and yet I can’t…function like a normal entrepreneur.

I think what we’re all working towards is really just trying to find equality in terms of the choices that we have and be able to talk about sex work in a way that isn’t going to be incriminating and in a way that isn’t going to prevent us from living our lives to the fullest and making those choices that ultimately make us happy.”

Will Rockwell is a youth advocate and editor of $pread magazine

“’Ideally’ is such a huge question, and I like how Audacia framed it in terms of how the sex industry in a utopian vision would be part of different changes in the world around economic, racial, and gender justice.

I think ideally we would start incorporating young people into the vision too, not to assume that every young person is sexually exploited, but to assume that perhaps it’s a more complicated story and until there are those options […] to choose more empowering paths or different paths as opposed to the limited choices many of us who started young were left with, which is to say a ‘choice among limited choices.’ Still, every choice under post-industrial capitalism is a choice among limited choices, and those options would have to include, in this ‘utopian’ universe, a place to sleep, regular pay, non-minimum wage job, an end to racist, sexist, and transphobic occupational discrimination […] Definitely, I think a practical step to take right now is to incorporate more into the movement a vision of what we’re doing to help young people who work, too, and to address their self-determined needs, whether it is improved working conditions, an end to criminalization, or a safe exit from the industry.”

Sienna Baskin is an attorney at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center

“People usually come to me when they have a problem, because I’m a lawyer, and it’s a sex work problem, because it’s for the sex workers project. So mostly people are not having their best day when they come to me. But every once in a while I have someone who comes to me and says “I have a problem, but let me just tell you one thing first, I love sex work, I love it, I tried being a psychotherapist, didn’t like it, I love it, it’s what I want to do” and they just want to make that clear. I wish every client felt that way and that we lived in a world where everyone felt that way about their jobs and that they just love their jobs. And I think that’s a bigger, broader change in capitalism…we need to make that happen.

Another thing I would love is if people could put their sex work jobs on their resumes when trying to get other jobs. When I often talk to people about employment discrimination and they [say] “I have to…hide the fact and hope that no one finds out the fact that my work experience is in sex work.” But there are so many transferable skills and I wish that that could be recognized and people could talk about all the great skills they now have that could be applied to other kinds of work.

And then in doing policy work on the federal level, on the state level, I realize that sex workers are the last thing its OK to discriminate against, it’s OK to throw under the bus. And if you really want to get the votes out or get elected again, just make a law against sex work—another one, even though it’s already illegal. I would love a world where sex workers are recognized as a really formidable constituency and every law that you’re trying to pass you have to think ‘well how might this impact my sex work constituency and I should really talk to them about it and make sure they’re on board.’”

Maryse Mitchell-Brody is co-founder of Sex Workers Action New York

“I want a world with access, whether that means access to condoms, access to choice, access to housing, also access to justice, whatever that means for individuals and not necessarily [through] what I call the criminal legal system (not the criminal justice system) because I don’t think people experience much justice there.

We really are talking about what we’re against, but we’re up against an awful lot. I want to see more collectivizing and solidarity in sex worker communities…I’ve seen a lot of amazing solidarity and I’ve seen folks not always having each other’s backs as much as I’d hope. So I want a world in which it’s safe for people to have each other’s backs because it doesn’t mean you going hungry that night.”

There is a lot to change to make a just world for sex workers, but the links between sex work advocacy and broader social issues can inspire solidarity between movements to move the process forward.

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