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Why the War Is Sexist
Wars enlist patriarchal relations
R efusing to be silenced as a military parent, Cindy Sheehan’s voice lent new urgency to stopping the war in Iraq. She has been likened to a Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement. Both widely recognized women served as symbolic figures to help bring the weight of a larger base of organizing to bear on the public.
Yet today we have an anti-war movement that largely fails to point out connections between war and patriarchy or gendered domestic inequalities. To galvanize organizing against militarism to its full potential, we must question its gender-blind approach.
What would it mean to put not just Sheehan’s son at the center of outrage, but women like Sheehan, as military mothers, wives, and partners? How have these women, not just the troops, been militarized, manipulated, and exploited? What would it mean for the anti-war movement to interpret women like Sheehan as activists and agents fighting against exploitation that directly affects them in their own right, not just as stand-ins for others’ struggles?
What follows are suggestions for how to apply a gender analysis to war and its links to patriarchy.
1. Soldiers are not the only—or main—casualties of war . The ideology of militarism glorifies soldiers, focusing attention on their heroism and sacrifice. In the 20th century, 90 percent of all war deaths have been unarmed women, children, and men. As the occupation wears on, more and more Iraqi women and girls are killed—reported as “collateral damage.” Bombs and modern war weapons murder and maim noncombatant women in approximately equal numbers to noncombatant men—even if from the U.S. perspective, men make up the vast majority of our war dead. Soldiers are not those primarily losing their lives in this current occupation. U.S. imperialism benefits from strategies that maximize “collateral damage” (such as using long-distance, high tech weapons rather than infantry) because these also minimize our own soldiers’ deaths and the potential public relations blowup. The tendency to devalue the enemies’ lives is reinforced by not only racist, but also sexist ideologies—history is made by “our boys,” while female enemy deaths are not even acknowledged.
Additionally, due to remarkably high industrial injuries and deaths on the homefront in previous conflicts, such as WWII, historian Catherine Lutz observed, “The female civilians who worked on bases or in war industries can be seen as no less guardians or risk-takers than people in uniform.” This is not to downplay the amount of suffering and exploitation soldiers are forced to endure, but to widen our scope of who we recognize as affected in war.
2. The economic harms of war are exacerbated by patriarchy. With the destruction of Iraq’s economy, women and girls especially have suffered from deprivations. In the U.S., poor women bear the brunt of public service cuts. In Massachusetts, for example, most Medicaid recipients, students at state and community colleges, welfare and subsidized childcare recipients, are women—and all these programs have faced budget slashes. Most families living in poverty are headed by single mothers.
Furthermore, imperialism helps to intensify and increase unpaid
labor that is performed by women in their traditional gender roles.
Childcare, healthcare, and homemaking all become heavier without
public sector aid, whether due to economic collapse in occupied
lands or imperialist austerity in the aggressor nation. For instance,
as hospitals are destroyed or become unavailable or less affordable,
women in both Iraq and the U.S. disproportionately shoulder responsibility
for their families’ healthcare. As schools close or childcare
becomes too expensive, women are strained with extra work watching
children. Alarmingly, industrialized nations plan to impose IMF
Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) on Iraq because of its sovereign
debt. Feminist scholars have documented how SAPs have disproportionately
harmed Third World women across the globe in terms of health, education,
U.S. women from military families and wives of government contractors are saddled with the unpaid task of holding the family together until their “spouse” returns. As the heads of single-parent households, these women take responsibility for homemaking and childcare, on top of their jobs. One brother of a serviceperson put it: “Soldiers may enlist, but their families are drafted.”
That the military depends on such women to figuratively “oil its machinery” by maintaining troop morale is evidenced by its creation of “support groups” for military wives, even while it lengthens troop deployments to cope with overstretch. Rather than being dismissed as a service for needy women, these support groups should be seen as an attempt to harness and propel women’s labor—including their performance of correct, sexually loyal roles—that the troops’ emotional functioning and lack of rebellion partly relies on. The Pentagon is responding to its post-invasion recruitment shortage by drawing on reserves, increasing deployment, and laying the economic, emotional strain on women in military families.
At the same time, our government’s distorted agenda harnesses and compounds economic sexism that pre-dates the Iraq war. Given U.S. history, patriarchy’s operation cannot be disentangled from pre-existing structural racism either. Racist incarceration that disproportionately targets black communities intensifies black women’s unpaid labor heading single households. Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and immigrant women are strained by the detention of their partners and family members in the “war on terror.”
3. Militarization intensifies the sexual commodification of women. Feminist anthropologists such as Cynthia Enloe have documented how the U.S. military perpetuates the sexual commodification of women around military bases to manage and motivate its largely male workforce.
Following a pattern observed across different conflict regions by feminist scholars, Iraqi women face increasing pressures to earn their subsistence from men by bartering their sexuality. This is due to a lack of other economic options under both military attack and oppressive gender relations. In Baghdad prostitution reportedly became widespread between the fall of the Hussein administration in April 2003 and November 2003, as women disproportionately suffered growing poverty. Today, reports have surfaced of Iraqi teens working in Syrian brothels after being displaced from Fallujah, where U.S. forces launched brutal offensives and chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Sexual violence, as well as the trafficking of Iraqi women and girls, showed huge rises almost immediately after the invasion and continue. While initially perpetrated largely by Iraqi men, these rapes and abductions were exacerbated by the occupation force’s negligence and inability to establish security.
Sectors of the U.S. anti-war left have been unsure how to address such violence, let alone suggest an adequate remedy to the problem, besides calls for resistance. But an understanding of the gender dynamics typical of wartime economies would press the need to provide solidarity for Iraqi anti-occupation movements for women’s rights and freedom from sexual violence as a human right equal to Iraqi struggles for food, water, shelter, and healthcare. Meanwhile, as the occupation persists, with growing contact between military forces and Iraqi civilians, sexual brutality by both U.S. troops and Iraqi police under occupation authority has increased.
Jennifer Fasulo is co-founder of Solidarity with Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (SOWFI), a U.S.-based group providing political support to an anti-occupation, feminist women’s group in Iraq. She reminds us of the specific historical and geopolitical context of the occupation, pointing out that the conflict has intensified the growing religious fundamentalist movement in Iraq—opposed by Iraqi feminists and socialists—including segments that systematically perpetrate violence against and harassment of women. The rise of Islamist fundamentalism throughout the Middle East is not merely indigenous, but has U.S. support, which recruited and imported Islamist militias in opposition to secular, democratic, and socialist movements throughout earlier decades.
4. Militarization helps perpetuate sexual violence, domestic violence, and violence against women. Even though women serve as soldiers, the U.S. military is a misogynist, homophobic institution that relies on patriarchal ideologies and relations to function—with effects on larger society, as well as the countries we occupy or where we have bases. The U.S. military trains men to devalue, objectify, and demean traits traditionally associated with women. It molds men into a gender role of violent masculinity defined in opposition to femininity. “Violent masculinity” is a mode of operating that glorifies violence as a solution to tension.
Furthermore, soldiers are purposefully trained to eroticize violence—from a heterosexual, male-aggressor perspective, even if some soldiers are gay and some are women. For example, during the first Gulf War, Air Force pilots watched pornographic movies before bombing missions to psyche themselves up. Until 1999 hardcore pornography was available at military base commissaries, which were one of its largest purchasers.
The military teaches soldiers to internalize the misogynistic role of violent masculinity so they can function psychologically. At the 2003 Air Force Academy Prom, men were given flyers that read, “You Shut the Fuck Up. We’ll Protect America. Get out of our way, you liberal pussies.” They were then treated to a play that provided instructions on how to stimulate a female’s clitoris and nipples to get her vaginal juices flowing (in case she was otherwise unwilling?).
Alarmingly, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, over 80 percent of recent women veterans report experiencing sexual harassment and 30 percent report rape, or attempted rape, by other military personnel. Crimes of sexual violence by military personnel are shocking yet are institutionally ignored. Lawyer Dorothy Mackey of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel reports that of the 4,300 sexual assault and abuse cases she is handling, only 3 were actually prosecuted. In Mackey’s own experience as a survivor of repeated sexual assault by military personnel, her attempt to press charges was opposed by the Department of Justice as a threat to national security.
The U.S. Inspector General reported that military service is more conducive to domestic violence than any other occupation, citing the military’s authoritarianism, use of physical force in training, and the stress of frequent moves and separations as factors. (The military’s institutional sexism and indifference to violence against women could be added.) A checklist used by the military to determine if rape reports are valid lists a women’s financial problems with her partner and “demanding” medical treatment as factors indicating she’s lying. The Army recently offered the perk of free breast implants for servicewomen, so its surgeons could “get practice.” Meanwhile, it has a drastic shortage of rape kits in combat regions and refuses to pay for servicewomen’s abortions even in the case of rape.
A therapist who practices near a large Army base, and treats soldiers returning from Iraq, reported escalating domestic violence once troops began coming home. Wife-killings at military bases are at an all-time high, she says, but are being covered up by the Army. She also reported on soldiers’ addiction to pornography as a source of sexual selfishness and abuse towards their partners, training the soldiers to use women’s bodies as masturbatory devices.
Prison torture was also outsourced to U.S. companies using personnel from domestic prisons. Beyond the prison-military complex, the impact of rape culture nurtured by the military can be traced through U.S. society further. In 1997 the number one reason for veterans to be in prison at the state, federal, or local level was for sexual assault. An exploration of the effects of militarism on socialization and institutions, from school to family, are outside the scope of this essay, but must be considered.
The impact of violence against women cannot be separated from racial and economic hierarchy, even though these pieces are often analyzed without reference to each other. One result of Hurricane Katrina was the devastation of domestic violence shelters and sexual assault services. The Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence describes poor women forced to live in homeless shelters, experiencing rape and physical abuse from partners. Needless to say, poor and non-white women disproportionately face a lack of resources to gendered violence. For instance, although violence against women cuts across class, women on welfare suffer especially high rates of domestic and sexual violence—a direct result of having less freedom to leave their abusers. Again, government policy is involved; welfare law, purportedly to encourage “strong” families, denies funds to poor women who leave their partners, requiring their economic dependency and endurance of abuse.
5. Militarization and war decrease women’s control over their reproduction. Just months after the invasion, increased back alley abortions were reported in Baghdad, as women lost access to healthcare and contraception. In the U.S., budget stringency means that policies like universal healthcare and free contraception on demand appear to remain distant realities. The lack of reproductive healthcare is an issue of women’s equality, affecting women’s control of their labor, bodies, and futures.
Further, a Christian right-wing takeover of the U.S. political scene has reframed debates over “morality” in terms of issues like abortion and gay rights —diverting outrage away from, say, economic exploitation by this Administration and its war policy to the treatment of a clump of cells and who one loves. The Christian conservative movement focuses its political intervention more on directly controlling individuals’ personal behavior than on altering the structures of society to alleviate inequality and meet human needs. In this historical context, the ideology and agenda of limiting women’s control over their reproduction is connected to U.S. imperialism and thus has much broader implications than strictly women’s reproductive health. For one, imperialism relies on a gendered reproductive division of labor, that trains poor men to be soldiers while valorizing motherhood for women, the better to exploit women’s paid and unpaid labor.
Within the U.S., some of the anti-war movement’s troop-centered analysis has shaped women’s space politically, if not necessarily physically. Military mothers like Cindy Sheehan are publicly recognized for their connection to the troops. An analysis of gender that problematizes the effects of violent masculinity is less welcome.
7. Occupation will not bring about women’s liberation . As an occupier with little accountability to the Iraqi people (or the U.S. public), the U.S. government is not capable of or interested in bringing democracy and liberation to Iraqis. U.S. officials have “played two sides of the fence” with regard to women’s rights, bartering them away when convenient in order to maintain power. But at worst, events have made it tragically clear that the continued occupation’s primary goals have been the economic, political, and military interests of a U.S. elite, with as much non-transparency as possible for the sake of public relations.
Imperialism requires particular gender relations to function. Boys are taught that soldiering is a rite of passage, a vehicle to manly respect. The public learns that soldiering—and now serving as security or emergency personnel—entitles a special claim to citizenship to this country and its offerings, even if such promises do not actually materialize. By valorizing the violent, masculine protector, the state and society extract women’s labor at undervalued rates, preserving a gendered division of labor at women’s expense and reinforcing male sexual entitlement. Part of the military’s appeal to (heterosexual) men is the male privilege it promises to offer over economically dependent, sexually available women.
Additionally, the military uses the work of women, sectored into patriarchal and exploitative economic relations, to function as marginalized soldiers, military wives, sex workers, or civilians.
Recognition of the connections between imperialism and U.S. patriarchy widens the spectrum of people we must consider the casualties of war and deepens our understanding of imperialism. Not only does war perpetuate sexist inequality and patriarchy, it also enlists patriarchal relations—economic, sexual, and ideological—to carry out its operations. Righting these injustices requires special attention to gender, and is not guaranteed by merely opposing the war. We must recognize the connections between the war in Iraq and patriarchy at home and resist.
Huibin Amee Chew is active in anti-imperialist, feminist, and immigrant rights activism in Boston.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
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LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
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MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
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LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.