Last Thursday I said good bye to a remarkable woman and friend, Robyn Kemmis. Robyn was the Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney who ‘quietly’ made significant contributions to the public service, the academic community and in local government during her career.
As I heard eulogies and tributes about the important and lasting accomplishments Robyn had made, it was feminist and journalist Dr Anne Summers’ tribute to Robyn entitled ‘Friendship and Feminism’ that got me thinking about the women’s movement, how it connected Robyn and Anne and what those ideals mean to women today.
Anne first met Robyn and her partner Lynne in the early 1970s. She’d just arrived in Sydney to start a new life and knew very few people. Anne had sought out members of the Sydney women’s movement in the hope of finding “friendship and political solace”. Anne described it as a “small band of women warriors who were trying to change the world while at the same time doing their best to re-invent themselves” and together over the years, this group of warriors made some remarkable achievements.
One in particular was the establishment of Elsie Refuge in 1974 when they broke into two cottages in Westmoreland Street in Glebe, (Sydney’s inner west) claiming squatters’ rights and opened the houses up to women and children escaping domestic violence. The refuge was the first of its kind, and served to inspire other women around the world to recreate the service model in their local areas.
They had the kind of camaraderie that came from engaging in struggle together, a desire to ‘disrupt’ the status quo and achieve positive social change.
Interestingly, what we also discovered was that Robyn and Lynne had prior experience in these sort of ‘occupying’ endeavours. Years earlier while living in London they broke into a vacant house in Earlham Street, Covent Garden as squatters. While Lynne managed to do the electrical rewiring necessary to make the place habitable, the house became the base for the first Women’s Liberation Workshop Forum in London.
It was when Anne expressed her hope that younger generations of women were also forming for themselves these connections and enduring friendships that it clicked. I realised how vitally important Urbanistas was to women now, how it embraced similar ideals and intentions to the women’s movement of Robyn, Lynne and Anne’s generation. It is this camaraderie and the connections created through similar interests and a desire to create positive change that Urbanistas Sydney and the chapters across the UK are gaining so much traction.
I know women today struggle with the idea of what the women’s movement means in the current context. We’ve had so many new exciting developments, and taken enormous strides to even out the playing field. Yet women still have to fight societal, personal and attitudinal barriers to get as many opportunities and have influence – as leaders, decision makers, role models - which makes the women’s movement still very relevant today, albeit redefined from that of the 1960’s and 70’s and where Urbanistas comes in - subtly, supportively.
A core philosophy of Urbanistas is the recognition that despite there being an abundance of women doing great things in each of our cities, we are still largely underrepresented - as leaders, as innovators, as voices in decision making. This is why Urbanistas brings women together to share ideas and projects and actions. It provides a supportive environment for women to realise the positive influence they are capable of creating, to build and amplify a collective voice to achieve positive change in their cities, local places and communities.
Urbanistas Sydney provides a space for ideas to grow and take their own shape. It empowers women and inspires them to act. I’ve been to plenty of Urbanistas Sydney meet-ups and witnessed an amazing group of women sharing ideas, asking other women for help to develop and deliver their ideas. This is when the Urbanistas magic starts to work.
Place makers, geographers, strategists, social entrepreneurs, youth workers, planners, urban designers, architects, policy wonks, just to name a few, collaborate to help each other take an idea where it needs to go - and beyond. Women find the advice they need, whether it’s a contact, moral support, feedback, or technical assistance. The important difference is that Urbanistas brings together women with different interests, a variety of voices and opinions to ‘crowdsource’ expertise and knowledge and make things happen.
It was the last ‘pitch’ event of 2015 where the Urbanistas magic burned so brightly. Scores of interesting and passionate women jumped up to share their ideas for help and advice, much was impromptu and unplanned. The room was buzzing with new ways of thinking, but most importantly the room was buzzing with camaraderie and support. Women reached out for help and the ‘sisterhood’ came to life. Enduring friendships were formed.
Having shared my own ideas with these women for a project to advance social justice, I walked away feeling empowered and feeling inspired. Most importantly, I walked away feeling connected to of a network women who supported my values, my idea and the project that I felt so strongly about. In that moment I felt these new connections and subsequent friendships could change the world – and I know together we will.
I also know that this confidence that we can change the world would evoke that throaty chuckle of Robyn’s and she would wholeheartedly love seeing Urbanistas Sydney and other chapters globally continue to amplify the voice of women.
Author: Mariana Ivantsoff
Policy Advisor to former DLM, Robyn Kemmis and Urbanistas Sydney member.
Image: Mardi Gras 2015 (Left to Right: Mariana Ivantsoff, Robyn Kemmis, April McCabe)