I spent five days in Bosnia in June, where I delivered a keynote address at a women’s festival about how to elect more women into political leadership, and why it is important. I also hosted a workshop with primarily youth, who wanted to talk about their frustrations in a country that has three different political leaders — equally representing the ethnicities of Bosniaks (50 percent of population), Serbs (31 percent), and Croats (15 percent) — in a decentralized system, which some young people said makes it hard to create movements for collective change and has led to political inertia. Currently, ambitious youth leave the country to earn merit and income in Germany.
Affordable housing is not a big concern in Bosnia, partly because more multigenerational family members live together. Gun violence is rare, college education is free, and abortions are legal. It is humbling to be in a country where so many people are able to speak English as well as their native language. Deep hospitality of food and drink, dancing, and mutual respect between genders seemed to be hallmarks of the experiences I had. Community-oriented life, rather than individualistic, is robust.
The war scars of the community’s recent past were not visible, other than occasional discrete memorials, but freely talked about by the many people who wanted to share their country’s experiences.
As the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1992, a nationalistic fervor enveloped the region after communism began to fall, Yugoslavia began to break into separate countries, and tensions between the mostly Christian Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks grew. Several generations have been traumatized by genocide and rape.
In informal conversations, the nationalism of Europe was compared to the racism of the United States — some people care about where someone came from the way people in the U.S. might care about skin color. In Bosnia, leadership is divided between three primary ethnicities, in contrast to largely one demographic of leadership in the U.S. The restlessness of the youth moving to a different country in Bosnia could be the equivalent of young people in the U.S. leaving rural communities for urban opportunities.
Two of the primary complaints I heard about the current Bosnian system of government is that long-time politicians are able to prop up family and friends with paid jobs that require little work, and that taxpayers pay for political campaigns that tend to serve incumbents. Campaigns are imbalanced in terms of media exposure and funding. Few women are elected because it is hard to adjust the traditional idea that men are political leaders and many older voters seem to be resistant to infrastructure change in a country that has experienced so much upheaval.
The youth had to apply to volunteer at the festival, so they were self-selected to be engaged, active members. When I asked what their greatest concerns were, three young women chimed in, “mental health.”
Similar to what we have been writing about in Minnesota Women’s Press, the lack of healing around trauma has repercussions that spill into newer generations. One person told me that when the war broke out in Ukraine, even though it is 1,000 miles away and she has no memory of the Bosnian genocide, she felt post-traumatic stress.
Estimates of the total number of mostly non-Serbian Muslim women raped during the war in the 1990s range from 20,000 to 50,000. Children conceived from rape were largely abandoned. The Forgotten Children of War Association was founded to empower and train “children born of war” to be able to improve their status in society, with access to education and psychological support.
My participation in Bosnia was supported by the U.S. Department of State and the international Community Solutions Program, as part of a fellowship opportunity we had that enabled us to work with Amra Avdić, a 28-year-old journalist at the Tuzla radio station. She interviewed nine Minnesotans for our “Women in Politics” series about their insights on supporting candidates. We are arranging for Amra to come to Minnesota in October to interview players in women’s campaigns.
I was joined at the “Contemporary Women’s Festival” in Bosnia by Tanya Korpi, the only female Valvoline franchise owner, who has been underwriting our “Women in Politics” series.
As with many European cities, coffee houses proliferate where people can spend hours sitting (and smoking) outside. This sense of rambling, accessible space that everyone enjoys — outside the National Theatre, along pedestrian walkways, near the salt lake in the city center — lifts people out of individualized spaces into communal living. We were welcomed with a group dinner, and departed with a group breakfast.
As we will explore in the August 2022 issue about “The Commons,” when everyone in a community has a sense of belonging, society functions more smoothly. Generally, that sense of home comes from shared spaces — public gathering spots rather than privately held entities, honoring what belongs to everyone rather than dividing by entitlements of ownership. In Tuzla, open-air restaurants and coffeeshops are meant for lingering over long conversations and saying hello to acquaintances and friends who are passing by.
It is a simple concept, and highly effective. I think about how our office space in North Minneapolis — an area historically shuttered against having common spaces — is building community gatherings in parking lots and streets. I recall a friend’s husband, who grew up in England, missing the concept of neighbors simply dropping by without an appointment. I remember a stand-up comedian’s effective bit about a childhood with coffee cake at the ready in case people stopped in, contrasted to today’s tendency to hide behind the couch if someone rings the doorbell.
People told us Bosnia has developed resilience because its political infrastructure seems to change every 40 years. What was once a socialist country a generation ago is now experimenting with a three-part democracy.
We were based in Tuzla, the third largest Bosnian city, of 110,000 people. We walked through the area where 71 youth were killed and 240 injured in 1995 by a bomb in a town square. In Sarajevo, two hours away, we were shown buildings with white plaster splotches filling in pockmarks from shelling, and a new library that replaced a cultural center burned to the ground by Serbian soldiers. One of our hosts indicated 800,000 shells were fired into the capital city over a four-year period. Nearly 100,000 people died during the war. Some of the local artisans have since made artwork out of the bullets and shells that remained.
A recent New York Times essay indicated: “Before the troops withdrew under threat from Mladić’s forces in July 1995, the Serbs drove men and boys [in Srebrenica] away in buses, shot them to death in forests and warehouses, then dumped their bodies in mass graves. Though thousands of survivors fled into the mountains and tried to reach another safe area, Tuzla, 60 miles away, almost all of them were tracked down and killed. For years, Bosnian Serbs prevented efforts by Bosniaks to erect a shrine at the site. … The remains of more than 6,600 victims, recovered from mass graves and mountainsides, have been interred in its vast cemetery across the road. Since then, the site has become a battleground between Bosnians committed to remembering the killings and Serbian ethnic nationalists who deny they happened.”
A quote in the essay seemed reminiscent of a page from a playbook used by some in the U.S.: “Certain people think that the things they failed to accomplish … by using weapons, violence and ethnic cleansing, they can do in political ways.”
We met Sanya Lopar, who is known as single-handedly saving her son’s life when he was eight after he had been hit by a military shell during the war. With his brain injury, he would have died — no flights were allowed out of Sarajevo anymore — were it not for her impassioned connection made with U.S. journalists who told the story that attracted the attention of U.S. officials who arranged for them to be airlifted to Switzerland.
Edina Seleskovic lived as an artist in New York for 20 years before she returned to her hometown for an exhibit and met her husband. He had built a radio station network after the war focused largely on positive news — earning a world record in their community by having 50,000 people kiss at the same time; this was half the population of Tuzla. Another record was set for having 2,000 people simultaneously do the Viennese waltz. Together the two are creating a permanent exhibit in Sarajevo that will showcase the cultural pride of the city’s theater and music before the war.
The fifth annual women’s festival is organized by the radio station, intended to connect and inspire women to step into the limelight as creative leaders. It featured a fashion show by No Nation design, created by migrants and refugees from upcycled materials. Portraits of women were placed in the city center.
I was seated during lunch with the Tuzla mayor next to Larisa Halilovic, who said she could have stayed in New Zealand working with Prime Minister Jacinta Ahern in a progressive culture. She brought her business skills to Bosnia, however, to facilitate a large grant by the United Kingdom to support a large network of independent Balkan media, because “it can do more good here to help effect change.”
…Let me start by giving you some details about the long journey it has been for women in the United States. In the mid 1970s, men and women both believed women should not be political candidates. In 1977, only 32 of the nearly 1,500 people who had served in the Minnesota legislature through its history were women. Only six percent of the Minnesota legislators that year were women. It took 20 years for that number to improve to 30 percent. In 2021, we elected the highest number of women to the legislature ever – 72 – and that still represents only 35 percent, even though we are 50 percent of the population.
Several years ago, 39 Minnesota women who had been elected to the legislature were interviewed for a book, “Minnesota Women in Politics: Stories of the Journey” (North Star Press, 2000) to learn what made them successful candidates. Two of the most important traits, authors Billie Young and Nancy Ankeny concluded, were being optimistic that things can get better and connecting authentically with others.
Amra and I both have interviewed many Minnesota women in politics. There are three other words that rise to the top when these women talk about what is needed in order to elect more women into positions of leadership.
Catherine Hartnett has been a political fundraiser for women candidates in the U.S. for many decades. As she told Amra, it has taken years to get there, but women are now raising just as much money to run for office as male candidates. The hard part has been getting women to be comfortable asking for money. She said women tend to be happy asking people to give their time, but not to give their money.
Women tend to wonder if they are qualified enough … if they know enough. Many women need to be asked to run for office, whereas men do not necessarily care if others want them to run or not, they just do it.
Amra talked with Pam Costain, someone I have known for many years as an advocate for better education, global peace, human rights, and much more. She is retired now, but years ago, she was elected to the school board in my city. Pam said this about her experience: “One of the things I realized, running for political office, is that it is not that the people who run for office are brilliant or talented or experienced. It is that they decided to run. Women tend to hold back too much and defer to others, in particular men. We just have to stop it. I believe in general women can be better leaders than men; more collaborative, more inclusive, more democratic.”
Pakou Hang, who is working toward getting more women elected to all state legislatures, told Amra this: “We often focus on what patriarchy is doing TO us. We don’t focus on what WE are doing to patriarchy. Patriarchal ideology is ending and is almost about to die.” She said it is natural for a dying ideology to push back and try to show its power — restricting rights, making people feel like they are not good enough or strong enough, or that they do not matter.
Pakou said that many people don’t think women can be leaders. “We can change the myth that women are not leaders. Women just govern differently. In the United States right now people are stuck into their respective groups. They are not working together. They are not seeing the larger goals. But women do. Women are exactly the leaders that we need for this moment.”
“Women are the ones who see problems in their family or their community. Often they are the ones who are organizing people to try to fix that problem. Women have always been the community problem solvers. Especially in this moment where there are so many challenges facing our communities women are emerging to be those leaders that we need.”
Beth Peterson of Vote Run Lead spoke at a recent Minneapolis event that Minnesota Women’s Press hosted that featured 11 powerful, everyday women talking about their passions. Beth told the story about being elected to the city council in a very male-dominated culture in northern Minnesota. She was the only woman on the council and had to fight for issues that mothers were experiencing in her town.
She hosted discussions to bring awareness to domestic violence in her city and shift how police addressed that issue. She made sure economic development practices were reviewed so that employers offered family-friendly practices like health care, and time off for caregiving, and equal pay that women need in our country.
Beth told us: “Time and again, research shows that when women legislate, budgets get passed on time, equitable economic policies are passed, bodily autonomy and reproductive health care are prioritized, and there are more resources allocated to climate change and common-sense gun legislation.”
In the U.S., we have different issues to deal with than you do in Bosnia – such as the power of gun owners that leads to so much violence. But we all have things we would like to see done differently. That is why confidence is needed to continue to help more women see and use their own power to bring attention to what we can do better.
The major advantage women have is that we have been socialized, often through family life, to be skilled at multitasking and at working together with others. Many women in the U.S. get their start in politics running for a school board or city council. Women tend to see a problem and bring many people to the table to fix it.
This is in contrast to the kind of leadership where someone simply wants to be in charge … or put their friends and family into jobs … or be considered the smartest person in the room.
Several women in politics that Amra and I have interviewed indicate their greatest strength is in listening. They learn what the issues are, talk to people about what might resolve those issues, and figure out how to make it work.
In contrast, other leaders have a single focus — they see one solution, from one perspective, and as a result it does not actually make change happen. We live in a multidimensional world, with issues that intersect with each other. In Minnesota, we have a lack of affordable housing, which leads to instability in holding a job, getting kids to school, receiving health care. People with no hope of a better future, or who have been traumatized by racism and dehumanization, sometimes turn to drugs and crime and violence, which further destabilizes the community.
There has been a tendency by some in our culture to put a lot of money into policing as the one solution — to put people with addictions, or mental health issues, or generational trauma, into jails. I live in Minneapolis, a few miles from where George Floyd was murdered by police
I strongly believe that with more women in leadership positions, we can address the roots of public issues — our rape culture, domestic violence, policies that ignore trauma experienced by children who grow up to be traumatized adults. I know Bosnia knows about both resilience, and trauma. Resilience is wonderful. But I think what we are experiencing now where I live is that trauma builds up. One generation has children that inherit trauma and it grows, generation after generation. If we TALK about trauma, and work all together as community to heal from it, it will strengthen society later.
I define patriarchal leadership as addressing the surface of problems — focusing on individuals instead of the whole. As a result, we do not get to vulnerabilities and frustrations that are at the heart of the issues in our communities. They remain hidden, until they explode into something harder to fix later.
Senator Patricia Torres Ray, a Latina woman who has been in our Minnesota legislature as a Senator for 16 years told me this recently in an interview: “Men are transactionalists — ‘What do you have? Do I have this? Can I give it to you? When is the timing to do this transaction?’ The process of transaction has dominated the legislature for as long as I have been there.” In contrast, she said, “Transforming the world, transforming policy, transforming what is in front of us — that is the lens through which women lead and govern.”
Minnesota Senator Mary Kunesh, an Indigenous woman, was part of a pioneering effort last year to pass legislation to put resources toward finally paying attention to the hundreds of Native American women who are missing and murdered in our state. Many of these cases are never investigated as a crime.
She told Amra this: “I reached out to the Native community, specifically women and agencies that are already working on violence against women and asked them to help me craft this legislation. Who were the people that they felt needed to be involved with this in order to do it with real intent? With the help of a couple dozen Native folks, we were able to put together a task force. We wanted to make systemic changes in policies and the institutions, such as policing and child welfare. We wanted to put in place ways to prevent and heal from this violence that has plagued our Indigenous communities for centuries.”
This year, the very first office for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives was created in Minnesota to help track these cases. Now other states in the U.S. are starting to do the same.
Collaborative energy leads to transformation that makes our worlds better.
About 30 years ago, women in the U.S. started pooling their money together. We now have several organizations around the country that are working to educate women about political issues in the U.S., inspire women to run for office, train teams on how to get women elected, and support candidates who are running.
Nausheena Hussain started an organization in Minnesota called Reviving Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment. After the 9/11 attacks in Washington D.C., and New York City, where I was living at the time, Muslims in the U.S. became the targets of hate crimes. Nausheena wanted to help Muslim women feel powerful together. Doing things together is one of the strengths of Islamic sisterhood, she told Amra.
“If we are asking Muslim women to go and vote, she does not go alone. She brings everybody in the household. She finds her friends, she finds her sisters, she finds her adult children. She organizes everyone else to go out to vote.’
She said: “This is the beauty of leadership. It is not just about one leader and one person. It is about building a movement. The only way you are able to do that is if you have relationships in the community and you organize the community to make that change.”
One thing I am involved with in Minnesota, with my magazine: We do not define strength and power about having all the answers, or all the power, or having brute force to make things happen the way you want them to. Our stories and conversations are about learning together what the solutions might be. Pretending we know the answers is not the answer.
As Nausheena put it: “I would not have been able to develop relationships and connections if I did not show some vulnerability. Sometimes you have to be able to share the losses, or the failures, or the things that you messed up, the mistakes that you made — because you learn from them. I always remind women to reach out to each other.
She said: “Be an active listener to the people you would be representing. And as you listen, have empathy — build relationships with these people, because they are your neighbors.”
Several people in politics have told Amra and I that people are hungry for authenticity. People can eventually win political campaigns by showing, again and again, who they really are, what they believe in, what they value. Being honest, and staying honest, builds a foundation of strength and support that holds up.
I will end my remarks tonight with this.
Amra asked Pam Costain, a long-time activist who is now 71 years old, why she thinks we still have under-representation of women in key political positions around the world.
Pam said this: “We live in patriarchal societies. It takes a great deal of work and patience to move out of that. It is also really important to see invisible work that is done by women to hold societies together, to hold communities together. It is embarrassing to live in the United States and still have poor representation in Congress, poor representation in our business community. On the other hand, I have seen in my lifetime tremendous change, absolutely tremendous, phenomenal change. It can be done. It is being done. And it can be done around the world.”