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Dangerous Women Embracing Risk to Change the World: Ava DuVernay, Ai-jen Poo, Abigail Disney & More

StoryDecember 31, 2019
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Media trailblazer Pat Mitchell is a person of many firsts. She was the first woman president of PBS, CNN Productions and the Paley Center for Media, formerly known as the Museum of Television & Radio. She is chair of the Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Center. Mitchell tells her story in her new memoir, “Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World,” and speaks with us about some of the women she chose to profile. “Being the first or the only person in any situation that looks like you is always an additional challenge because there is a harsher spotlight,” she says. “For women leaders, it’s always meant a fear of being judged entirely as a woman leader.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we end our last show of 2019 with media legend Pat Mitchell, a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman president of PBS, CNN Productions, the Paley Center for Media, chair of the Sundance Institute and the Women’s Media Center. She tells her story in her new book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. We spoke to her last week about her own life story. Today, she talks about some of the 15 women she chose to feature.

PAT MITCHELL: I learned so much in listening to them talk about their own journeys, because they are so vastly different. I mean, you talk to an Ava DuVernay, who so brilliantly and beautifully describes that being dangerous, to her, means reaching out to one another and protecting each other, creating safe spaces for each other, healing each other — beautiful language from a film director.

And then, Mary Robinson, who has been dangerous her whole life, but who says, very clearly, “I didn’t always call myself dangerous, because being president of a country, I avoided the word. But,” she goes on to say, “I didn’t ask for forgiveness ever or permission ever. I just did what I thought was right.” Well, that’s an act of fearlessness. And Mary is someone I’m working with now on the climate crisis in her climate justice work.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go right now to the Irish president, to Mary Robinson, who served as president from 1990 to 1997 and U.N. high commissioner for human rights from ’97 to 2002. She is now the president of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Democracy Now! spoke with Mary Robinson at the U.N. climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco, and I asked her what it would mean for the United States — well, this was before he did it, before he became president, but had just been elected — if Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

MARY ROBINSON: The first thing is, I think it would damage the image and reputation of the United States globally, because the United States signed up to this important agreement — in fact, gave great leadership. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have given great leadership on climate, together with China and other major emitters, and were forceful in ensuring we got the agreement and were willing to have the ambitious goal that is in the Paris Agreement. If one country were to renege now on that, I think it would damage that country’s reputation internationally. … How can you sign up to something that’s so important for the world, that the world knows is real and happening, and then, somehow, because somebody is blind to or pretends to be blind to the consequences because of the lobbies that are surrounding him — I’m afraid that that just is not acceptable to the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That was in 2016 at the Morocco U.N. climate summit. We just came from Madrid, COP25. And you, yourself, Pat Mitchell, are engaging in climate activism right now. You were just arrested with Jane Fonda and over 140 other people last Friday, protesting the climate crisis and where we stand today. But there you have Mary Robinson talking about what it means if the U.S. pulls out of the Paris climate accord, which Trump is doing, effective the day after Election Day 2020. Pat?

PAT MITCHELL: Mary was so right in the impact of that withdrawal, and yet she and women climate leaders all over the world are continuing to believe in the power of global agreements on how we respond to the climate crisis. And until, I think, Mary wrote in her own book on climate justice, not that many in the world recognized how critical the role of women leaders had been in getting us to climate agreements. It was, in all of those climate summits before, the women leaders who, behind the scenes and out of the public eye, kept the negotiations moving forward, all the way to the Paris Agreement, women from all over the world getting past their differences and working to help others get past their differences.

So, even though we are in this really precarious place, a true state of emergency, and our president’s response has only heightened the emergency and heightened the amount of rage felt in the world against our country for losing our leadership position here, I have experienced and seen women stepping up to leadership in this one particular area, so critical, the existential threat to our existence on this planet. Mary and the women like her who are stepping up to leadership are not letting this climate justice work end. And they will continue to lead toward those global agreements and have a particular ability to negotiate and to keep people at the negotiating table. That’s her goal now.

AMY GOODMAN: I was also particularly interested with chapter seven, “Going Global,” where you highlight two women, a Palestinian leader, Hanan Ashrawi, and her dear friend and an Israeli leader, actually a human rights attorney, Lea Tsemel. They were featured in a film recently by Rachel Leah Jones called the Advocate. This is Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, followed by Lea Tsemel.

*HANAN ASHRAWI: And I was arrested. I was looking for a lawyer. And from that day on, I mean, Lea was really part of our experience of struggle at Birzeit University. During, you know, all these closures, during all these military incursions, the shootings, the arrests and so on, it was Lea who was there all the time.

PROTESTERS: Open Birzeit! Open Birzeit! Open Birzeit! Open Birzeit!

HANAN ASHRAWI: To us, being a prisoner is a fact of life. Every home, every family, has had at least one prisoner, if not more. And many families have had “martyrs.” Many families have had people, you know, deported. Many families have had their homes destroyed. But every family can tell you, “I have prisoners in my midst. The Israelis reached into my home and extracted my son, my daughter, my husband, my brother, and took him or her away.” And it was Lea who was there saying, “I will try to bring him or her back.”

Lea went to court to help our students. And I was nursing; I was breastfeeding Zeina. And Talila got hungry, so I breastfed her, as well. And so, now we have — they’re milk sisters. You see, in our tradition, when two babies are fed the same mother’s milk, they become sisters. And this is a very strong bond.

LEA TSEMEL: I really don’t feel the gap of a Palestinian, a Jew. I don’t think we ever had it between us.

HANAN ASHRAWI: She was very human. She was the only one, really, who recognized us, in the Greek sense of anagnorisis — you know, I recognize your humanity and what you’re going through. If you are fighting against injustice, and you don’t have any other tools, you adopt the tools that are available. You manufacture your own tools. Some people turn their bodies into tools. They don’t have warplanes. They don’t have tanks. They have bodies. And it doesn’t mean she condoned this or she thought it was right, but she said you have to understand it in the context within which this happened. This is a very difficult and rare situation, where you could look at the victim, cum violent person, and understand the motives for violence and understand that this is a response to a greater form of violence. You are not abstract labeled “terrorists.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the longtime Palestinian diplomat and scholar, along with the human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, from Rachel Leah Jones’ film, the Advocate. Pat Mitchell, you write about them both in your book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman. Talk about why you feature this Palestinian woman and this Israeli Jew.

PAT MITCHELL: Those two extraordinary women leaders were part of a series I did quite a long time ago, Amy, called Women in War: Voices from the Front Lines. And I found, on the frontllines, in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in El Salvador, during the wars — I found women who were bridging their political differences, coming from different sides of these long-term conflicts and finding ways to shape solutions to end the violence in their communities. That’s where I first met Mary Robinson, actually, was during the Northern Ireland troubles. And in the Middle East, in Israel and in Palestine, I met Hanan and Lea and became a part of their group, which included women from both sides of that long-term conflict, secretly meeting, secretly making the kinds of arrangements to lead their communities to more peaceful solutions.

And I recognized, in particular, the friendship between Hanan and Lea was a model for how women can move the world forward toward more peaceful negotiations. And it’s not just a pipe dream. It’s actually been proven that when women are at peace tables, the peace agreements they help negotiate last longer, because they bring in all of the other elements that women are concerned about — healthcare, education, the sustainable factors of a community. And when those are considered in peace agreements, they last longer.

Now, Hanan and Lea are still in conflict zones, certainly, but they are still friends. Their daughters grew up together as friends. And for me, that models the new way forward. It models for me what Bella Abzug predicted out of that conflict, when the women convened the first-ever all-women’s peace conference in 1989. Bella said, “In the 21st century, women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women.” And that is what Lea and Hanan represent in that world. And that’s what Mary Robinson represented in her leadership. And the same thing I witnessed with women in El Salvador, who also brought the rebel armies and the government together to negotiate the end of that civil war. And it is that ability of women to negotiate, to compromise, to collaborate, to align values in a different way, that I believe will lead the world forward to a more just and equitable place.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Mitchell, let’s turn to another of the dangerous women you include in your book, the acclaimed director Ava DuVernay. At the Sundance Film Festival a few years ago, I spoke to Ava about Hollywood’s lack of diversity.

AVA DUVERNAY: The obstacle, it is systemic. It’s systemic. It’s a system that’s been set up in a certain way. Times have changed, ideas have matured, and the system might not have caught up with that or stayed up with that. But you have very conscious people, very, you know, liberal people, very progressive people within the Academy. I’m a member. I was invited a couple of years ago. My black cinematographer, Bradford Young, was invited this year. There’s an attempt, but, you know, like I said, it needs to be articulated and followed up on. I think the thing that is challenging is when people talk about it should happen, but then there’s no follow-up to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about, Pat Mitchell, why you included Ava DuVernay, who’s broken through so many barriers in Hollywood.

PAT MITCHELL: I think Ava, individually, has done so much to make Hollywood a more inclusive place. Through her nonprofit ARRAY, she has made sure that films by communities of color get distributed. She has brought women and other people from other communities, often who face additional barriers to getting projects made, stories told — she’s made that a priority. And she’s walked the talk. She’s done it. And if you look at the project she’s taken on herself, and then you look at the people she hires — in the series she did on television, she hired women directors to do every single episode. Now, that took fighting through some barriers, systemic barriers, as Ava herself indicates. But she’s done it.

So, including Ava was very important to me, because she is a representative of how important representation is in media, on all our screens, behind and in front of the cameras, ensuring that all stories are getting told, all voices are being heard and respected. Ava is a leader there. And so is the Sundance Institute, which I’m very privileged to chair that board. Inclusiveness in our festival, in the people who are behind the scenes, who are directing, who are writing the stories, making sure that that is a more inclusive and representative world, has been a strategic priority of the institute. And Ava served on that board and was a leader in making this a priority for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Media legend Pat Mitchell, her book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. An update: The documentary I mentioned during our interview, called Advocate, has been shortlisted for an Academy Award. I’ll be moderating a Q&A in New York with the filmmaker, Rachel Leah Jones, this Friday at 7 after the film shows at the Quad Cinema. Back with Pat Mitchell and Becoming a Dangerous Woman in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Future Is Here” by Sleater-Kinney. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue my conversation with media legend Pat Mitchell, who tells her story and many more in her new book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. Another one of the 15 dangerous women she features in her book is the filmmaker, activist and wealthy Disney heiress Abigail Disney. This year, Abigail Disney wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post headlined “It’s time to call out Disney — and anyone else rich off their workers’ backs.” In July, Abigail Disney spoke to Democracy Now! about what she hoped to accomplish.

ABIGAIL DISNEY: I’ve been hoping to take the wage issue on by way of Disney, because it’s such a stark and clear problem, that in the same year, at the same company, you have one employee who comes home with $140 million, and another employee that goes home, for a full day’s work, and doesn’t have enough money to pay for their insulin. It’s in the same year of record profitability at the same company. And frankly, they’re less than 30 miles from each other. This should trouble us all. This cannot be abided.

So there’s a — first of all, there’s a practical reason not to be doing these things. But also there’s really a moral question, and that’s the one I think we need to take on. We cannot continue to just look the other way as one class of people gets wealthier and wealthier and wealthier. And if you make $140 million in a year, I ask you: What can you not afford? How can you possibly use that money? And how can you sleep at night, given what’s happening at the other end?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Abby Disney. Pat Mitchell, she’s calling out her own industry — in fact, her own family. And her activism has only escalated since we last spoke to her.

PAT MITCHELL: Abby is a great example of one of the features of becoming more dangerous, and that is that you have to care less what others think and say more clearly what we think and feel. And Abby is one of the best examples of that in the world. She’s always been brave, and she’s always taken risk, both in the work she has done, her documentaries, and in her leadership, this kind of leadership on the issue of wage, equal pay for equal work. I admire Abby so much. And it takes somebody like Abby, who will step forward and say exactly what she thinks and not care about what the consequences are and to fight for the different kinds of consequences for the people she’s fighting for in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn now to another of the dangerous women you feature, Christine Schuler Deschryver, the director of V-Day Congo, co-founder of, director of City of Joy, a revolutionary community for women survivors of gender violence in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We spoke to her last year as the worldwide movement called V-Day to stop violence against women and girls marked its 20th anniversary. And I asked her about the City of Joy, that community that she and Eve Ensler helped establish.

CHRISTINE SCHULER DESCHRYVER: The women are survivors. Well, we say “gender violence survivors,” but at the end they are all survivors of rape. And it’s a center where we train women in leadership. And half of the program is therapy. And I think, at the end, they spend six months at City of Joy, and then they go back into their community. And then they organize themselves, you know, in a network. And they are all partner of V-Day now to also recruit women to come at City of Joy. And they spread the message. Everything they learn at City of Joy, they spread. They spread it in their community.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Christine Schuler Deschryver, director of V-Day Congo. You’re deeply involved with that movement, have been a longtime supporter of V-Day, founded by Eve Ensler. And you, yourself, are a survivor of sexual abuse, as we talked about in the first segment of our conversation today. Talk about the power you derive from coming out, from joining with other women, whether we’re talking about the United States or the DRC.

PAT MITCHELL: It’s enormous, the power of community. And I experience it maybe most profoundly when I’m at City of Joy in the DRC with Christine and the women survivors at City of Joy. Christine is the best example of someone who lives with danger every day and who knew she had to become more dangerous herself, braver and bolder, to help end a war that’s being waged on women’s bodies, quite literally, and to take a different approach to healing, with survivors, by training those survivors — Christine and Eve call it transforming pain to power — and training these survivors to go back into their villages and communities as leaders, because we know the power is there in the communities that we are building.

And Jane Fonda said a wonderful thing, too, about that, something that Christine and Eve and I believe so strongly, that if you are feeling depressed and despairing about the world — and if you spend any time in eastern Congo, you can certainly feel despair — the best way to address that is to become a part of an active activism community. That not only relieves the feeling of despair, by replacing it with the feeling that you’re doing something; you’re addressing a challenge, you’re facing a challenge, and you’re solving it. And one, however small or insignificant it may feel, it is significant. City of Joy has turned out over a thousand of those survivors back into their communities now as leaders. And that will begin to change the situation in the DRC. So, seeing that, the most dire of circumstances and dangers, and seeing those women become more dangerous to face those challenges and to build community, that’s our way forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to turn to yet another of the women you feature in the book, Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the co-director of Caring Across Generations. We spoke with her last year, shortly after Donald Trump characterized countries in Africa, as well as El Salvador and Haiti, as — well, we know, the “s—hole countries.” This was Ai-jen Poo’s response.

AI-JEN POO: I was not surprised. But I also want to say that this is not normal, and we cannot normalize this, this level of racism that is emboldening white supremacists all over the country to target people in our communities, people who work in our homes, caring for some of the most precious elements of our lives — our children, our aging parents. I mean, undocumented immigrants, immigrants, the people that he is targeting, are people who are so deeply embedded in the fabric of this country, people who are leaders in the community, like Ravi, and they’re being targeted. And people who are targeting them, in an inhumane way, are being emboldened in this moment, and we cannot normalize it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ai-jen Poo, the executive director for National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, who you feature in your book, Pat Mitchell, Becoming a Dangerous Woman, particularly in these, to say the least, very dangerous times for so many. Interestingly, President Trump was impeached on International Migrants Day. That was December 18th. But if you can talk about Ai-jen’s bravery, her organizing prowess, and what it means to organize in an era of Trump?

PAT MITCHELL: Well, it’s no coincidence that there has been, along with President Trump’s election and the polarizing of this country, a rise in racism, sexism, violence against women. That’s not a coincidence. And what Ai-jen has called for, many, many times over the last couple of years, has been what she describes as almost a sunstorm, a beautiful allegorical way of thinking about all of these communities, these caring communities, who do make it possible for all the rest of us to go forward, because what has declined at the same time all of those horrific things have risen — what has declined has been empathy and compassion. And around those two ideas, of the empathy we feel for people who are not living our lives but who are in our communities, and the compassion and caring we feel for each other, that’s core to any society’s sustainability. And Ai-jen has organized around those principles across many different occupations and many different generations. And in doing so, I believe she’s called on us to be our very best selves.

And what gets me up every morning, and I think what certainly continues to motivate Ai-jen and all the other remarkable women that I am privileged to know and to work alongside, is the belief that in this country and around the world, it will be our empathy, it will be our caring for each other, it will be our compassion for each other’s suffering, that will lead us to find ways to bridge our differences, heal our divides and move forward as a community, a country and a world.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Pat, the issue of you breaking through so many glass ceilings. I thought it was very interesting how you talked about the discomfort you feel that you are the first in so many cases, that it doesn’t — that it is such a problem that so few women rise to levels of power in their fields because of discrimination. You are the first woman president of PBS, the first woman president of CNN Productions, the Paley Center for Media. If we could end by talking about PBS and what that meant when you were tapped to head the Public Broadcasting Service in this country?

PAT MITCHELL: Being the first or the only person in any situation that looks like you is always an additional challenge, because there is a harsher spotlight. And for women leaders, it’s always meant a fear of being judged entirely as a woman leader, and yet, in my case, wanting to lead for women. And as president of PBS, in a particularly tumultuous time for public media — although nearly every time has been tumultuous in that there are always threats to the existence of public funding for public media, which is so essential to a free and open society and to this democracy — I was certainly judged in a different way. It’s the same thing that happens to women running for office or to any person who is in a position for the first time.

So, yes, I faced challenges. But I tried to respond affirmatively. I was accused once of actually running an affirmative action program at PBS, because I was seeking to hire women of color, women, people who were qualified but who had not been on those lists that search firms bring you when you have open positions or when you’re looking to promote. And just asking that those lists be more inclusive is an affirmative action that I think made a difference at PBS. The best news here, Amy, is, in all three of those positions where I was a first, I was not the last. In each of those positions, there are now women CEOs.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump calling the media the enemy of the American people?

PAT MITCHELL: Well, it says everything, doesn’t it, about the way he views free and open society, because if you don’t have access to free or to open and trustworthy information, how can we as citizens make any decisions about anything, but most particularly how we vote the leaders in our communities, states and in our country? So, the press, a free, trusted press, is absolutely essential to a democracy. We’ve always known that. And now we have a threat to that, in a way that probably hasn’t existed before. And, yes, it causes fear, but I’m trying to respond to it by being more fearless and speaking up all the more for the kind of work that you and Democracy Now! do, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Mitchell, author of Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World. She’s former first woman president of PBS and chair of the Sundance Institute. Go to for Part 1 of our interview, where she talks about her own life story and describes her arrest in Washington, D.C., earlier this month with Jane Fonda and more than 140 other people in a climate protest, Fire Drill Fridays.

Oh, and tune into our New Year’s Day special Wednesday. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. We begin the new decade with an hour-long special about one of the most influential women in U.S. politics: first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. After the death of her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, she spearheaded the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. President Truman called her the “First Lady of the World.”

And that does it for our show. Happy Birthday, Chuck Scurich!

Democracy Now! is produced by Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Libby Rainey, Sam Alcoff, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Charina Nadura, Tey-Marie Astudillo, Adriano Contreras and María Taracena.

I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy, safe and better New Year!

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