The Unique Value of Women's Faith-Rooted Leadership

There is something unique in the leadership of women: We empower, advocate, ignite.

We invite others and lift them up. We listen and learn, rooted in the communities that sustain us, driven by our personal stories of heartbreak and resilience, carrying the wisdom of our ancestors, the urgency of today, and imagination for a better future.

We are troublemakers who resist the status quo, speak truth to power, and lead our people in the march to freedom. We are teachers, parents, prophets and entrepreneurs.

Yet, 20 years ago, the powerful leadership of progressive, faith-rooted women working at a grassroots level to inspire social change remained mostly unrecognized in the public square. We talked little about movements for justice except to reference past ones, like the Civil Rights movement.

So I set out to write a book that lifted up their work and its challenges - God's Troublemakers: How Women of Faith are Changing the World - conversations with powerful leaders of diverse faith traditions like Sister Helen Prejean, Ruth Messinger, Henna Hahn and Riffat Hassan.

Inspired by my research, I and other leaders at Auburn began building a woman's multifaith program with powerful "troublemakers" ready to work together, and an annual event that would both celebrate their leadership and help us fund our partnerships.

Auburn's Lives of Commitment Awards, celebrating its 20th Anniversary on April 20 this year, lifts up faith-rooted social justice leadership, recognizing the standard of excellence women have established and honoring those qualities in leaders of all gender identities within the multifaith movement for justice.

As we've discovered over the past 20 years -- even 50 and 100 years -- change takes a long time, and the healing of injustice and oppression takes even longer. The issues we were tackling at the inception of Lives of Commitment, we still face today: violence against women, poverty, income disparity, education, immigration, racial justice, reproductive and worker rights.

The leaders we honor at Lives of Commitment are evidence that faith-rooted justice demands that people be in it for the long haul, beyond an election season, beyond any kind of human time frame.

These are people who share the value of living life beyond themselves, and whose resilience and moral courage call them to bridge religious divides and work together to "trouble the waters and heal the world," as we say at Auburn.

When I think back on our Lives of Commitment honorees, I see these qualities embodied in each of them. It was really exciting to start off with Sister Helen Prejean in 1997, whose work around death penalty issues was powerful 20 years ago, and continues to the present moment. At the event, Sr. Prejean spoke as a Christian, but the inclusive language she used translated across many different faith traditions, inspiring me early on to think about the language of power and commitment and passion that we share across religious and secular spaces.

I remember Rev. Kanyere Eaton, honored in 2012, whose powerful refrain in her acceptance speech, "Save some for yourself," resonated with many of our friends and partners, especially women of color working on the front lines of justice, who are some of the least supported. The idea of keeping "some for yourself" is a leadership skill many of us in this work never consider, but has since become the foundation of Auburn's Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle, a program dedicated to the wholeness and wellness of women of color and others leading social justice movements.

I think about the many artists, poets and musicians who have graced the stage at Lives of Commitment, from Alice Walker to Judy Collins. Just last year, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Auburn Board member and 2009 honoree, joined Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani in a moving rendition of Selma's "Glory," the power of music and art in the work of mobilizing communities palpable as the audience rose to sing along.

This year's honorees each bring a unique perspective and leadership role around the issues that matter most right now, and I'm grateful for the opportunity Auburn has to honor their lives of commitment -- I hope you'll join us in person, or in spirit.