Feminist Principles in Action: Insights from Viviana Waisman
In May 2023, SRI Executive launched an interview series focused on integrating feminist principles into leadership and operations within global development organisations. We began with a conversation with Traci Baird, President and CEO of Engender Health. In our continued exploration of how to live and work in line with feminist values, we are excited to share the second installment in the series, our conversation with Viviana Waisman.
Viviana Waisman, originally from Argentina, is a US-educated and trained attorney and an expert on women’s rights and international human rights law. She has extensive experience designing and litigating cases and using the law creatively in national, regional, and international fora to expand women and girls’ rights in Latin America, Europe and East Africa. She founded the transnational feminist organisation, Women’s Link Worldwide, an international non-profit that uses the power of the law to promote social change and advance the human rights of women and girls. She led Women’s Link for over 20 years before transitioning its leadership in 2022 and remains an Emeritus Member of the board. Viviana was recognized as a social entrepreneur and change maker by Ashoka, becoming an Ashoka fellow in 2016. She has taught human rights courses at IE University and is adjunct faculty at the Carlos III University in Madrid and Washington College of the Law, American University. She is working on a new initiative, Gen Equity Institute, that seeks a paradigm shift in the approach to teaching and learning human rights law and ways to use the law creatively. Viviana holds a Master of Studies in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University, a Juris Doctorate from the University of California.
SRI Executive had the pleasure of supporting Women’s Link through Viviana’s transition from the organisation. Throughout the process, we were struck by Viviana and her team’s proactive reflection on feminist leadership principles. This was no accident. In our conversation, Viviana explained how important it is to explicitly and openly talk about what feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial values mean to individuals, and to develop shared language and understanding. For her, both as a person and a leader, acting in line with her feminist values means having empathy, meeting people where they are, bringing out the best in them, and leading from a place of vulnerability. In Women’s Link, during and after her transition, it meant working collectively towards shared leadership with a more horizontal structure, distributed decision-making, and leadership from the regions where the organisation works.
Foundational to these reflections is a recognition of power: who holds it, how to access it, and how it is transferred and shared. Despite recent conversations in global development that more actively discuss sharing power, like trust-based philanthropy or localization, Viviana noted that there are few models to follow about how organisations working to be feminist, anti-colonial, and anti-racist organisations should and could function. “We live within a society in which organisations don't tend to be organized in that way…organisations do not tend to be led with feminist values, with shared leadership". When figuring out what feminist values would mean for herself and for Women’s Link, Viviana sought to do so authentically. She described how being true to yourself, rather than doing what has always been done or what is trendy, is the only way to sustainably operate in line with values.
Now that she has moved into her next chapter, Viviana has observed how organisations and movements across human rights and social justice function from feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial values – and the results are mixed. It still feels like those working from their values are “swimming upstream.” Viviana gave an important example of how women's rights defenders and women who have led organisations are seen and valued differently than mainstream human rights attorneys; an experience she has had personally. Shifting the needle will require work, funding, and time. Yet, Viviana is optimistic. “I continue to think that there is a need to align what organisations are trying to do with what is happening from the…funding world…[The] work requires general support, it requires support for new leaders…it requires… you to move at the speed of trust…There is still some work to be done in aligning those things, but I think there is a will to do so."
At SRI, we are often engaged at these moments of transition, whether supporting the search for new leadership or working with an organisation to redefine the strategy, structure, or ways of working. Time and time again, we’ve seen the importance of following Viviana’s advice: organisations must have more discussions about their values and build a shared understanding. SRI Executive will continue to support our clients to manifest their values and principles in their people, strategy, and operations. We also continue to seek alignment with our own values, including genuineness. With a global, diverse team, we work to bring our individual experience and contextual understanding to our work.
As we continue to learn and develop authentic ways of working both internally and with our clients, we are excited to stay tuned for what Viviana does next and hold onto her salient, closing comment: “Transitions are not easy, and figuring out next steps is not easy…recognizing that is being true to my own feminist values.”