Mother’s Day Interview: Vivian Stromberg on fighting for the rights of MADRES everywhere
In 1983, Vivian Stromberg traveled with a women’s delegation to Nicaragua in the midst of a brutal civil war. There, she witnessed day care centers, schools and clinics that had been bombed by the U.S.-backed Contra armies. Stromberg and her American colleagues wanted to help, but they realized that providing aid was not enough; they had to stop the U.S. government from supporting such atrocities. Together, they founded MADRE, a human rights organization that works with grassroots organizations to support women and families around the world and advocates for a more just foreign policy back home. Stromberg recently told us about her journey from teaching music in the Bronx to becoming MADRE’s director.
Dowser: Let’s start at the beginning. MADRE was inspired by a 1983 performance piece that protested U.S. involvement in the Contra War in Nicaragua. The U.S. was backing the Contra army despite Nicaragua’s alleged human rights abuses. Why start there?
Stromberg: There had been a revolution that overthrew a remarkably cruel dictator, Anastasio Somoza. That was much too much for the United States to tolerate because it could serve as an example in the region. It could threaten the hegemony of U.S. corporations that were exploiting the resources and labor from Central American countries. It was not on the front pages of the newspapers, but it defied imagination in its cruelty.
How did the performance piece, Talking Nicaragua, come about?
There was a group of Nicaraguans that sued the State Department in the U.S. for violations of international law. The testimonies and the transcripts were so moving, a few U.S. women put together a dramatic reading of them, and brought some of the plaintiffs to New York.
And then a group of women inspired by the performance, including you, actually traveled all around the region, correct?
That’s right – we visited people in the cities, the countryside, the mountains, rural parts, and the Atlantic coast. Everywhere we went we met with people who had lost loved ones. We asked what we could do.
They said, ‘Go back and organize the women in the U.S. Tell our story. If the women were organized they’d be able to stop Reagan. People do not know what their government is doing.’ So we founded MADRE – a multicultural and cross-class women’s organization that connects U.S. foreign and domestic policies.
Were you already working in social justice at the time?
Actually, I was a schoolteacher for 22 years. I directed an elementary school music program in the South Bronx, and I worked at MADRE after school at night. I had two children, one that I adopted, and I raised them mostly as a single mother.
That’s quite a workload. When did you stop teaching and come on board full-time at MADRE?
During the First Gulf War. Every kid I taught had family members who were deployed. You’d really have to have a fried brain to think that you could just teach music in an atmosphere where the tension was wired so tight because of the war. So I used to have discussions about it in the classroom instead of teaching music.
One day I asked a group of kids if they thought there were kids their age in Iraq having the same kind of discussion with their teacher. A kid raised his hand and he said, ‘There are no children in Iraq.’
It’s an incredible statement—what led him to think that?
The media is so successful in demonizing the ‘other.’ Where would he ever get the idea that there were children in Iraq? There were only flashing lights; men all wrecked up; guns – you never saw a grandmother or a kid.
Well, the next day I stopped teaching to become the director at MADRE.
So you switched your focus from educating students about the war, to educating the public at large through MADRE. In addition to its public education and advocacy work, MADRE partners with dozens of women’s organizations around the world on human rights projects. Can you give me an example?
We did this huge medical program that sent $2 million to a women’s hospital in Managua, and through that told the story of Nicaragua and its commitment to provide decent medical care.
Were there any programs which didn’t initially work out?
One of the programs was a twinning program—the idea was to pair U.S. organizations with similar ones in Nicaragua so that people could identify with each other. The problem, however, was that in the U.S. there are organizations that don’t exist in most other countries.
Here we had this idea which—just ask any one of us—was brilliant! But it didn’t work. So that rendered it less than brilliant (chuckles).
So you canned the project?
Not quite. We said, ‘Look, we think that we’re off, but not completely off, so let’s go back to the drawing board.’ What we came up with, after many hours of discussions with people in the U.S. and in Nicaragua, was to twin daycare centers in the two countries. Daycare in the U.S. was one of the things that got defunded in order to fund the wars in Central America, so people here could relate. That program flourished.
It seems like there is a real exchange of education happening in MADRE – not only because you work with existing local organizations and let them take the lead, but also based on your overall sense of humility and willingness to learn.
When I began to do this work I thought I was doing it for other people. I thought, ‘Oh, those people can’t vote; they have to sit at the back of the bus; they have to go to war. Oh my god, that’s so terrible. I could help.’ One day something clicked and I realized that I was the other people. It wasn’t me doing something for other people; it was us doing for it each other.
That’s how it works in my head, whether it’s working with indigenous women on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, or building an underground railroad for women to escape honor killings in Iraq, or creating a women’s farmers union for the women in Sudan.
How has funding worked?
It’s challenging. We’re like somebody who makes a $100 a week but their bills are $150. This week you’ll pay the bread man and the next week you’ll pay the egg lady… and you make it work, you know?
Tell us a bit about your background –what type of family did you grow up in?
I came from a very, very, very poor immigrant family. I was the first person to go to school in my family. I do not fit the standard image of a person who can be a leader. I’m older than most; I have a Brooklyn accent; I’m overweight; and I don’t care much about pretentious formalities! The only thing that stops you being a leader is that you don’t know you can be one.
Is there anyone particularly who inspired you to become a leader?
My grandfather was a great conspirator – he taught me how to figure out what you want and how you get there. He used to take me swimming, but to do that, we conspired against my grandmother and my mother. I would wear a bathing suit under my clothes and we’d sneak off to the beach.
He taught me to not take ‘no’ for an answer. If MADRE needs to build a water project, we’ll build a water project. If there’s no money, we’ll find money.
This interview was edited and condensed.