Kirsten Gillebrand, D-Senator from New York, caused a stir earlier this year when she published her memoirs, Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. In it, she described in detail, including specific comments made by members of Congress, the sexist culture of the U.S. Senate.
I saw her speak yesterday, on Charlie Rose, and it reminded me of my friend, Vassiliki Katrivanou, who is currently a Member of Parliament in the Greek government in the Syriza party. To celebrate #TBT, here is the post I wrote about Vassiliki last year, about her experiences with power, soft vs. hard power, sexism, and her way of navigating those dynamics.
The most important power you have is the one that’s not yours
It’s a remarkable story. A good friend of mine – practically overnight and without planning to do so – became a Member of the Greek Parliament. Some of you readers may know Vassiliki Katrivanou. A Process Work trainer, facilitator and filmmaker, who worked internationally, Vassiliki was living in her native Athens after almost a decade living abroad. She arrived back in Greece just in time for Greece’s biggest crisis since the end of the civil war in 1949.
Greece is in the middle of a crisis of enormous proportions: a political, financial, social, and as Vassiliki adds, constitutional crisis. People are living on the edge: 30% unemployment, 50% of youth unemployed, and no sign of development or a way out of the crisis in sight. And, as history has shown, in the midst of desperate times, ideologies like fascism become attractive. A new neo-Nazi party, the Golden Dawn has emerged, and is now the third largest party in Greece.
Vassiliki wasn’t a politician, but as the famous saying goes, the times make the person. A window of opportunity opened and Vassiliki was asked to stand for election with the Syriza Party, the new Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece. The new left coalition came to power in response to the crisis, and includes different groups of the left and independent politicians. The Syriza party is now the second largest party in the Greek Parliament, and the main opposition party.
It wasn’t completely out of the blue. Vassiliki grew up in a political family. Her father, Ilias Katrivanos, was also a Member of Parliament, and Deputy Minister of the Interior. She was somewhat engaged politically as an activist, and her family name still carried some cachet, especially with the Left and in the broader democratic spectrum. Nonetheless, it was a radical leap from educator and facilitator to member of the Greek Parliament.
As if that leap in identity weren’t enough, Vassiliki is also one of the newest and least experienced politicians in the Parliament. Then there’s the fact that women comprise around 20% of the Members of Parliament; she’s among 63 women out of 300 Members of Parliament, though her party has 30%, the largest percentage of women of any party. On top of the sexism and patriarchal attitudes, she also has to contend with the stigma of representing those issues that are most contentious in Greece right now, and a flash point for the fascist movement: immigration, prisons, and human rights. Those of you who know Vassiliki, can attest to the fact that she’s not one to shy away from controversy. But this ups the ante quite a bit. The stakes are higher, outcomes more crucial, and dangers more acute.
A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to talk with Vassiliki about her experiences. In particular, I wanted to know what she learned since taking office. Specifically, what has she learned about power given the paradox that she holds a high ranking position as MP, yet a lower rank within the Parliament as a new member? How does she navigate this topsy-turvy experience of power? As a psychologist, she trafficked in the art of soft power. Now suddenly, she’s thrust into another arena, an arena where soft power is in short supply, and hard power, in the form of coercion, threat, and political machinery rules the day. How does soft power stand up to political power, the atmosphere of sexism, the rigid positional power and pecking order of the Parliament, as well as the rising tide of fascist power?
And this is what she told me.
She was initially intimidated and paralyzed by the power dynamics. She doubted whether she could make an impact and felt silenced by the rank around her.
She questioned whether she should be there, wondering if it was really right for her to be on this path. But then she asked herself, “What if I were to die? What would I think? Would I feel relieved and free from this new role?” And in that moment, she said, Martin Luther King, Jr. flashed through her mind. She suddenly felt liberated; she felt connected to something beyond her fear, beyond the moment. She felt motivated and inspired by a bigger cause. “It’s not about me, anymore,” she said to herself. “What I feel, and whether I think I can or can’t do it,” she realized, “is immaterial. It’s not about me and what I can do. It’s about what I believe.”
Right after that realization, she had a breakthrough. Three big things happened, one after the other.
First, she was asked to be the main presenter on behalf of her party for a bill introducing therapy in prisons. She was nominated because of her knowledge of drug addiction. Not only had she never presented a bill before, but because the legislative process had been reduced, due to the government’s handling of the crisis, she had actually never seen a law presented. Everything in Parliament until then had been done in the context of a state of emergency. So this was the first draft law that was debated formally in Parliament. Vassiliki, having never seen it done, and with no prior experience, took it on. But, she said, she was supported by the collective work of preparation from her party.
Not only did the law pass, but it did so with the most multi-party votes of any law that had passed. It was a progressive law that broke through the stigma of drug addiction in Greek society. In a time of extreme polarization, Vassiliki substantially contributed to passing a law, collaboratively, that contained crucial legislative suggestions initiated by her party.
I asked her how she did that, and she said, I had to explain it. “Most politicians,” she said, “are lawyers. And it was difficult for them to understand the psychology of addiction. So I spoke to every individual who had any input or influence or were crucial to passing the proposals my party made. And I explained how people change. I explained to them the research that connected personality and criminality, and what therapeutic factors can be influenced.”
Vassiliki said, “I didn’t think at the time whether or not it would pass, or whether or not I could do it. I had to do it because it was a good law. I really believed in it.”
The second breakthrough came in amending the Penal Code to include “gender identity” under protection from hate crimes. This was an enormous breakthrough and victory for the transgendered community in Greece. The legislation now reads: ‘Performing an act motivated by nationalistic, racial or religious hatred, or hatred due to different sexual orientation or gender identity against a victim, is considered an aggravating circumstance and the sentence cannot be suspended.’
And the final breakthrough was unexpected. During a very important debate in Parliament, Vassiliki took part in a debate among colleagues, and the President tried to quiet her down, referring to her as “the lady in the coat.” Vassiliki told me, “when he said, at that moment, I felt I just had enough. I had experienced so much sexism, and I thought, that’s enough.” Despite the importance of the legislation being debated, she interrupted it. Vassiliki said to him, “I am not woman in coat but a colleague. You wouldn’t refer to a male Member of Parliament as ‘the man in the coat.’”
Vassiliki told me that though she didn’t know it at the time, this exchange was broadcast and now people know her as the ‘lady in the coat.’ “People were very enthusiastic about what I did,’ she said, “regardless of where they were on the political spectrum. I think it was successful because I didn’t attack or insult the President. I felt free to speak out about the sexism, and start a conversation that had never been had in Parliament in a direct way.”
And then Vassiliki told me a funny story. During the debates on the legislation providing therapy for drug addicted prisoners, she had to work closely with the Minister of Justice. In the Greek Parliament, the Ministers and the President sit up on a raised dais, facing the MPs, who sit in rows of desks, in a semicircle. “During the debates,” Vassiliki explained, “there were many times I had to speak with the Minister and brief him on the different suggestions my party had about the law.” So she would get up, cross the room, and go up to where he was sitting. “There was often an empty seat next to him, which was convenient,” she said, “so I sat in it.”
It turned out to be the Prime Minister’s chair! But as Vassiliki explained to me, “I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. To me at that moment, it was just an available chair.” But, people took pictures of her sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair, and it went out into the news and on social media. Some of her colleagues pulled her aside, and asked her if she was aware of what she was doing.
“I wasn’t,” she said, “and I actually didn’t care.” “I was just doing what I had to do. I suppose if I was more intimidated by power, and more self-conscious of my role I wouldn’t have done that. But you see, I wasn’t me anymore. I wasn’t thinking about myself or my power. I was just thinking about that law, and how important it was. My power came from my belief, not from my role.”
This is what Vassiliki learned and what she helped me realize: the biggest power we can hold is the one that doesn’t belong to us. It’s not political nor even personal. It’s not something that we do or don’t do. Our greatest power comes from the beliefs, ideas, and passions that propel us. For Vassiliki, it was the belief in the laws she was helping to pass, in the conversations about sexism that she felt called upon to start. For Martin Luther King Jr., it was the creation of the “beloved community.” What will it be for you?