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A Tribute to Mirna Cunningham

It’s impossible to tell the story of MADRE without Mirna. In many ways, Mirna made MADRE possible.

Back in 1983, a group of women from Nicaragua extended an invitation to a small group of women in the United States. 

You may remember what was happening to Nicaragua then. Women there were living through the worst days of a years-long terrorist campaign, where right-wing contra militias, illegally trained and funded by the US, targeted and brutalized civilians. 

One of the women who extended the invitation was Mirna, then the Minister of Health for Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Coast. Her invitation would give rise to our international women's human rights organization.

That’s because she tasked the women who visited from the US with a responsibility: to take what they had seen the US was doing to her country, to look into the eyes of mothers whose children had been killed, and to turn that feeling into action. 

As a result, the women who traveled to Nicaragua that summer came home with a commitment to the women they met there, and they formed MADRE. We’ve held to that commitment ever since, and I’m thankful to Mirna for what she sparked all those years ago.

And along the way, I’ve learned so much from Mirna. Especially from her deep understanding of the imperative to operate at multiple levels — from local to international, and everywhere in between.

I’ve seen her work up close. When she’s in local communities, grappling with women with the most urgent crises that they face, she brings not only her leadership as an advocate, but a doctor’s capacity to distinguish symptoms from root causes. 

To understand, for example, that the dirty water that threatens your family’s health comes from the mining company down the road — and furthermore, comes from your government’s failure to safeguard your right to clean water and control over your land.

Thanks to her, women move from seeing the violations they face only in isolation. They move from seeing themselves only as victims. They grow in their ability to marshal their own power and move strategically.

And they can move strategically into policy spaces where the root causes of the crises they face emerge. That’s another realm in which Mirna has forged a path of leadership — as a globally recognized human rights advocate who uplifts the needs and priorities of women and Indigenous Peoples worldwide.

In so doing, she’s made policy spaces accountable to women worldwide. And that’s one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned from her work — the need to merge the realities of women’s lives with the policies that impact them.

Lately, many of us have been part of strategic conversations about how to counter the swing to the right that has seized so many of our countries.

This lesson I mentioned — of honing our ability to merge our local realities with our policy strategies — has never been more urgent.

In part, that’s because many of us are seeing the horrible impacts of right-wing policies on specific local communities and individuals, and we’re called to respond to those emergencies: whether it’s creating sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants or protection for people targeted by right-wing hate.

These local, lifesaving interventions are essential. But there’s great urgency to ensure that we don’t stop there, that we strengthen our capacity to see the whole web of connections that are attached to these local interventions.

We must connect local to local, as Mirna has done when she’s forged relationships between women in different communities. These connections allow people to borrow tactics from each other and adapt them to their own context.

And we must connect local to global, tracing the ties between the crises we face and their policy roots. That calls on us to understand the political contexts and ideologies that underpin right-wing policies and build effective strategies to counter them.

Thank you Mirna, for all of these lessons.

April 25, 2017