Beth Osnes (PhD, University of Colorado Boulder) is an Assistant Professor of theatre at the University of Colorado Boulder. As cofounder of the former Mothers Acting Up (2002–2011), she toured a program, in partnership with Philanthropiece Foundation, entitled the MOTHER tour, to locations around the world to create a global community of mothers moving from concern to action on behalf of their most passionate concerns. In conjunction with that program, she is developing a methodology that is specific to gender equity in clean energy development, using theatre to include voices of women living in poverty in the planning and implementation of development projects in Panama, Guatemala, India, Nicaragua, and the Navajo Nation. She has presented that work at the 2010 World Renewable Energy Congress in Abu Dhabi, the 2012 World Renewable Energy Forum in Denver, and the 2012 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio. She also has conducted field research as a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia; published books (including Theatre for Women’s Participation in Sustainable Development) and many articles on women’s vocal empowerment, gender equity in sustainable development, mothering, activism, and the performing arts; and she is featured in the award-winning documentary Mother: Caring for 7 Billion (www.motherthefilm.com). You can see some of her amazing current work here: http://www.strikingthematch.org and http://www.insidethegreenhouse.net
Beth is very much a mother who focused on women and women’s participation through informed scholarship activism. The wisdom she gained through mothering and the challenges that it presents helps her to create situations in which women can participate without pretending they’re not moms.
Q: You work in Energy Access, informing consumers about effects of energy, poverty, and the strain on the Earth, which you explain in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=er73TsSUPFk.
BO: In Boulder, there are so many people doing cutting edge research and innovation around energy. Energy Access means peoples’ access to resources and what that can mean for their lives. Since I’m focused on environmental and women’s issues, there is a natural intersection with indoor air pollution, which directly affects so many women and children.
Over one third of the world’s population cooks their food over a three stone fire. These cooking fires are often indoors as a source of heat, but incomplete combustion causes extreme indoor air pollution. The levels of pollution in homes cause respiratory illnesses in young children and women. There is a strong link between childhood pneumonia and other respiratory killers and indoor cooking fires.
Q: Clearly Mother Earth is a huge theme in your work. How do you feel most connected to the earth (or Mother)? Can you tell me about your film Mother: Caring for 7 Billion? What has surprised you about the process of creating, crafting, and sharing this essential story?
BO: In so many traditions the earth is seen as our mother, the source of nourishment. Sadly, the way we treat the earth is so similar to the way we treat women – raped, disregarded, used – and it’s part of a dominator mindframe. We’ve seen that happen to both women and the earth. The film educates people and says that we can transform into a fuller relationship for everyone – men and women, humans and the earth. Allowing women to empower themselves creates women as leaders. They have access to education and then fewer children who are more viable. That’s the best way to stabilize population is to help women empower themselves. That’s how we find balance.
Q: You are a theater professor at The University of Colorado Boulder. What drew you to theater? What legacy do you hope to leave and how do you shape that legacy?
BO: Theater is at its heart telling a story. The way that our lives are is a story that somebody wrote; when someone writes a story, usually they get the leading roles. We are living in a story now that isn’t really authored by women. The women who get to author have to take on male characteristics. The process of theater is more important to me that the performance. I’m using theater as a tool for women to have authorship of reality – over their lives, their community, locally, globally.
Theater is a rehearsal for reality.
I do this work called Inside the Greenhouse (www.insidethegreenhouse.com) and as part of this project, I got to interview Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. We were focusing on creative communication about climate change.
She said, “When women lead, it’s different.”
I looked at her, “How is it different when women lead?”
“One [role] is like Margaret Thatcher where you take on the persona of the patriarchy. But the story that I find more interesting is the other side. Women leaders tend to make sure that every constituency is taken care of. They make decisions based on consensus building versus domination.”
It was really cool for me to hear that perspective. Women are essential to leadership and authoring the next chapters of global culture.
I’m in theater is because we need to take all these tools from theater so that women can step into authorship. Somebody needs to write the story. If we can use theater to get women to step into that authorship role, those qualities will carry over into life and leadership.
Q: How do you make time for yourself? What gives you balance?
BO: I don’t have balance. I’m a little bit of a crazy person. I don’t know how to settle down, but kids help me. I have an understanding husband and that helps.
We use every family vacation to go do projects – once my daughter asked to “go on a vacation where we don’t help people.” Because I’m a mom, I’ve had to show up with my kids in tow, without asking for forgiveness. When I show up as a mother, I have a calling card that’s immediately identifiable; I am accepted in a real way when I show up with my humanity.
Q: What is something that the world should know? Maybe the best piece of advice that you ever received or the message you have for others.
BO: I think the thing I learn the most from Mothers Acting Up is that the only way we make progress is by focusing on our shared values and working from there. There are so many things that divide us, let’s form unlikely communities around our shared values. If we start there we can resolve issues in a constructive way than if we start from our difference.
The challenges that the world faces are global. We are all connected now. The earth has forced us into a community – and that’s a huge opportunity to start with what unites us.
Q: Who is someone who touched your life deeply? What’s the story?
BO: My mom. She was a fierce advocate. She would use her voice and challenge authority when she felt threatened. Once when I was a kid I was accused of shoplifting (I didn’t). The clerk brought me to the owner, Mr. Evan’s, sat me in his office, and they yelled at me for an hour. I told my mom and she marched me to Mr. Evan’s and she used her voice fearlessly. It made a big impression on me to be spoken for and defended so bravely. I feel like I’m still trying to channel that to teach people how to use their own voice.
Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done?
BO: The most rewarding moments, other than being a mother and in a family, are when I’m in community with women and helping them be expressive. Those are my peak moments on the planet.