Friday, July 13, 2007

Barnard's Young Women's Leadership Institute

Future Feminist Leaders

Today I visited Barnard's Young Women's Leadership Institute, a week-long residential program for high school women that focuses on gender, leadership, and their intersection. I attended the student-led conference that culminated this intensive leadership training and was wowed by the amazing projects that these women accomplished - in just one week! It was so energizing to be able to meet these 60 passionate young *feminist* activists. (Really, no one can say that young women just don't care about gender inequality - these powerful young leaderships proved otherwise.)

After hearing about this accomplished group's success, I had a tough act to follow as the keynote speaker at their closing luncheon. As the former, and first, YWLI program coordinator (2003-2005), I had been invited to be...well, to be inspirational. So, I shared my perspective on online social activism and the power of networking via the internet.

But really, I think this awe-inspiring group of young women were much more motivating than I could ever hope to be. Sisterhood is powerful...


In case you are interested, this is the full text - more or less - of the talk that I gave today.

First, I would like to thank you all for having me here today and to congratulate you on your successful completion of the Young Women’s Leadership Institute. I was very impressed by your student-led conference today – it’s a tough act to follow!

As a former program coordinator of the YWLI program, I have seen the program grow from a group of 32 students to, literally, double its initial size. I have had the privilege of attending the student-led conference each year since 2003, and I must confess that each year I am more and more impressed. You are an accomplished group of passionate young women! I have not doubt that you are going to return home after your experience here at Barnard and get to work on some truly great projects.

But, even though I’m sure some of your are counting down the minutes until you get home – to homecooked meals, to your own bed, to SLEEP – or maybe you are anxiously awaiting the start of your next summer adventure – I just want to take this opportunity to reinforce the *awesomeness* of what you have accomplished in your short time here at Barnard.

When you arrived in New York one week ago, you might not have been exactly sure what you were getting in to. And when Anna explained your jam-packed schedule, I am sure that some of wondered about what you had gotten yourself into. But, just six days later, you have done so much! And you have done it all with style – from surviving subway adventures, to challenging yourself in workshops, to negotiating locking yourself or your roommate out of your room, to putting on an entire leadership conference. Wow. Just one week!

It is always so amazing to me. To see what each YWLI class has accomplished – what they have succeeded in doing, in such a short time, together, as a community. Because even though many of you arrived in New York knowing none of your fellow participants, because even though you came from diverse backgrounds and various regions, because even though you may not share the same experiences or ideals – you have still managed to form this powerful network. I mean, your bond as a group is palpable in this very room. You are an accomplished community – you have a powerful network *that gets things done*.

And, when you leave tomorrow, I hope that you will hold onto the power of this network. I know that you have created a directory of this year’s participants – it is so great because I am sure that it will be an invaluable resource for all of you. But, because I recently completed my M.A. thesis on how social activism can be successful online – I was looking specifically at feminist activists and blogging – because of my background in online social activism, I want to encourage you to utilize the *free* tools that the world wide web offers you to keep in touch and to support each other with your unique skills.

[Just an aside…When I was first preparing to talk with you today, I prepared a handout with all of this information. You have it, or will. But then I realized that I was preparing a workshop. And, at this point in your week, I think probably the last thing that you should be doing is attending another workshop. Now do not get me wrong – the activities you participated in this week were awesome – but right now, you should be celebrating and taking a well-deserved break after all of your hard work. So, feel free to use that handout as a resource guide. But also, feel free not to read it until after you have gotten some rest.]

But, getting to some of the highlights from that handout…because they are important.

As your presentations illustrated today, the internet provides a lot of great tools for accomplishing activist initiatives. And many of these tools are free and easy to use. From social networking platforms, like Facebook, to new media forms, like blogs, the internet allows you to spread information quickly – nearly instantaneously – and to connect with individuals around the world. In this room, you have a strong network of women. Once you leave this room, you will still have a strong network of women – and you will be able to use internet technology to reinforce this network, and to grow it.

I just want to give you one example. In fall 2006, two young women from New York City started a blog, HollabackNYC, because they wanted to do something about gender-based street harassment. Not only did their efforts get major media attention and a special initiative led by the NYPD to decrease the harassment of women in the subway system, they also started a movement that has spread across the United States, to Canada, to Japan. Hollaback blogs now exist for so many major cities and even entire regions. And this huge Hollaback network has teamed up with other networks, like the one that focuses on the similar phenomenon of “eve teasing” in India. Two young women. One blog. Approximately seven months. An international movement! It is impressive.

Now. Just imagine what you will be able to accomplish, with the energy in this room and the strong connections that you have made this week, half a year from now. Because you have the tools, the passion, the connections, the support – you have each other. And starting a Google group to keep in touch or creating a Facebook cause to raise money for an issue that is important to you – these virtual resources can only expand your potential.

One note, though, before I send you all off to cyberspace. As many of you know, the internet is not a digital utopia. While the internet offers so many great opportunities, it still carries many of the problems that exist offline. So, just like women are disproportionately targeted in street harassment in the “real” world, women also disproportionately face virtual violence. And just like stereotypes about girls doing math exist, so do stereotypes about women and technology. But, I think, as more young women like you assert your presence online, this will start to change. Because you are going to make these changes in online culture.

That does not mean, however, that when you blog that you will not encounter a troll who really wants to put you in your place. Or that you will be protected from getting creepy emails about why you should not be advocating for your beliefs online – because someone thinks you have the wrong opinion, or that you should not be voicing that opinion in public, or because you are, well, a woman with opinions.

But, I do not want you to be discouraged. Online harassment is meant to discourage you. And all of you are strong, intelligent, beautiful Barnard women. You should be encouraged! Because you are going to do amazing things. And the resources that the internet provides should *help* you get those things done.

Personally, when I start to feel depressed about sexism or other cyber-isms that I encounter online, I think back to the speech that I heard at my Barnard graduation. At the 2005 commencement, Anna Quindlen spoke about her experiences working as a journalist; she said,

People write all the time to my places of employment with the suggestion that someone should have put a stop to my declarations long ago. They have dismissive words for a woman who does the job I do. Opinionated – a word used only for women, usually meaning having strong opinions when one ought not to have them. Bossy – taking charge, but without benefit of a Y chromosome. Feisty. Ooh, it makes my skin crawl. It's a word that suggests the petite who argue, perhaps in very high voices.

All three are apologetic terms. I'm so sorry I have strong opinions. I'm so sorry I take the lead. I'm so sorry I refuse to take no for an answer.

I say to you today: No apologies. Graduating from Barnard means never having to say you're sorry. At least not for being strong, and strong-minded.

You are all strong, intelligent, beautiful Barnard women. No apologies necessary. And you are a strong, passionate, supportive community. So, when you are getting things done, online or offline, and someone tries to discourage you (if they do) – I know that you will be able to rely on the strength of your network. This network, right here. And you will all succeed in accumulating even more impressive accomplishments…which I look forward to hearing about, online.

Thank you. And congratulations!

And, if we could, a big round of applause for [A.S.] and all of her hard work [as the current YWLI program coordinator]!

And, yes, I am available for speaking engagements. ; )

Please note that as my M.A. thesis project is complete, the George Washington University is no longer overseeing research conducted in conjuction with this blog (effective June 2007 to present). The Informed Consent Materials created while this blog was under GWU's IRB oversight are still available for your information and the principles outlined in them are still being used as a general guide for my continued work.

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