This past Monday, Barnard college housed the Women in the World Foundation’s Next Generation Leadership Academy, bringing together over 50 exceptional young women for a day of sharing discussions and building connections. I sit among this distinguished group of future leaders. One woman in my table tells me about the new collaborative online community she is starting that promotes unheard stories on sex, sexuality, and body image. She is wondering how she will manage her website and begin Harvard Law in the fall. Another flies out to South Dakota tomorrow to work with a non-profit that gives resources to Native American communities. Not to mention, she founded the non-profit herself when she was a sophomore in high school. Some of the women in this room plan to travel the world to learn how to best enact female empowerment, others want a career in law enforcement, and others are studying to become global health experts or engineers. All of the sudden, my meek response of “I am a writer” feels self-indulgent and unimpressive.
On the stage, a cohort of power women share with us their experiences with ambition, with leadership (not just “female” leadership), with the uselessness of leaning in and wanting it all. Several of us have our ubiquitous IPhones out. Every time an impassioned thought is shared, a tweet gets sent out. The hashtag page of the conference becomes a stream of stirring dialogue. Our conversation begins to echo beyond Barnard’s walls and onto the tweet decks of women and men across the web.
Reshma Saujani speaks to us about her project Girls Who Code, a non-profit dedicated to teaching young women the skills and confidence necessary to pursue careers in computer science. “Women, we run the Internet,” Suajani says. “We use it more to communicate. Yet it is men who are in the back end designing our own access.” She urges us to learn how to code, to grow from users to builders.
She is followed by Zainab Salbi, activist, writer, and founder of Women for Women International. “If you knew me, you would care,” Salbi vocalizes, the impactful portraits of women from all over the world emerging behind her. These women have lived in war zones and refugee camps, have endured rape, have seen loved ones die in front of them. They have also started businesses, provided for their children, and refused to be victims, instead becoming defiant survivors. If we knew their stories, if we shared their words, we would care. Sharing is a catalyst for change. Activism is born out of an empathy and understanding of others’ struggles. And for those who speak their stories of hardship, sharing becomes a form of therapy and a path towards healing. If they can live, how can I not have the courage to share my truth?
Shelby Knox speaks next. My eyes widen; here is one of my feminist fairy godmothers in the flesh. She shares the panel on “The Future of Feminism” with Saujani. They talk about the implications and importance of the f-word in their own work and in future activism. When asked why she thought feminism as a label creates such a pushback among young women, Knox replies that many of us grew up in a world were we didn't need to fight against explicit sexism. We believed that the battle was fought and won. For future feminists, the root of our activism needs to come from marginalized groups that still experience everyday forms of blatant sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. “Our tool of radicalization will be the Internet,” Knox says. Through the Internet, we will learn about the female activist leaders of the Arab Spring, the Mama Shujaa of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the protestors of Texas’s anti-abortion bill.
While the panels diverged on topics of leadership, activism, and feminism, I walked away from the Leadership Academy feeling an enlivened pride of calling myself a writer. While I am continuously impressed by the work of my peers, that day I was reminded of the power of narrative. Like Kyle Gibson shared, the best storytelling comes from listening. As future feminist leaders, we don't need to attend more lean-in circles or women’s groups wine spritzers. Instead we need to start plugging in and listening to the global narratives that surround us with humility. We need to start posting our own tales and acknowledging our own privilege. We need to teach ourselves how to code, how to share and create this resources of communication. And like our feminist foremothers, we need to develop a new network for all women, a sisterhood that expands beyond our immediate circle of peers.