Women2Women leadership conference inspires and empowers

Anyone who believes men and women should be treated equally is a feminist.

By Shrunothra Ambati

Shrunothra-AmbatiBOSTON: Out of the world’s 130 million children not in school, 70 percent are girls. One in four U.S. girls do not finish high school. Of the 27 million human beings enslaved worldwide, 80 percent are women and girls. In the U.S., women only make 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes.

Feminist. When most people hear this word, they immediately assume a negative connotation, picturing an angry, man-hating woman with lots of demands. I learned this was an absolutely incorrect characterization at the Women2Women leadership conference I attended this summer. As 119 other girls from 26 different countries and I attended eye-opening workshops, listened to influential guest speakers, developed action plans, lived, ate, and, of course, shopped together for two weeks, we learned a different definition of feminism, empowerment, and leadership.

Men and women should be treated equally. According to Ghazal Rahmanpanah, of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, anyone who believes this statement is true can be considered a feminist. In her lively talk, she spoke about her work with the U.N. Security Council, the role of women in conflict and peace building, and the challenges of making change on a national and international level. She stressed to us that we could do anything we set our minds to, and not to limit ourselves.

Women2women conference
Group picture in front of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, where we learned about the U.S. government.

A major topic that was heavily emphasized during the conference was women in government and politics. We met Kirsten Hughes, chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, Victoria Budson, Founder and Executive Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard, Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council, and House of Representatives Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, among many other speakers.

All of these accomplished people impressed upon us the importance of women’s involvement in the decision-making process. Women bring new perspectives, fresh ideas, and different concerns to the table, but first we have to “take our seat at the table.” I asked Congressman Kennedy how to make up for the lack of experience and convince people that we are the right candidates for leadership roles at this young age. He encouraged us to pursue leadership positions because of our youth and innovativeness, but warned us to be humble and take advice from others when we lacked the knowledge ourselves. At the end of his charismatic speech, he was inevitably bombarded with selfie requests, as all 120 of us crowded around him for a group picture, which was successfully taken.

In addition to political speakers, we spoke with several panels on various other subjects. We asked questions about ISIS, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and LGBT rights to a religious panel with a Rabbi, Pastor, Reverend, Imam, and religion expert. We talked about women in STEAM fields in the workplace with professors and researchers. We debated the impact of news through social media or conventional sources with TV reporters and journalists. Engaging in these controversial and prevalent issues with experts in each field was an extremely informative and unique experience.

A moving presentation by Professor Elizabeth Goldberg, at Babson College, left us all feeling shocked, yet inspired. She spoke about her involvement in Made by Survivors, an organization that rescues survivors of human trafficking and provides them with jewelry making skills. They learn the designs and patterns that are popular in western countries and are taught the skills to metalwork. It is a form of therapy, as well as a source of livelihood and an avenue of integration back into society.

We had the opportunity to hear from Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Commander of NATO in Europe, now Dean of the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. We also heard from Alan Solomont, the former U.S. Ambassador to Spain and the current Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. They talked about their experiences, challenges, and successes in their careers and gave us advice on how to get involved in the work that they have done. It was incredible to sit with such influential people and hear from them, their mistakes and lessons learned. They were really believed we could achieve as much as they had and were more relatable than I thought they would be.

Sitting inside a scale replica of the U.S. Senate Chamber hearing from Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Samantha Washburn-Baronie, Leisha Beardmore, and Maureen Gallagher.
Sitting inside a scale replica of the U.S. Senate Chamber hearing from Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Samantha Washburn-Baronie, Leisha Beardmore, and Maureen Gallagher.

The entire conference was filled with fun and engaging moments. During cultural presentation night, we participated in a Bahrain wedding ceremony, learned the colloquial word, “hygge” from Denmark, and performed the Macarena and Cotton Eyed Joe dances. The discussions we had during breakfast, lunch, and dinner ranged from the classes we were taking in school to Islam in the other girls’ home countries. We talked about fashion in Europe to the problems of racism and discrimination in each of our countries. By the time we slept, we were completely exhausted from the packed day. I am very impressed at how much we fit into ten days!

I now have close friends in every corner of the world from Chad to Belgium to France to Pakistan, to name a few of the countries represented. I learned more about the cultures and traditions of some places than I ever have in school. I’ve met professionals who have influenced the world in different ways and are available resources to me. To progress as a society, we need to show equality and compassion towards everyone, and now I have a team of more than a hundred intelligent, driven, passionate, young women around the world who want to help make that happen as much as I do. It didn’t matter that we practiced different religions, looked different, and spoke different languages – we all found a common interest at Women2Women and came together as soon as we recognized our mutual goals. As cliché as it sounds, this is truly the start of a long journey; there are many more people to meet, things to learn, problems that will arise, and ideas we will form to solve them.

(Shrunothra Ambati is a senior in high school at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, Massachusetts.)

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