This month, I attended the White House Council on Women and Girls’ first ever United State of Women Summit, held in Washington, DC. Five thousand women from different backgrounds, ages and business sectors were invited to attend or nominated because of their contributions towards advancing women’s rights. Walking in with them was electrifying.
The summit featured an unparalleled speaker lineup that included President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, actress/activist Kerry Washington, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and many more.
One highlight was President Obama, who was introduced by Mikaila Ulmer, 11-year-old founder and CEO of Me and the Bees Lemonade. Before going on stage, she reportedly told Obama that she wasn’t nervous about introducing him in front of an audience of 5,000 because just the day before she addressed an audience of 11,000. Mikaila, and the other young entrepreneurs who presented, exemplified our bright future.
The idea of the Summit, according to the White House, was to “rally together advocates of gender equality to highlight what we’ve achieved, identify the challenges that remain, and chart the course for addressing them.”
Speaking to this, in his poignant address, the president noted, “The story is still being written, today, by our modern-day heroes like Nancy Pelosi or Sonia Sotomayor or Billie Jean King or Laverne Cox or Sheryl Sandberg or Oprah Winfrey or Mikaila Ulmer or Michelle Obama …the countless ordinary people every day who are bringing us closer to our highest ideals. That’s the story we’re going to keep on telling, so our girls see that they, too, are America — confident and courageous and, in the words of Audre Lord, ‘deliberate and afraid of nothing’.”
Certainly, the Summit was inspiring as a result of the thought leadership in the room, the creativity, the determination, and the countless projects both big and small that are changing our communities. But the course for addressing the noted challenges was a bit less palpable.
Indeed, the call to action included recognizing and being deliberate about the intersectionality of women’s rights, racial justice and LGBTQ rights, intentionally shifting the national paradigm to one of inclusivity and non-violence, creating the conditions for our youngest leaders and thinkers to innovate, as well as policy change to personal inquiry. In fact, in an armchair conversation between Michelle Obama and Oprah, Michelle Obama’s advice to the audience was to “know yourself” noting that “It takes knowing who you are in order to deal with the onslaught of negative messages.”
Now, back at home, the challenge remains. What actionable messages can be distilled from such an abundant experience?
Upon reflection, I am left with the resounding message of the personal work that needs to be done in order to bring about an equitable and just community. This includes being deliberate and afraid of nothing in the face of adversity while also reflecting deeply about how we personally contribute, both interpersonally and institutionally, to those negative messages mentioned by Michelle Obama.
With this in mind, I intend to let this message guide me and I encourage others to join. This includes spending time reflecting upon the ways in which we disempower the people in our lives, their contributions, their values and their voice. I’ll ask myself, what I can do to change my habits and intentionally amplify the voices that are not “at the table?” Furthermore, how can I become more competent at genuinely hearing and acting upon people’s different perspectives?
Additionally, in my day-to-day decision making, I intend to ask myself, “Am I acting from a place of equanimity?” I will also ask my family, friends and colleagues, what I can do to better support and empower them.
This practice of personal inquiry is hugely important for freeing ourselves, each other and our community to be remarkable. The United State of Women Summit has passed, which leaves us with today, a great day to begin this practice.
Hillary Soens, YWCA Olympia CEO, is a member of the 2016 Olympian Board of Contributors. She is a mother, wife and Olympia community member. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org