I returned to the Women in the World summit as a Gwynnie Bee member correspondent for the final day. After the amazing opening night experience, I was psyched up for a day full of stimulating and eye opening conversations. Once again, WITW delivered. It is really impressive how much amazingness they are able to pack into one day. It would be impossible to detail every great moment, but here are some of the highlights:
- The day opened with a performance from the incredibly talented (and adorable) girls of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team. Founder Tawanda Jones had many opportunities to move to safer areas, but wanted to stay in her community to make an impact, saying that if everyone doing well left, Camden would never progress. Her goal has been wildly successful: Whereas the overall graduation rate in Camden is 50%, members of the drill team have a 100% rate of graduation.
- Sally Hazelgrove, founder of Crushers Club, another successful program for inner city youth, surveyed the young men and boys she wanted to work with to decide what type of program it would be. The resounding answer: Boxing. By giving a voice to the group she wanted to help (instead of assuming she knew what was best for them), Hazelgrove was able to build a program that provides both structure and value. By giving ownership and agency to the kids, the program has attained high levels of engagement and commitment in a very rough environment.
- Pakistani activist Khalida Brohi faces entrenched sexism head on in rural areas to end “honor killings.” Where many people would just give themselves over to sputtering rage in the face of comments like “If a women works she becomes independent. The only response to that is a bullet,” Brohi persisted, trying new tacks, and working with both the men and the women in the community until male attitudes slowly have started to shift. I am awed by that level of patience and perseverance, and extremely grateful that heroes like Brohi exist.
- The amazing “Where Gay Equals Criminal” panel shed light on some absurd anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria, and the impetus behind them. Director Roger Ross Williams emphasized that the harsh laws in Africa are part of a “global wave of homophobia.” Evangelical Christians that feel like they are losing the “culture war” in America are taking the fight to Uganda, preaching Biblical law and spreading grossly inaccurate teachings (i.e. “the gays were responsible for Nazi Germany, and now they are coming for your children”). This type of fear-mongering is being used to make the LGBT community a scapegoat for the real issues, and has created an environment where it is dangerous to simply exist. Brave women activists Clare Byarugaba and Adejoke Tugbiyele are continuing their activism for basic human rights in the face of it all, which is beyond inspiring.
- Aptly-named Ambassador Samantha Power discussed experiences, accomplishments, and challenges, including balancing motherhood with international crises. On the latter point, she said “It’s not lean in, it’s fall down,” something many women in the audience laughingly identified with.
- Activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan highlighted some of the horrible things Dalit (formerly known by the pejorative “Untouchables”) women in India are subjected to, both at the hands of rapists and a staunchly indifferent justice system (One of the most stomach turning stories of the day: When a judge was shown a video of a Dalit woman being raped, his only response was “Now you have proof that you enjoyed yourself.”) Soundararajan clarified that sexual violence against Dalit women is often an act of reprisal for any attempt to be seen as human, and that it is enacted swiftly. This is an issue that is largely swept under the rug, both in India and abroad, and the panelists called for an end to the silence.
- Iconic designer Diane Von Furstenberg was unsurprisingly wonderful, starting her talk with a motto I try to adhere to: “If you have a voice, the most important thing to do is give a voice to those who don’t.” She remained very true to her words, at one point steering the conversation away from her groundbreaking wrap dress to discuss an Indian woman activist who truly inspired her. She also dished out some gems of wisdom, including a fantastic approach to choosing a path: “I began in life, I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the type of women I wanted to be.” Diane Von Furstenberg was particularly inspiring to me, as she showed how a successful career in fashion can translate into helping others, two things I strive for in my life.
- The panel on selfies and how they are redefining beauty also hit close to home for me. I’ve experienced, firsthand, the importance of representation, and seeing women of all shapes and sizes taking part in the typically exclusionary world of fashion was revelatory to me. As I have mentioned before, it was finding Gwynnie Bee and seeing the active and vibrant community of curvy and plus size fashion bloggers that sparked a seismic shift in my self confidence and perception of beauty; which eventually led me to start a blog of my own to inspire others. Many of the sentiments expressed by panelist Crystal Ogar resonated with me, and when she cried during her beautiful and impassioned speech about the importance of representation and self love, tears were in my eyes as well. Ogar also addressed issues that are not part of my lived experience, but I nonetheless feel strongly about: The importance of recognizing the dynamics of color in our society, where whiteness is prized and images of dark skin beauty are few and far between in mainstream media. Though many people decry social media as fostering vanity, it is providing an essential avenue for representation for women otherwise excluded. So, so important.
At the end of the day, I left with new knowledge and awareness of issues I was previously blind to; a desire to get more involved with activism around the globe; and bursting with inspiration and drive to continue promoting body positivity and the principle that fashion is for everyone. Representation and authentic self expression are important, and I feel truly empowered to keep spreading the message.
I am very grateful to Gwynnie Bee, both for the opportunity to attend this summit with the other member correspondents Allison and Margit; and for being one of the first steps on my path to true self love. Thank you for being an organization that cares about empowering women!