Human Rights Leaders Institute

A couple of months ago, I applied for sponsorship to attend the Amnesty International USA Human Rights Leaders Institute from July 28-30 in Chicago. Human rights has always been a passion of mine and one that I first acted on in high school when I started an Amnesty International club despite my intense shyness and social anxiety disorder. Recently, I’ve felt the need to reconnect with that passion as I’ve contemplated my goals and priorities now that I’m 30. 

Later, I had a call with the Field Officer and was invited to attend. I won’t go into the details of our activities; I’d rather focus on my takeaways from the weekend. 

First, I met a lot of smart and inspiring people at the HRLI, including the women who I will be working with here in Baltimore. I made instant connections with some and for others, I developed a respect and admiration gradually over the three days. 

Second, I was reminded of the problems that plague mostly white-led organizations, whether they acknowledge it or not. I don’t entirely believe these issues can be solved since whiteness always comes with blind spots despite the best of intentions. But the problems can only be brought to light and addressed when a wide range of people of color are active participants and decision-makers in every aspect of an organization. 

I also felt re-energized after leaving the conference. For the past couple of months, I have been taking a break from actively leading or organizing around social issues to focus on personal goals to which I hadn’t been able to devote the necessary time and effort. I came to the HRLI with no decisive result in mind. Since I just returned a few days ago, this hasn’t changed, but the regional planning sessions did invigorate me the most. These were sessions where regional groups met to discuss and plan our group agendas. The chemistry between the Baltimore women was effortless. As I usually do when making plans, I felt my excitement rising for the possibilities of human rights activism in my city. Our ability to set concrete goals and have a meeting of minds with no tension made me optimistic about future efforts together. 

The closing exercise was an unexpected and slightly uncomfortable, but invaluable experience. Everyone stood in a circle facing outwards and closed their eyes. After everyone gave consent, a smaller group stood inside the circle and touched individuals on the shoulder or back who they felt matched the prompt being called out. For example, the exercise leader said “someone who showed you kindness” and people in the middle of the circle walked around to touch those who had shown them kindness that weekend. A few people started tearing up and crying, myself included. I can’t even put my finger on why, but it speaks to the power of physical human contact and kindness. It’s not every day that we express appreciation for others and it’s a powerful act to give and receive it at the same time. 

This, along with new relationships, new skills, and renewed motivation, is what I will take away from the HRLI.

United State of Women Summit 2016

I was excited to be invited to attend the United State of Women Summit as a member of the AAUW delegation. The summit was organized by the White House and focused on women from all walks of life working towards gender equality and fighting for women’s rights. The day consisted of plenary sessions which featured high-profile speakers like President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden, Valerie Jarrett, Loretta Lynch, Mariska Hargitay, and Kerry Washington (!!!), as well as less known but equally, or even more, impressive speakers such as Jaha Dukureh and Joanne N. Smith.

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Violence Against Women breakout session

In between plenary sessions, attendees signed up for three breakout sessions. The breakout sessions were smaller panel discussions on a particular topic. I chose “From the Margins to the Center: Solutions to Stopping Violence in All Communities” and “Creating Pathways Towards Equity: Advancing Opportunity for Women and Girls of Color.” There were some panelists doing great work and I was glad to learn about it, but I would have preferred  more personal workshop-style sessions where women can speak to each other in small groups and make personal connections.

Throughout the entire day, there was an expo which included organization tables, a booth for free headshots, and musical acts. I stopped by to listen to Mariachi Flor de Toloache– a Latin Grammy winning all-female mariachi band and a new favorite of mine.

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My best friend in my head, Kerry Washington, spoke about financial abuse

Overall, I was glad to have been able to attend this one of a kind summit. I kept thinking throughout the day how this type of event would never have happened under any previous administration. There were logistical issues like the event running long, which can be blamed on the sheer number of attendees and on Joe Biden not being able to stop talking. Even though the summit was far from perfect, it was a step in the right direction. There were a wide range of identities represented- race, religion, gender identity- but there is always room to make those voices even more visible by putting them, literally, on the main stage. There was one instance of direct talk about intersectionality from Joanne Smith. Though this is the only direct mention that I remember, I did appreciate how intersectionality was shown in the speakers present and the topics discussed, even if intersectionality itself was not explicitly referenced. Of course, there were problematic statements made by some, including Joe Biden, and people who have made problematic statements in the past, like Patricia Arquette. However inevitable problematic statements may be during a summit of this magnitude, that doesn’t make it excusable. It just means it’s even more important that minority women are present and their voices are amplified. I feel like their, our, voices were heard at the United State of Women Summit and I hope the event gets better every year.

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Michelle Obama and Oprah

5 Inspirational Women at the 2015 Social Good Summit

Note: I was selected to be a 2015 Social Good Summit Blogger Fellow for the United Nations Association; I attended the summit during U.N. Week in New York City and wrote on the issues presented. This blog post was originally published on GenUN.

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The 2015 Social Good Summit had no shortage of intelligent people doing important work related to the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. However, some of the most powerful speakers were women who are trailblazers in their fields and fierce advocates for the communities they serve. Whether you care most about eradicating poverty and hunger, ensuring environmental sustainability, improving maternal health, or any of the other SDGs, there are always strong female leaders making strides in those areas. Though this list only scratches the surface, here are five inspirational women from the Social Good Summit to follow.

  1. Leila Janah

Leila Janah is a prime example of entrepreneurship with a social conscience. She is the Founder and CEO of Samasource, a nonprofit social business that gives digital work to impoverished people globally. Speaking on the “Tech Disruptions for a Sustainable Future” panel, she emphasized the importance of dignified work for the world’s poor and using access to technology to empower and connect people to that dignified work.

Quote: “Technology is amoral, it doesn’t have a view…it’s infrastructure. It is up to us to use it to widen our circle of empathy. It’s about now seeing someone on the other side of the world that we can relate to just like we relate to our neighbor and feeling the same level of moral commitment to that person that we feel to those immediately around us. That’s what the global goals are about and I think technology facilitates that beautifully, but we have to make it so.”

  1. Black Mambas

The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit has gained wide attention for its dangerous work patrolling the Balule Nature Reserve to protect wildlife from poachers. They are remarkable not only for their bravery, but also for the fact that the majority of the teams are comprised of women. The Black Mambas were named 2015 Champions of the Earth, the top United Nations Environment Program award. Black Mamba Collet Ngobeni spoke on the “Champions of the Earth” panel and another Black Mamba helped to open the summit.

Quote: “Everywhere we look, the degradation of our natural environment is under way. An estimated 18 million hectares of forest are lost each year. Poaching, deforestation, droughts, floods, and more continue to haunt our ecosystem.”

  1. Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd is a longtime advocate for women and girls. She spoke on the “Planning Her Own Path” panel which focused on women’s access to family planning options. She is currently an ambassador for PSI, a global health organization, and a former board member. As well-versed on the facts as she was, her experience as a sexual assault and incest survivor allowed her to bring a unique sense of personal and spiritual purpose to the discussion. Even fellow panelist Babatunde Osotimehin, impressive in his own right, seemed to be inspired.

Quote: “This really has to start with my self-empowerment…I cannot transmit that which I do not have. And when I take radical responsibility for myself and my own growth, that’s then what I’m able to bring to the world. And I find that thing that irks me the most and troubles me the most and that is where my light will shine most brightly because there’s been that alchemy from hurting to healing to helping.”

  1. Lara Logan

The fact that Lara Logan wasn’t actually a panel speaker didn’t stop her from contributing to some of the best discussions of the summit. She moderated two panels: “Refugees: The Route to Resettlement” and “Social Media is the New First Responder.” Logan, an award-winning reporter and Chief Foreign Correspondent for CBS News, engaged the panelists like the seasoned journalist she is and brought her years of international experience to the conversations.

Quote: “We’re focused on Syria right now…I just came back from Iraq and people are pouring out of Iraq for the same reason and there’s no special pass for them. And I have to say don’t forget the Africans because they’ve been struggling for years and nobody wants them.”

  1. Laverne Cox

Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox has become one of the most recognizable advocates for transgender rights by bringing trans issues to the mainstream. The panel she moderated addressed the need for all gender identities to be included in data collection. Currently, this is not happening and these gaps prevent the delivery of social services among other adverse effects. Always a passionate speaker, Cox used her voice once again to bring trans issues to the international stage.

Quote: “What message are we sending to young people who are gender nonconforming when we don’t even count them, when we suggest that their identities and their lives don’t matter?”