Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to be involved with an amazing organization called the Women’s Funding Alliance. My first real awareness of them came at their annual fundraising breakfast and sparked a series of blog posts that started with this, which you may remember.
Last night they sponsored a Town Hall event that focused on the idea of what it means to be a girl in this day and age. Four speakers with varied backgrounds and perspectives came to talk for eight minutes each about their notions of what it means to be a girl now and why it is so important that we acknowledge and address the challenges they face. A robust Q&A session followed and I found myself nodding my head and taking deep breaths and, in a couple of instances, rubbing the goosebumps on my arms that arose in response to a particularly revelatory comment.
This event came hot on the heels of last week’s screening of Raising Ms. President, a documentary about the dearth of female political leaders in this country. Eve and Lola both attended the movie with me and we had an illuminating discussion about it on the car ride home.
There is a lot of talk in the “women and girls movement” about leadership and I wholeheartedly believe that for many girls, it is important to see someone who looks like them in influential roles, if only so that they can begin to imagine themselves there and give themselves permission to shoot for the stars without apology. Eve and Lola attend a school whose mission, in part, is to create female leaders.
That said, perhaps the most dramatic moment of last night’s event for me was when Erin Jones, a mother, teacher, and internationally recognized educational activist said (and I’m paraphrasing, I didn’t write down her exact words, unfortunately),
We are all leaders in our own way. Leadership isn’t connected to titles. We are all teachers. As long as we are all being our best selves, we are leaders and have the capacity to effect change.
I don’t have to have a Ph.D. in order to be a leader.
I don’t have to have “CEO” in my job title to be a leader.
In order to make the world a better place, my daughters don’t have to aspire to be President. Of anything.
We are all teachers because we are all learning, all the time. We learn by watching the people around us, by listening to them, by observing how they make their way through the world. So long as we are clear on our own values and are being our best selves, we are leaders. Even if it seems like nobody is following.
In that paradigm, we do not have to teach our girls to grab power, to “lean in” to the power structure that currently exists. Power and influence are not external, finite resources. They exist within us all and it is merely a matter of reframing that allows us to begin to understand what our own unique power is. Often, it takes a little convincing to help another person recognize their gifts and honor them, to give themselves permission to use them. Acknowledging that we are all allowed to be leaders, called to be leaders in our own right turns everything upside-down.
In that paradigm, the most important thing we can do for girls is to nurture them and give them the encouragement to protect and grow their own passions and ideas about the world. One of the other speakers, Nan Stoops, the director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, gave us all an idea of how to do that. She referenced a TED talk where the speaker, Adrian Penza, illustrates the idea of “exponential growth” by talking about folding a piece of paper in half over and over again. After 42 folds, the paper is tall enough to reach from the surface of the Earth to the moon. At 43, it is tall enough to reach to the moon and back. What does this have to do with nurturing girls? Simple. If we imagine each message of support to a girl as a ‘fold,’ think about the effect we could have by doing that 42 times or more.
I was lucky enough, during a difficult time in my adolescent life, to have someone who did that for me. My father’s second wife was consistently in my corner. She was always available to listen and offer her perspective to me, to build me up when I was feeling unsure of myself, and to assure me that I was capable of doing the things I most wanted to do. After a while, I started to believe her. She helped me excavate the passion and power I had buried under layers of conformity and cultural expectations so that I could begin to make my way through the world with pride and confidence.
While it is certainly important for our girls to feel as though they have the same opportunities and rights to be leaders in the boardroom and the capitol building, it is also vital that we teach them about other kinds of leadership. If we become a society who buys in to the notion that there are only a finite number of spots available for these traditional ‘leaders,’ we are denying the talents and gifts of everyone else. I think that we need to spend time on the message that we are all leaders whether we know it or not.