Evolving Activism: Reflections on the Day of the Girl Summit

This article was contributed by Charlotte Bleemer, Chapter President of She’s the First at American University.

It’s a rainy, Sunday afternoon on campus. A small cohort of women have assembled in Battelle Atrium, seated in rows of chairs directed toward the front of the room where Vidyamali Samarasinghe is speaking. Vidya is a long-time professor in the School of International Service, where she heads the International Development program. She also happens to be my SISU-348 professor.

“When I go to work on activism, you see, I try to see who the people are,” Vidya says. “I see the intersectionalities not only in terms of men and women, but in women themselves. There is no one woman.”

The women have gathered here to attend She’s the First’s 5th Annual “Day of the Girl” (DOTG) Summit. She’s the First is an international nonprofit dedicated to advocating and fundraising for universal girls’ education through 100+ campus chapters all over the world. AU’s chapter was founded in 2012 - the same year the first DOTG Summit was held in honor of the United Nations’ “International Day of the Girl.” Each year the Summit focuses on women’s issues outside the realm of international education, so that our members and supporters can be more informed advocates for global gender equality.

Vidya is speaking to a larger theme of this year’s event: the ways we analyze and promote women’s issues is evolving with the rise of intersectional feminism. Sitting beside her is Mattison Johnston, an American University graduate who now works for Just Associates, an international development organization focused on women’s issues. “We’ve been talking about this a lot today,” Johnson says. “How advocacy is changing, and the world is changing.”

This year, our Executive Board decided to focus our DOTG Summit discussion on communities where women are systematically discriminated against. Our first panel of the morning was entitled “Brown v. Board, Six Decades Later: Race and Education in the U.S.” She’s the First welcomed Meg Duffy (Jumpstart DC), Liz Glaser (The National Coalition for College Admissions), and AU students Jenna Caldwell (The Blackprint) and Devon Ogburn (Sister Sister AU).

It’s no secret our campus has struggled with maintaining positive spaces for Black women - Caldwell and Ogburn provided insight on how all of us, including white and male students, can help protect, promote, and empower Black women at AU.

“I think it's really about the way you pose what you are saying in terms of not taking possession of that opinion when it concerns people of color.” says Ogburn on White allyship. Saying instead, ‘I believe’ or ‘I think this is how it should be…’ It shows a sense of unity and is very helpful."

The panel was directly followed by “Calculating the Future: Women in STEM Fields,” featuring Dr. Marian McKee (STEM for Her), Heather Hollen  (The Cancer Support Community), Dr. Donna Dietz (Statistics and Computer Science Department at AU), and Shannon Turner (the founder of Hear Me Code).

Turner shared her experience when she first started out in the tech world: “I would be talked down to all day long. No one took me seriously. No one thought that I belonged there, and I got a lot of nasty comments - the least of which was, 'Are you here with your boyfriend?' Like I couldn't be there on my own.”

Realizing that this was the shared experience of countless women she knew studying tech, Turner started Hear Me Code - a nonprofit that offers free coding classes to women. What started out as a few women studying coding in her kitchen, grew into a movement involving 3,000 female students across D.C.

After lunch, the Summit shifted to our panel, “The Only Women in the Conference Room: Exploring Gender Bias in the Business World.” Sitting on the panel was AU student Esra Ozturk (Founder and CEO of Arzo), Melanie Anderson (President of Melanie Anderson Worldwide), and Sarah Broderick (Chief Financial Officer of Vice Media Inc, and our Keynote Speaker for the day).

The problem, Broderick says, is not finding and recruiting outstanding women. It’s the phenomenon of women being forced to leave the workplace before they can reach senior levels: "Until we address maternity/paternity parental leave in the U.S. it is impossible to create the wealth of qualified women at the top that we need.”

Following the panel, guests enjoy two beautiful and energetic performances by the student-run, all-female a cappella group, Treble in Paradise. Sarah Broderick then returns to the stage to tell the story of how she climbed the ranks to such a senior position at a company like Vice. At the end of the address, Broderick announces that she felt inspired by the events of the day, and had decided to personally donate $500 to AU’s chapter of She’s the First.

When she announced this, I caught my breath. All of the money our chapter raises goes directly to the 11 students we sponsor in Uganda and Guatemala. They range from elementary to high school - all will be the first in their families to graduate high school (hence, the name of our organization).

It costs about $400 to fully fund a girl’s education, external fees, and local support network for one year. Thanks to Broderick’s generosity, a girl across the world will be given the opportunity to pursue the future she imagines for herself - the future she deserves.

I love She’s the First because of the personal quality of our work. In the five years since our founding, our chapter has raised $48,000 for girls’ education, or about 120 years of fully funded schooling. This access to education changes the lives of the girls we sponsor and positively impacts their communities. Yet perhaps more importantly, we believe that education is not a privilege or social nicety, but a universal human right that every child - boy or girl - should be entitled to at birth.

While the money we have raised is incredible, our DOTG Summit is not about money. Admission is free, and there are no fundraising shticks. The Summit recognizes that money is not enough.

We need to address problems from their roots causes, and approach our advocacy as informed as possible. Additionally, we want to acknowledge that gender discrimination is not some foreign export that only affects our sponsored students. It is a force that we interact with on a daily basis in our own lives.

This brings me back to where I began. Our final panel - “Modern Advocacy: Navigating the Complexities of Fighting for Intersectional Justice.” On the panel is AU students Falyn Satterfield (NAACP at AU), and Fatima Tariq (Pakistani Women for Education), as well as Mattison Johnson (Just Associates) and Professor Vidyamali Samarasinghe.

I stood at the podium beside the speakers, looking out at the audience of women who have chosen to be here, above anywhere else, on their Sunday afternoon: our members and supporters, representatives from the six student organization who graciously co-sponsored our event, all of the beautiful women of color who have agreed to speak and help make this Summit the most inclusive one She’s the First has ever produced, and, finally, my incredible Executive Board (Morgan Saudry, Marlena Rubinstein, Michaela Becconsall, Allison Johntry, Elise Moore, and Michaela Downey). These brilliant and dedicated women work tirelessly all semester long to put on events like this one. And they do it for no other reason other than that they care.

“Advocacy is changing, and the world is changing,” said Mattison Johnson. It’s true - and She’s the First intends to be a part of the force changing it.