I had the incredible pleasure of attending the United State of Women Summit at the White House on June 14th. It was so heartening to be among the 5,000 female activists – women of every color, shape, and size – who came together to be inspired, to connect, and to work together for real and lasting change for women.
The White House has never hosted an event like this before and, quite frankly, even ten years ago they wouldn’t have been able to pull off such a diverse, inclusive success. Had I tried to throw a party like that when I worked at the National Women’s Political Caucus, nobody would have shown up. Without the support of a president – neither Bush nor Clinton was very forthcoming – it would have been nearly impossible get that many people to come to a national gathering in DC. Even if I had managed to convince people to attend, in those days the crowd would have reflected what was a very homogenous feminist establishment: overwhelmingly white and upper middle class.
This Summit featured a guest list studded with high profile speakers from the President and Michelle Obama to Oprah, Billie Jean King, and Kerry Washington.
More impressive, though, was that the attendees were just as interesting and diverse as the speakers. I encountered extraordinary young women filled with purpose, empowered and motivated to make change, and ready to get to work. There were entrepreneurs like Donna Khalife whose company, Surprise Ride, delivers high quality educational activities to kids across the country; activists like Asha Boston, a documentary filmmaker whose Let’s Do Dinner initiative is changing the narrative around who young African-American women are and what they can achieve; and community organizers like Jamila Trimuel, whose Ladies of Virtue programs work with young women in Chicago’s under privileged communities to develop the poise, confidence, and critical skills they need for college, career, and life.
What’s more, these young women have the communications savvy to really effect change, using 21st century tools to raise money, build networks, and spread awareness of the issues that matter to them. Their perspectives, and the conference as a whole, raised three critical lessons for women working in advocacy communications that I continue to reflect on weeks after we all headed home.
1.Use social media to promote your vision, but don’t let it define you. Shonda Rhimes called social media an “addictive substance to be consumed warily.” That’s something we tell our kids but often forget in our professional lives. Social media is an amazing tool for sharing your message, reaching out to allies, and keeping up with the news but don’t allow the projections of others to control your image or to limit your growth.
2.Embrace Conflict and Collaboration. Get comfortable with disagreement: it’s how we deliberate and how we find common ground. Michelle Obama herself proposed this when she repeated her advice to “run toward the noise”; don’t ever be afraid to tackle the big issues and ask the hard questions, even if you’re facing an uphill battle.
3.Be Your Authentic Self. Billie Jean King shared how her Dad taught her to ignore criticism and step up to who she was meant to be. Cultural pressure often tells us how women should or shouldn’t behave – be cute, be fun, but don’t be “pushy” or ambitious. If we want to effect real and lasting change for women, we need to be allies. We need to support women who dare to be different, encourage women to move beyond cultural expectations, and drive each other to be more open, honest, and proud of who we are.
It’s been over a month since the United State of Women but I am still reeling from the conversations I had, the sessions I attended, and the women I met. After meeting this group of up-and-coming leaders I’ve never been more certain that the future really is female.