Reflections on Women Leading Social Change
While reflecting on the work we’ve done this past year our team noticed a common theme: Many of the most effective and inspiring organizations we are honored to support are led by women. Women who are mobilizing campaigns, tackling egregious social problems and training the next generation of leaders. Last Wednesday we invited a few of these pioneering women to talk about their work. The panel was comprised of:
- Anne Williams-Isom – Incoming CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
- Kathleen M. Pike, PhD – Executive Director & Scientific Co-Director, Global Mental Health Program at Columbia University Medical Center
- Gissou Nia – Executive Director, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center
- Mallika Dutt – Founder, President & CEO, Breakthrough
Throughout the night we discussed their experiences as leaders of successful social change organizations. It was a great evening of debate and inspiration, but two conversations in particular stuck out in my mind.
When I prompted our panel to share what they thought made women effective leaders, Kathleen replied that one reason was surely the fact that women are wired to mentor. We seek out opportunities to inspire and prepare future generations to pick up where we will leave of, to work tirelessly to achieve their goals.
Mallika demonstrated a second reason that women are such effective social change leaders: our willingness to look beyond traditional borders. She encouraged the room to get out of their comfort zones and to transcend the barriers that can keep us from achieving real social change.
The second conversation that captured my attention was around a discussion of the word radical. Radical action is often mistaken for extreme or ill conceived action. But radical doesn’t have to mean reckless. Though each of the women had varying definitions of what radical meant for them, the consistent theme was that radical means challenging societal norms, whatever they may be.
For Anne, radical means creating the common expectation that her students in Harlem will prepare for, attend and graduate from college. This shift, though it may seem smaller, is radical because it demonstrates a behavior change and confronts the norms in the area where she works.
For Gissou, it is her youth that makes her radical. While younger generations are no stranger to social advocacy, Gissou’s position as a young female lawyer in charge of this social justice effort sets her apart from many of her peers.
Mallika’s work on the “Ring the Bell” campaign in India encourages people to take small steps to intervene when they hear or see domestic violence. The actions they take are not radical, but the massive social media and video campaign her organization developed was radical. The project visualized domestic violence and popularized the notion that you could and should do something to prevent violence against women.
Bottom line? Radical, it turns out, is all relative.
I left that evening feeling inspired, energized and incredibly proud to work in a field where these women, and many more like them, are leading the way.
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