Hope and Empowerment Through Diversity

-Susannah Wellford is the founder of Running Start and Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC)
-Melanne Verveer is the Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and was the first Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, and former Chief of Staff for First Lady Hillary Clinton

Emily Villareal

This morning we had the privilege of going to the Cosmos Club for breakfast. Since 1878 the club has been a place for intellectuals of many different professions and interest to come together. The building itself was only a few blocks away from our hostel, but stepping into it was almost like stepping back in time. It was beautiful and elegant, and it was something I knew I could only experience because of this trip.

Just a few questions into the interview with Melanne Verveer, I could already see how much she cared about women’s rights as human rights, but she wasn’t just passionate—she was experienced and knew the facts behind her passion. When 30% of the decision makers are women, it reaches a critical mass of representation and as a result companies are more successful in performance. So it can even be in a company’s self-interest to elevate qualified women into board roles. It just makes sense to support diversity.

Sometimes I feel like we aren’t making any progress in women’s rights when I read the news and hear about the violence, lack of education, underrepresentation, and health care issues affecting women worldwide. But Verveer told us stories of hope. In the villages of Senegal it was common for women to go through female genital mutilation (FGM) as a social rite of passage. It was considered necessary if women wanted acceptance by the community and a good life. She spoke with the women of one village, and they told her how they wished they could end this practice. It caused many health issues and pain for the women, but without it they were outcast from the community. Although the country implemented some protections for women, nothing stopped—until Verveer was able to work with the men and women of the villages to communicate what was really at stake in the issue. In democratic discussions the decision was made to end the practice, and because other villages intermarry, the leaders encouraged all surrounding villages to end FGM. Real change happened. Verveer said, “Ending a practice doesn’t begin and end with changing a law.” Personally I have always had difficulty engaging in politics because it felt disconnected from real people to me, but on this trip I am starting to understand how policy and people can come together to move toward equality.

Mara Peruzzi
Melanne Verveer

Today was our second day of interviews in DC. We had the amazing opportunity to interview both Melanne Verveer and Susannah Wellford. Both of these women are inspiring because they have broken new ground in areas that need improvement, especially regarding women’s progress in society. I found both of these women to be not only very knowledgeable and passionate about what they do, but they were also very honest when answering our interview questions.

Melanne Verveer is a very strong and powerful woman. This interview was a little bit different from the other ones so far because we had the chance to eat breakfast at the glamorous Cosmos Club with Melanne Verveer. I was pretty nervous at first, but the moment she came into the room and talked to us freely, I immediately sensed her authentic and wise personality. What I took away from this interview was that countries around the world can still maintain their culture while undergoing change to the desire and rights of their citizens. The most important things I learned were: stay present to your circumstances, use the power you have to determine your purpose, and that we are still working at equality between genders to allow a non-biased opinion of people, especially those in power.

Susannah Wellford

Susannah Wellford is an incredible woman with a very personable nature. Her comforting presence radiated with a positive and very authentic aura. The advice I most resonated with was to take happiness over success/money when deciding what path to take in life. By staying present and in the moment instead of “letting yourself get in the way,” the fear of failure is filed down a little bit and awareness kicks in. As I am still exploring what I would like to study in college, this honest advice was short and simple, but very impactful for me. Wellford spoke honestly and openly about the fear of failure many people hold, and that by embracing failure one can become stronger. Another important lesson related to this is when she spoke about how practicing confidence when you are struggling can actually grow real confidence. From Susannah I learned that asking for help from a mentor, or someone you admire, is not a bad thing. Instead, asking for advice can allow you to grow as a person, as it helps you reach goals that may be hard to attain without some guidance. I also learned that competing against other people who you assume are “better” than you does not improve your circumstances; instead, use other people as resources, not for competition.

Both Susannah Wellford and Melanne Verveer spoke about diversity and how it enhances the richness in life. Susannah touched on how we are often comfortable in our own bubbles, and it causes us to have a hard time opening up to diversity and others’ views and opinions. But, once we learn to open our minds to what we are not familiar with, we can embrace diversity. Melanne Verveer spoke about diversity as well, specifically about how universities with high rates of diversity provide a “richer experience” because there are people who are not just like you; learning about other people’s backgrounds and views can allow you to become a more well-rounded person.

Sage Turner

The trip so far has been an absolute blast, and I am continually inspired and in awe as each new day is met. Today is my third day here, and I have just started to adjust to the pretty dramatic shift of the East Coast. The architecture is breathtaking and satisfying to the eye, the Metro train system is an absolute exhilarating experience, and the hustling of all the confident people here is exciting and has totally propelled our group to strut in our sleek clothes to mirror them. The East Coast street life has so far taught me to be precautious of the wild drivers as well as pedestrians because one grown man has already screamed at me for being in his way.

As far as interviews go, I’ve begun to understand the process more deeply and appreciate it. Creating a question for these influential politicians and leaders is usually challenging for me; however, after some research I can more comfortably get in touch with what I really want to know or take away from the interviewee. I came to this realization today when we interviewed Susannah Wellford. This was a woman that I chose to research in the pre-trip process, and I even got a sense then of what a wonderful woman she is.

The interview felt very much like a casual conversation as Susannah was really approachable and was an overall warm and kind woman. She spoke to us on a common ground, and my classmates and I were able to relate with her easily and really take into account the valuable advice and stories she shared. The fact that she has cultivated her ideas into creating Running Start, her organization empowering women to run for office and participate in politics, was very inspiring to me and was what drew me to her in the first place. From Susannah, I took away positivity, the gleaming future that my generation has the capability of attaining, and how young voices really can be heard. She instilled hope in me.

Since I’m a junior in high school, who doesn’t have any idea which direction to take going into college, she really helped me understand why that is no big deal. She mentioned that many successful people she knows didn’t take a direct path in their lives; they explored many different things and pursued the different directions that opened up, the “zig-zag path.”  She said, “Happiness encompasses everything. If you have something that makes you happy, then you are successful.” This moment struck me because it really ensured the direction I want my life to go, to really pursue something that brings light and joy and gives me daily motivation. Another light that was brought up by Susannah was her view on diversity. She spoke about the happiness she feels when gathering young women across the nation for one of her summer programs and sees the immense diversity in the girls. I connected this perspective she had with that of Melanne Verveer, whom we interviewed this morning at breakfast in the Cosmos club.

Melanne Verveer said, “When people around you are different, that’s a rich part of life.” She accounted that our American culture is critically defined by our diversity and that is what we thrive on. Melanne impacted me instantly with her gleaming kindness and wisdom. She was very interested and wanted to learn about us as much as we wanted to learn about her, which resulted in a very impactful interview.

I really look forward to the rest of the trip, and I’m keeping a very open mind in order to soak up information and get meaning out of the experience.

Aimee Kerr

Today we had an interview with Susannah Wellford. The first thing I noticed about her was her confidence and energy. She talked with so much hope that it gave me hope for the future. I never once doubted anything she said because she seemed to believe in herself so much. About halfway through the interview she mentioned that everyone struggles with confidence. This was a huge surprise to me because I couldn’t imagine that would be true of her. She told a story about how she brings in women to talk to younger girls about women’s rights. She said that even these women would second-guess their performance right after talking to the girls about being confident. This struck me because I do the same thing.

Even just today when I asked Susannah my question, I stressed out about the one word that I had said a little off. I never realized that women with jobs that call for so much confidence might be going through anything similar to what I do when faced with something nerve-racking. Her advice was to remind yourself that you belong. Older women who seem “perfect” to girls my age have their own struggles as well. The fact that they can rise to do such great things gives me hope. It gives me confidence just knowing that I am not the only one and that I can do whatever I want to do as long as I believe I can.

Phoebe Grant

Today we interviewed Susannah Wellford, founder of Running Start, an organization that encourages young women to join politics. The interview was so enjoyable; Wellford was absolutely amazing and inspiring from the second she walked in the room.  She speaks with such confidence on the truth of the political climate, but remains optimistic while doing so. I loved how passionate and driven she is to inspire young women, which is exactly what she did in our time speaking with her. After every question, she took the time to really think about and construct what her answer would be. The whole interview was extremely interesting, but there were a few things that stuck out to me.

She said that no matter what choices you make, even if they’re the best ones, inevitably there will be difficulties. Keep going even if failure is a possibility. What matters are the choices you make regarding how to act towards your circumstances. It helps to allow ourselves to process pain and be able to feel it for a little while. Let it sink in, and then move on.  This lets us process and see what’s good in our lives, which we then appreciate more.

She also spoke about the constant pressure women have to measure themselves against each other, which really stuck out to me. The constant competition of beauty and success that comes with social media, jobs, and even cosmetics ads is so prevalent in every woman and girl’s life, especially for teenagers like myself.  I also related this to my transition to college, and the constant fear that every other girl at my school will be better than me. I want to pay attention and highlight this because I know that if I go into it with that barrier of fear and judgment, it will completely affect my learning experience, and my ability to make friends as well. Everyone, including young women like me, needs to stop putting women down, and start being positive and supportive in order to change our society for the better.

Samith Lakka

Today was our second day of interviews in Washington DC. This afternoon we spoke with Susannah Wellford, a highly intelligent and confident woman who clearly portrays her knowledge about the subject of women empowerment. She is a single mother with twin boys and the head of her own successful nonprofit organization called Running Start.

As soon as Susannah sat down, she had already started up conversations with the people around herself. Her warm smile was inviting and lasted throughout the interview, which made it effortless to ask her questions. When people asked questions, she was delighted to answer and treated it more like a conversation. Each time she answered a question, you could tell she put a lot of thought into her answer in a short amount of time.

After answering all of the questions, she asked us two questions. The first question was about how the previous election had inspired us and the second question was what were the biggest internal problems in our lives. Both these questions had instant responses, which indicated how enthralled everyone was in the interview. For each answer she gave a personal piece of advice on overcoming these internal struggles. Before she left the room, everyone swarmed her to shake her hand and talk to her, but unfortunately she had to leave all too soon due to her busy schedule. The amount of energy left in the room was immense and a majority of the people said that this was their favorite interview yet.

1 thought on “Hope and Empowerment Through Diversity”

  1. Sounds like you all came away with some wonderful insights and lessons from these amazing women. I’m so glad they are doing the work they do, but also glad you are listening with open ears. Good work and I really enjoyed reading each of your posts!

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