In the lead up to the Global Forum on Girls’ Education® III (June 27-29, 2022), we will explore the many ways in which girls can impact their schools, local communities, and the world. Among these is the rise of girls as impactful social activists.
Amanda Nguyen is a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and the CEO & Founder of Rise, the most successful legislative reform movement in U.S. history. Based on her personal experience of navigating the broken criminal justice system after being raped, Amanda advocated for herself and lobbied the U.S. Congress to unanimously pass the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. Amanda recently addressed our global girls’ school community at the 2021 NCGS Virtual Conference about empowering young women to use their voices as social activists during this unprecedented moment in time:
"We are in a moment of reckoning with #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #StopAsianHate. The gatekeepers in systematic places who typically have been able to guard what the narrative is—what the mainstream narrative is—are coming down. What that means for all of us, is never before has it been so easy for our voices to be heard."
Amanda was joined by Janelle Bradshaw, Chief Executive Officer at Public Prep, for a conversation about what motivates her social activism and how to inspire girls and young women to transform their political, cultural, and social landscape. The following are excerpts from their conversation.
Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools
Q. Janelle: At Public Prep we encourage our teachers and administrators to focus on the small moments and small wins, because those are the ones that lead to the big wins. Tell us about those internal factors or moments that people can do every day to build the self-confidence and courage to support taking big actions?
A. Amanda: Courage is not the lack of fear: it’s being afraid but going through it. I didn’t have confidence all the way through my struggle. I recently heard this quote that you just need enough strength to take the next step; you don’t need it for the entire staircase. It’s just step by step.
Q. Janelle: You spoke so eloquently about hope when you said, “hope and dreams are different, because hope requires a chance—the idea of probability.” What are the skills or character traits that we should be embedding in our lessons or experiences in schools to encourage young women to build self-confidence and leadership?
A. Amanda: I want to share a piece of advice that one of my mentors, Alicia Garza, a cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement, gave me. When I first testified in the United States Senate, I was the only woman of color to testify. It was a big hearing on the Violence Against Women Act. I spoke to Alicia about how I was so heartbroken by the process and how I was made to feel like I didn’t belong. Alicia said to me, “You belong. Even if they don’t think you belong, you belong. Just keep swimming. Even in the halls of Congress, if they don’t think you belong, you belong.” She also encouraged me to uplift those who are doing it right and to not waste time chasing down people who aren’t, because they’re just going to drain your energy. When it comes to educators, the connection is representation, because seeing is believing. Trailblazing may seem like there’s some glamour and glory to it, but I think often that glory and glamour are what rises after going through the thing itself that’s really painful. So that’s two things: one is understanding the role of people within systems and that we have the decision-making ability to uplift and emphasize the good stories, and two, it’s knowing that the confidence is already within you.
Q. Janelle: The theme of this year’s NCGS conference is building communities of belonging, yet throughout the past year, as you’ve noted, we’ve seen continuous acts of violence and discrimination, particularly against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. I’d love to hear your reflections and some tangible actions that our community members can incorporate into their schools, classrooms, and larger communities.
A. Amanda: We have a responsibility to tell narratives that reflect who we really are—stories are empathy machines. I want people to know that you absolutely matter, whether your role is as an administrator or as a teacher in the classroom or just a regular human walking the streets. Ways for people to be good allies really does come from education. I think that ignorance is at the root of a lot of the acts of violence that are happening. Knowledge is power, and teachers are everything. You have an incredibly important role to play.
Q. Janelle: How did you come to the idea that stories are empathy machines and how can we as educators use those stories to build empathetic humans?
A. Amanda: I realized, during the first few times that I talked to politicians, if I was just making the legal case—even the moral case about why rape survivors deserved the Sexual Assault Survivors’ law—they wouldn’t look up from their phones. But when I said, “I am a rape survivor,” always their faces would come up and they would look at me to realize something on a human level. It’s not just words: there are humans behind the reasons for the laws. I think it’s just reminding people to connect on a human level.
"It can be a though thing to sit with someone and see the humanity in them when they might not see it in you. We call that "radical empathy" at Rise, and it is difficult to do. But at the end of the day, empathy has been the key to how we've been able to cut through political lines."
I think teaching empathy is an important skill and one that’s critical to being able to succeed in life. It’s especially critical at this moment where there seems to be so much noise and distractions. Because we disagree does not mean that we need to hate each other or not speak to each other, but instead we need to really work towards finding common ground. I know that’s what you’re aspiring to do in your classrooms: not just create children who are thinking about being wonderful and kind, but who are also willing to take risks to change the world.