By Dr. Heidi Kasevich
The inaugural Open Doors leadership journey was indeed an exchange: our girls interacted throughout the 10-day trip with other primary and secondary school girls in both Zambia and South Africa. While visiting schools, orphanages, and NGOs, Nightingale girls learned about the myriad challenges that their “sisters” face in Africa, as well as the various opportunities that are currently available to them. In Zambia, there are extraordinary challenges for girls and women today: child marriage, lack of access to clean water, gender-based violence, teen pregnancy, high rates of HIV/AIDS, and the persistence of gender stereotypes that cast women as dependent/self-sacrificial caregivers. While our girls did gain firsthand experience with the empowerment of girls through education, they also learned that opening up a school and inviting girls to attend is not a magical solution to the problem of gender inequality in “poor” communities (in the areas that we visited in Zambia, “poor” meant a family income of $40 or less per month). As we watched Room to Read social mobilizers in action or listened to the sage words of females in positions of authority at NGOs, we came to understand that educating girls must be seen in a larger context by connecting education to the specific needs of a given community. Girls’ attendance at school often depends on one or more of the following: access to public transportation (to avoid potential two-hour treks that students take on foot to get to school), availability of affordable (free) feminine products and uniforms, space in orphanages for those who have been subject to abuse or abandonment, and open dialogues with local chiefs in order to alter customary laws that degrade women (which often conflict with state laws). Moreover, in order for the education of girls to be effective, it should ideally involve life skills sessions (such as the sex and gender roles class that we attended), exposure to female role models, and vocational training. In other words, there is no single formula and no quick fix.
Throughout the exchange, our girls came to understand what it means to be a leader in new ways. In the words of Jenny Hong '15, “An integral part of leadership is observing because it enables one to develop a bond and care about the issue...caring for your cause and doing what is needed, not what you want to do, is what makes a good leader." And as Arlene Casey '15 stated, “We had discussed many aspects of leadership throughout the trip, but what seemed to stick with the group the most was the idea that a leader helps others to reach their full potential. Nobody has all the answers; no one person can solve all of the world’s problems, but a good leader recognizes the strengths of those around them and builds teams that can create incredible change.” Effective leadership involves actualizing the potential of others in compassionate and empathic ways.
During the course of the trip, conversations about strategies for social justice and leadership invariably evolved into deep reflections about the self, and we invited students to think of the adventure as a journey of self-discovery: Who am I? What is my mission as a woman in this world? Any preconceptions that we may have had relating to a “Western mentor/African mentee” mode of interaction were shattered as we engaged in meaningful dialogues and activities with local individuals—girls and boys, women and men. This paradigm was instantly—and repeatedly—replaced by a much richer concept of human reciprocity. The girls—from both sides of the Atlantic—delighted in each other’s company, worked together toward common goals, and relied on the universal languages of song and dance to uplift the human spirit.
The students collaborated on a journal to memorialize their experience; to read it, click here.