Farewell from your Bear Fellow!

From organizing donated school supplies at Families Moving Forward (FMF) during P-Change, to gathering feedback during the final mentorship group meeting at Brogden Middle School (BMS), I have continuously been challenged to “think and do” over the course of the year. Aiming to strengthen, recognize, and connect women within the Duke and greater Durham community, I organized mentorship programs for young women at different public middle schools and local organizations. The programs were the most well-received at FMF and BMS.

In establishing these mentorship programs, I thought that introducing eighth-graders to accomplished women in their community would encourage them to pursue their own career goals and continue to make progress in breaking gendered barriers. Since eighth-grade occurs during a time in which many girls begin to set goals and experience gender-related obstacles, I believed that eighth-graders would particularly benefit from the program. Although all women will be confronted with sexism, women of different races, socioeconomic statuses, and other identity markers, each have a unique experience confronting gender discrimination.  Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by many remarkable women who have encouraged me to pursue my personal and professional goals.  During my time as a Resident Assistant and just my life-long position as an older sister, I constantly recognized that the guidance and support of an older woman can provide a younger woman with a sense of security, comfort, and confidence.  Beyond my own experience, however, the value of mentorship is backed by methodological studies and bolstered by personal antidotes of successful women.

The girls residing at FMF, however, were all in elementary school, and I soon learned that this age group lacked the patience for the format of listening to women speakers. Instead, group meetings consisted of arts and crafts projects, science experiments, and educational activities about inspirational women of color, such as Sonia Sotomayor and Michelle Obama.  Although the group at FMF was unable to meet during the spring, due to staffing constraints, I was able to continue my relationship with the girls whom I had met in a different capacity – as a Girl Scout troop leader for Troop 1243.  The troop consisted of Daisies, Juniors, and Brownies, who were currently residing or who had previously stayed at FMF.  With the resources provided by Girl Scouts, we were able to go on several outings, such as a service project during which we delivered Easter baskets to residents of a retirement community.  I greatly enjoyed supervising the troop, watching friendships develop, and observing the rises in confidence with each badge earned.

The vision I had for my project was best realized during the mentorship program I established at BMS.  I was extremely grateful for the tremendous support I received from the many extraordinary women who were eager to serve as mentors for the delightful and inquisitive group of eighth-grade girls at BMS. I think that through the examples set by the mentors, the mentees realized that they too could achieve goals that were beyond traditional gendered boundaries.  While the group was set to meet bi-weekly, after just a few meetings, the girls requested that we meet every week.  Since the participants in the initial cohort invited their peers to join as the year progressed, I think that they greatly enjoyed belonging to the group and attending the meetings.

From the feedback I gathered from the girls, the introduction to so many diverse, interesting, and accomplished women was the greatest asset of the program.  The length of the meeting was the greatest drawback.  In selecting the mentors, I reached out to women who I had met through internships, events at Duke, or who were “friends of friends”, with careers mirroring the girls’ own interests.  Since the group was comprised of black and Latina young women, I thought that the girls would be able to better connect with mentors who were also women of color. Our featured women hailed from professions in a wide-range of fields.  Indeed, small business owners, two prosecutors, and even an actress, came and spoke with the group.  Despite the differences in their backgrounds and careers, there were common themes in the stories the mentors shared and the advice that they offered. Since the meetings occurred during lunch, they were often abbreviated and meeting outside of the school day proved to be difficult.  Overall,I think that my project reified the importance and power of women supporting each other, especially as the mentorship meetings occurred during a time in which women collectively experienced much vulnerability.

I also had the opportunity to interview many of the women who came to speak for the group and archive their oral histories at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s Culture and History at the Rubenstein library. With each interview, I learned that the questions posed by the interviewer were just as influential in shaping the story that gets told as do the responses given by the interviewee. I was taken aback by the incredible stories of success and struggles to overcome adversity that women such as Dr. Brenda Armstrong, the second African American woman in the United States to become a board-certified pediatric cardiologist, and Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson shared with me. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview these women and to add them to my own circle of mentors.

In addition to organizing mentorship programs, I think that my writing and interdisciplinary thinking skillsets greatly improved.  My mentor at Kenan was incredibly supportive, offered creative ideas for group meetings, and provided helpful advice, particularly in regard to my writing.  The weekly posts I wrote for Kenan Insiderwere instrumental for sharing developments made in my project and for reflecting upon issues with ethical implications.  I am also extremely grateful for having been able to reap the educational benefits of working at an institution heavily involved with many departments across campus.  My knowledge of issues concerning refugee and human rights greatly expanded as I participated in MASTERY and attended several human rights lectures.  Moreover, by attending various seminars, events, and the annual film series, I learned about issues with ethical implications in greater depth, such as the politics surrounding the removal of confederate monuments, the human rights crisis happening at the border, and the revolutionary work of many civil rights leaders.

I think that the most valuable takeaways of my experience as the Bear fellow were the lessons I learned from those who I met.  In particular, the strength, resilience, and optimism of the young women I worked with was truly inspiring.  Despite having to share a single room with five family members, or assimilate to an entirely new culture after fleeing one’s home, each young woman managed to maintain a positive outlook while ambitiously pursuing her endeavors.  While I am sad to be leaving Durham and the Kenan fam, I feel even more confident entering law school this fall and am eager to advocate on behalf of women, refugees, and other marginalized individuals facing injustice.


We Need Paid Parental Leave

Over Father’s Day weekend, I thought about the lack of government support there is not only for mothers, but also for fathers.  Despite the importance of early, attentive care for healthy childhood development, the United States is the only industrialized nation without mandated paid family leave. Indeed, only 15 percent of Americans are compensated while taking time off to care for their newborns. Although policies regarding paid leave are extremely inadequate for the vast majority of mothers, even less support is available for fathers. In 2017, the Pew Research Center “foundthat two-thirds of men wished they’d had more time after the birth of their child.” Moreover, “of the small subset of men who took paid leave, seven out of ten took less than two weeks off to help care for their newborn”, citing both pay and a social expectation to work as the two primary reasons for not taking more time off.

This past weekend, I also saw RBG, a documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s incredible, life-long advocacy for the rights of women and minorities, celebrating her quarter century anniversary on the bench. After tying for first in her class at Columbia Law School, yet still unable to find employment in private practice as the majority of New York firms “did not hire women”, Ginsburg became co-director of the ACLU Women’s Project, advancing the rights of women by litigating cases of sex discrimination before the Supreme Court.  Faced with the challenge of convincing nine men that sex-based discrimination was pervasive and deeply entrenched in the fabric of American society, she crafted the brilliant strategy of arguing cases in which men suffered from the consequences of sexist legislation.

Ginsburg won six of the seven cases she argued, including Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), in which she forced the Court to realize how traditional gender stereotypes manifest into policies that can discriminate against both sexes.  After his wife, who had been the primary earner, passed away during child birth, widower Stephen Wiesenfeld applied for social security benefits to support himself and his infant son.  He was denied assistance, however, as the Social Security Act provided the earnings of a deceased wife only to her children.  On the other hand, the earnings of a deceased husband were available to both his widow and children.  Here, I contemplated how the assumption that fathers should be breadwinners and not caregivers may be just as detrimental to our societal well-being as the assumption that mothers should be caregivers and not breadwinners. In the near future,legislators in all fifty states will hopefully follow in the footsteps of California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, and provide parents, regardless of their gender, with the paid family leave they need and deserve.


Is the New Miss America Competition Still a Pageant?

Just last week, former Fox News anchorwoman, and recently appointed chairwoman of The Miss America Organization, Gretchen Carlson, announced that the nearly century-old pageant would no longer include a swimsuit or evening gown competition.  She stated, “We are no longer a pageant. We are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance.”  Carlson, one of several women who accused former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, explained that the decision to scrape the swimsuit competition was motivated by the #MeToo movement.  Moreover, it seems to follow the progress the organization has made towards encouraging women of different races, backgrounds, and sizes to compete for the crown.

After learning of the competition changes, I immediately thought about the 1969 Miss America protest, one of the highlights of the second-wave feminist movement.  Often referred to as “No More Miss America!”, hundreds of women gathered on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, right outside the contest hall, to protest the limiting and demeaning concept of femininity that they believed the pageant epitomized. In addition to intruding on the pageant, wielding a large banner reading “Women’s Liberation”, protestors set make-up, cleaning supplies, and bras ablaze in a “freedom trash can.”  Fun fact: this is where the “bra burning” feminist trope originated.  At the same time and place as “No More Miss America!”, civil rights activists crowned the first “Miss Black America” in order to demonstrate that women of color had been excluded from the Miss America title.  It was not until 1983 that Vanessa Williams became the first African American woman to be crowned Miss America. She was also the first Miss America to be subjected to hate mail and death threats.

Despite previously banning women who had abortions, and still banning divorcees, married women, and mothers, The Miss America Organization has attempted to emphasize “empowerment.”  The elimination of the swimsuit competition seems to align with this mission.  Indeed, the organization is “the nation’s leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women in the United States.” Welcoming the recent change to the pageant, Nancy Redd, a graduate of Harvard University, holding a BA in Women’s Studies, and the winner of the 2003 swimsuit competition writes, “rebuking swimsuits, as Miss America has done, along with nixing the evening gown competition, means that essentially the original purveyor of American beauty standards is saying #EffYourBeautyStandards.”

Although much of the glory traditionally associated with the Miss America title may have ebbed, as viewership has drastically declined, and there are many more influential female figures today, it is still one of the two largest pageants in the United States. Moreover, approximately 2.5 million American girls and young womenparticipate in over 100,000 pageants each year.  It will be interesting to see if the changes to the Miss America competition affect American society’s perception of womanhood.


“If She Can See It, She Can Be It”

During the final meeting at Brogden, the participants celebrated the conclusion of the mentorship program and provided feedback in a short survey. The girls agreed that it was “so cool” to have the opportunity to meet women with such diverse and interesting accomplishments. I think that perhaps the largest takeaway of the program was the introduction the young women i had to women of color with careers mirroring their own aspirations within their community. I am incredibly grateful for all of the speakers who served as role models not only for the young women at Brogden, but also for myself!

Coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton, the term “role model” refers to a person whose behavior, values, and accomplishments are emulated by typically younger individuals.  Although many young women in STEM attribute their initial entrance and success to examples set by older women, there has been surprisingly little scholarship about the influence role models may have on contributing to young women’s self-confidence in other areas.  Perhaps, this deficit of research can be attributed to a lack of knowledge of role models within certain areas.  According to a recent poll of working women ages 18 to 60 living in the UK, the vast majority “had few or no female role models in their organization” and some respondents believed that “a lack of role models had a detrimental impact on their career.”

While studies examining the benefits of role models for young women are fairly limited, they nevertheless suggest that having a role model can encourage young women to pursue their goals.  A recent experiment during which male and female college students were exposed to images of Bill Clinton, Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton while giving a speech, found that when viewing pictures of the women leaders, women outperformed their male peers. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that “subtle exposures to highly successful female leaders inspired women’s behavior and self-evaluations in stressful leadership tasks.”  Furthermore, “results of this study suggest that increasing the presence of female leaders and role models could give more young women the confidence to demonstrate strong leadership skills in a world where men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and business.”

I am curious to see what the short-term and long-term results of participation in this program will be for the very astute, inquisitive, and determined young women I had the pleasure of meeting this year.  One participant mentioned that she wished for a similar program to be available for her next year at high school.  I am happy to know that the young women enjoyed the program and hope that they will continue to seek women mentors, remember the importance of women supporting other women, and become role models themselves one day.

The Politics of Reproductive Rights in Ireland and the United States

Ten years after the United States Supreme Court, in the landmark decision Roe v. Wade(1973), found a constitutional right to abortion, Ireland incorporated its longtime ban on abortion (except in cases in which the life of the woman is threatened) into its constitution. The Eighth Amendment, which can impose a penalty of up to 14 years of imprisonment, was considered to be the most “draconian abortion restriction in the developed world.” Last Friday, however, the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly voted by referendum to repeal it.  Although the Eighth Amendment no longer governs the Republic of Ireland, abortion in Northern Ireland is still criminalized. Orla O’Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes group, a pro-choice group in the Republic of Ireland, stated, “This is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally.”

While the repeal of the Eighth Amendment may signify a victory for women’s reproductive freedom, access to safe and legal abortions for women in the United States has become increasingly under attack.  Earlier this month, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law what is known as the “heartbeat bill”, a piece of legislation banning an abortion when a heartbeat can be detected, often just six weeks into pregnancy.  With this extremely restrictive time frame, a pregnant woman may not even be aware that she is with child.  Although the Supreme Court has the power to strike down this flagrant violation of the Roedecision, with the rumored upcoming retirement of the moderate Justice Kennedy, and with the oldest member of the court being the liberal Justice Ginsburg, it is very likely that a future Court would uphold the Iowa law.

Currently, every state has at least one abortion clinic; however, it is important to note that access to reproductive healthcare is far from equitable.  Indeed, both geography and socio-economic status largely dictate whether or not a woman can have an abortion. Since abortion restrictions vary by state, a woman unable to obtain an abortion in her home state may be forced to travel to a different state in order to end her pregnancy. Furthermore, 14 states require counseling prior to a mandated waiting period; therefore, forcing women to make two separate trips to an abortion facility.  For a woman without the financial means to travel to a different state or even make an extensive trip within her home state, take time off from work, and find childcare, I am wondering if the constitutional right to “choice” is truly available for all women.


Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson

This week, I had the incredible privilege of interviewing Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson. While Johnson discussed many interesting topics and life experiences, I am going to focus on the insights she shared regarding the gender-specific issues she has encountered as a female politician.  With an “unprecedented surge of female candidates running for office”, I thought that this section of Johnson’s interview to be particularly salient.  Indeed, after noting that Georgia could elect the first black female governor in United States history, Johnson stated, “it is an interesting political moment to be a black woman in politics.”

Johnson explained that her experience running for office has been largely similar to the vast majority of women politicians.  She stated that “being a policy maker was never on my radar” and that “people asked me to run until I finally said yes.”  Johnson explained that “every single woman on council right now, including Durham County’s recently elected, first Latina council member, Javiera Caballero, is there because someone asked them to run.”  Indeed, Johnson noted that women candidates in elections across the nation tend to run due to external pressure. Here, I wondered why women may be less inclined to run for office of their own accord.

Moreover, Johnson discussed how being a mother of two young sons has influenced her career as a politician.  She noted, “there is a double standard for women – you have to be a full-time parent and full-time worker.”  While running for office, Johnson recalled that although her male opponent had infant twins, she was the candidate frequently asked, “how will I balance this with raising kids?” Here, I also wondered why women candidates are more likely to have their capability of balancing the responsibilities of being a parent and a politician questioned.

During the mentorship group meeting this week, I believe that Johnson not only inspired the young women to one day run for office, but also informed them of democratic processes and initiatives.  After Johnson shared that the council recently passed a participatory budget proposal that will allow citizens, including teenagers, to decide how to spend 2.4 million dollars, the young women were eager to learn that they would be able to have a direct say in community projects.  Furthermore, Johnson spoke about her plans to expand the YouthWork Internship Program, a summer program that employs young adults, equipping them with important skills and work experience, in various city offices and private businesses.  As their matriculation to high school is quickly approaching, the young women expressed an interest in becoming involved with the Youth Commission, a group of high school students who act as an advisory board to the city council on youth issues.