Thoughts on the International Day of the Girl

Note: Our executive director Connie Chow was invited to speak on 10/11/2012 at Harvard University’s Memorial Church Morning Prayers, a tradition of more than 300 years. On a lighter note, Reverend Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister at Memorial Church, commented in his introduction that his daughter, Zora, who is a young participant of Science Club for Girls, is keeping all sorts of materials in their house for future projects, and has a biology experiment underneath her bed.

Wonderful, extraordinary friends of Memorial Church. Good morning.

I am honored to share a few thoughts with you in advance of the first International Day of the Girl, which will be celebrated all over the world tomorrow. This day exists to affirm girls’ power to change the world for good. Witness Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani activist for peace and girls’ right to education, and 17 year-old Brittany Wenger, an American who created a computer program to diagnose breast cancer.

October 11 will also recognize that girls everywhere continue to be surrounded by the toxic air of violence, injustice and discrimination. In some situations, perhaps in your own communities, this is imperceptible, like lead dust that slowly damages girls’ sense of self and creates anxiety that limit their potential to learn and grow. In other circumstances, girls are shrouded by a heavy, suffocating smoke, that is all too often deadly for those who fight against it, as we witnessed unfortunately with Malala’s assassination attempt by the Taliban just yesterday.

More than the oppression, I have found that girls all over the world are united in their desire to be educated. And this is the message that I bring to you, from the Afghan refugee in Peshawar who wants to be a pilot, from the girl in Ghana who walks 6 kilometers each way to attend school, from the girl journalist in Lawrence who wants you to know “what’s good in their ‘hood”, from the girl engineer in Worcester whose father drives her 2 hours into Boston every other Saturday to join a rocket team, and from the girls who attend school or live a few blocks from these hallowed halls, who know that they are perceived by adults as rebellious or destined to fail, because of the color of their skin, their accent, the way they dress. They all, each one, care about, and want, a good education. They, like all of us here, know its power to liberate.

And the second message I bring from them is that each girl has more than what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “ a single story”.

I want to tell you the story of Brianna (not her real name) who lives here in Cambridge. Brianna’s mother has been unable to care for her emotionally. Brianna, at 14, was labeled by her teacher as someone who will get pregnant and drop out, and therefore not worthy of extra help. I found out two weeks ago that Brianna is pregnant now, at 17.  Moral: It’s not easy being a girl. Right?

Right. But let me tell Brianna’s story differently.

Each day that Brianna sat in that 7th grade class, she is fighting for her rights for an education. When she circumspectly confronted that teacher with her dream of going to medical school, I would claim she was every bit as courageous as Malala. When she went back to her 8th grade math teacher to ask for help after she started high school, Brianna was claiming her space at the table of academic achievement.

So Brianna is pregnant. That’s only one of this brilliant girl’s many stories. My moral standards and theology may be different than yours. But the choice that my colleagues and I have made is to help Brianna towards a glorious destination. Stay tuned.

Activist and author Eve Ensler invites all of us to embrace our inner girl. Those emotional, vulnerable, passionate, compassionate, joyful parts that unfortunately are all too often suppressed in men and boys, and sometimes in women.

My hope is that each of us have the courage to become emotional like a girl, for the sake of girls. To embrace our inner girl enough so that you find and connect with a girl, maybe tomorrow, some time this month, and approach her with the awe that you would approach a possible god. I promise that you will be as blessed as I have been, with the richness of her multiple stories. And when you are, it will be easier to bear the weight of her glory on your back.

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“The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest ,most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which…you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet…only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

–C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

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