Last week, I attended the Obama Foundation’s Summit in Chicago as a representative of Dr. Ross’s Presidential Youth Council with two other incredible youth leaders Efrain and Vanessa. I am incredibly thankful to The California Endowment, Dolores Huerta, and my former boss Camila Chavez for enabling me to attend this conference with social change leaders from around the world.
Former President Barack Obama sought to convene leaders from around the world to strategize and learn from each other about how to unite and mobilize our communities for positive social change.
From left: Vanessa Lopez, Dean Welliver and Efrain Botello at the conference in Chicago.
The summit featured a multitude of workshops to inform participants about journalism, environmentalism, initiatives to support young men of color, using social media as a social justice platform, women’s rights, and leadership.
In between breakout workshop sessions, the summit also featured panel discussions with important global leaders such as Prince Harry and youth advocates from organizations that his organization, the Royal Foundation, supports.
Prince Harry takes the stage to discuss the work of the Royal Foundation.
I felt privileged to hear former first lady Michelle Obama speak about her experiences growing up, her methods for self-care, and the need to teach youth that their voice is valuable. I feel that her statement exemplifies the work that Building Healthy Communities and the California Endowment does every day, to empower youth throughout California to raise their voice about issues affecting the health, safety, and wellbeing of their communities!
The most important takeaway I got from her speech was that, “to know how to use your voice, you have to find it”.
Michelle Obama (left).
I found her comments to be especially validating given the work that I do in my community of Kern County. I previously worked as an LGBTQ Equality Organizer for the Dolores Huerta Foundation and helped empower and train LGBTQ youth to find their voice and organize for change. Now I continue that mission in my new role at South Kern Sol empowering and training youth to find their voice through youth journalism and shift the narrative about youth from our communities!
While there were many inspiring speakers and workshops that participants could participate in, the “Getting Women in the Room Where it Happens” Panel left the most profound impact on me. This panel featured diverse and powerful women who have advanced civil rights in the United States and abroad in places like Saudi Arabia.
This panel was moderated by Rashida Jones, an actress and board member of the organization Peace First, featured Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers Movement and the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Susan Rice, a National Security Advisor under the Obama Administration and a former National Security Council staff member under President Clinton, and Manal al-Sharif, a women’s rights activist who helped lead the campaign for women to be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.
From left: Rashida Jones, Dolores Huerta, Susan Rice, and Manal al-Sharif.
Dolores Huerta spoke of the need for women to support each other into getting involved in social change work, “As women we have to organize other women and mentor other women. We need to make this the purpose of our life. We always find the work we are doing challenging with the sexism in a male dominated society, but we are not going to let it get in our way. We need women’s intelligence and creativity because we can make incredible changes to make our communities and countries as better place when we just come together.”
When asked how she copes with sometimes being the only woman in the room, Susan Rice responded that, “If I am the only woman, the only African American in the room, I am going to let that be someone else’s issue and not let it stop me from what I’m doing.”
Later on a woman asked the panel how they do social change work without being tokenized as the only person of a given identity involved in a certain organization or project.
Rice expanded off her earlier response and told that woman, “If you weren’t in the room it would be much worse. If they want to tokenize you that’s their problem. Use your voice and bring your perspective to the table. Don’t facilitate them putting you in a box and make it hard for them to do it.”
Her response really resonated with me as sometimes I feel that I am only invited to participate in certain projects so that I’m seen and the diversity box for LGBTQ can be checked off, but the perspective I have to offer is not really heard. Her comments are a validation that it’s important for youth from marginalized communities to not only be seen but authentically given a space to have their voice heard. Something that I believe Building Healthy Communities strives for everyday in its statewide and local work.
Manal al-Sharif shared her story of being imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for driving as a woman, and a woman in the workshop asked her how she keeps going when she experiences self-doubt.
She spoke of how it felt to be demonized as a villain in her home country and to be seen as a hero abroad and how she had to keep telling herself that she is not a criminal and that she wouldn’t respect laws that don’t respect her, such as the law that banned women from driving.
Manal al-Sharif’s words resonated with me as a young transgender person where often simple things like going to the bathroom are illegal in certain parts of our country. Just as she was arrested for doing something as simple as driving as a woman, trans youth across the country can be arrested for going to the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
This panel was a prime example of the types of meaningful and deep connections that can be made across identity backgrounds and cultures when we are willing to authentically listen to the experiences of others and challenge ourselves to make more space for diverse voices at the decision-making tables.