Notes from AYA: ONE Girls & Women

photo-2 "The Power of Our Storytelling" with Clemantine Wamariya

The Aya fern, for which the Aya Summit was named after, is an African symbol of endurance and resourcefulness. Aya ferns are resilient--growing under adverse circumstances--which is what last week's Aya Summit in DC (put on by ONE Girls and Women) was all about. Endurance. Resilience. Community. Females taking back their power and pushing it forward. 

I was blown away by every single speaker at the summit—their stories and unbelievable strength —from girls rising to women elevating each other and the recognition that, as Clemantine Wamariya so eloquently expressed, "I'm a woman. That translates everywhere." (There are some incredible posts out there, already, including this one by Awesomely Luvvie and this post by Do A Little Good which includes some highlights and soundbites from speakers. Awesome.)

We were fortunate enough to hear from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, who spoke to us candidly about Ebola and the importance of US involvement. (As Americans, we often forget that we are a country of immigrants and refugees and that supporting our brothers and sisters globally is AS IMPORTANT as supporting our brothers and sisters domestically. All people are our people. Such is the beauty of this country... I feel that is often overlooked in conversations about domestic vs. global advocacy.)

We were also fortunate enough to hear from Marquesha Babers, teenage poet, future mentor, motivator and girl risingMarquesha opened the summit withpoise, strength and POETRY and blew all of our minds.

There was a collective, meditative silence as "Saa" stood before us and told the story of escapeafter being kidnapped from her school by Boko Haram. Much like Marquesha, her bravery and resilience were superheroic. When she spoke, I started to imagine teen girls all over the world coming together, hand in hand, hearts like fists of light, getting back up, standing on stages, taking back their power and speaking their truth.

“I thank my struggles for giving me my poems,” Marquesha said. Those words reverberated through the entire conference. Struggles that led to the epiphanies, escapes, empowerment, the dozens of stories pushed out the openings of mouths, spread over our hearts with the hands of words... powerful, igniting, elevating words. 

I closed my eyes and pictured every teenage girl around the world standing up, growing taller... and taller and taller... And the rest of us below them receiving their stories and mobilizing, with the resources we have, to share, listen speak out and reinforce. 

I feel so overwhelmed writing this post, like I'm going to leave out a story or a person, or forget to link back to an organization that is doing incredible work for women and humanity, so I'm going to slow my roll here and link to a few organizations worth supporting and share some thoughts on how best to take action. Because that's why we were there: to listen, to learn, to take what moved us home and pass it on.  (If you were in attendance at AYA, please add anything in the comments that I might have missed. Thank you in advance!)

Take Action: What Can We Do?

1. Support Local Storytellers so their perspective can go viral within their/our/every community. For starters, Girl Rising and Aliza Sherman set up the first ever Marquesha BabersScholarship Fund to support a currently homeless Marquesha whose stories NEED to be told and DESERVE to be supported. (The hope is to award a yearly storytelling scholarship to other teens in need. May we all rally around Marquesha and storytellers in our communities and around the world.)

You can also support Get Lit, an organization that increases teen literacy through classic and spoken word poetry. In their words:

Get Lit’s programs are designed to boost literacy, foster culturalunderstanding, and encourage creative self-expression. By immersing teens in the world of great books (often for the first time), Get Lit equips students for future success in college and the workplace by building concise writing skills and dynamic public speaking abilities and a foundation of self-confidence.

Words transform lives.Whether spoken, written, read, or performed — self-expression is fundamental to success and happiness in our society. Books provide a valuable resource andrefuge for the human soul. Everyone should be provided with the tools to access all that books have to offer. Get Lit aims to fill the gaps where public schools have failed students in this area. It uses the oral expression ofpoetry and literature to bring words to life.

2. Fight FEARBOLA in social media by remaining calm and informative. 

PLEASE double check your sources before posting articles about "fake" Ebola outbreaks on Facebook. It is doing SO MUCH damage, you guys. Fear is not the antidote to illness. Be proactive. Think before you speak. And post. And tweet. (Here are two wonderful posts worth sharing about heroism and survival.) And, if you can, give to these vetted organizations who are working tirelessly to fight Ebola and save lives.

Africare: twitter, @africare

Doctors Without Borders: twitter, @MSF_USA

CRS (Catholic Relief Services), twitter, @CatholicRelief

Samaritan's Purse, twitter, @SamaritansPurse

3. Support World Health by tweeting to the White House to support life-saving vaccinations.

One of our goals during the summit was to reach the White House to ask for a renewal of funds for Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, which you can read more about, here. The renewal of these funds will save millions of children's lives from life threatening disease. Click here to take action! 

4. Support Businesses that Empower Women Around the World.

I really enjoyed hearing from the panel, Change Through Economic Opportunity, because I have become cynical in my old age, another reason why bringing together women of all ages is crucial. I have always adored Heifer International but hearing from Petronella Halwiindi about the work Heifer has done through the years, specifically with women, was remarkable. Please consider Heifer for gift giving this holiday season!

We also heard from Barrett Ward of FashionABLE, Jane Mosbacher Morris of To The Market, which sells survivor-made goods and is set to launch NEXT WEEK, and Syndey Price, senior VP of Global Merchandising for KateSpade New York. (Learn more about the On Purpose collection, here.)

5. Listen, Speak, Spread... 

How can we bring these voices and stories into our own communities and schools? Organizations like Peace is Loud makes that possible. And books, like Nick Kristof's A Path Appears, teach every day humans—like you and me—how we can best utilize our voices, platforms and privilege as global citizens. The incredible Danai Gurira showed us how by using her voice and theatrical talent to perform for us—to spread the truth of other women who shared their stories with her—stories that would not and could not have been delivered without Danai's voice. We HAVE to listen to each other in order to push forward, no matter how painful or inconvenient the story. We owe it to our sisters and our daughters and ourselves to listen. We owe it to our world. 

6. Talk to the boys and men in your life about human trafficking, sex slavery and CONSENT.

The one thing the summit was lacking, I felt, was the inclusion of boys and men in the conversation, specifically where rape/violence and trafficking were concerned. The only way to elevate our sisters is to partner with our brothers in doing so. How do we educate our boys and men about CONSENT and EMPATHY? I can recall many stories of boys (and men) I knew in my late teens/early 20s talking about the south-Asian hookers they hired while traveling like it was just a thing that people do/did/ha ha/insert high five, here. Much of the conversations that we had last week had to do with violent sex acts, slavery and the millions of women and children who are trafficked. And here, we are sitting in chairs feeling like we have no control. Except we do. WE'RE MOMS! We have sons! Sons who will grow up and choose to engage (or not) in sexual acts with women who do (and do not) consent to them—who will grow up to hire (or not hire) sex workers, prostitutes, women who have been abducted, trafficked, are slaves. And it might feel small in the scheme of things, but having conversations with our sons—when they reach an appropriate age to do so—about consent, trafficking and the sex trade is huge. We are raising the next generation of sexually active men. It is crucial for us to educate, not just as parents, but as women who have experienced the best (and worst) of male sexuality. It is on us to teach our sons and make them aware of what is happening worldwide as well as under our own noses. It is on us to enlighten them and create advocates of them as well as our daughters.

7. Life is an All Ages Show. 

There were so many women I know and love at the AYA conference but it was the conversations I had with strangers new friends that had the most profound effect on my experience, especially the young women, teenagers and college students in attendance. I was blown away by the confidence and kick-assery in these young women, and recognized the importance of women and girls of ALL AGES coming together to talk and listen and inspire each other. We talk so often about respecting our elders and commonly disregard young women who we collectively roll our eyes at for not being as knowledgeable or experienced as we. I remember experiencing this first hand as a teen author and then young mother, and feel it SO important that we sit down with women and girls—ten, twenty years our junior—and listen to their stories, credit their experience and recognize that we can all learn from each other. Respect for our sisters should include our younger sisters as well.

Teenage girls will change the world. Hell, they're already changing it. Let's hear it for the teens! 


When I got back from AYA, after waiting in the cab line at LAX for almost 30 minutes, a green minivan pulled up for me, its automatic door hanging open.

"Good evening," the voice said, and that's when I realized my driver was a woman. I don't know how many cabs I've taken in my 33 years. Lots, though. And not once, have I been picked up by a woman driver. 

And, maybe in the past, this would have surprised me, but not now. Now, it felt right. It felt obvious. It felt like OF COURSE my driver is a woman. OF COURSE.

I immediately introduced myself like we were old friends. I asked her about her night and she asked me about mine. We talked about Los Angeles and DC and airplanes and our lives...

And then she took me home, waiting for me to disappear through the front gate of my house, before driving away into the night.

It was as if the universe had winked. Like, this is it. The world is changing. And it's going to be painful and it's going to be a fight and it's overwhelming to consider for a moment what has to be done, how far we have to go, how much of our world is broken. And yet. AND YET! Never in the history of the world has there been this many women with voices raised and ears open, WOMEN. 

When in doubt, I turn to THAT. I turn to my daughters who know their strength in ways I still can't relate to. I turn to Marquesha, and Saa, and Danai, and President Sirleaf, Malala Yousafzai and YOU. All of you. All of us! 
Thank you, AYAONE Girls & Women and all of you out there who support, elevate and share your truths for the greater good. We are all very much in this together and I believe that the women of the world are taking great strides as a community to chip away at the darkness with their light. I felt that way last week and I feel that way today. When women come together, their (our) power is a palpable force. It is my honor and privilege to be a part of this community of women and storytellers, artists and poets, actors and activists, children and teenagers. Tomorrow is a new day. May all the voices continue to sing.