Leading Like A Girl

A few weekends ago, an international group of (mostly) women gathered at the Omega Institute in upstate New York for the annual Women and Power conference to discuss and practice the year’s theme of “Connecting Across the Generations.”

And as luck would have it, GLI was well represented by an intergenerational delegation consisting of Rachel Simmons, Lilly, a seventeen year-old high school senior who attended camp the summer before her freshman year, and me.

Meeting Lilly and hanging out with her family of fun, powerful women was one of the highlights of the conference. A close second was hearing her fascinating excuse for not taking part in the Sophomore Summer program: she attended the Young Women’s Political Retreat in DC, put on by Running Start, an organization dedicated to inspiring young women to run for office. She enjoyed it so much that she’s interning at the organization this semester.

One of my mentors, Gloria Steinem, opened the conference with these words about relationships between the generations: “Older women must listen as much as they talk and younger women must talk as much as they listen.”

I’ve found it’s usually best to take Gloria’s advice. What follows is an older woman listening, in awe, to a younger one, the fantastically fierce Ms. Lilly:

Shelby: What is something you learned at the Women and Power conference you want to share with the GLI community?

Lilly: I was inspired to think of power differently. One of the speakers quoted something Martin Luther King Jr. said about love not being the resignation of power. I was really struck by that statement. Our female intuition to be compassion is not something that we should have to compensate for. It should be celebrated and encouraged.

Shelby: Who are your mentors? How do you navigate those relationships?

Lilly: I am so lucky to have so many older women in my life to whom I look up to. One of my mentors is Rachel Simmons, one of the founders of GLI. Rachel listens to me as much as she talks but the effect she has had on me is far greater than I can ever hope to have on her. There are several teachers I consider my mentors. I have learned that you can be very honest with mentors, you can have fun together and you can have a profound connection. But a mentoring relationship is very different from a friendship and I must interact with them accordingly. I am continually awed by the older women I know so I do not predict that I will experience a shortage of mentors anytime soon. But it is important to remember that a mentor doesn’t have to be someone you know. A lot of the women I admire are writers I’ve never met or bloggers I have only met once or twice. It is possible to learn and be mentored from afar by reading your mentor’s books, or listening to their music or watching their movies.

Shelby: Much of the conference was focused on connecting the activism of older women with that of younger women. How do you think girls’ activism is different from that of the generation before? How do you think it’s the same?

Lilly: I think that girls’ activism today is more personal than the activism of previous generations. GLI is emblematic of this shift in how we approach and define activism. Going to GLI is an act of leadership because learning how to be an authentic, empowered girl makes it possible to realize one’s potential as an authentic, empowered leader. I think girls today have really taken the notion of thinking globally and acting locally to heart. In other words, girls begin their careers as activists by trying to understand and improve what it means to be a girl today. We know that until all girls are comfortable giving a firm handshake, saying something unpopular and taking a stand we can’t get to the good stuff; like saving the world! One important element of female activism has not changed. More now than ever we understand that we have something invaluable to offer as female leaders. Omega definitely reminded me that you don’t have to lead like a man in order to make an impact.

Shelby: The entire conference was blogged, live-tweeted, and simulcast. How, in your opinion, can girls use social media to express their “real girl” selves?

Lilly: When I read blogs I feel like I am part of a community of like-minded people. It is comforting to know that you aren’t the only one thinking about these issues. Blogging is a really satisfying amalgamation of a creative outlet, a social experience, and an intellectual forum. Blogs give me a chance to be opinionated, silly and inspired. I am proud to say I have let blogging go to my head. I am allowed to play “expert” and I feel powerful imagining that even just one person, besides a teacher, is reading what I write.

Shelby: You list GLI as one of the things you believe in on your Facebook profile. How have you been using what you learned at camp in your life?

Lilly: GLI is a unique program because it provides girls with a place where they can embrace their silliness while discovering their potential as leaders. I went to GLI the summer between eighth and ninth grade. I wasn’t shy about expressing my serious side but I had completely forgotten how to allow myself to look ridiculous. GLI gave me the skills I needed to be a leader and the confidence to stop fearing messing up. And GLI helped me cultivate a sense of humor and light-heartedness that allows me to recover when I do, inevitably, mess up.

*This post was edited on 11/14/09 to reflect privacy concerns of the young woman profiled.*


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