Smith Alumnae on Using Voice to Make a Difference: Lessons Learned and Advice

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Helen Zhang '15 Design Editor

Despite going to a girls’ high school, a women’s college, and then running a women’s entertainment company, Claudia Chan ’97 had never thought about women’s empowerment before her 30s. When her moment of realization came, she left her entertainment company to start a women’s empowerment company. Her daily work no longer consists of planning girl’s nights out and shows about fashion, but of “constantly trying to get women to step into consciousness,” she said.

Chan, Founder of SHE Global Media and the Women’s Empowerment Media Company, came to Smith on Thursday, Nov. 13 along with Project on Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian ’85 and National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association President and CEO Clare Coleman ’92. The three Smith alumnae were part of a panel titled “Advocacy/Activism: Using Your Voice,” moderated by Sara Gould, Smith’s Activist in Residence and former President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

Using voices plays an important role in each of their careers. For Coleman and Brian, a plurality of voices provides power to their work. “I represent the interests of publically-funded healthcare providers, including Planned Parenthood and other smaller providers,” Coleman said. “I bring the voices of patients and providers to the Hill.” Brian harnesses the voices of whistleblowers to address corruption and waste in the government.

Chan uses her own voice to empower women by encouraging them to develop their inner voices.  “Internal leadership comes before external leadership,” she said. In order to navigate male-dominated fields in particular, Chan emphasizes that “we cannot become what we do not believe. Whatever you want to become, you need to believe it’s possible.” To this end, she suggests that women tell themselves regularly: “I believe that I can do this. I believe that this is possible.”

Coleman saw alliances and partnerships as having the potential to be both positive and negative forces. She brought up partnership efforts in the 70s that led to the separation of reproductive health services from the traditional healthcare model under the assumption that providers could focus on more women-centered care this way. Unfortunately, this “separated where people got care and info about sexual health from where they got care and info about anything else,” Coleman said.

As a counterexample, Coleman pointed to the alliance between various organizations that withdrew support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because there was a religious accommodation in the bill that they said would hurt all of them. “It was a very important moment in the civil rights movement,” Coleman said. “If you care about civil rights and equal rights, this idea that we would stand together on religious refusal is an extraordinary idea for all of us who believe we can make progress on civil rights.”

Though she had been a part of successful alliances, Brian also warned against the idea that all alliances are good. “Alliances can often sink you to the lowest common denominator,” she said. “I would caution you from the word centrism. You can have odd bedfellows, but Washington is full of people who are looking for the least impactful change and that is the centrism that isn’t very useful. It is dangerous to elevate that as the goal of activism. The goal of activism is to make change, not just to do something that isn’t meaningful.”

As Smith women who work in male-dominated industries, the panelists were asked what particular role they saw women having in bringing about change and how to navigate male-dominated fields.

To deal with the difficulties of working in male-dominated industries, Chan suggested to “surround yourself with people who lift you up, who give you confidence and believe in your dreams and interests.” Brian similarly suggested that in terms of life partners, people should choose very carefully so that they will be people who thrill in your successes and are “as excited for you as they are for themselves.” For dealing specifically with putdowns, Brian said that one should “look at the person making you feel that way, step outside, and ask ‘why are they saying that?’ Is it about you or about them?”

They also had some cautionary tales about expecting women to help other women. While working on the Hill, a female boss told Brian that she did not support Brian having a child. Not all women will be supportive of work-life balance, Brian cautioned. Coleman agreed, noting that men define a lot of structures in society. “Just because women are there doesn’t mean they’re better,” she said. “Some women adapt to the dominant power structure and use power in the same way as men.”

“Of everything shared,” Senior Jesse Kline said after the panel, “the most poignant point I’ll take with me as I start my own career path into activism through government work is the fact that not all alliances are good. Sometimes, the least expected alliances can make your mission successful.”