The Women in Public Service Project and Wellesley
Anyone who follows Wellesley news is no doubt aware of the college’s involvement with the Women in Public Service Project. The many articles featuring photos of Secretary Clinton have spoken of “training a new generation of women leaders,” and the media surrounding the dual appearance of Secretaries Albright and Clinton on the Alumnae Hall stage was impossible to miss. However, the focus on our illustrious alumnae only conveys one part of what the Project stands for. Many WU contributors have posted legitimate fears about the direction of the WPSP (its role in perpetrating Western hegemony, its narrow conception of leadership, and the hypocrisy of an American institution teaching anyone about political parity when we have such low rates of female representation) but the inaugural WPSP Institute, hosted by Wellesley this June, set a precedent that should assuage many of these concerns. I had the privilege of working at the Institute as an intern, and though it wasn’t perfect, I am confident that the model created this summer addresses these issues and could even help push the rest of Wellesley in the right direction.
Reading the delegates’ bios in preparation, I worried that it was presumptive to think the program would teach such accomplished women anything new, and that it might be insulting to try, but the Institute was well designed and emphasized exchange rather than instruction. The star-studded speakers list included established leaders from around the world, not just the United States, and from a wide range of disciplines. From Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani to Cambodian opposition leader Mu Sochua to Egyptian children’s rights activist Moushira Khattab to civil rights defender and Obama mentor Charles Ogletree (with a solid representation of Wellesley alums and professors including Lynn Sherr, Farahnaz Ispahani, Henrietta Holsman Fore, Jean Kilbourne, Amb. Michele Sison and our two Secretaries of State) panelists offered their expertise and support, and genuinely strove for dialogue. They shared their own stories, but the sessions served less as trainings than as platforms for an exchange of best practices, and an opportunity for delegates to ask questions of women and men who had been in the field for years. When representatives of institutions like the World Bank, USAID, the State Department and American NGOs did speak, it was largely to present the resources that were available through their organizations. And delegates were not shy about asking incisive and critical questions, forcing those representing Western interests to answer for inaction in Syria, poor development models, or unjust foreign policy double standards.
Many of the most interesting contributions came from the delegates themselves, all representing countries in transition -the majority from those affected by uprisings in the Arab world- and all with impressive resumes. At the closing ceremony, former congresswoman Jane Harman said she doubted “there could be more power on the planet than there is right here in this room.” Illustrative of her point was an exchange during one question and answer session. When a delegate introduced herself as “the youngest female parliamentarian,” others immediately cut in, saying “No, Wafa, I’m younger than you.” She clarified that she meant the youngest in Jordan, not in the room. But despite the abundance of parliamentarians, the Institute embraced a wider understanding of the meaning of ‘public service.’ From foreign relations to academia, engineering to law, urban planning to community organizing, and healthcare to entrepreneurship, the common denominator among delegates was determination and commitment to their communities rather than any sort of leadership benchmark. Though I disagree with some of Hailey’s points in her recent post about the Albright Institute, I think she is correct that Wellesley should broaden its conception of what it means to be a leader, and the 48 delegates who attended the WPSP Institute offer a wide range of alternative models. Among other things, they’ve faced death threats to run for office in Afghanistan, created apprenticeships with local auto mechanics to empower young women in Kenya, drafted laws to protect journalistic freedoms in Kosovo, started taxi services to combat sexual harassment and assault in Iraq, participated in protests at Tahrir Square, defended the legal rights of minority populations in Israel, helped organize academic exchanges in Palestine, and founded NGOs to ensure women’s voices are heard during transition in Tunisia.
Perhaps the most valuable thing the WPSP can offer is connecting these women to one another. The Seven Sisters have a legacy of maintaining powerful networks among women, and this somewhat intangible asset is a unique way to offer our resources to women who are changing their own communities in the ways in which Wellesley encourages its students to. Delegates got the best and worst of the Wellesley experience- dining hall food and all- but the strong sense of community and ‘sisterhood,’ however trite that sounds, is one I think all Wellesley alums can appreciate. After all, there is no better place for cementing friendships than a dance party in the pub, another Wellesley experience WPSP delegates shared. For me certainly, and I hope for each other as well, the 2012 delegates will always be what one speaker, Lani Guinier, called a “network of accountability”: the people who will never let you settle into complacency. Who will always push you, by example or otherwise, to take chances, to try harder and to never forget what matters.
Wellesley’s 2012 Institute is just the first of many WPSP initiatives, including upcoming events in Bangladesh and France. The WPSP itself will move to the Wilson Center where it will reside permanently as part of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative directed by Wellesley Centers for Women’s Rangita de Silva de Alwis.
Yes, despite America’s abysmal rates of female leadership the WPSP focus remains international, and continued healthy criticism will hold this institution accountable, but from what I saw in June, the WPSP is in good hands and Wellesley should be proud to be a founding member
-Rebecca Turkington ‘12
(Photos by Emma Li ‘12)
For identification purposes:
Top photo: right to left are speakers Dr. Moushira Khattab of Egypt, Dr. Haleh Esfandiari of Iran, Ambassador Michele Sison, Wellesley ‘81
Middle Left: delegates Alma Lama of Kosovo, Gauhar Kasymzhanova of Kazakhstan, Esra Akyol of Turkey
Middle Right: delegates Hayfa Rouas of Morocco, Khitam Naamneh of Israel, Howaida Nagy Mohamed of Egypt, and Bouthaina Attal of Yemen
Bottom: delegates Sumaira Ishfaq of Pakistan and Jackcilia Ebere of South Sudan