Giving Life to Our Voice

One of the most empowering and life-affirming things we can do is to give life to a voice and stand strong in our truth. In sharing our stories, we not only empower ourselves, but inspire, empower and pave a path forward for others.

In 2010, in the wake of my own personal upheaval which left me struggling to reclaim my lost voice, I stumbled upon the Afghan Women's Writing Project -- a life-affirming platform for women's voices, often silenced in the shadows of a culture that not only limits access to education and the outside world, but diminishes women's rights as equal human beings. Moved to tears at the raw beauty, vulnerability and honesty of these women's words, I reached out to their founder to see how I could help.

"Write to them, Sharon," she told me. "Respond to their poetry, prose and personal narratives." Yet even as I effortlessly responded to support them in their truth, I struggled to speak my own, as I internally battled with my own brand of fear.

"How can you be such a strong advocate for women giving life to their own voice, if you're not willing to do the same?" a new friend challenged me. "If you want to make a difference, it starts by walking your own talk.” "There is real power in story," another friend counseled me. "What if your story, your words and your truth could be used to uplift, inspire and empower others?” I took their words to heart, and with great trepidation, I, too, began to write - my own narrative empowering me to finally step through my fear and into my truth.

Two years and tens of thousands of words later, I encountered a different challenge altogether; one that at once angered, provoked and beckoned me to elevate my voice and engage in a deeper, more impactful way.

In late 2012, my 10 year-old daughter and I each faced major setbacks that collectively provided rich fodder for introducing her to the subject of women's empowerment, global development and what it means to lead from the heart and live one's own voice out loud -- all subjects that encompass some of the deepest dreams of my heart and embody all of my childhood experiences growing up around the world.

My daughter was struggling to stand up for herself in the face of relentless schoolgirl bullying, while I was struggling to find employment after an abrupt and unforeseen layoff at the peak of my rebound career. Having re-entered the workforce only a few years earlier as a newly single parent at midlife and the midpoint of my career, the 'safe' path I always believed would be there -- the one that previously enabled me to take risks in my career -- seemed to vaporize before my eyes. I found myself at an unimaginable and seemingly un-navigable crossroad in my career.

At one critical juncture, I received news that I was 'over-qualified' and would no longer be considered for what I firmly believed was my professional safe harbor and certain path forward. Though disappointed and disheartened, more impactful than the news itself was how my daughter responded, innocently suggesting that if I was less smart...if I could in effect, 'dumb down,' it might be easier for me to find work.

I was simultaneously touched, angry and concerned as I thought about the implications of her words -- for her and the millions of women and girls around the world who have been denied opportunity and/or struggled to come into their own voice and leadership.

What message do we send to our daughters when (for women) ambition, achievement and self-determination are potentially viewed as liabilities instead of the assets they are? How can we encourage our daughters to rise up and lean in, when far too often, the world’s message back to us is to dumb it down, blend in, and play small?

Most significantly for mothers, if we choose to step up, how do we navigate and balance leaning into our leadership with the complexity of raising a family? If we step out or step back for our families, how do we overcome barriers to re-entry or the challenge of over-qualification? (excerpt link)

In the wake of these challenges, my daughter and I watched live streaming interviews with Sheryl Sandberg and scenes from Girl Rising. We talked about women's suffrage, and explored how and why women and girls are still denied equal access to education, opportunity and pay. We talked at length about honoring ourselves, our voice and our talents, and finding the courage to stand up for our selves and others, too. Most significantly, we talked about character as a catalyst for empowerment and how every female, regardless of age, culture, religious or socio-economic status, should be entitled to the basic human right to live her voice out loud and become a leader in her own life.

As I watched my daughter study my face, anxious to offer ideas to help, I soon realized that how I responded to my own challenge could profoundly impact, influence and shape how she would respond to her own. The choice was mine. The impact was ours. And out of that moment the Global Girls Project was born.

Based on the United Nations Millennial Development Goal of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment and sixteen defining principles of heart-aligned living and leadership, the Global Girls Project invites others to share stories and advice from their own journey toward empowerment and leadership, while providing a platform for learning through a series of interviews with leadership, foreign policy and gender development experts. The goal of the project is to create a global collection of stories that not only inspire and uplift, but encourage and empower others to find their own voice, too, passing on the legacy of leadership from one generation of women to the next.

This article has been slightly modified from the original version first published at the Huffpost Pioneers for Change Blog on 6 January 2015 

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  • Alysia Silberg
    Sharon, Thank-you for all your effort with this blog post. I found it beautifully written, direct from the heart and I could identify on multiple levels. You sound like an impressive and smart woman with a great deal to be proud of. You also sound like an amazing role model to your daughter. I admire your courage and strength to overcome so many challenges and keep going, Your perseverance will be worth it. I wish you the very best of luck on your journey!
  • Swati Vempati
    Before I can even begin to say something about what you wrote, I would like to say its so beautifully and vividly written. I felt like I was part of your experience, and wanted to be there with you. Just now I read another article on how storytelling is so powerful, and I can see it here! I am so glad that you decided to not just stand up for yourself but also taught your young child to do the same for her. Kids look up to elders and so in a way, all of us are role models for them, they will learn behviours and attitudes from us and that should make us more aware of how to react or respond to situations. I think in a way it will give a purpose for adults to behave more responsibly. Beautiful piece!
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