August 2012 Features

Primary Sources: Changing the Game

A firsthand look at the how the Women in Public Service Project is training emerging women leaders from around the globe.

Interviewed by Priya Ratneshwar

The inaugural Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) Summer Institute, held this past June at Wellesley College, brought together 50 emerging women leaders from across the globe for two weeks of leadership development training, networking, and bonding. It piloted a regionally tailored program that focused on delegates from countries experiencing the Arab Spring revolutions and from other Muslim-majority countries.

Bryn Mawr College is a founding partner of the WPSP along with the U.S. Department of State and Barnard, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley Colleges. Bryn Mawr alumnae, faculty, and students were among those who gave talks, moderated panels, and facilitated workshops at the Institute.

Attending were Shazia Rafi ’79, secretary general for Parliamentarians for Global Action; Inyang Ebong-Harstrup ’82, deputy director in the Special Unit for South/South Cooperation (SU/SSC), United Nations Development Programme; Professor of Political Science Michael Allen; and Secretary of Bryn Mawr College Ruth Lindeborg ’80, who serves on the WPSP steering committee. Also present were recent graduate Sarah Theobald ’12, who blogged about the experience for Bryn Mawr, and senior Meheret Shumet ’13, who interned in the SU/SSC under the supervision of Dr. Ebong-Harstrup over the summer.

As Bryn Mawr gears up to host the 2013 Summer Institute, the Bulletin engaged them in a roundtable discussion on what they learned from the experience and opportunities they saw for improvement.

What were some recurring themes or issues being discussed at the Institute?

Michael Allen, Professor of Political Science

Michael Allen: Most of the panels were grappling with the barriers to the emergence of women’s voices. It seemed to me there were four broad sources of challenge—tradition; religion, or particular theologies; forms of state, both local and national; and forms of production, that is, how economies are organized in such ways as to preclude women’s equal contributions.

Sarah Theobald '12

Sarah Theobald: One issue that I thought kept coming back was quotas. It seemed like a lot of people were opposed to the ideology of quotas, but were embracing the actual results.

Shazia Rafi: I spoke on quotas, and I sensed that women for some reason feel guilty about having to use affirmative action. They feel insecure about the fact that they actually do need to use it to get to a point where there’s going to be a level playing field. There was clearly a recognition that it’s necessary, but they don’t want to think of themselves as those who need help.

Shazia Rafi ’79

Allen:  Also in most contexts where there has been a reform or a revolution, the point of quotas, whether in the South African context or the U.S. context, is precisely to make them obsolete in the end. So it’s almost like your physician. You need him or her, but hopefully only for a while.

This program brings together women from disparate cultural and economic backgrounds. Is building “sisterhood” a goal?

Ruth Lindeborg: I hadn’t thought about sisterhood as one of the goals, but I was interested in how quickly that goal became very dominant, even on day one.

Inyang Ebong-Harstrup ’82

Inyang Ebong-Harstrup: I think sisterhood is important, but more urgent are the practicalities of shaping the delegates’ futures in a very male-dominated world. I would be more concerned that the bonding comes after they’ve developed a shared sense of how they’re going to navigate these obstacles.

Allen: One context in which sisterhood could be important is between societies in conflict with each other, to build bridges of humanization across lines of country.

Lindeborg: Even delegates from the same place often have different perspectives. There was great interest among them in going beyond the bounds of their own experiences. On the first day, I ate lunch with two women parliamentarians from Jordan, and they couldn’t be more different in background. One was highly educated, a human rights lawyer with an urban background; the other, from a small town, was a grassroots organizer who created a program that helped women to use their talents as seamstresses to gain greater economic independence. They were clearly engaged in coming to know each other better.

This summer’s Institute was a pilot program. Do you have ideas for how you’d like to see it evolve?

Allen: One of the questions that I took away from the whole week was, yes, we want to create a new paradigm of leadership that is inclusive of both women’s and men’s voices, but I would also like to see the Institute put this paradigm in the context of addressing even broader problems, such as sustainability. So it’s a question of, do women want to take over leadership of the same game, or do they want to join the game to change it?

Ebong-Harstrup: There was a sense that the development model and architecture being presented in the Economic Agency segment [of the program] was very old-fashioned in its focus on the traditional north/south, donor/recipient paradigm, neglecting the emerging south and the financial crisis plaguing the United States and Europe. This point was made very persuasively by the delegates from Israel.

Also the foreign policy goals and objectives of the host country [U.S.] were too dominant in the regional focus and in the countries selected from the Arab States region. The BMC model [for next year’s Institute] should definitely take the new reality of aid architecture to heart, as well as try to be more balanced in terms of selecting region and country representatives to be invited.

Ruth Lindeborg ’80

Lindeborg: The steering committee has been concerned all along about the fact that this is all being driven by institutions in the U.S. and that we have to keep trying to make WPSP more truly global.

Ebong-Harstrup: It’s important to articulate models of south-south cooperation. For example, when a woman from Bahrain, a businesswoman, talked about what she was doing, it was clear that there was a great opportunity for her to network with a woman from Kenya, who had set up technical institutes for women in poorer districts.  It would be a perfect way for both parties to explore challenges encountered in dealing with the private sector and share information and solutions.

Meheret Shumet ’13

Meheret Shumet:  It was actually very inspiring to see all these women—whether they’re from Israel, Palestine, Yemen, et cetera—have so much to say to each other. There’s a need for this sort of networking and meeting among these minds.

Lindeborg: I’d also add that all along we have been clear that this is not going to be a one-way teaching and learning experience. The very first day, [Institute director] Rangita de Silva de Alwis moderated a panel in which she asked five of the delegates to each answer one question. They were articulate and passionate and thoughtful and experienced in many different ways. They affirmed my sense that this is a mutual learning opportunity for the moderators and speakers and the delegates.

Rafi: Yes, it might be really interesting if the Institute could take place in alternate years in another region of the world and take along some emerging American women leaders as participants. We can learn a lot here from experiences elsewhere.

What did you take away from your time at the Institute?

Rafi: Many of us are so many years out into the field that we’re kind of stuck in the mechanics after a while. You can lose the active reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. It was very inspiring to listen to what these young women who still have their idealism and enthusiasm intact are hoping to get out of the program.

Ebong-Harstrup: I came away with a level of energy that, my goodness, we can do more. We can shape this so that the women in the room really can benefit. We all go to these learning, training, leadership programs very energized, but nine times out of 10, you’re going back into a dysfunctional environment. Without some active, tangible way of reconnecting, the energy all fritters away. But with proper connection management and organized networking, I think we could make something here that could be very powerful.

Shumet: Before this seminar, I was doing a lot of background research on literacy and education and the way that correlates with women in parliament. I was seeing the numbers on paper, but when you see it in a room, and when you see these women interacting with you and interacting with each other, it’s a whole other experience. It’s definitely opened my eyes and strengthened my commitment to women’s leadership.

Theobald: One of the women, I believe from Egypt, said, “This Institute has forever altered the benchmark of our aspirations. We leave here with more determination than when we came.” That’s my takeaway from the delegates—changing what we think is possible.

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