The Baraza: Young African Women’s Leadership Initiative; A Summary

The Baraza: Young African Women’s Leadership Initiative
November 2011, Barnard College

On November 4th and 5th, the Athena Center sponsored the Baraza: Young African Women’s Leadership Initiative. Clare Korir, who served as a student representative at Barnard’s Global Symposium in Johannesburg, was inspired by this experience to plan the Baraza. She hoped that the conference would provide a platform for African female students studying in the U.S. to discuss and brainstorm ways of improving various facets of Africa, while honoring and learning from those who have already established successful initiatives. When the Athena Center’s Director, Kathryn Kolbert, learned of this idea, she told Clare that the Athena Center would support the Conference. 

The event kicked off with a reception Friday evening, featuring a keynote address by Carroll Bogert, the Deputy Director for External Relations at Human Rights Watch. In her speech, Bogert discussed the importance of knowledge in leadership; that good leaders must know their facts, they must know how to obtain these facts, and then use them to affect positive change. She told an inspiring story of Elena Chirikova, the woman who is trying to save the Khimki old-growth forest in Moscow.  Bogert connected eco-activism and women’s leadership efforts of Chirikova to the late Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. 

Saturday’s portion of the conference began with a stirring a keynote address by Dr. Athaliah Molokomme, Attorney General of the Republic of Botswana. She spoke of the three keys to women’s leadership: access, participation, and having a transformative agenda.  She spoke at length on importance of collaboration in leadership; without a team, a leader stands alone.  Following her address, Dr. Molokomme had a public conversation with Barnard’s President, Debora Spar.  In that discussion, the two women touched on many important aspects of women’s leadership, and shared valuable experiences from their careers. When asked if she how to include men into the struggle for women’s rights, she answered, “We are not fighting men, we are fighting a system.  It just so happens that men are the beneficiaries of this system.”

Later in the day, Baraza participants attended the “Lessons from Successful Women Leaders” panel moderated by Lydia Cherop, a Columbia Visiting Scholar from Uganda, featuring Kim Feinberg, Susan Mboya, and Margaret “Peg” Snyder. Ms. Feinberg, the CEO of Tomorrow Trust, stressed the importance of providing opportunities to the most disadvantaged in the community since a society “is only as good as its weakest link.”  Dr. Snyder traced her career as the founding director of UNIFEM, and spoke about the need for economic initiatives as an effective means for women’s empowerment.  Dr. Mboya told the students to follow their passions, and also encouraged those in the audience who were still undecided in regards to their future plans, “if you don’t know where you are supposed to be, your passion will find you.”

The Baraza concluded with a set of student presentations from Lizah Masis (Swarthmore ’12) and Rose Okeyo (Hillsdale ’12).  Each spoke of their journeys as student entrepreneurs and how their successful projects in Kenya. Lizah designed a micro finance program in partnership with a local bank, in which she disbursed small loans to women affected by civil war in western Kenya. Rose’s project is dedicated to the improvement of an up-and-coming primary school in Rarieda Constituency, for which she has raised funds through fundraising events and auctioning her artwork.

The conference was well-received by the Barnard community, and plans are already underway for next year’s Baraza. Special thanks to the Athena Center, the office of International Programs, Barnard Special Events, and IMATS for their support.