GW Women’s Leadership Conference tackles challenges of living in a global community and examines how inclusion could spur meaningful change.
By Willona M. Sloan
From civil war to uncivil political dialogue, an “us versus them” mentality is creating divisions around the world. With leaders from sectors including education, law and conflict prevention and management, the 19th annual Women's Leadership Conference at the George Washington University addressed the role of inclusion in bringing peace to divided societies.
Held Friday on the Mount Vernon Campus, the conference featured a panel discussion moderated by GW trustee Cynthia Steele Vance, MVC ’79.
Ms. Vance led panelists in a discussion of how education, activism and the inclusion of youth and women in policy discussions could create meaningful social change. “All of you have chosen a path of inclusion and a path of giving a voice to people who are often voiceless,” said Ms. Vance, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Mount Vernon College, which merged with GW in 1999.
Focusing on the theme of “Leading for Inclusion,” the conference, hosted by the George Washington University and the Elizabeth J. Somers Women’s Leadership Program, brought together experts to address issues of diversity, inclusion and leadership. The conference posed the questions, “How can we engage in positive civil discourse, and what is the role of education in creating safe communities?” The event included a luncheon celebrating the legacy of Elizabeth J. Somers; a keynote address on the topic of “Inclusion and Peace and Divided Societies”; and a panel discussion, “The Challenges and Advantages of Living in a Global Community.”
Mary Ellsberg, executive director and founding director of the Global Women’s Institute at GW, discussed her work addressing legal issues regarding domestic violence in post-revolutionary Nicaragua. After conducting research, she and her colleagues found that one out of two women surveyed had experienced domestic violence. “Just because people aren’t talking about it or because people’s voices are not being heard, that doesn’t mean that it’s not happening,” said Dr. Ellsberg. With their research bolstering the effort, legislation addressing domestic violence was passed in that country.
Samah Mcgona Sisay, BA ’15, explained that opening access to power for underrepresented voices is critical.
“Going to law school, I have focused on being able to advocate for others who aren’t able to do that for themselves. But I think that once you start working with individuals, what you realize is that it’s not that they don’t have a voice—they’ve been yelling about these issues forever -- they just don’t have access to those in power to bring about legal change,” said Ms. Sisay, who has been a student advocate in the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law for two years. Ms. Sisay is a GW Elliott School graduate and was a member of the Women’s Leadership Program.
Wendy Helgemo, founding director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy, has more than 20 years of experience in federal Native American law, policy and working with tribal governments. She shared how her grandfather, a World War II veteran, and her mother, the first Native American woman to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, inspired her career path and her commitment to service. “I’ve had some real trailblazers in my life who modeled education and leadership,” Ms. Helgemo said.
Elizabeth Chacko, professor of geography at GW and associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, discussed how immigrant community-building has evolved in the D.C. area over the past few decades.
“The Washington area is the perfect place to study immigration,” said Dr. Chacko. “In the 1970s, 4 percent of our population in the metropolitan area was foreign born; today it’s 22 percent.”
Caroline Laguerre-Brown, GW’s vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, pointed to the university’s recent town hall, which addressed issues of inclusion on campus, as an example of the importance of student voices.
“I think we want to give students as many opportunities as possible to have these difficult conversations like the town hall,” said Ms. Laguerre-Brown. “I am happy and proud to say that I work with a team of people and an administration who really care about these issues, but they are hard. [These issues] didn’t form overnight, and they are not going to be solved overnight.”
Ms. Laguerre-Brown noted that the administration has formulated a set of action items to improve efforts to foster diversity and inclusion at GW, and that the work will be ongoing.
Keynote speaker Pamela Aall, senior adviser for conflict prevention and management at the U.S. Institute of Peace, explained how conflict management and peace-building experts in some of the world’s most contentious areas have been working to bring women, youth and minority populations to the table in an attempt to create more inclusive leadership after a civil war or violent conflict.
Pamela Aall, senior adviser for conflict prevention and management at the U.S. Institute of Peace (Sydney Elle Gray/GW Today)
“Five years ago, we didn’t talk about inclusion much,” said Ms. Aall. “But exclusion lies at the heart of a lot of the conflicts you see around the world and have seen over the last 25 years.”
During the luncheon, Nina Mikhalevsky, provost and professor of philosophy at the University of Mary Washington, paid tribute to Ms. Somers, who played an important role in promoting women’s education, civic activism and community engagement. Previously, Dr. Mikhalevsky served as the director of the Elizabeth Somers Center and Women’s Leadership Program at GW.
Alumnae recognition also was given to Joanne Holbrook Patton, MVS ’48, and Harjinder Gill, MVC ’99, during the luncheon. Special guests included Anne LeBlanc, wife of GW President Thomas LeBlanc, and GW trustee Judith Lane Rogers, MVC ’74.