by Meradith Leebrick
Drew and I stepped through the doors of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown DC onto red carpet, instantly stuck by the energy and buzz generated throughout this iconic building. How lucky were we? First level tickets to the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards Ceremony, a night dedicated to honoring and celebrating women leaders around the world; women the organization tags as “unsung heroines”. I knew I’d be inspired, I just wasn’t aware to what extent.
“There is a lesson we learned in school [in Cambodia]. A virtuous woman is gentle, she speaks softly and sweetly. She walks without making a sound and smiles without showing her teeth. … This is how we are expected to behave… those in power expect us to obey without question. They sold the land beneath our homes and we are expected to politely disappear [from Boeung Kak Lake in Cambodia].”
The government sold Tep Vanny’s land, and that of thousands of neighbors, to a developer. The developer flooded the lake where Tep and her neighbors lived, hoping to displace the population. Tep Vanny and her neighbors didn’t politely disappear as expected. Led by Tep, a group of residents stood their ground and protested, they were not going to give up their land and they were not going to abandon their homes.
After the video ended, Tep walked out on stage to accept her award. She spoke about how she had recently been released from prison while her friends were still incarcerated; about how she knew there was no choice but to stand up to those trying to take away her home and displace an entire community. She had led a movement, she was a heroine. There was not a dry eye in the auditorium, especially not mine.
Tep was just one of five incredibly inspiring women and three amazing men to be awarded that night. Malala Yousafzai, a Pakastani girl shot in the head by the Taliban, is now a leading activist for children and women’s education at a mere 15 years old. Dr. Hawa Abdi who ran a hospital and refugee camp through 22 years of Somalia civil war, sheltered 90,000 people at one time and saved countless lives. Sandra Gomes Melo, a Brazilian human rights attorney spearheaded a national domestic violence awareness campaign. Manal Yaish Zraiq, a businesswoman in Palastine is directing the first planned city in the nation, a city that will house 40,000 people and create 4,000 jobs. And finally, the winners of the Solidarity Award: the Kant brothers of India, three brothers who are doing unprecedented women’s rights work by giving a voice to the voiceless in India.
How could this night become any more inspiring? Cue a candid and encouraging speech from former Secretary of State and Founder of Vital Voices Hillary Clinton and an amazing evening is officially rounded out.
I stepped away from the Kennedy Center that night feeling emotional, encouraged, and empowered. But most of all I felt proud; proud to know that our own organization’s Mujeres Activas de Potrero is a part of an incredible network of women and men around the world who are working towards a better future for women and children. We had just witnessed a global community of individuals who are sacrificing themselves to secure peace and prosperity in the present so that their children can live better lives in the future; just as we witness the women of MAP doing each week. We may be just a tiny organization on the “MAP” but we are part of this amazing global community, and if we continue to work together in our remote corners of the world, there’s no doubt in my mind that change is inevitable.
This is meant to thank everyone around the globe who is working towards a better collective future. Former Secretary Clinton said it best: “it takes a village to raise a child”. It takes multiple villages to change the world. I’m proud that we are one of these.