It was a cold, rainy Saturday morning, but that didn’t stop nearly 400 enthusiastic and energetic high school girls and their mothers from gathering in East San Jose on March 9 to learn from their peers and to hear from policymakers.
The seventh annual Strong Girls, Strong Women Conference was organized by the County of Santa Clara’s Office of Women’s Policy and their Girls Advisory Team to motivate and empower today’s youth.
The event opened with inspirational words from a variety of girl leaders and women.
OWP Director Protima Pandey, for example, told the girls that they were there to learn how to change the world.
Nine-year-old Riley Morrison, Pandey reminded the crowd, recently made her voice heard by writing a letter to Steph Curry asking why the basketball star’s shoe sponsor didn’t make a model of his Curry 6 shoe for girls. As a result, Curry praised her effort and got Under Armour to release a girls’ model.
“The future is female!” Pandey said as she sent the girls off to their workshops at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. “Let no one tell you otherwise.”
Through speakers and in a series of hands-on workshops on topics chosen and organized by the OWP’s Girls Advisory Team, attendees picked up practical tips showing them how to work toward those things they want most from life.
Working alone and together, they were told, they can find safety from domestic violence, sustain healthy relationships, earn equal pay and command respect in the workplace.
“We collectively come together to identify issues and identify solutions,” said Julie Ramirez, who, along with fellow OWP management analyst Ketzal Gomez, co-led the daylong conference.
Raising girls’ voices
In one workshop, called Voice Your Voice, girls filled a classroom to hear from Susan Ellenberg, the most recently elected member of the Board of Supervisors, and Jenny Higgins Bradanini, chief organizer of Women’s March San Jose. They tag-teamed a presentation touching on how those who are too young to vote can get shape policy.
Learning the tools to be able to engage … I think, is critical.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg
The teens heard specific tips for using social media, how to target the right official to resolve an issue, how to write effective letters and even how to get face-to-face meetings with elected representatives.
Later, Ellenberg said she found the event “heart-filling.” She praised the girls in her workshop for their “incredibly astute and important questions” of policy and tactics.
“So much change in our society is driven by policy and ordinance and law,” the supervisor said. “In order to impact social change, very often the most direct way to do that is through a legislator on a local or a national level,” Ellenberg said. “So first, to have girls and women understand the importance of engaging that way, and second, learning the tools to be able to engage … I think, is critical.
“Students (must) understand that we as elected officials work for them and that it’s absolutely our job and our responsibility to hear them. … In order to make good decisions, we need to hear what our communities want.”
Ellenberg also lamented the “incredible incivility” of political discourse in the past three years. She encouraged the girls not to contribute to it, but rather to strengthen society by helping to heal the wounds.
“The way to counter that is to try to get to know the other person as whole human beings,” she said, “and not focusing on a particular, single issue where you may differ, but looking for commonalities first. When you get to know an entire person, it’s much more difficult, frankly, to hate them.”
Higgins Bradanini acknowledged during the Voice Your Voice workshop that it is daunting for a girl to challenge systemic injustice.
It’s a sign of the times. They’re seeing some horrific things … and they’re demanding that they be part of the solution.
Julie Ramirez, Office of Women’s Policy
Organizing a huge march, like she did, or a similar event is indeed hard work. “But you don’t have to do it alone,” she said.
If someone feels something is unjust, so do others, the teens learned. They can seek out allies on social media and use Facebook to organize and plan a fight for change. Properly used, social media is an incredibly powerful tool. A well-organized effort can attract media attention, amplifying the power of the message.
Nor, Higgins Bradanini added, is it necessary for young people to tackle something huge right off the bat. The tools and tactics are the same. Even a small group of people uniting to take on a small issue can have an outsize influence on policy, she said.
Ramirez said the general themes of the annual event change little over time, but she observed something different this year.
Against the backdrop of the Kavanaugh hearings, Florida’s Parkland High School shooting and a growing climate crisis, students are taking action. No longer are they biding their time until they’re older. “It’s a sign of the times,” Ramirez said. “They’re seeing some horrific things … and they’re demanding that they be part of the solution.”
Following the advocacy workshop, 14-year-old Elina, from Palo Alto’s Gunn High School, felt excited to engage in the political process.
“What stuck with me most from this workshop,” she said, “was how the people in charge actually really do care about what common people and just regular citizens think and that they really do want our opinions. … That makes me feel a lot more willing to put my time and effort into something I believe in, into a cause, and believing that I can make change.”
Next year’s Girls Advisory Team
Applications to join the Girls Advisory Team are due June 30. Final applicants will be selected by August. Sign up here starting in May: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/owp/leadership/pages/gat.aspx