You're invited to the White House
A shock, a dream, a once in a lifetime opportunity for anyone, let alone for 44 girls from Morocco and Liberia.
The girls were invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to be part of, the first of its kind, “Let Girls Learn Exchange Program.” In partnership with the Peace Corps, USAID, US Millennium Challenge and the State Department, the President and the First Lady started the Let Girls Learn (LGL) initiative to promote awareness around the 62 million girls around the world who are not in school and to assemble resources in order to combat this injustice on the ground.
In late June, First Lady Michelle Obama, actresses Meryl Streep and Frieda Pinto, and CNN International’s Isha Sesay traveled to Liberia and Morocco to promote LGL. The Girl Rising film team accompanied them, as they met with girls overcoming their challenging educational systems to be featured in the CNN Documentary, We Will Rise. The film serves as an insight into the world of challenges facing girls education specific to Morocco and Liberia while representing the global scope of the issue. We Will Rise debuted on the International Day of the Girl and to bring things full circle, the girls were invited to view the film at the White House.
The White House, while the climax of the week, was part of an incredible week full of inspiring programming. With one cross cultural experience after the next, it included museum and monument touring, panel discussions and performances, university visits as well as time with U.S. leaders in gender and development. Constantly wide eyed, the girls soaked up everything they could - everything was so new and different. They grew individually and together as a group, gaining deeper understandings of, not only the U.S., but the lives and communities of each other (with lots of selfies to prove it).
Reflecting on this whole experience has been challenging. I want to keep letting it marinate but I also want to share it. I feel incredibly grateful to have traveled with the girls and been part of this once in a lifetime opportunity with them, representing Peace Corps and Project Soar. Some of the participants I've known for 2.5+ years. I feel, for so many of us, the Peace Corps dream of sharing OUR country with our HOST country counterparts almost never comes true and I feel incredibly honored to have been able to take part.
Being able to reverse the roles was an immeasurable experience: to show someone “the ropes,” observe their many firsts and above all, make them feel welcome and comfortable. Watching their reactions to riding in a plane for the first time, discovering free refills, figuring out American coins, shopping at CVS for way too long of a time, let alone entering the White House (my first time too), meeting with Meryl Streep…again, made the experience unlike anything else (and quite entertaining at times).
Two overarching themes of the week were female leaders and diversity. These are two parts of American culture I was most excited for them to witness.
From the First Lady and Meryl Streep to the White House photographers, tour guides, and even the two pilots on our flight to the U.S., the girls were constantly exposed to women in leadership roles no matter the field. Even though successful and powerful, the women shared their own challenges working in their field as women reiterating the struggle for gender equality is a global one.
Diversity was weaved in throughout the week from the foods we ate to the people we met. From Palestinian food to Italian to Moroccan and Liberian, the idea of “American food” was finally somewhat understood. Whether or not the girls liked all of the food is a different story, but now, at least, they know it isn’t just hamburgers and pizza!
Much more than a museum, we experienced the Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture. Emotional and raw, it evokes feelings of struggle, pain, resiliency and hope.
The entire trip was only 5 days, but its impact will be felt by the participants (and me) for years to come. It changed the way the girls thought of themselves and their role as leaders. They are living examples of resilient women and girls who have the potential to change the expectations of their parents, teachers and communities. Some are older and will pave the way for generations after them. Those younger are part of an evolving society that will hopefully continue to provide equal opportunity to girls and boys, allowing them more freedoms to live out their dreams - beyond marriage, motherhood and the household.
The momentum behind girls education is at an all time high and while so many PCVs and counterparts have been, and continue to, work in the area of gender and development, I hope this initiative means we can get even more people involved in the progress. It was a life changing experience to be part of and I look forward to what lies ahead for not only the girls but the communities they call home!