Published October 12, 2015 on xonecole.com
Several years ago while I was a military journalist, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Mortenson, author of the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea.
Greg was famed for his humanitarian work in building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. High ranking U.S. Military personnel made his book required reading for military officers training to be commanding officers. President Obama even donated $100,000 of his Nobel Prize money to Mortenson’s organization, Central Asia Institute.
Mortenson was a very gracious man. Even though I was interviewing him for my command magazine, he rolled out the red carpet for me that day on the USS Midway Museum. He told his assistant to hold all of his calls and questions until after we finished talking.
During our chat, we talked about more than just his work in building schools in and around war zones. We discussed how women changed the war in Afghanistan. He told me how some mothers reacted when they found out that their children had been recruited to be fighters for the Taliban. He said that many mothers scolded their children when they found out that they were perverting Islam for an agenda, which is a religion of peace and harmony, not cruelty. He was so convincing that right after our interview, I read the Qur’an, and found that he was right – Islam is a very peaceful religion. My husband and I even discussed converting from Christianity to Islam, and gave the subject some serious thought.
He went on to tell me how investing in women’s education is a worldwide need. Women were more likely to reinvest in their community after getting an education, especially in the fields of law enforcement and health care.
Not long after my interview, several news outlets reported that he exaggerated his career. Some of the schools he said he built had never been built, and parts of his book was found to be largely based on lies.
If you think about it, some of the world’s most famous and impactful women have already changed the world, and they’re getting younger and younger each year. Here are several young ladies who have started conversations, and opened eyes around the world to issues that we may not have known about, or fully understood, had they not taken a stand.
1. Malala Yousafzai. Malala is something like a big deal. Malala was born in the Swat Valley area of Pakistan, which was known as a tourist destination until the Taliban tried to take control of the area. Malala had been speaking out against the Taliban trying to take away education for girls since she was 11-years-old. By 2011, she had been nominated for several awards, including the International Children’s Peace Prize, and Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. When she was 14-years-old, after several death threats from the Taliban, she was shot in the head while she was on the way home from school.
But none of this stopped her from fighting for girl’s education. She gave a speech to the United Nations on her 16th birthday, she wrote her autobiography, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, she received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, and she also has a movie, He Named Me Malala, that was released Oct. 2.
Unfortunately, she’s still on the Taliban’s hit list. But she has no plans to stop changing the world.
2, 3, 4. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi of #BlackLivesMatter. Alicia Garza and her friends were at a bar when #BLM went from a simple phrase, and later to a hashtag, and on to a worldwide movement.
Black Lives Matter was started in 2013, and it started as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman [Sanford, Fla. neighborhood watchman accused of killing unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin]…So I started writing a love note to Black people on Facebook, saying that it wasn’t our fault. And it didn’t have anything to do with pulling up your pants, or voting, or education, or any of that. That fundamentally what it has to do with is systemic racism. And what I said was something to the degree of, “Black people I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. We matter. Black Lives Matter.
And so #BlackLivesMatter was started in that spirit by two queer women, and the daughter of Nigerian immigrants (Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi). And we started #BlackLivesMatter as a love note to Black communities, but also as a fundamental demand. That Black lives must matter in this country in order for all of us to achieve the freedom and the democracy as we hold up as the core of our nation’s values.
Since it started, #BLM has been faced with as much criticism as it has been hailed as a peaceful organization. Celebrities of all races have spoken for and against #BLM. Whether we like it or not, these three women have started a conversation about racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, and poverty, among other things, through #BLM, and they are not slowing down any time.
5. Australian Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) activist Khadija Gbla. The Sierra Leonean native often says that she doesn’t want to be the face of FGM, but someone has to break the silence.
In her riveting TEDxCanberra segment, she recounts her gut wrenching story of how her mother took her in an old woman’s hut and held her down, while the old woman cut out her clitoris with a rusty knife when she was 10-years-old. “She then threw the piece of flesh across the room like it was the most disgusting thing she’d ever seen,” she said during her speech.
Despite her frightening experiences, she later moved to Australia with her family, and before she knew it, she became an activist against FGM.
Women who have experienced FGM often face problems with sex, body shaming issues, and trouble conceiving. But that’s not the case for Khadija, who had her first baby in January 2015.
Khadija says that in order to end FGM, there must be a level of education to break the silence and embarrassment. In an interview with The Guardian, she says,
“At every stage of your life it impacts you every woman has her own shame and her own isolation in their own experience. I want people to know how terrible this is, I will stand up and say, ‘I don’t have a clitoris’. There is so much education that needs to be done. Our mothers aren’t going to help us, they’re not going to comfort us. It’s up to us.”
6. 10-year-old Entrepreneur Mikaila Ulmer of BeeSweet Lemonade. The tiny Texas native started her company while she was brainstorming what she would contribute to the Action Children’s Business Fair and Austin Lemonade Day. After encouragement from her parents to research why honeybees were important to the ecosystem, getting two bee stings, and her great grandmother sending her a recipe for flaxseed lemonade, her company was born before her eyes.
Instead of using sugar to sweeten the drink, Ulmer uses honey with each batch of lemonade. According to Black Enterprise, Ulmer travels selling BeeSweet Lemonade at youth entrepreneurial events, and gives a portion of her proceeds to organizations that help preserve honeybees.
One of her investors, Daymond John, CEO of FUBU, was so moved by her story that he invested $60,000 in her company, and has offered to be her mentor. Now that’s winning!
7. Actress Amandla Stenberg. The Hunger Games actress has been keeping conversations about culture going since she and a fellow classmate released a YouTube video that offers a “crash course on black culture” while addressing cultural appropriation for a history class.
The video was met with both acclaim and criticism, but it kept the conversation of cultural appropriation going, and made a lot more people aware.
Since the video’s release, she’s been seen as a role model for young women, has been hailed by writers and culture critics, and is a very powerful voice for a young generation. In September, the self-professed “feminist since birth” told Essence,
My larger goal is to affect and empower more Black girls, because I know how important it has been to me to see representations of myself out there through role models like Ava DuVernay and Laverne Cox and FKA twigs—artists who are inspiring and creative and carefree. Even though the response to what I’ve talked about isn’t always necessarily positive, I’ve thought to myself, Wow, it’s so incredible that we are even having those conversations and that that was my doing. I felt so honored and proud that I could even bring these important things to the forefront.
8. Model Madeline Stewart. Madeline Stewart is an 18-year-old model with Down Syndrome, who was able to walk the runway back in September at New York Fashion Week.
The Australian native, who was discovered on social media, was able to land an interview with Cosmo. Her mother Rosanne said on her behalf,
“The thing I’d like people to take away from this is to not discriminate. Don’t judge a book by its cover. I would just like people to accept, love, and show kindness. That’s all this is about for us. The modeling is fun and everything, but it’s just a vehicle to get the message out. I think that’s why she’s done so well, is because this isn’t about us. It’s about fighting the fight for all the people out there that are a bit different that need to be loved.”
9. Supermodel Winnie Harlow. The Canadian supermodel, whose real name is Chantelle Brown-Young, has managed to effortlessly rip the runway with vitiligo – an autoimmune condition that effects the even distribution of melanin across one’s skin, resulting in “white spots” all over the body.
Winnie has had vitiligo since she was 4-years-old, but was able to turn her condition into a triumph instead of a trial after successfully launching a career in the modeling world. Watch how she was able to inspire a young girl named April, who also has vitiligo, who said that she wants to inspire girls like Winnie.
Is there any woman, famous or not, who has opened your eyes, made you aware of cultural conversations, or has inspired you? Sound off below, or tweet us with the hashtag #SheInspiresMe.