Q&A with Sharon Reed, Innovative Change Agent for Social Good
LR: What led you to the work you do?
SR: In late 2012, my ten-year-old daughter and I each faced major setbacks that collectively provided rich fodder for introducing her to the subject of women’s empowerment, global development and what it means to lead from the heart and live one’s own voice out loud – all subjects that encompass some of the deepest dreams of my heart and embody all of my childhood experiences growing up around the world.
My daughter was struggling to stand up for herself in the face of relentless schoolgirl bullying, while I was struggling to find employment after an abrupt and unforeseen layoff at the peak of my rebound career. Having re-entered the workforce only a few years earlier – as a newly single parent at midlife and the midpoint of my career, the ‘safe’ path I always believed would be there – the one that previously enabled me to take risks in my career – seemed to vaporize before my eyes, and I found myself at an unimaginable and seemingly un-navigable crossroad in my career.
Deemed ‘over-qualified’ by many and geographically constrained, my daughter, concerned for her mom and eager to help, innocently suggested that perhaps if I were less smart, if I could convince others I know less than I do, it might be easier to find work. Others suggested that I minimize (or hide) my experience, though as I wrote in a previous blog post that has since garnered wide attention, ‘dumbing down’ is neither my idea of empowerment nor my definition of integrity or authenticity.
Further fueling the fire, these events coincided with news of my father’s terminal cancer on my son’s 14th birthday, and it wasn’t long before I began to see how dependent I had become on external supports and definitions of success for my own sense of worth and value, as I fought to find my own sense of footing.
In the wake of these collective challenges, my daughter and I watched live streaming interviews with Sheryl Sandberg and scenes from Girl Rising. We talked about women’s suffrage, and explored how and why women and girls are still denied equal access to education, opportunity and/or pay. We talked at length about honoring ourselves, our voice and our talents, and finding the courage to stand up for our selves and others, too. Most significantly, we talked about character as a catalyst for empowerment and how every female, regardless of age, culture, religious or socio-economic status, should be entitled to the basic human right to live her voice out loud and become a leader in her own life.
As I watched my daughter study my face, anxious to offer ideas to help, I soon realized that how I responded to my challenges could profoundly impact, influence and shape how she would respond to her own. The choice was mine. The impact was ours. And out of that moment my sense of deep purpose emerged, altering the trajectory of my career.
LR: Do you believe one person can really make that big of a difference?
SR: Yes. I believe each of us are endowed with unique gifts and talents that when combined with others’, can be a powerful force for positive change. It starts at an individual level, but gains ground as we connect and collaborate with those who share our same values and vision.
Two years ago, for example, I was one of 44 nominated ‘Global Champions for Women’s Economic Empowerment’, serving as a volunteer with UN Women’s EmpowerWomen.org team. Encouraged to developed our own projects, five of us came together from across the world to develop and pitch an idea for a social-media driven storytelling campaign entitled, ‘I am Wo(man)’. Initially conceived by my colleague, Gesù Antonio, this seed of an idea resonated with each of us for different reasons, bound together by our core values and a shared vision for gender equality. 18 months later, ‘I am Wo(man)’ became a global campaign, generating over 400 stories from around the world thanks in part to story contributions from other individuals, leading NGOs, non-profits, corporations, etc., who also shared in our vision.
In March of 2016, selections from the campaign were published in a book, Voices of Change, rolled out at the UN Commission on the Status of Women meetings at UN headquarters in New York. Throughout the campaign and again in New York, we heard testimonials from individuals who contributed to the campaign, whether directly or on behalf of others, and the positive ripple effect that ensued as a direct result of sharing their story. In this way, what started as an individual effort, ultimately became a collective movement, creating a legacy of change among those lives and within those communities touched.
This is a powerful example of the difference one person can make when joined in community with others.
I believe that when we find the courage to speak our truth; when we seek opportunities to collaborate with others who share our core vision and values, we can indeed create a legacy of change. As the ‘I am Wo(man)’ campaign so clearly demonstrates, there is real power in collective voice. The key, in my experience, is the willingness to be vulnerable… to let go of the ego-driven need to claim sole authorship of an idea or proposed solution, recognizing that creating lasting change is not a zero sum game — that when we operate from a place of love and a spirit of service to others, we all stand to gain.
LR: Can you explain the Global Girls Project in more detail?
SR: Originally intended as an inspirational mother-daughter project, over time, the Global Girls Project has evolved into a community conversation with global reach; an inclusive invitation to explore the role character and core values play in finding one’s own voice and authentic leadership style through the use of storytelling, in-depth interviews and workshops. It is also a platform to educate others on the critical role personal empowerment plays in the global women and girls’ development conversation — an often overlooked and/or undervalued piece of the conversation.
For example, while access to education, capital, networks, technology and other critical resources are vital for women and girls’ advancement, there is often little understanding and/or limited emphasis on the inner journey towards empowerment. And while there are indeed many conversations about cultivating the confidence needed to achieve more, there is very little focus on the role personal accountability, integrity, gratitude, compassion and humility play in realizing one’s fullest potential. In this way, the Global Girls Project is not about whether you can have it all, but whether you can become your all. Success, in this context, is not defined by external labels of achievement, but by internal alignment of values and the fullest expression of who you are.
LR: How does storytelling become a catalyst for change?
SR: One of the oldest forms of communication that predates biblical times, storytelling, whether formal or informal, is often how we pass on our ideals and values, as well as our own personal narratives and vision for the future. It is also a mechanism for connecting with others on a deeply personal level, enabling a depth of connection and understanding that often transcends other forms of communication.
In my experience, the most powerful stories not only resonate and touch on the deeply personal within ourselves, but enable us to see our common humanity too, often inciting the reader to action. In this way, stories can serve as an important catalyst for change. When we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves; when we begin to understand the power of a single voice to connect with others, change becomes possible.
To learn more about the Global Girls Project, visit globalgirlsproject.org.
Sharon’s work can be found at www.sharonereed.me. As well as reading uplifting blog posts and information about her published work and speaking topics, be sure to pay attention to the artwork throughout the site. It was all created by Sharon and her hope is that the art within her posts and pages inspires you to dig deeper, dream bigger, and courageously follow your heart — finding peace, love and joy in the journey itself.
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Sharon Reed co-founded the Global Girls Project with her then-ten-year-old daughter back in 2012. Since then, the Global Girls Project has reached over 60 countries, featuring stories from women and girls as young as 12 and interviews with leading foreign policy, gender and leadership development experts who have collectively shared their own perspective on why women and girls’ empowerment is such a critical issue of our times. With 12+ years of experience in sustainable global, economic and community development, Sharon is a passionate about building bridges of understanding and empowering others to make a positive difference in the world – through innovation, connection, communication, collaboration, education & engagement.