Girls At The Grassroots

By Caitlin Panarella

On Wednesday, October 26, I attended the National Women’s Law Center awards dinner with my dad, who had invited me to join him and some other lawyers from his firm.  I felt so happy to see my dad, but I had no prior expectations of the event. 

I was blown away.  In the beginning of the evening, my dad leaned over and said, “These dinners are never this packed.”  I felt just as impressed.  

The National Women’s Law Center, I learned, is a nonprofit organization that advocates for women’s rights and supports policies that foster equality and opportunity for girls and women.  Marcia Greenberger started a women’s program within the Center for Law and Social Policy in 1972, and in 1981 she and Nancy Duff Campbell turned it into a separate organization.  Through research, analysis and activism, the center works to narrow the social, economic and political gender gaps.  Some of its chief issues include reproductive rights, affordable childcare and the wage gap.

Reading over the night’s program, I became more and more excited to hear the honorees speak; the list included: the Honorable Vanita Gupta, Head of the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice; Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health; Monique Morris, co-founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute; Marley Dias, creator of the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign; and Joanne Smith, founder and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity.  Joy-Ann Reid, host of AM Joy on MSNBC, moderated the panel.   

Before the panel began, the co-founders of the NWLC spoke to the audience.  They spoke of the victories the center had achieved, as well as the indispensable support of individuals.  Adding on to this sentiment, they said, “There are a thousand of you in the audience tonight, and each of you is a force of good for making change.”

The whole room laughed when they said that “as a non-profit, nonpartisan organization,” they did not endorse or condemn any presidential candidate. Laughter abounded again when the co-founders recounted the NWLC’s fight to open all areas of the military to women, and how many of their opponents had said that women did not have “the stamina” to engage in combat.

Moving into the program, moderator Joy Reid welcomed honoree Marley Dias to the stage.  Marley is an eleven-year-old social activist who, upon noticing that the books she read in school all focused on “white boys and their dogs,” decided to launch a campaign to collect one thousand books about black girls.  She now has collected over seven thousand books.  Marley articulated the power of reading, and how important representation is.  She explained that when you see yourself in a book, you identify more easily with the lessons it teaches.

After interviewing Marley, Joy Reid invited the other honorees up to the stage to begin the panel.  The panelists covered a range of issues, such as reproductive justice, juvenile justice, perception of women of color, voting rights, incarceration and criminalization.  At the same time they pointed out remaining problems, the panelists acknowledged the progress made and their optimism for more to come.  They spoke of the intersectional nature of their causes, a reminder that uniting behind commonalities propels your cause and those of others forward.

One remark that stood out to me throughout the course of the evening came in reply to the question, “What limits girls?”  Joanne Smith responded, “Imagining girls as future women.”

The idea that change does not have to come from the top down, that young girls, high school students and college students can start movements, is a powerful one.  The honorees spoke of social media as a powerful tool to organize and galvanize, as well as make previously marginalized stories known.  Gupta remarked that social media “democratizes access to activism,” a comment that reminds us that while not all young people can vote, they can speak out in other ways.  We each have power to be activists and start our own causes, just as Nancy Duff Campbell and Marcia Greenberger did in 1981, and Marley Dias continues to do today.