Vital Voices: How to build community once we move instruction online?

For the past months, I’ve been working as a graduate intern at Vital Voices, an organization based in Washington D.C., U.S., focused on “investing in women leaders who are solving the world’s greatest challenges”. From my home in Chapel Hill because of COVID-19 restrictions, I have been supporting their Political and Civic Engagement team that runs the VVEngage fellowship aimed at women political leaders making and influencing policy across the globe.

My most important learnings there, I realize, are coming in the form of questions like the three below. Some of the questions will hopefully guide me while I build my MEITE final project next summer. Some other questions, I may just carry out with me as I move beyond career or countries boundaries in this pursuit of trying to answer my personal driving question of how to support more women with information for transforming their lives (and ultimately, my life).

1. What does women leadership look like in the world today?

As more women raise their voices in the public space, taking leadership roles, and re-shaping gender expectations, we see that their diverse perspectives are fundamental in creating innovation towards lasting positive change. Just as an example, for the past few months researchers have been looking at women-led countries and asking “why they are doing significantly better with Covid-19″?

On the other hand, the UN Women reports that there are pre-existing and new constraints to women’s participation and leadership, which asks policymakers and everyone, in general, to advocate for measures to facilitate women’s influence over decision-making processes.

2. What does a women leader look like today?

This paradox is something that I’ve got to watch from my Zoom and Microsoft Teams windows: the challenges and victories of the VVEngage fellows, women leaders that are in the frontlines of law-making processes and communities’ organizations in more than 20 different countries. They are mayors, congresswomen, councilwomen, activists. Some are in countries such as New Zealand, where the COVID-19 seems under control, others are in communities much affected in Latin America.

There are more women advancing their leadership role, like a VVEngage fellow and congresswoman who decided to nominate herself for a leading role in Congress after initially declining the opportunity. Proving that the impostor syndrome is real in many levels, she asked herself “why not me?”, decided to step up and eventually won the position. In just one month, this congresswoman was able to approve eleven laws with cross-party support regarding children’s rights and women’s rights.

And there are other women with increased leadership challenges. In one particular case, we’ve held meetings to activate the Vital Voices network in support of fellows located in Lebanon after the tragic explosion that killed 203 people in the port area in August. The explosion came amid a severe financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, which have impacted the lives of many Lebanese people, and especially, the most vulnerable. The fellows, women leaders with a long path in working through war and hard times, described vividly the current emotional and physical burden of trying to provide support and resources for their shattered communities as they were also grieving and having many personal challenges themselves.

3. How to support women leadership globally?

I also had the chance to follow closely who is behind webinars and the challenges they are facing at this particularly intense moment. By conducting online and in-person training and creating a global network of peers and mentors, the VVEngage program supports elected women in-office and grassroots leaders on their leadership skills development and the advancement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for their communities.

My main responsibility has been to support the planning and execution of webinars and training sessions that became fully online, in topics such as Leadership, Strategic Communications, Political Strategy, and Governance. Sometimes, it meant to come up with simples activities, such as this 1-minute idea that I called “Patchwork of Intentions”, in which we all shared our takeaways visually, hoping to bring a sense of community in new and small ways.

“Patchwork of intentions” (as I call it) and other ideas to share takeaways and create a sense of belonging online

4. How to support the community building of women leaders online?

And in other times, my work there meant to help think of “the big picture”, which it is something that I know “I live for”. The question of “How to support the community building of women leaders online?” is where I spent most of the time there, as it also relates to my main goal during the MEITE program.

I have been feeding an on-going presentation on Google Slides: VVEngage: Building Community Online Ideas by collecting ideas that emerge in meetings and by incorporating recommendations from literature review and my academic courses. Initially created for the VVEngage team, I will present to a broader Vital Voices internal audience by the end of the semester.

Ideas collected for redesigning online instruction aspects of VVEngage program post-COVID

The presentation is an initial exploration of a much bigger and complex challenge. Since the program moved from blended learning to fully online, as many other learning environments globally, we’ve been rethinking strategies to make sure we still build a strong global community of women leaders. This is not a simple task, because we are all collectively as society still learning (baby steps, I dare say) how to work, how to study and how to connect to other people remotely.

It is a challenging, but it is at the same time a hopeful task. The year of 2020 brought many challenges to all of us, and it is impacting profoundly the VVEngage fellows and many other learners from all ages and territories. However, in the face of such challenging times, there’s the need and the opportunity to focus on supporting local and global community-building. And there’s an intrinsic motivation in work on something so clearly needed now. I take this quote from the Obama Foundation 2019-2020 Report to back this “call to action” feeling: “If ever there was a time in which strengthening our communities, supporting fresh leadership, building trust, and taking care of each other were paramount, now is that time”.

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