Ileana Jiménez has been a leader in the field of social justice education for fifteen years. A recipient of the 2011 Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching, her research in Mexico City focused on creating safe schools for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth. A high school teacher in New York at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI), Ileana’s course on feminism has gained the attention of educator and activist circles nationally and globally. Her students advocate against domestic sex trafficking, testify against street harassment, and blog about the sexualization of girls. Founder and sole blogger at feministteacher.com, she received the Susan B. Anthony Award from NOW-NYC in 2012 and was named one of the 40 Feminists Under 40 by the Feminist Press in 2010. She has written for Feministing, Gender Across Borders, the Huffington Post, Ms. Magazine blog, On the Issues, and the Smith Alumnae Quarterly. She received a B.A. in English Literature from Smith and an M.A. in English Literature from Middlebury College.
What do you feel are the greatest unmet needs for women leaders that WPSP can address?
When I attended the launch of the Women in Public Service Project at the State Department last December, I was immediately taken in by Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and her advice to women to have a handy list of women’s names they could recommend for leadership positions should the occasion call for it.
During her days as France’s Minister of Finance, Lagarde was often asked for names of women who could be recommended to sit on boards. She remembered: “Presidents of those companies would say, ‘I would love to have more women, but you know what, I can’t find any.’ Having heard that several times in a row, I created a list of capable women who were responsible, accountable, and number literate. The next time one of those presidents said they couldn’t find any women, I would say, ‘Oh, I have a list!’ You can do exactly the same thing wherever you are.”
Lagarde’s story is familiar. Those of us who work on any issue of equity and inclusion are often asked for recommendations of leaders who come from traditionally marginalized communities. Our job often becomes that of being the public relations person for women, people of color, and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community.
Women seeking positions of leadership are not often on anyone’s list but their own. I know that’s true in my field of education. Even though education is highly feminized, the people who rise to the top positions are often men. From chairs of departments to principals to superintendents and even the U.S. Secretary of Education, men fill important positions in this field, rendering invisible the perspective of the communities who make up the majority in our schools, from students to faculty and parents.
The upshot of Lagarde’s advice is this: we need to be the ones making the lists and we need to be the ones on the lists. That’s definitely one great, unmet need of many women leaders. We certainly know who each other are because we network with each other all the time, but many at the top don’t know us. We need to be the ones to make each other’s lists public in conversations, on conference calls, and in meetings. The WPSP can provide women with the skills not only to create those lists but also make sure they are used at critical change-making moments.
Madeleine Albright famously said, “there’s a cold place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” How have women helped you, and how has having a mentor (and/or being a mentor) benefited your work?
One of my favorite stories about my time at Smith in the late 90’s has everything to do with women helping women, and since then, it has shaped everything I know about what it means to have a mentor and be a mentor. I was a sophomore at the time and interested in running for a mid-level position in the Student Government Association. A junior who was going to run for senior class president—and who eventually won—encouraged me to run for junior class president. I could not imagine running for president. Who knew me enough on campus to vote for me? Eventually, she persuaded me to run a campaign and I won.
My friend was not possessive of power. She did not see me as a threat. She did not see me as someone who might outshine her if we both landed positions on the coveted Cabinet of student leaders. Instead, she saw me as a collaborator, a companion in the work, a fellow change-maker. In that sense, she taught me what it meant to be a mentor.
Ever since then, I have been a champion for women to go for things for which they may not realize they are already prepared to take on. In my own field of education, I’ve forwarded emails about head of school and principal positions to women who think they are not ready but are; I’ve sat on search committees and lobbied hard for women candidates others think can’t do the job; and I’ve created those golden lists of visionary women that Lagarde tells us we should keep in our back-pocket.
In my 15 years in education, I have found mentors in the most unlikely places. When I served on the board of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice for six years, I befriended a woman who was a well-known leader in the corporate world. As an educator, I was dubious as to whether we would ever get along. But she became the most important mentor of my entire career because she taught me that leadership comes not only from having a vision but also by communicating it clearly and efficiently, and quite honestly, by having a strong budget and fundraising capacity to go along with that vision. I’ve applied her advice to my work in social justice education ever since.
The annual WPSP Institute will be held at each of the partnering Sisters’ campuses on a rotating basis. As a graduate of a Seven Sisters college, how do you think the work and legacy of the Sisters contribute to the vision for WPSP?
Perhaps more than other types of colleges and universities, women’s colleges leverage brainpower in the service of people power. Many elite colleges and universities have many smart people, from students to faculty to administration. But I think what’s different about women’s colleges is that we value intelligence and skills in the service of a larger good. Smith College President Carol Christ said it best at the Women in Public Service Colloquium at the State Department. She said, “Women emerging into public service hold the key for expanding civil rights and advancing civil society.” She also said that the work of the WPSP would allow “us to serve the public good, bringing gender equity to global leadership.” Many higher education institutions talk about civil rights, public service, and the public good. But I think the Seven Sisters understand more than many other institutions—in quite a deeply rooted, mission-driven way—how to make that public good spring to life and action by adding the lens of gender equity. It’s that lens that will catapult WPSP leaders into creating the cutting-edge change that both they and their communities deserve.