Commentary: Voice of a Seven Sisters Graduate

The Women in Public Service Project is excited to share the first in a series of blog posts from established and emerging women in public service. We hope that their unique perspectives and experiences  will contribute to the broader discussion about women’s leadership, and resonate with members of the WPSP Community. 

Sara Alcid graduated from Bryn Mawr College in December 2011 with a degree in Political Science and Gender and Sexuality Studies.  She currently lives in Washington, DC and works as the Programs and Policy Assistant at the Reproductive Health Technologies Project.  Sara attended the inaugural Women in Public Service Colloquium in 2011 as a student journalist and the founder and president of Bryn Mawr’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.  She blogs about reproductive health and modern feminism at Gendere[a]d and plans to dedicate her career to public health and reproductive justice.  Americans for UNFPA named Sara a finalist for the Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women in 2011.

What do you feel are the greatest unmet needs for women leaders that WPSP can address?

As voiced numerous times at the inaugural Women in Public Service Project Colloquium, the biggest challenge to increasing women’s participation in public service is a hostile cultural climate to the advancement of women to greater roles of leadership. This climate spans all continents and manifests itself in young women’s self-doubt about their potential and ability to become politicians and leaders. I was astounded by the number of influential women at the colloquium that cited a lack of confidence as their main challenge in becoming a leader in public service. Thus, I believe one of the greatest unmet needs for women leaders is a powerful and affirmative network of support and advice that can make a concerted effort to begin to shift cultural attitudes about female leaders by giving voice to the issue and designing initiatives to directly empower women. I think that WPSP is especially apt to achieve such a shift in cultural attitudes because of its collaboration with the Seven Sisters colleges—institutions founded on the premise of empowering and educating women to overcome barriers produced by gender inequality.

The Women in Public Service Project is also meeting a great need for the mentorship of upcoming women leaders. More often than not, a young woman’s access to effective mentors is deeply interconnected with her access to economic and social capital and the upward social mobility that results from a background of privilege. WPSP is helping to bridge the gap of privilege and its implications for being able to find a mentor that can make all the difference in a young woman’s ability to pursue a leadership role in public service.

What are your hopes for the WPSP institutes, and how do you think they can best serve current or recently graduated students who aspire to careers in public service ?

I think one of the most valuable things the WPSP Institutes can offer current or recently graduated students is the opportunity to enter a network of women with similar interests and goals. Working together and in support of one another is infinitely more powerful and effective than women fighting alone for their place in politics. The WPSP Institutes can also serve current or recently graduated students in learning how to marry their scholarly backgrounds to strategies for political change and begin strategizing with mentors and leaders to run for office later in their careers—it’s never too early to start thinking about. I believe the Institutes will also foster an important cross-cultural exchange and collaboration between the attendees, which I hope will open the eyes of students and recent graduates from the global north to the struggles some of their colleagues face as emerging women leaders in developing nations. Although the WPSP was launched by institutions in the United States, it is a global initiative founded on the understanding that women’s empowerment has not been achieved until all women are able to become leaders in their home countries, so I think establishing an understanding among younger participants of the differing experiences of women participating in the initiative will be essential to its success on a global scale.

How has having a mentor benefited you?

I will admit that it wasn’t easy for me to find mentors, but I have been fortunate to grow as a women’s rights activist under the guidance of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s campus organizers. The benefit of being able to navigate the beginning of my career with the help of women that once walked in my very shoes as young professionals cannot be overstated. My mentors have connected me to resources and opportunities that would have been out of my reach or knowledge without their assistance. Their encouragement and belief in my abilities as a young leader have also been instrumental in pushing me to chase after the change I wish to bring about in women’s health policy.

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?

I hope that the Seven Sisters’ legacy of pushing the envelope on progressive issues related to gender and sexuality will help WPSP establish a norm of inclusivity surrounding what it means to be a “woman” and the transgender or gender non-conforming community. Even more so underrepresented in politics than women are transwomen and it is my hope that the Seven Sisters’ progressive approach to gender identity, although certainly not complete in its evolution, will encourage an inclusive vision for WPSP and its delegates. It goes without saying that the Sisters are the leading institutions of higher learning in women’s empowerment and they have succeeded in creating an indescribably transformative environment for students to learn and grow in. I hope that the involvement of the Sisters colleges in WPSP will help in recreating such an environment for the women that attend the annual Institute. I can personally attest to the powerful effect that these colleges’ alternative pedagogy can have on a woman’s self-confidence and drive to achieve lasting change in public service. The Seven Sisters also have an evidenced track record of imbuing their students with a deep commitment to improving the lives of other women, which I know is also a central value of the network of women leaders WPSP is building.