"We are all leaders."
- Lina, a delegate from the Israeli team
Rather than send girls to a women's conference, why not hold one specifically for them? That was the thinking behind the 2006 International Girls Summit hosted this summer by the St. Paul-based nonprofit Girls International Forum (GIF).
Led by Executive Director Zora Radosevich, a veteran Minnesota political activist, 15 girls from the U.S. and Canada brought eight teams to St. Paul to address global issues affecting girls and women. Among the planning team were four Minnesota girls: Mai Chong Xiong, Alice Johnson, Rachel Johnson and Maggie Reilly. Acting as ambassadors during the summit, each helped a team define a specific project goal in an issue affecting them and create an action plan. During the weeklong summit at Macalester College, the teams attended workshops, polished action plans and gave presentations on their chosen issue.
Based on the GIF belief that girls must be directly involved in acting on issues affecting them and their future, every aspect of the summit was directed by the girls. The summit leaders, all between 12 and 17 years of age, organized fund-raising efforts, chose workshop topics and communicated with the international teams. As these girls get older, they will move into a mentor role helping future summit leaders and teaching leadership skills.
Letting them plan and decide for themselves is what builds great leaders, said Mai Chong Xiong, a senior at Roseville Area High School. "It's more like stepping aside and letting them take action," Xiong explained.
"You've got to help them and support them in what they're trying to accomplish." At the end of each day, summit leaders met to talk about what did or did not work that day and prepare for the next day.
"The most gratifying thing was seeing when they presented to the women legislators at the Capitol that they improved in their presentation," Radosevich said.
Before co-founding GIF, Radosevich spent 17 years in the state Senate as an aide to the chair of the Minnesota Senate Tax Committee and worked on several political campaigns. GIF developed from the need to include girls in global politics.
"We need to raise girls to see themselves as belonging in the public sphere, to believe that they should be there," Radosevich said. GIF has sent girls to China in 1995 for the U.N.'s World Conference on Women and the 150th anniversary celebration of the First National Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The planning for the 2006 summit began in 2000 at Beijing +5, a UN special session that assessed the world progress on the goals of the Platform for Action adopted in 1995.
"By 2000 we could see that organizations and governments had started including girls in their delegations, and these girls saw that they had a direct effect," Radosevich said.
For the next summit in 2009, GIF will invite younger girls working in their countries on projects developed by the original teams. To check on the progress, GIF will organize an annual Global Girls Day for delegates to teleconference with summit leaders and the hundreds of girls who attend the conference for mini-workshops on leadership, organizing and community building.
And of course, "We're all planning to visit the teams we worked with, " Xiong said.