Today’s post is from Uraidah Hassani, Founder and Director of The Women Worldwide Initiative, an organization on a mission to connect, inspire and educate women and girls on a global scale through mentorship programs, social change projects, and an information and inspiration-based online social network. Uraidah shares with us her reflections on balancing the power of online tools with the irreplaceable impact of human interaction.
When I signed up to mentor 12- and 13-year old girls in Brooklyn, during my time as a student at New York University, I was not initially prepared for what came my way.
Sexual decision-making. Drugs. Domestic abuse and violence against women.
The experience was eye-opening from the moment my girls described to me the undeniable societal pressure they faced daily, to act emotionally invincible and sexually mature.
How am I supposed to convince them otherwise? I thought, well aware that a healthy lifestyle meant space for emotional management, personal development, and respectful relationships.
I felt a strong urgency to create a universal “positive role model” that could be accessed by any young woman or girl regardless of whether she had access to formal after-school programs or group meetings. I envisioned a network that would provide not only inspirational content but also a forum for positive dialogue, and resources with information on emergency hotlines and basic health facts.
To do this simply and with a wide-reaching scope, I knew I needed to create an online social network, the primary communication platform for my generation of Millennials. In 2009, I launched The Inspiration Network, the only online social network exclusively for women and girls, and it has now grown to over 300 members, aged 13 to 65, all around the globe, including Indonesia, Kenya, and Colombia.
With the network in place, we have observed many positive ways in which our users employ this connectivity to improve their lives. For example, our partner, Women LEAD, uses the Network to run an online pen pal program between young women in Brooklyn and Nepal, where they see girls inspiring each other to be their best selves, and educating each other on how to reach their fullest potential. It is truly remarkable that in our current age, we can reach almost any woman or girl, in any part of the world, and all she needs is access to a computer.
Yet however fabulous online interaction can be, I remain convinced that nothing can replace direct human interaction and programs that work on the ground instead of through the screen. With this desire to keep the Inspiration Network high in value, impact and sustainability, I founded the Young Women Rock! Mentorship Program as an accompanying project.
The Mentorship Program is meant to address, in-person, the dearth of positive female role models available to young women today. As is evident by turning on television to nearly any channel, or flipping open nearly any magazine to a glossy ad, we live in a world of hyper-sexualized media. Combined with the new norms of our internet age, this means that girls’ role models are more likely to be poor ones, who represent the degradation of women, and more likely to be women who these girls will never meet.
YWR! aims to strengthen communities of young women in impoverished neighborhoods, empowering them to leaders and to rise above negative societal pressures.
The program is curriculum-based, includes both group and one-on-one mentorship programs, and offers weekly sessions on topics such as personal identity, self-esteem, conflict resolution, and planning for the future. Over the summer, while girls are out of school, we run a six-week Community Service/Global Citizenship component, including participation in the annual AIDS Walk and Brooklyn Museum’s screening of the documentary, Miss Representation.
This past January, The Women Worldwide Initiative became a nonprofit-sponsored organization, launching Young Women Rock! (YWR!) back at our roots: at a high school in one of Brooklyn’s most under-served neighborhoods, where over thirty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and one in ten teenage girls becomes pregnant.
Our first semester has now come to a close, and it is with great joy that I watch our program develop more young women leaders, more ambassadors of positive values, and more evidence that person-to-person interaction, even in the wonders of a digital age, is still an irreplaceable mechanism for social change.
(The Young Women Rock! Mentorship Program is currently accepting applications for new mentors through August. Apply now! Applications can be found on our website.)