On Saturday, March 23, Swarthmore hosted its first Womxn’s Leadership Summit, where more than 60 members of the College community who identify with the term “womanhood” came together to challenge the notion that success must be male-oriented.
The theme of the conference, “Brave You,” encouraged participants to be vulnerable, courageous, strong, and authentic with one another. Through a wide range of events, including workshops, guest speakers, and art performances, the summit provided diverse spaces for women to feel empowered and supported.
The idea for the summit came from four recent alums: Jasmine Rashid ’18, Meghan Kelly ’18, Niyah Dantzler ’18, and Samira Saunders ’18. While scrolling through Wikipedia’s page on Swarthmore College, they noticed only 22 percent of the listed alumni identified as women. After that revelation, a team of seven current students worked with various departments to make the summit a reality.
Organizations involved in supporting the summit included the Center for Innovation and Leadership (CIL); the Women’s Resource Center; the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development; the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility; the Hormel-Nguyen Intercultural Center; the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program; the Black Cultural Center, and the Office of the President.
“The summit was a way to formally celebrate the Swarthmore women community,” said Susan Gonzalez ’19, a neuroscience major from Cambridge, Mass., and one of the organizers of the event. “It offered a space for Swarthmore women to come together and reflect on an individual and community level about what womenhood means, and how they can celebrate their bravery.”
The group sessions at the summit served as one method of bringing women together. They facilitated discussion around challenges for women in society and how to succeed despite hardships. Each of the sessions aligned with the conference’s guiding principles: essence, potential, and truth. For example, “What it Takes and Are You Willing to Give?,” a session led by Nnenna Akotaobi, senior associate director of athletics, and Harleigh Chwastyk, head volleyball coach, discussed how sports can provide insight into leadership, resilience, and community-building.
“They talked about lifting up other women around you as you rise and move up or around in the world,” said Katie Clark, director of the CIL. “That is the phrase that I think has stuck with me the most from that weekend that I hope everyone took away.”
As the summit continued throughout the day, women shared their stories about supporting one another in a male-dominated society. Cece McDonald, a transgender activist and LGBTQ+ advocate, served as the keynote speaker. She shared how surviving a hate crime and having to serve 19 months in prison for defending herself fueled her fire to help other LGBTQ+ women achieve a world without hate and fear. She spoke in a raw and honest manner, engaging the audience and demonstrating that being a women leader doesn’t have to mean acting polite and orderly.
“CeCe McDonald just gave me life—not just me, everyone! She kept it real, and that’s what we do here,” said Karen Avila ’20, a sociology & anthropology major from New York, N.Y., and a member of the summit’s student planning team.
During the summit’s closing dinner, President Valerie Smith also shared her reflections on bravery and how it takes strength to trust one’s self.
“Here’s my third piece of advice," Smith said. "It comes from the psychologist Ellen Langer. She said this: ‘You don’t make right decisions, you make decisions right.’ I love this idea because it protects us from unproductive feelings of regret, and it helps keep us in control of our lives. … It prevents us from placing too much weight on the moment of deciding. It reminds us that whatever we decide, we retain the power to learn from the experience and to make it a good decision.”
The summit culminated in a celebration of the successes and talents of women, including an art show reception featuring the works of students and alumni and a music performance by Cecily Bumbray ’12.
“Aside from all of the incredible, informative, and inspiring sessions, one of my favorite moments was [Bumbray’s performance],” said Gonzalez. “She spoke about the stories behind her songwriting, and her message was incredibly in line with the message of the conference.”