Howard University commemorated International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017, by hosting an event titled “Women in Leadership: A Conversation,” under the theme “Internationalization of Blackness Consciousness and Gender Equality” as part of Howard’s Sesquicentennial celebrations .
The panel discussion was moderated by Sandra Pepera, Director of Gender, Women, and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute. The two highlighted speakers were Ngozi Okonja-Iweala, Ph.D., former Managing Director of the World Bank and Congressmember Karen Bass (D-CA). Students from the Gender, Law and Politics class created a poster display which showcased an array of pioneering Black women, who have advanced women’s rights domestically and internationally.
The event included an artistic presentation by internationally recognized actress, singer, and comedian Anna Mwalagho. A welcome address by HU Provost and Chief Academic Officer Anthony Wutoh, stressing the need for empowering women both on campus and beyond. College deans, professors, students and other invited guests participating to hear the speakers and to celebrate women worldwide. Women’s empowerment and global leadership dominated the conversation with each of the speakers highlighting her individual path to leadership, challenges of leadership and current strategies taken to stay relevant.
International Women’s Day (IWD), held annually on March 8, is a day of global celebration for the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. With IWD promoting ten core values, including justice, dignity, hope, equality, collaboration, tenacity, appreciation, respect, empathy, and forgiveness, this year’s theme, #BeBoldForChange, is a call-to-action to catalyze a more gender equitable and inclusive world. Discussing all these elements and also, highlighting the experiences of Black women in the Diaspora, Okonjo-Iweala and Bass both discussed their professional and personal experiences as women, how they promote gender equity in their respective fields, and provided some advice on some of the most pressing issue that young women should focus on combatting today.
Bass stressed that women need to focus on resisting U.S. President Donald Trump and his detrimental policies, noting;
“Now more than ever, what we need to focus on is right down the street from this university, and that is the Trump administration,” said Bass. “Everything that is happening now, is what I suggest, we all pay attention to.”
Reflecting on her career of more than 30 years in key positions within the World Bank and the Nigeria Ministry of Finance, among others, Okonjo-Iweala discussed gender equity and the imperative for governments to be inclusive of women, especially in the professional arena. Okonjo-Iweala also noted the cost of leadership. Despite threats to herself and her family, she indicated, she persevered to fight for justice for women and girls in her native Nigeria and abroad. She commented;
“Being in the position I was in, [as Finance Minister and as Minister of Foreign Affairs] was more than just about ending corruption in Nigeria,” said Okonjo-Iweala. “I had to ensure that women and girls’ voices were being heard, even in my tough and trying job.”
Josephine Dawuni, Ph.D., HU assistant professor of Political Science and curator of the event, spoke to the crowd about the societal roles of women—and promoting awareness on the subject matter—having always been central to her research and teaching. As such, she said, the need to recognize International Women’s Day on Howard’s campus through the “Women in Leadership” became apparent;
“Howard University has produced some of the greatest women leaders of our time and we need to prepare our students to understand the connections between the past, the present and future roles of women in our communities,” said Dawuni. “Through programs such as the ‘Women in Leadership’ event, we can provide a forum where students, faculty and staff can reflect on the achievements, challenges and opportunities for women both locally and globally.”
Dawuni is also the co-director, together with Krista Johnson, Ph.D., of the Women and Gender Studies Collective (WGSC) at Howard University. Providing an interdisciplinary forum for both Howard students and faculty through events like the “Women in Leadership” panel discussion, the WGSC promotes discussions and activism about gender equity and women’s issues on campus and abroad. Seeking to fill a gap by providing campus-based space for women and gender related discussion, WGSC’s objective is to increase awareness among students, faculty and staff on the need for a women and gender studies focus at Howard University and catalyze related community dialogue to raise awareness about the concerns, issues, and successes of women in the area. In an effort to increase the number and magnitude of discussions on women’s issues, as well as galvanize women of all backgrounds, the WGSC seeks to collaborate with the greater DC community.
“It is our goal that this collective will grow to the point where we can have a Women and Gender Studies Center at Howard to create a safe space where [we as] women can talk about our issues and develop strategies for success,” said Dawuni.
Okonjo-Iweala, Bass and Pepera were each recognized at the event with the Vanguard Award, instituted by the WGSC in 2017 for recognizing “women who have contributed significantly to advancing women’s rights in the social, political and economic arenas.” Three HU women staffers—Saphronia Drake, administrative assistant in the Department of Political Science; Oni Spratt, administrative assistant in the Department of African Studies; and librarian Celia Daniel—were also recognized for their tireless efforts and over forty years of combined service to the university community. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for African Studies, the Women and Gender Studies Collective (WGSC), the Department of Political Science, HU-ADVANCE IT, the Ralph Bunche Center for International Affairs and the Graduate School.