The young woman speaker on stage blew me away. She was fierce. She was funny. She was a storyteller. She brought me into her life, and in doing so, into her work. She had clearly practiced this speech. But she was also a naturally talented speaker.
Her name was Riya Singh. She revealed that she was 20 years old.
Riya’s collected some incredible wisdom in two decades. She’s surrounded by mentors. She sought out her professional mentors, and in her world of global girls’ advocacy, they are rock stars. She committed to them, and they to her. And incredible gifts followed.
She learned that vulnerabilities don’t disappear with adulthood. They just take on different shapes. They make us human. They help us better connect.
So do our emotions. Near the end of her talk, Riya got choked up saying the names of her grandmothers. I know she hated that it was happening. I know exactly how she felt. We’ve all been there.
It has nothing to do with being age 20. When your work is your passion, it’s all deeply rooted in emotion.
She paused. And she reminded us, a group of 200+ men and women, that her showing emotion actually makes her more powerful.
What wisdom. Tearing up doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It’s everything that is right about you and your chosen work. It took me two decades longer than Riya to learn this.
Please enjoy an edited version of Riya’s speech from the annual Rise Up Breakfast (December 8, 2016).
My nannu. My aaji. My two, late Indian grandmothers. Both were fierce feminists who were not allowed to pursue their dreams outside of motherhood. These two women made it their mission to raise their children—my mother and my father—to value themselves, fight for equality, and pursue their dreams of having a successful career and being excellent parents to three daughters.
My older sister was born in India and moved to the U.S. with my parents; I was born five years later, followed by my younger sister. Throughout my childhood, my sisters and I had heard the struggles of our grandmothers, my own mother, and most importantly, Indian girls just like me. Girls who look like me. Girls who sound like me. Girls who like to have fun like me. But girls who suffer unthinkable challenges as a result of their birth circumstances– the inability to attend school; gender-based violence; child marriage.
These stories put the plight of adolescent girls around the world very close to my heart.
When I was in high school, I worked on a social justice project on the importance of women in leadership positions. It was my chance to turn my passion into action. Boldly, I emailed 30 female leaders from around the San Francisco Bay Area—in fields ranging from business to healthcare to local government to non-profits— to feature in my amateur documentary.
I received one response.
That one special response was from Dr. Musimbi Kanyaro, CEO of the Global Fund for Women. Musimbi pledged to invest her time in me. She invited me into her home to interview her. She pledged to use her platform to enable me to speak on the issues I care about.
She followed through on her pledge.
Musimbi nominated me to become a teen advisor for the United Nation’s Girl Up campaign. I participated in speaking engagements and advocacy endeavors. One of the most special opportunity was being introduced to Dr. Denise Dunning, the founder and Executive Director of Rise Up.
At 16 years old, Denise invited me to speak on several panels with experts in the fields of adolescent health and education. And here I was, an expert in my own right. I was an expert in the real life experience of an adolescent girl!
I felt a sense of urgency. I wanted to help find solutions to the problems adolescent girls face—while I was still an adolescent girl.
Today, at the age of 20, I still pride myself on being an adolescent girl. I retain the same fire and innovation, but also the same vulnerabilities. I remember first representing Rise Up at a panel discussion at age 16 and doubting if what I was saying was even right. More recently, as I wrote my honors thesis on the perceptions of self-confidence among girls in northern Nigeria, I ironically found myself struggling with my own confidence issues.
I carry these insecurities with me every single day. But here is what I came to realize—I didn’t need to grow up and become an adult to be heard. My voice has always been important. These insecurities are part of what makes the work that I’m doing as a Rise Up Research Fellow so personal.
If we are going to try to solve issues affecting adolescent girls, we need to listen to the source and actively engage adolescent girls.
There is certainly value in experience. I appreciate the wisdom gained with time. But there is also an untapped potential that resides in the hearts and minds of adolescent girls around the world.
That power was unleashed from me by Musimbi. By Denise.
By my nannu, my aaji, my mother, my Indian sisters.
My only hope is that more girls can get these same opportunities to show the world what they’re made of. As organizations like Rise Up continue their work, and that as each of us individually actively engage young leaders of tomorrow, that potential will surely be unleashed.
Riya Singh is a Rise Up Advisory Board Member and Research Fellow and a committed advocate for girls’ education around the world. Riya recently earned a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley and completed two theses on the social cognitive implications of safe spaces and on the right to quality education, both focused on northern Nigeria’s adolescent girls. Riya has served as a Teen Advisor and Co-Chair to the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign.
For a touching piece by both Riya and her incredible father on the importance of girls’ leadership, visit the Rise Up Blog.