Throughout my first presentation as an Active Voice Fellow, the unrelenting portrait of a young, female audience member invaded my mind: her eyes blinking in a foreign yet caustic visual Morse code, nose sharply angled up. The taste of pin drop silence parched my throat, and a tingling humidity perched on my skin, as if my epithelial cells were reacting to the implicit question in her mind: who even are you, and will you actually impact my life?
Frankly, I’m nobody and no, I won’t.
I know in my heart am not a leader, and I surely did not deserve to stand up on podiums in front of other women pretending to be one.
I love to be liked. I love to be approachable. I overzealously brandish my emotions the way a Berkeley student does Bear flags. Such qualities are the pivot points for my life’s rotational kinetic energy: they tether my flailing, accelerating identity to a concrete, comprehensible, conflict-free anchor.
But, what presentation after presentation has forced me to realize is, whether you’re up for the job really just doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter if you are well-versed enough on complex feminist theory to ascend into the ivory tower of this generation’s Germaine Greers. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t gutsy or tech-savvy enough to be Sheryl Sandberg. It doesn’t matter if you prefer to say “woman” instead of “womxn”. It doesn’t matter if you’re just as confused as the people you are trying to be a leader to. What you’ll find, is that this version of you, this imperfect, messy, version of you – makes you just perfect for the job.
Girls and women want to know they have someone who innately and intuitively understands their experience, without justification or explanation. They crave the presence of someone who, without needing to be deeply analytical, knows the pain of being silenced, judged, or ignored. Simultaneously, they need someone who revels in the idea that the female perspective is too diverse to be monolithically characterized by subjugation and subservience. Someone who can readily embrace that women are frank, strong, non-conforming and successful, and does not look at them as the minority. Someone who is equally receptive to the ideas that shun what is typically considered feminism as they are to those that typically define its parameters.
When I understood this role, eager, widened eyes replaced caustic, unrevealing blinks. Pin drop silence no longer parched my throat, but warm, vigorous dialogue quenched my thirst. What’s more, by speaking in this role to North American women, I somehow carved out a tangible place for myself in the world of global feminism and sisterhood. Let’s take, for example, my established belief that global issues were solely those of poor, third-world countries. Through the voices and faces of my audiences, I had to see what a privileged, aloof notion of pain mine was. I had to learn time and time again that pain and oppression pulled and tugged at the heartstrings of young girls in places as seemingly revolutionized as Silicon Valley, too – the inadvertent oppression from teachers telling young girls that “math isn’t for everyone,” from other women who judge you for taking your husband’s last name, from men who look down your shirt or invite you to “gang bang” interviews, from society for wearing a skirt a quarter-of-an-inch too short or bow-ties.
So, basically, what am I saying?
Active Voice forced me to reconstruct myself.
- It forced me to face my weaknesses – I am a bubbly, effervescent girl who really does not have life figured out.
- It forced me to use that confusion to my advantage: I can comfortably speak to other women as a peer rather than a superior, and figure out what exactly they need from me.
- It forced me to reevaluate and widen my role in the feminist movement – oppression is valid and ruthless on all women, everywhere.
- It gave me the unconventional, full-fledged sisterhood I didn’t know I was looking for – I’m looking at you Frank, Stephanie, Nashwa, Sophie, Shine, Darlene, and every single woman who I spoke to this past year on my journey.
- Somehow, through all of this, it sneakily made me a leader.
Sindhu Ravuri was a fellow of the Active Voice inaugural class. Sindhu’s fellowship project called Voices of STEM explored how self-censorship may filter into the female education pipeline for STEM fields, and what current and future female STEM leaders need to do to substantially mitigate the gender gap in STEM-centered careers. She spent her year surveying and researching to publish her findings here.