The 2023 Aurora Dialogues Online event titled “From Vulnerability to Leadership: Women Shaping the Future Against All Odds” took place on May 15, 2023, and featured inspiring female leaders from around the world. The discussion, moderated by Julia Middleton, Founder of Common Purpose and Women Emerging, brought together Armine Afeyan, Executive Director of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative; Shad Begum, Aurora Prize Expert Panel Member and Founder/CEO of the Association for Behavior & Knowledge Transformation (ABKT); Margee Ensign, President of the United States International University, and Julienne Lusenge, 2021 Aurora Prize Laureate and Co-Founder of the Fund for Congolese Women (FFC).
Kicking off the discussion, Armine Afeyan, Executive Director of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, talked about the close connection between this humanitarian movement and the issue of women’s empowerment. “Aurora is named for a woman who persevered, despite all odds, told her story, and inspired America’s first philanthropic movement. From there, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, we believe in everyday people doing extraordinary things. A prerequisite for that is just being there, and women, by necessity, are always there,” noted Armine Afeyan before pointing out that in the first 8 years of the Initiative’s existence, it has impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of women across the globe.
The panelists also discussed the role that other women had played in shaping their leadership styles and how they had drawn inspiration from their families. Speaking of the things she had learned from her mother as a child, Julienne Lusenge, 2021 Aurora Prize Laureate and Co-Founder of the Fund for Congolese Women (FFC), reminisced: “Every time she went to help with mediation between the locals and the European missionaries, she didn’t forget to take care of us. [She showed me that] women can be persons who resolve conflict and women can have a leadership and promote peace in the country.”
Shad Begum, Aurora Prize Expert Panel Member and Founder and CEO of the Association for Behavior & Knowledge Transformation (ABKT), highlighted the importance of recognition and how it helps to continue the work that is so taxing on those who do it. “Whenever I’ve had any success in my community, or at any level, or even if I was acknowledged by other communities, groups, or organizations, national or international, I always realize that the work I’m doing is very much needed. And I need to be mindful of the change I want to bring to my communities,” said Shad Begum.
Another crucial tool and actor when it comes to bringing about social change, argued Margee Ensign, President of the United States International University, is education. She talked about her experience in dealing with the influx of IDPs to the small town of Yola during her time as President of the American University of Nigeria. “Universities should be involved in social change. Universities, at this moment in time, with every global, and local, and national challenge we’re facing, have to be deeply involved in positive social change.”
The participants hoped to inspire a new generation of female leaders by sharing their personal stories of achievements, challenges, and failures. And their passion certainly resonated with three young students of the UWC Dilijan in Armenia who joined the discussion to present their own perspective.
Alda Aflatuni, a member of the Combili team that had won the 2022-2023 Young Aurora competition earlier this year, shared the discoveries she’d made while working on the project. “During that process I really learned that I don’t need to be this strong independent woman who does everything alone and has to prove to everyone that yes, I have to struggle, and I can get through this if I just struggle a little bit more, and in the end, it will look good. Trying to do that just made me feel very tired,” explained Alda Aflatuni.
For UWC Dilijan student Seynabou Gorgui Faye, the aspect that spoke to her most as a young leader was giving back to the people who have lent you a helping hand. “That is a very important thing, because you live in a community, you grew up in a community, they give you the power to achieve what you are right now. I would really love to do that in the future. But I also think that my community is not only the country that I come from, Senegal, but I think that it’s the whole entire world that is my community,” said Seynabou Gorgui Faye.
This sentiment was echoed by UWC Dilijan student and Combili team member Kaitlin Ip, who underlined the danger of getting held back by personal fears instead of focusing on the big picture, which is benefiting others. “You can get really lost with your mission sometime. You always try to strive for perfection, striving for the thing you think would be the best of the product that you’re trying to create. And sometimes you lose the original mission that would impact those in your community. What we’re doing is for the community, not for ourselves,” noted Kaitlin Ip.
In conclusion, Julia Middleton, Founder of Common Purpose and Women Emerging, who moderated the discussion, thanked all the participants and encouraged female leaders everywhere to turn what could be perceived as their weaknesses into their strengths. “May I have the impostor syndrome for as long as possible, if the alternative is to think that you know everything. Better to have the impostor syndrome any day if it keeps you humble, keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you listening, keeps you close to your community, keeps you educating people,” said Julia Middleton.
You can watch the full video of the discussion below.