Express yourself: Thoughts on the 2021 She Leads Conference

14 September 2021

After our 2021 She Leads Conference, we asked a select group of women the question of how attending the event has enriched their lives. Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing their answers and insights with you. Here is what Sarah McDonald had to say. 


I felt excited and privileged to receive a Strive to Thrive scholarship, enabling me to attend my first YWCA Canberra She Leads Conference. Having tolerated a drizzly morning bike ride to Kambri, I entered the venue to a soundtrack of Madonna singing “Express Yourself.” As I picked up my conference pack, Madonna’s lyrics, “What you need is a big strong hand, To lift you to your higher ground” rang through my ears. Turns out, the big strong hand I needed was the voices, experiences and stories of amazing women, shared in a spirit of collaboration, connection and representation. By the end of the day, I not only felt elevated: I felt deserving of elevation.

As a scholarship recipient, I have been asked to reflect on, and write about, how the conference has “enriched my life.” I think the most succinct way I can manage this is by sharing some key quotes from some of the women I heard speak, and describing how these have got me reflecting, thinking and acting in both my professional and personal lives.

Aunty Violet Sheridan, Ngunnawal Elder, started the day by Welcoming us to Country with warmth, humour and her heart planted firmly on her sleeve. As women, we’re often encouraged to check our emotions at the door; we’re accused of being “over-emotional”, as if this were a kind of weakness and something to be avoided. Aunty Violet, however, embodied the power inherent in feeling deeply. Her words about refugees resonated with me in particular. With passion and compassion, she stated, “refugees are welcome on Ngunnawal Country.” Aunty Violet’s words set a tone for the day: we all have something valuable to contribute, and in this place, at this time, we need to open ourselves to feeling—for each other, for ourselves and for the planet.

During the welcoming speech by YWCA Canberra President Carina Zeccola, she consistently referred to the work that the YWCA Canberra does in regards to women’s lives “within the home, the community and the workplace.” She affirmed that my identity in the home matters. My work in the home is as important as that which I do elsewhere. As Carina repeated this phrase throughout her speech, I could feel my different “selves” settling into a comfortable place beside each other, rather than jostling for room and validation. All of me is represented here, I thought, and this was a powerful realisation.

The speakers and panellists at She Leads were all exceptional. I was especially moved by Dr Mehreen Faruqi, Christina Ryan and Amy Thunig and have included some impactful quotes from these women, and my personal take on them, below:

“Power is always a collective movement.”; “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” – Dr Mehreen Faruqi

Having power relies on recognising and nurturing connections with others, and having the courage to seek those connections in even the most trying of circumstances.

“Look to yourself first.” –Christina Ryan

Owning power starts with a realisation of the self: with being able to say “I matter”.


“The work you do should be reflective of more than just your own world view.” – Amy Thunig

Challenging power depends on our ability to let others in: to give space and, by so doing, be OK with our own limitations.


I’ve carried the above quotes, and so much more, from my time at the She Leads Conference into both my professional life in the early childhood education sector and into my personal life, especially as the mother of two daughters. It has affirmed my belief in the power of the collective and challenged me to recognise that, whilst my roles in work and life may vary, these different aspects of my self need to intersect. They need to belong together in order for me to fulfil my own potential, and in order for me to help others fulfil theirs.


The 2021 She Leads Conference happened on Friday, 23 July. You can read more about the event, and read what Clare Hourigan, Ebony Brown, Meg Wilson and Margaret Hinder took from it.

Visit Flickr to see photos from the day, and be sure to follow She Leads on Facebook for more on women’s leadership.

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