Speak Up! Reflections from She Leads High Conference 2019

8 November 2019

On Friday, 1 November, over 65 girls, including female-identifying and non-binary people in years 9 and 10 from high schools across Canberra and the surrounding regions came together to attend the 2019 She Leads High Conference. Held at the University of Canberra, the conference theme was Speak Up, where students learned to find their voices and lead with authenticity. The students learned the fundamental skills necessary to be a leader, including self-confidence, social and emotional development, peer relationships, active listening and key communication techniques.

Ciára Duggan, YWCA Canberra’s youth program leader, led the day as our MC and seamlessly established a safe space for us to share. Ciara talked of their own leadership journey and beautifully acknowledged the strong leaders in their life, including their mum. After hilarious recounts of schooling and numerous wrong-turns, Ciara told us they eventually found their personal leadership pathway in working with young people. Ciara made sure to emphasise to us the importance of finding leadership in your own style, as they did in their own ‘punny’ way.

“Don’t let others define your success.”- Melissa Breen

Melissa Breen, the current record holder for the Australian Women’s 100m sprint, was our keynote speaker. A truly inspiring woman, Melissa is a two-times Olympic sprinter, competing in London and Rio, and six times Australian National Champion. Melissa spoke honestly about her battles with mental health throughout her competitive career, which eventually helped shape her into a passionate mental health advocate at Lifeline Canberra. We were moved as Melissa shared her wisdom on how she remains physically and mentally strong, withstanding injury, doubt and failure. Melissa spoke about how she believes that values are what define a person not the results of a test or a race. “Athletics and running are what I do, not who I am,” she told us. Melissa stressed the importance of ‘finding your circle,’ the people that care about you and support your goals. She encouraged us to listen only to ourselves or our circles and classify everything else as “outside noise.” Melissa believes self-care is a must for leaders. To help emphasise this she gave us an analogy of seeing ourselves as cups that can be full or empty. She suggested that we fill our cup with things that make us happy and energised, you simply cannot help others if you are an empty cup, out of energy.

The day included two hands-on workshops from our event partners Defence Force Recruiting (DFR) and our youth program and gender specialist staff.

DFR led a session called Finding the Courage to Speak Up, where a problem-solving activity commenced in which no leader was appointed. Through this activity, we identified how group dynamics work and started to uncover our own personal styles of leadership.

Our youth program and gender specialist staff ran a session called B.R.A.V.E: Building Resilience and Voicing Equality. In this activity, we were given the tools and strategies necessary to become a leader. We discussed and debunked the deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that shape society, and were given tips on the different ways to be an ‘active bystander.’

“The fact that there are barriers means that you are doing something worthwhile.” – Sandra Elhelw Wright

Our powerhouse panel on ‘Finding Your Voice’, was facilitated by Camille Schloeffel, the founder of the STOP Campaign, and included panellists Sandra Elhelw Wright, Asha Clementi and Nicola Louise Barker – all young women leaders under the age of 25.

Camille began by asking the panel where they each began their leadership journeys and to talk about any backlash or barriers they may have encountered along the way. Nicola, the co-founder of National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition, said she became passionate about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health while growing up in a remote area where there were fewer health services available for her community. Sandra, the Deputy Chair of the ACT Multicultural Advisory Council, talked of the criticism she received from the wider community to her articles, and also from her own family. She emphasised how she found the value in being able to change someone’s mind when it seemed otherwise impossible, saying that “the fact that there are barriers means that you are doing something worthwhile.” Asha, co-founder of The Girls Leadership Network, spoke of achieving a balanced lifestyle through support networks and self-care.

The discussion then delved into the rewarding outcomes of being a leader. For Camille, it was about watching others grow and change. Sandra responded, saying that it was the small things like knowing that she had started a conversation and giving someone a different point of view. For Nicola, the racism and discrimination she experienced in school had made her resilient, and although she has received judgement for working in places that are associated with institutionalised racism, she plans to change the system from the inside-out. She also emphasised that women do not have to validate themselves as leaders, telling us “we don’t have to validate ourselves as women. Don’t go searching for your other half, you are a whole person, not a half person.”

“We don’t have to validate ourselves as women. Don’t go searching for your other half, you are a whole person, not a half person.” – Nicola Barker

Lightbulb Improv was the clear highlight of the day with their interactive and energising session Prepare to be Unprepared: Communicating Effectively on the Spot. This session of organised and controlled chaos linked theatre without a script to real-life scenarios. Through these fun activities, we learned how to respond under pressure, communicate effectively, and develop better conversations through fast-paced speaking and responding activities.

The day concluded with everyone coming back together to reflect on the day and the key learnings. This was communicated through a colourful sticky-note wall of positivity and inspiring messages about the day, ourselves and the inspiring people in the room we had met.

The 2019 She Leads High Conference was an engaging day that showcased many diverse young women leaders. Through hands on workshops and interactive activities, it provided practical tips and tricks for us to build confidence, find our voices, stand up and speak out.

Want more? Visit our Flickr album to view all of the wonderful photos from the day or check out this blog post to read all of the student’s goals from the day. You can follow our Facebook and Twitter pages, and subscribe to the monthly She Leads Newsletter to receive updates on future events. You can also join as a member to receive discounts on future events and other opportunities.

Stay tuned for our She Leads series coming up in 2020, including She Leads College happening in March 2020.

She Leads High wouldn’t be possible without the support of our partners. We are very grateful for our Principal Partner, Defence Force Recruiting for helping us to make this event as accessible as possible for 25 young women. We are also thankful for our venue partner, University of Canberra, for their on-going partnership and venue space. Finally, our printing partner, Prinstant, allowed us to provide our interactive and keepsake activity booklets. Interested in partnering with us? Get in touch at caf.team@ywca-canberra.org.au

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