March 12, 2016
International Women’s Day is a global movement celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. This year’s theme was centered on accelerating gender parity, calling for pledges to help women and girls achieve their ambitions, promote gender-balanced leadership, respect and value difference, develop more inclusive and flexible cultures, and root out workplace bias.
SNHU has the most diverse student population in New Hampshire, with approximately 1,000international students attending classes on the Manchester campus. With representatives from 60 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, the opportunity was ripe for robust discussions.
Brooke Gilmore, director of the Deborah L. Coffin Women’s Center at SNHU, organized the University’s events along with Helen Davies, director of Community Relations in the Office of the President. The two shared a passion for this project; Gilmore is committed to educating and empowering SNHU students around women’s rights and gender parity, and Davies to strengthening the University’s community relationships through partnerships with local and regional organizations that bring depth to the SNHU student experience.
Davies says it was an easy sell to rally SNHU colleagues, as well as leaders in the local community, to come together on the issue. “We have so many influential and inspirational women at the University, many of whom have made this goal of empowering fellow women central to their work. The experience is only strengthened by bringing in partners with global perspectives like the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire, and community leaders like Dr. Janet Breslin-Smith - SNHU trustee, spouse to the former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and president of a local business.”
Gilmore and Davies designed the day’s events to celebrate the women in the SNHU community, and to explore the ways in which the University might help move our global community closer to the goal of gender parity. “We wanted to inspire our audience to think about the steps we each might take to become leaders within our own spheres of influence through conversation and critical thinking,” Gilmore explains. “We chose our speakers and our programming with the goal of opening new doors to productive dialogue geared to action.”
The events kicked off with a thought-provoking luncheon that set the tone and purpose of the day’s events. SNHU President Paul LeBlanc gave a brief welcome to the diverse crowd, sharing that in spite of the fact that his wife and two daughters are smarter and more talented than he is, it will take until 2133 for them to be offered the same rate pay as men for the work that they do. With that sobering statistic in mind, LeBlanc turned the microphone over to keynote speaker and SNHU professor emerita Eleanor Dunfey-Freiburger.
Dunfey-Freiburger has committed her life to pursuing social justice and improving other people’s lives. Before retiring from teaching in 2012, Dunfey-Freiburger was a beloved professor of ethics and civic engagement at SNHU, and served as the Papoutsy Endowed Chair in Business Ethics. She also introduced the University community to the Global Citizens Circle, a nonprofit founded by her family that brings together human rights leaders, activists, and citizens to foster diversity, discussion, and constructive change in the United States and across the world.
On International Women’s Day, Dunfey-Freiburger shared that, as the youngest of 12 children growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s in an Irish-Catholic family, she looks back now at the influence of her father and eight brothers, and understands that her world view was shaped by men – good men, fair men. But it was an all-male world nonetheless. She then invited the room to engage in meaningful conversations through lunch, exploring the ideas and experience of gender bias as well as the ways each person can help move society toward parity.
SNHU’s celebration of International Women’s Day marked the start of university-wide programming for Women’s History Month. Gilmore knows how critical student involvement is to the success of any university movement. “From students who attended the luncheon – athletes, international students, those in leadership roles, and both men and women – to the educational and interactive table presentations put on by student organizations, to the student-led afternoon session, the next generation of leaders was well-represented.”
Students Rachael Straehle and Youssaira Akennad shared their experiences working with women in Kenya and Morocco, respectively. Straehle says she was impressed with how the Deborah L. Coffin Women’s Center pulled together members of the Manchester community with international and domestic students to build momentum around these crucial issues. “The afternoon sessions really allowed for some powerful conversations about how different cultures, religions, and educational systems negotiate these issues on a global stage.”
The evening session was sponsored by the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire, which promotes greater understanding of world events by NH citizens through programming and training. Executive Director Anna Berry says that International Women’s Day represents an ongoing, worldwide movement that has gained momentum in recent years.
“More and more, we’re seeing high profile public figures like Burmese stateswoman Aung San Suu Kyi and actress Emma Watson bring attention to issues like access – or lack thereof – to education, or equal pay, or child brides. Events like this remind us that we’re welcoming refugees into our New Hampshire communities. We’re able to make a difference, even with small actions.”
Gilmore says that a university with so many strong female leaders has an obligation to expose its students to these important conversations, and challenge them to consider how their paths forward can engender positive change. She sees the Deborah L. Coffin Women’s Center as a driving force in holding the entire community responsible to do better, helping students break free from systems of oppression.
“The response to this year’s event was overwhelming, and speaks to how much our community is both affected by gender-based challenges and committed to facing this complex issue. We look forward to building on this strong foundation next year to create concrete plans to enact as a community.”
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