They came from three continents and four countries and yet they had a similar message: it’s time to wake up, time for a new day, time to make a change. Four young women—from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and Ming Yan, China; from Tokyo, Japan, and Cologne, Germany—stood in front of their teachers, advisors, and peers and spoke out with confidence, poise, and clarity. They had competed for the opportunity to speak in Chapel, and when the time came to deliver their speeches to hundreds of people, they showed why they deserved that honor.
Jericho Rutledge, Yuebin (Belinda) Guo, Komachi Nomizu, and Emilie Ziegler had each delivered their speeches as part of a night of public speaking during which the students in Janet Warner-Ashley’s Public Speaking class competed in their own reality show. Each winner, chosen by audience vote, got to deliver her speech either in Fuller Hall or South Church. I was able to watch Jericho, Belinda, and Komachi live; I watched Emilie via a recording. Though I missed several other speakers, I felt it was especially important for me to witness these four young women speaking up about how to change the world.
I saw Jericho first. She spoke with power about the need to confront and change the rape culture that perpetuates victim blaming and the objectification of women by what they wear or what they look like. She spoke up against comments and jokes that objectify women and against the attitude that rape victims “were asking for it.” She ended with a quote from Malala Yousafzai—a 21-year-old Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate—and challenged her audience to be a force for changing our culture, a force for eliminating the rape culture for good.
Then I saw Emilie’s talk, which was delivered in Fuller Hall. She spoke about refugees and about her experience of welcoming displaced people in her native Germany. She gave statistics—at current rates, one person is displaced every two seconds; the chances of a displaced person being a terrorist is 1 in 3.6 billion—and shared personal stories of her warm encounters with refugees. She encouraged her peers to take action rather than leaving the care of refugees to governments—to volunteer, to vote, to donate. In closing, she called her audience to solidarity with people forced from their homes, saying, “One day, it might be you, and on that day, you will appreciate all the kindness you can get.”
Next, I saw Belinda in South Church. She spoke of cities in China and the poor air quality that caused people to wear masks when they walked outside, to develop respiratory diseases (especially in the poor and elderly), and to miss out on the beauty of the night sky. She called for her audience to do more than just “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and to call on corporations and leaders to develop systemic changes that would improve air quality around the world.
Finally, I saw Komachi speak about sexual harassment. She spoke about how, amazingly, there was not even a word for sexual harassment in the Japanese language until the late 1980’s. She spoke about how difficult it was for women to escape harassment and discrimination, but she also spoke about how women have begun to change the culture by speaking up. And she encouraged her audience in Fuller Hall to do the same—to speak up when they witnessed or experienced harassment.
These four young women gave me hope that our motto of “what happens here changes the world” is more than just words. Their passion and conviction convinced me that they were doing more than just delivering a speech, that their efforts to change the world and to motivate others to join them were just beginning. As I listened, I was reminded of Malala’s quote: “I raise up my voice—not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard.” Whether victims of rape and sexual harassment too afraid to speak up, refugees victimized by violence or discrimination, or victims of global warming and pollution, those without voices for whom these four women spoke had inspiring advocates speaking for them here. As Malala also said, “If people were silent, nothing would change.” As we start a new year, these young women from around the world are excellent reminders that, if we speak what is in our hearts, we can use our voices to be part of this positive change, and even change the world.