Community, not competition: How Women SPEAK is fostering an environment for change

By Danielle Cooney, Director of Program Development for Women SPEAK, a national girls’ empowerment initiative based in Los Angeles cultivating campus dialogue and mentoring relationships between high school and college students on gender, identity, and social justice. 


Everyone knows what the issues are. We (feminists) are seeking one thing: WORLD DOMINATION.


Nah. Beyonce already told us who runs the world (girls). So now all that’s left to figure out are a few miniscule issues like the wage gap or sexual assault and the disgusting mishandling of such cases.

In May, 2014, Bernadette Lim, Kristin Jones, Anna Sugiura, and I cofounded Women SPEAK, Inc., a health and leadership organization for high school girls. We started out as four, long-time friends in a coffee shop with a wall full of technicolored post-it note ideas and grew into a nonprofit organization represented on college and high school campuses by various chapters nationwide.  With the help of generous contributors who believe in our mission, we have given back to the community through the hosting of annual Leadership Summits, the awarding of scholarships for high school girls, and the upkeep of an online presence to provide a safe space for us all to discuss ways to contribute to the vein of progress regarding (but not exclusively limited to) women’s issues.

In just two years, the program has connected hundreds of women through both the in-person Leadership Summits or online aspects like the mentorship program in which a high school student is paired with a college mentor. The goal of these programs is to show that solidarity and strong, positive relationships are key in the face of a negative world that is often difficult to navigate on one’s own.  

Personally, the terms “organization” and “programs” feel stuffy and strange when I see them in print.  It suggests that we, the leaders of this “organization,” have it all figured out. Wrong. So wrong. The more I think about whatever it is, especially as a post-college grad, the more vague it all becomes.

What we boil down to are college girls who realized we had so many questions that we wished we had known to ask before college and thought maybe it would be cool if we talked to high schoolers and figured out how to bridge the disconnect. Maybe it’d be cool if it wasn’t a lecture in a high school gym from someone who has their life put together about the somewhat ominous future, but instead it was people just a few years apart in age talking about the things that presently matter most to them like Twitter bullies or dealing with possibly harsh body images. The best part about this: it’s working. All of us, mentors and mentees alike, are becoming more open in an environment designed to help opinions, questions, stories, and people thrive together.

Our team is a community of strong-minded, compassionate, and diplomatically forward-thinking humans who are supporting one another on this journey toward change.  We are friends, allies, survivors. A personal (S)hero of ours, Malala Yousafazi said, “We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced.” Women SPEAK will keep working until all of our voices are heard.