“I do not want the fear of failure to stop me from doing what I really care about” – that’s it. My favourite quote from Emma Watson, who has been dominating my twitter and Facebook feeds since the launch event for UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign at the UN Headquarters on Saturday (20th September) night.
I woke up on Sunday morning to a plethora of inspirational quotes and videos from the event and all the spokespeople, who had come together to call for men and boys all over to the world to raise their voices to make gender equality a human right. It’s a powerful campaign, eloquently and passionately delivered by the new UN Women Good Will Ambassador Emma Watson. Soaking up the atmosphere through the digital sphere, whilst rubbing sleep from my eyes on the Sunday morning felt rather bitter sweet. It’s the kind of thing I would’ve longed to be a part of, frustrated to be reading about it post event. Imagine the atmosphere in the room! The reason I’m studying a MA in Human Rights and attended an internship at UN Women is because I believe in, and wish to be a part of, real change.
Real change doesn’t only take place, or is initiated by, a large global event featuring super star speakers such as the lovely Miss Watson and Kiefer Sutherland. The first and most fundamental place for change is in your heart and mind. For me, I felt an incredible pride as my twitter feed danced and sung with the words, images and declarations from that night because even though my time at UN Women was brief, I know how hard they all would’ve worked to make the success of that night look as effortless as it did. And for a short time, I was part of that very talented team.
At the heart of UN week has been the #SocialGoodSummit – a two day conference examining the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world. All this UN activity has made me a bit nostalgic for New York and all it’s energy and possibility.
It was only my second weekend in the city and my wide open weekends scared me more than the new job at the UN, so through a friend I had made who lived in the city I volunteered at an exhibition on the Sunday. The exhibition was by Kara Walker and it was called ‘A Subtlety’. It was held in Brooklyn’s legendary Domino sugar factory, which was due to be demolished when the exhibition closed on the 6th July.
The information available at the exhibition was purposefully minimal. I knew that the centre piece was a giant female sphinx, made out of white sugar. The friend that encouraged me to go tried to capture in words what this model was like and how it made her feel but she couldn’t, which only served to intrigue me further.
On that day I was still very new to the city. I was nervous travelling around on my own, but I didn’t want fear to stand in my way of exploring. So with the safety net of my new friend, who happened to be a New Yorker, I picked up a city bike, strapped on my borrowed cycle helmet and headed to my voluntary shift just over the Williamsburg Bridge.
Before the exhibition opened we were given chance to look around. I’d seen pictures. I understood that the concept, which was related to slavery, the sugar trade and consumer consumption, however I wasn’t prepared for coming face to face with her.
She was magnificent. She was proud, strong, defiant. I couldn’t stop looking at her.
All around her were slave children, built using brown sugar that was decaying in the heat. The air was so sweet you could feel it moisten your skin, making your own fingers sticky to the touch. Brown sugar lined the walls, the remnants of the old factory clinging to the last of its life.
As I swept the residue of white sugar that was coming away from her, the curator came running in speaking urgently into her walkie. Alicia Keys and her family were arriving any moment for a private tour with Kara (the artist) before it opened. Slightly self conscious of my frizzy hair, ill fitted white volunteer t-shirt and glaring lack of knowledge of the work I stood back.
I watched as she walked in. Even from a distance she looked beautiful but it was the distinct shrill of a child’s laughter that struck me the most. I’d been two weeks away from my children and their absence was as solid a thing as their presence is. My heart lifted at this beautiful sound – a child bursting with energy and a parent playfully but firmly telling them to be quiet.
I was stood round the back of the sphinx with several other volunteers. Alicia and her family walked by us and asked a few questions. Her eyes were light and her boy, Egypt, was pulling on her arm. I crouched down and talked to him, asking him about his favourite toy and we compared our super hero power of choice.
Within 30 minutes they were gone and the large queue that had been melting in the summer heat outside began to filter through. Despite the numbers the room remained hushed as each person embraced the same sense of awe I had when I first saw her.
Four hours later my feet hurt, I was dehydrated, hungry and ready to get back on my bike. I’d come a long way that day and not just over the Williamsburg Bridge.
As we were getting ready to leave we were told Beyoncé and Jay Z were on their way. My friend asked me if I wanted to wait to meet them but I wanted a cold beer and a cheeseburger more.
Besides I’d already met a celebrity that day. She didn’t have a name, but she was strong, proud and she’d helped get me up over that bridge so I could experience the sheer joy of coming down the other side.