LAWRENCE — The Arab Spring has opened up a plethora of opportunities for change in the Middle East and North Africa. The U.S. State Department awarded a grant to the University of Kansas for a Women’s Leadership Institute that is giving 18 young women from Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain training and experience that will help them make a difference in this pivotal point in history in their home countries.
A six-week residential program, the institute is a partnership between the Department of Communication Studies and Institute for Educational Research and Public Service at KU. The women, all between the ages of 18 and 24, have been on campus for a few weeks and will return home after taking classes, meeting with policy makers, business leaders and State Department officials, all before the end of February.
“The State Department wanted the women to have a co-curriculum of women’s studies and leadership studies,” said Mary Banwart, associate professor of communication studies and academic director of the institute. “We want to empower them so they understand you don’t have to have title and authority to get things done.”
The participants are attending classes taught by KU faculty in the aforementioned topics as well as public administration, social welfare and business. They are also meeting with community nonprofit leaders and will meet with lawmakers in the Statehouse in Topeka. The women will spend time with public administration, business and health professionals at KU’s Edwards Campus and spend three days with the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita. They’ll also venture outside of the state with a trip to Atlanta and a debriefing with the State Department in Washington, D.C. The Atlanta trip will give the women an up-close look at American media and industry with tours of CNN and Coca-Cola headquarters.
True to the institute’s goal of mutual understanding, the institute’s participants are helping educate those they meet in the states while they learn their own lessons. The women will work with KU’s nationally renowned and recent national champion debate team. This year’s topic is the Arab Spring, and debaters will speak with the women to get their perspective on the uprisings as well as their views of American involvement in the region’s affairs.
Stereotypes are an unfortunate part of life, but the institute is helping dispel them on both sides. The women are working to educate Americans that not all Muslims are violent, anti-Western or religious extremists. They’ve also learned that the stereotypes of all Americans as obese and uninvolved in family life are just as untrue. The women spent a weekend with local families as part of the home stay component of the project, which Banwart described as “one of the biggest ‘aha moments’‘”of their time in the States.
“One of the goals is goodwill, in the sense that they have a better understanding of America and we understand them,” said Banwart, director of KU’s leadership studies minor. “A true multicultural understanding is what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The institute also aims to instill the women with openness, empowerment and an understanding of the work required for adaptive leadership. The understanding also extends to citizens of nations between each other, not just with the United States. Banwart said participants of a past institute left as best friends. They were from India and Pakistan, nations with a long history of tensions between them.
Amal, a native of Bahrain who works in supply chain management, said that understanding and ability to work between nations would be vital in her career. She said the institute would help her understand how women can help make changes in the professional world. The U.S. State Department requests that participants do not use their full names.
“We want to make, not a revolutionary change, but to help bring about reform,” she said. “We have that in our nature, we can do it.”
Hajer, a graphic design student from Yemen, said the institute had encouraged her to use her skills to convey important messages to a large population.
“Media is a very strong way to convey a message. Since I have studied leadership I’ve been finding new ways to effectively do that through my work,” she said.