Seven thousand miles from Morningside Heights, African women are changing a continent. They are leading governments back from civil war and confronting human rights atrocities. They are overseeing the growth of industry and launching businesses. They are seeking truth through global information networks and revising laws in pursuit of justice. As students, they are learning about the history that has shaped their lives, and thinking about how they will shape the future for their communities and the world.

In March, Barnard’s third annual global symposium took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. This year’s event included high-powered, courageous women in government, business, nonprofit groups, education, and the arts. They took to the stage in two back-to-back panels, “Conversations on Leadership” and “Voices of the Next Generation”; both dealt with women’s leadership and what it means currently and for the future of Africa and the world. Debora Spar, Barnard’s president, and Kathryn Kolbert, director of the College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, served as moderators. In the audience were dozens of high school and college students who sat beside businesswomen, artists, and educators. Barnard faculty members and alumnae of all ages also attended.

Six current Barnard students were selected to travel to the symposium during their spring break. The day before, they and more than 100 high school students from the area around Johannesburg gathered at the prestigious African Leadership Academy to take part in Barnard’s 2011 Young Women’s Leadership Workshop. The Barnard student representatives led small groups that explored what it means to be a leader in one’s own community; and they initiated discussions and activities that examined ways to become women leaders in Africa and beyond. (Read about the Barnard student’s experiences.)

“Those of us in the positions we’re in today have a responsibility to put back into others because people took time with us,” said Gill Marcus, governor of the South African Reserve Bank, who spoke during the first panel. Other panelists reiterated the critical need for empowering young women, and the incredible impact they can have if propelled toward developing their potential.

Susan Mboya, an executive at Coca-Cola, talked about the young women involved with the Zawadi Africa Education Fund, of which she is the cofounder. “They have really shown me another level of what leadership is, just in terms of how they embrace the opportunities that are given to them,” said Mboya. “We give them an inch, we give them the opportunity to go to school, and they take it and they run.”

The discussion about empowerment also touched upon circumstances that are inherited rather than sought. Rwandan Senator Aloisea Inyumba spoke of how the genocide in her country reshaped all aspects of Rwandan society, thrusting women into unprecedented roles. “Despite this difficult situation we inherited, I have to be proud to tell you that Rwanda is changed today,” said Inyumba. “It’s stable; it’s peaceful; it’s secure; and the women of Rwanda are providing the leadership.”

Today’s young women face different challenges in their inherited circumstances. Their adversaries are not always as painfully clear-cut as genocide was for Rwandans, or as apartheid was for South Africans. As Governor Marcus pointed out, in some ways their circumstances are more nuanced and complex. “Those of us in our generation had a clearer ability to identify what we were, what we stood for because we stood against something,” said Marcus. “It’s very easy to be against things. It’s much harder to be for things.”

Mamphela Ramphele, former senior director of the World Bank and a renowned antiapartheid activist, encouraged the young women in the audience to recognize their opportunity and obligation to lead with purpose and dignity. “We are a continent dying for value-based leadership, and that leadership is here, is you,” she said.

While the symposium only lasted one day, the energy in the room suggested that this kind of forum can enable news of Africa’s progress to reach a global audience. The exchange of ideas and experiences served as reminders of the responsibilities that come with leadership, and the need for women to support one another across borders and generations. An African proverb, shared by panelist Ndidi Nwuneli, founder of LEAD Africa, an NGO devoted to developing leaders and entrepreneurs, reinforced this power of collaboration: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.”

- Alyssa Vine
- Photographs by Zute Lightfoot