Remember when you were younger, and you would love shouting out, "Me too, me three, me four!"? It gave you a sense of belonging. You fit in. You belonged in the world. And that bought you street cred on the playground.
Thanks in part to all of the women who have spoken out against Harvey Weinstein, and Alyssa Milano's #MeToo campaign, almost every single girlfriend of mine on Facebook has copy and pasted #MeToo. A male friend of mine, somewhat bewildered at just how pervasive sexual harassment/abuse seemed to be, commented on his Facebook that it would be helpful if people added a sentence or two about what they had experienced.
Easier said than done.
Let's just discuss some terminology briefly before moving on. In the media and most discussions surrounding any kind of violence against women, the words "victims" or "survivors" are often used. Having actually studied domestic violence and human trafficking at Harvard for my master's degree, I thought I was particularly progressive using the word "survivor." That is, until I met Emilia Lahti who will be running the length of New Zealand to raise awareness of Interpersonal Violence. She was recently awarded Finland's Young Person of the Year Award amongst her many, many accolades. Total badass. You can check her out here: https://www.emilialahti.com/. She recognizes herself as an "overcomer" of Interpersonal Violence and wants us human-beings all over the globe to change the way we see those who come out of Interpersonal Violence as people who have overcome something--something insurmountable.
So let's use the word Overcomer.
Those less sensitive to the plight of overcomers of sexual harassment/abuse questioned the women who came out decades later about Harvey Weinstein: "Why didn't the women come out back then? Why now?" We all know that back then, well, nobody would have listened and even if they did, facing a powerful tyrant like Weinstein, they would have lost their jobs. Furthermore even today, research has shown that 16% of overcomers who report abuse/harassment in the workplace felt that the situation actually got worse. 2/3 of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. 80% actually reported it, and 3/4 of those who did said nothing really changed. Read more about it here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/10/why-did-no-one-speak-out-about-harvey-weinstein
Even when we come out more informally, to colleagues or friends, we may not get the reaction we expect or worse, well, you just feel worse. In a conversation with two good girlfriends of mine, we were bemoaning the Harvey Weinstein women and how they were judged for coming out all these years later. One of these two friends told us how she had been sexually harassed by a male co-worker, and how she had told some friends of hers soon after. One friend said, "It happens to me all the time." The other friend said, "But you are so high up in your company, how is that possible?" Neither response really made my friend feel any better about what had happened to her. At all.
So here is my #MeToo story that took place in China, almost a decade ago. It was 1999, and I was studying abroad in Beijing at the Beijing University. I had landed an internship at The China Travel Service (CTS), one of the largest government-run travel agencies at the time. My boss was a loud, impatient man who would throw phones (back then they were larger than they are today), yell when he didn't get his way, and it was rumored he became the boss because of who he knew, not how well he actually did his job.
One weekend, I was blissfully on my way home after a swim at the swimming pool (I had gleefully found in the same building as CTS), when I ran into my boss. Up until that point, I had always thought of him as a father figure. Ok, an angry and slightly aggressive father figure, but a father figure nonetheless. He asked me if I wanted to see our new office space on the first floor, so I thought Why not? And followed him naively to the first floor. It was a weekend so no one was around.
"I will miss you when you go back to your country," he said referring to the fact that my internship was ending and I would soon go back to the U.S.
"Yes, I will miss you too..."
Then before I knew it, he had lifted up my tank top, and started trying to feel up my breasts. I was stunned. I knew if I pissed him off, I may not get paid, I may end up in prison in China, and I don't even know how I would use my broken Mandarin skills to get myself out of any kind of crazy situation...My mind was racing a thousand miles a minute. I quickly grabbed his arm, and told him we should go downstairs to the lobby (knowing that there would be more people around). Fortunately, he agreed.
It took me months before I could even tell my close friends. I have not yet even told my parents about that incident. It's not something you can bring up easily in conversation. "Oh yeah, by the way, I was sexually assaulted by my boss...in China..."
But here is what I say. Why not create spaces (offline or online) where we CAN talk about this stuff without fear of judgment, shame, or rape/death threats, or alienation, or any of it? On that playground, where you can exclaim "ME TOO, ME THREE, ME FOUR!" without any kind of fear, just acceptance, let's create that playground space for adults to speak freely too. Let's create a place for overcomers to truly feel they can overcome anything.
We live in a world of binaries: Winners and Losers, Successes and Failures, Givers and Takers, and the list goes on. Reflecting back on my third WIN (Women's International Networking Conference that brings together women and a sprinkling of men from all walks of life for a 3-day annual global conference) experience, I wanted to share just how amazing, empowering, inspiring, and life-changing it was. This year, we celebrated 20 years of WIN in Oslo, Norway. 20 years of empowering women around the globe. What does that even look like? Well, I thought I would frame it in WIN's very own 8 Guidelines:
1. Be Open
This year in Oslo, and last year in Rome, I was asked to moderate the Young Leader Forum. Usually there are a handful of speakers. Each speaker takes turns and shares their own inspiring story, and then the audience has a chance to ask questions. We had a few minutes at the end of the forum, so I thought I would ask the audience to take turns and share some words of advice for the speakers. With each turn, the advice grew deeper and more introspective, "Don't live your life with regrets," "Don't worry about your age, it doesn't matter." Then the mic stopped at a woman and before giving any advice she began crying. The crying spread. Pretty soon we were all crying. Then I shared how I had thanked a friend of mine for believing in me so strongly and then cried. At any other conference, I am not sure how this would have played out, but at WIN, nobody judged each other for crying, instead, we ended our Young Leader Forum with a group hug. Now that's a WIN!
2. Be Ready to Connect
On the last night of the conference, we celebrate with a gala extravaganza. We come together, many people wearing their own traditional costumes from around the world, we eat, we dance, we chat, and we dance more. On my way to the bathroom, I ran into a woman from Malaysia who had come to my Happiness Workshop. I had wanted to connect with her, but between my one-on-one Happiness coaching sessions, catching up with old friends from last year's WIN, and not to mention the array of fabulous workshops/plenaries to attend, I wasn't able to. Our eyes met, and we soon carved out a tiny bit of space to connect. During that brief time we had together, we imagined a place in Asia where young people could be inspired, a place where they could feel empowered, and see other women doing things they dreamed of doing. We imagined WINSingapore (!). On my way to the bathroom after our inspiring chat, I thought to myself: Only at WIN do you dream up these kinds of ideas in a 10-minute conversation. Now that's a WIN!
3. Be Quick to Contribute
After the Young Leader Forum, I reconnected with a young woman from Kenya. She had also spoken at the Young Leader Forum last year too. She told me about all of the progress her NGO was making and how blessed she felt to be able to do the work she was doing in Kenya. Then I decided to ask her, point blank, "How can I help? What can I do to help?" She welcomed me to Kenya (WOOHOO, always wanted to go to Kenya!) and told me that she needed about 350 Euros for a new project they were working on. I immediately opened my purse and gave her the remainder of cash, which was close to what she needed. She hugged me and walked away with a smile. Now that's a WIN!
4. Be Ready to Take Risks
In life and at most conferences they tell you to "play it safe." Not at WIN. At WIN, you are encouraged to try something you have always wanted to, be something you have always wanted to be, do something you have always wanted to do. Last year, for my Happiness Workshop, I wanted to have people go around the conference and make as many people as happy as possible, but I didn't, because I was afraid nobody would do it. This year, I decided to take a leap of faith, and just do it. I ran it by Dominique (the fabulous woman in charge of speaker relations), and she said to just check with the other workshop speakers. So I did. There were some bewildered looks, but most were open and curious to see what would happen. So was I. What unfolded was absolutely something I could have never imagined: participants put up signs in the bathrooms, handed out chocolates to people they came across, hugs were shared, announcements were made, and risks were taken by all! Dominique later in her usual unassuming manner said, "I noticed there were more people in your workshop this year..." Now that's a WIN!
This was my first year doing one-on-one coaching sessions. Yet another fantastic thing that separates WIN from other conferences is that you can sign up for free one-hour coaching sessions. Usually the slots are gone within an hour of being released! I decided to add three more slots to the two already planned, and after a ton of schedule re-arranging, they were set for Friday morning beginning at 8AM. Friday morning came around and I was exhausted. I didn't feel like going. I had to go. This was my opportunity to create change in someone's life and in my own life. This was something I had wanted to do for a long time now. So I met with the three women who had signed up, and over breakfast, I learned, listened, and grew. Thank you ladies for that amazing opportunity to work WITH you and commit to you. Now that's a WIN!
6. Never Accept the Unacceptable
Having worked with overcomers of human trafficking and domestic violence, I take this particular guideline to heart. At breakfast each morning, I noticed that there was a male manager who would yell at the other staff in front of the hotel guests. On Friday morning, during my one-on-one coaching sessions, when everyone else had left for the conference, the manager yelled at one of the kitchen staff for talking to me, in front of me. It was a very uncomfortable situation for everyone involved. Later that day, I struck up a conversation with a man on a stationary bike. He was biking for change: the more he biked, the more the hotel would donate in water to a developing country. The man turned out to be the General Manager of the hotel. I decided to tell him about what I had witnessed over the three days, and how something needed to be done, such that this manager did not yell at the staff anymore. The General Manager nodded solemnly saying he knew all about his behavior and would have a talk with him. He thanked me for bringing it to his attention along with other things I had noticed around the hotel. An hour later, he even sent up a bottle of wine and some chocolates with a hand-written note to my room. Now that's a WIN!
7. Be Light and Have Fun
Some of the best moments at the conference came during a tiny conversation here, a walk around the park there, a jaunt to the local coffee shop for a cinnamon roll, or getting caught buying a ton of scarves in the hotel convenience store. Sometimes in life, we take ourselves too seriously, or we worry too much about things we actually don't have to worry about. I worried whether people would show up to my Happiness Workshop, I worried whether people would sign up for my one-on-one Happiness coaching sessions, I worried about making the right impression on people, but when I let go of all of that, when I let the light in and had fun, that's when things started organically falling into place. Now that's a WIN!
8. Expect Magic
When you are at a conference with hundreds upon hundreds of people who are open-minded, ready to connect, quick to contribute, ready to take risks, committed, don't accept the unacceptable, are light and fun (basically guidelines 1-7), how can you not expect magic? I got to meet so many incredible women and men who were so talented, humble, and willing to not only move mountains to help me, but move mountains to create social change around them. I felt extremely honored and humbled to be able to meet all of them. On the last night of the gala, I was asked to get up on stage in front of the entire WIN conference and talk about how WIN has changed my life. Looking out at the sea of sparkling WINners, I took a deep breath, smiled, and shared how I became a WINner, and got to thank the WIN team personally. Now that's a WIN!
On the 21st floor of our hotel, the view of Oslo was absolutely incredible. I went up early to meet some friends for drinks at The Summit Bar and to just soak in everything that had happened over the past few days at the conference. As I looked out at Oslo, I couldn't help but feel completely alive. I wondered if we lived in a world where every woman and man used WIN's 8 guidelines for work, love, life, and everything in between, wouldn't the world be full of WINners? Givers? Successes?
And we could then once and for all just do away with any binary bullshit (!).
Now that's a WIN!