The phrase “the future is female” should definitely be applied to Sarah Hesterman, a freshman at Long Island University’s Global College studying in Costa Rica who has also been chosen as one of United Nations’ 2016-2017 Empower Women “Champions for Change”.
As we are in the middle of a divisive political transition in the United States, the voice of the people has never mattered more than now. We are seeing the younger generation step up and take action in numerous ways to create social change for the better. Sarah Hesterman is the type of role model we wish we had when we were younger, because her focus and passion are going to inspire many others around her to know they can make a difference in the world.
Out of 4000 global applicants, Sarah was chosen to join a diverse group of advocates in leading a movement for women’s economic empowerment – both online and in their own communities. Over the next four months, the Champions will work in three groups: Advocacy and Social Media, Business Development, and Skills Development. They will serve as Empower Women advocates for women’s economic empowerment both online and in their local communities and will be involved in a series of innovative initiatives such as expanding the Organizational Hub, piloting the Financial Literacy course, and participating in the #BreakTheGlass and #HERstory campaigns.
While the nation will be focused on activity on Capital Hill, we will be paying close attention to women like Sarah whose work is going to no doubt last much longer than any single presidential term. We had the opportunity to chat with this Champion for Change and find out what she hopes to accomplish with the UN, how she plans to use her voice in this political climate, and why empowering women around the globe is important work.
You were selected as one of 5 applicants from the United States (out of 4000) to lead a movement for women’s economic empowerment with the United Nations. Can you tell us about your work in the program and what drew you to apply for it?
I wake up every day excited to work on advancing gender equality in some way, so I was thrilled when I learned in December 2016 about the opportunity to become a United Nations Empower Women Champion. Since 2014, I have been advocating for girls in developing countries through the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign and the Youth Assembly at the United Nations.
I draw a lot of inspiration from my time living in Qatar, a country filled to the brim with strong women who are excelling in business, politics, education, and multiple other sectors. I have since been working in whatever way I can to provide a platform for the discussion of gender equality and for the dissemination of information. Empower Women serves as such: its content is almost entirely comprised of member generated discourse, stories, and tools to further economic empowerment.
There are around 90 topics up for discussion that range from waste management to constitutional and legislative reform. My tenure has just started, although I have spent the last month rallying for the cause across as many social media platforms as possible. As a champion, I am hoping to create economic empowerment advocacy toolkits geared specifically towards youth, so that more young people around the world can step up and become everyday champions for this important cause.
You are also currently studying in Costa Rica. Can you tell us about your course and what life is like there for you? Do you get to interact with a lot of local women and girls?
I am currently student at Long Island University Global, a program which will take me to five continents to study how sustainable development, social inequality, climate change, conflict, poverty, and a number of other issues play out on a global scale. As a freshman, I get to spend two semesters in Costa Rica.
I have learned so much from traveling throughout the country, and I have analyzed all of the aforementioned concepts on a local scale, traveling everywhere from fancy eco-tourism spots to a town bordering the country’s largest landfill. I have been able to interact with local women and girls, and doing so is the reason why I applied to be an Empower Women Champion!
As part of a school project with my university, I was fortunate enough to spend a beautiful and eye-opening week with the Asociación de Mujeres Organizadas de Biolley, or ASOMOBI. ASOMOBI processes and sells locally made coffee, and promotes eco-tourism, women’s financial stability, and the reduction of socioeconomic inequalities in a rural area.
The business has accelerated unprecedented progress for the region, and every woman I met exemplified how a stable source of income was empowering for them. On my third day with ASOMOBI, I applied for the championship with a new perspective on an important facet of gender equality that I had not considered prior to my visit.
You are only a college freshman but have already done so much! Can you tell us what made you want to become a “champion for change” at such a young age?
I feel being an advocate is similar to being an athlete, an artist, or anyone else with talents and/or causes they are passionate about. My parents are both strong leaders in their own right. I have always been encouraged to be an outspoken and strong girl from a young age.
Girl Up also influenced me, as it gave the 15-year-old me the confidence to walk into a room and speak up for girls, whether I was talking to twenty middle school students, U.S. Congress members or United Nations officials. After moving back to the States from Doha, I completed my senior year online at George Washington University Online High School (GWUOHS), so I was able to travel extensively and continue my advocacy work at a higher level.
In addition to the flexibility GWUOHS afforded me, as well as a strong focus on academics, attending high school online empowered me to take on large leadership roles and insert my passions into my education in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to had I attended traditional school.
I love being a champion for change because I know that the real champions are the girls and women who wake up every day determined to make their lives better, undeterred by the unequal conditions they face. However, when their voices are being silenced by members of their community and politicians, it takes every one of us to stand up and say that we aren’t OK with that, and that we are going to push for reform until it happens.
What are some of the areas you are particularly passionate about in your advocacy work?
I am most interested in getting youth of every background involved in gender equality advocacy. I cannot explain the strength that radiates from the girls I see lobbying on Capitol Hill during Girl Up’s annual Leadership Summit, or the excitement generated when a high school student shares their ideas at the Youth Assembly at the UN.
I think that any opportunity where a youth can speak to someone else about their passion provides a moment for a light bulb moment. When young people know that others are listening to what they have to say, and that they are ready to take action, that’s when true advocacy starts. In terms of a specific area of gender equality, I would have to say that increasing access to education for adolescent girls in developing countries is what excites me most.
The world suffers when over 60 million girls are being prevented from eventually being involved in politics, the economy, science, art, or any other possible profession or cause. I am passionate because I know that with every girl that is educated, a life is transformed, and a chain reaction of more girls attending school is started. I want to see what’s at the end of that chain reaction.
The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals focuses a lot on female empowerment and gender equality, especially in the areas of education and financial independence. How will your upcoming work tie into this?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) are at the core of everything I do. When discussing the SDGs, it’s important to note that they are all interconnected and rely on one another. For example, in order for a girl to someday have access to decent work (goal 8), she is more likely to get hired if she has an education (goal 4).
But to get an education, she needs to have the good health and well-being to attend school (goal 3), and the proper nutrition and safe drinking water to be healthy (goals 2 and 6). Every issue that the SDGs address intersects with another. In the past, I have advocated most heavily for quality education and gender equality, goals 4 and 5, but now I will be increasing my focus on goal 8, decent work and economic growth.
Every goal has numerous targets: for example, one of goal 8’s targets is to increase access to financial services, which supplements goal 5’s target of ensuring women’s financial rights. The bulk of the work I will be doing will be focused on bringing awareness to these goals to build upon the progress the campaign has already made in highlighting how sustainable development is both a facilitator and product of female economic empowerment.
Ever since the US election we are seeing many activist groups, as well as individuals wanting to be part of the collective resistance against hate, fear and division. How would you encourage readers to take part, even in small ways?
The most important lesson I have learned throughout my advocacy journey is the Girl Up mantra: individually we are strong, but together we are stronger. Let’s take this chance to prove to the world that there are members of our generation who will not tolerate the fear and hatred of other races, religions, and backgrounds.
First of all, I would recommend connecting with local grassroots organizations that promote equality and love, or starting your own platform where people in your community can talk and make plans. I recommend thoroughly researching organizations that line up with your values and ideals, and then figuring out a way to bring them into your community. If we are going to fight division, we have to fight smart!
However, you don’t need to do all of this to make a difference. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Donate pads and tampons to homeless women. You can even utilize social media to spread positive actions to take in this time of uncertainty and fear. Now more than ever is the time to support the efforts of your fellow girls, people of color, LGBTQIA+, refugees, immigrants, differently-abled people, homeless, and so on.
Now more than ever is the time to follow the lead of the marginalized who are fighting to make this country a place where they are welcomed. Finally, vote, vote, vote at every level of government! Campaigning for people who represent progressive ideals is one of our greatest tools for change.
How would you encourage high school and college students to get involved in making change in their communities?
First of all, I would identify one or two global issues that you are interested in. If you’re not familiar with any, the Sustainable Development Goals are a great place to start your research. When I was 16, my friend Ryan and I started a Girl Up club at my school to talk about female empowerment, because this was an issue that we were particularly interested in. I thought that a few people would show up to our first meeting, but I was surprised to see over 90 fellow students attend.
Never assume that there is already a platform created to advocate for your issue, because more often than not, no one has taken the initiative yet. In high school, take advantage of school assemblies, pep rallies, lunch breaks, school projects, speech class, or any platform where you can spread your message. While college is a little less structured, there are more opportunities to create noise: peaceful protests, student-held events, and higher attendance at group meetings are all benefits of having a larger population of students.
Try to stray from just talking about ideas, and implement achievable goals to make a difference. For example, if you are interested in forming a movement to end violence against women, gather your fellow students and create a realistic fundraising goal to acquire funds for a local women’s shelter. Find an issue that you are so passionate about, that you wake up every day wanting to work towards a solution, and then manifest this in your community. After all, the first step to global peace is local change.
You can find out more about the UN Empower Women Champions for Change program by clicking here. To see why Sarah Hesterman is already a change-maker and use hr story to inspire the young women in your life, watch her 2016 TEDx Talk titled “How To Start A Revolution As A Teenager”: