Destiny James attends and shares her experience at the annual Young Woman’s Leadership Symposium. Photo by Destiny James | THE ALL STATE.

The 13th annual Young Woman’s Leadership Symposium happened this past Friday, March 22. This event was founded and hosted by Dr. Marsha Lyle-Gonga of the Political Science department. This one-day seminar invited young women around the community to participate in a series of workshops aiming to improve leadership styles and advocacy strategies. This year’s theme was advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).  

A quote listed on the event’s program reads: “In the United States women represent 53% of the electorate yet are not represented proportionately in Congress, where they hold only 27.8% of the elected positions.”  

Guests arrived to the seminar between 8am and 8:30am. Upon arrival the young women would check in at the MUC ballroom, receive a name tag and gift bag, and begin to serve themselves breakfast. Breakfast was followed by a group session headed by Associate Professor of Psychological Science and Counseling: Dr. Eva Gibson.  

Dr. Gibson spoke about the importance of using the color pink to empower women. Despite the stigma behind the color, Dr. Gibson feels powerful when she puts on her color. She shared helpful steps to take in order to make daily impacts on the world around you.  

She also taught the story of Wilma Roudolph, who she sees as an inspiration for herself. Roudolph suffered from polio and was still able to take home three Olympic gold medals and become an advocate for equal rights within the Clarksville community.  

After the opening talk by Dr. Gibson, the young women attendees had the opportunity to choose from a series of breakout workshops throughout the next three hours. These workshops were available in the conference rooms down from the ballroom. 

I first attended a session hosted by LaNeeca Williams who is the Chief of Institutional Culture here at Austin Peay. Her talk taught attendees how to lead with courage, vision, and heart in advocacy work. Mrs. Williams opened with the heart wrenching story about how she began advocating within the DEI community: her son was involved in a racially motivated hate crime.  

She used this devastating experience to turn her pain into passion, and now shares how the toxic mindset of stereotyping leads to a lack of inclusion. Mrs. Williams listed 10 qualities women advocates should strive to exhibit and taught to never underestimate the power of your actions, especially within DEI work.  

The next session I attended was hosted by Assistant Professor of African American Studies: Ebone Amos. Professor Amos explored the power of self-definition to fight against toxic narratives brought on by sexism, patriarchy, racism, and ageism. She taught that we must first learn who we are before we accept someone else’s idea of us.  

“How can I lead other people if I don’t know who I am,” she shared. “Make no assumptions about me please and make room for other people to say that too.” 

Professor Amos shared that self-internalization of misogyny and racism can lead to a belief in those toxic mindsets. By creating your own self-definition, you are resisting toxic viewpoints.  

The final session I attended was led by Dr. Kathryn Woods and Dr. Melissa Kates, both professors within the Leadership Department. They explained how to look at various theories through a feminist lens, especially those taught within a college sphere. Dr. Woods unpacked the Authentic Leadership Theory by showing how 6 of the most influential philosophers within the field all look the same: older white men.  

By unpacking this theory further, it was shown that no women were involved in the creation or expansion of the idea of an authentic leader, and in fact none of the known traits accurately represent women. Dr. Kates then shared the idea of questioning what we are taught, saying that we do not have to accept a misogynist education because many common theories are not properly representative of women.  

At the closing of the workshops, everyone met in the ballroom once again for lunch. The lunch speaker was the Chair of the Political Science Department from Middle Tennessee State University, Dr. Amy Atchison.  

Dr. Atchison spoke about the dangers of advocacy work. She shared that we must advocate when and where it is safe for us to do so. She spoke of a recent study she was involved in where she noticed the hateful bias towards female professors, which became evident during evaluations. Dr. Atchison also shared the importance of intersectionality, saying the concept made her a better teacher and led to her best advocacy work: creating an intersectional Political Science textbook.  

To close out the Young Women’s Leadership Symposium, Dr. Marsha Lyle-Gonga addressed what we can do after the seminar to incite change.  

“If you want to be a leader, you must embrace learning every day,” she said.  

This event was so important to young women who may not have strong female figures in their life. These powerful female speakers taught me that using my voice to advocate for change within DEI is not only welcomed- but necessary. My womanhood is a blessing to leadership and political advocacy because I bring my own unique experience and perspectives to the table.  

Thank you to Dr. Marsha Lyle-Gonga, each guest speaker, and anyone who contributed to the creation of this event. Your hard work within institutional advocacy on our campus is not unnoticed.