When you are asked if you would like to go to Liberia with Michelle Obama you say, “Yes!”
It doesn’t matter if you’re not up to date with your vaccinations, if you don’t have a passport, or if you know very little about the area you’re traveling to. You. Say. “YES!”
When I learned that I would be traveling to Liberia to meet First Lady Michelle Obama to work with her on her newest project, Let Girls Learn, I knew this would be a life-changing experience.
Let Girls Learn is the First Lady’s initiative to give girls and women all over the world access to education.
As I waited for my documents, doctor’s appointments, and other travel related planning I read everything I could about Let Girls Learn and the phenomenal partnership with the Peace Corp in Liberia (who were hosting the camp I’d be visiting) called GLOW. GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World and this pro- woman educational summit was designed to bring girls from all over Liberia together to teach them everything from how to be a powerful leader to making reusable menstrual pads.
Figuring out how to make a cool, reusable pad to many people in the U.S. might not seem to go hand-in-hand with education, but in other countries where women and girls are forced to miss at least one week of school per month because of their periods, a reusable pad can make all of the difference. Pads and tampons are expensive wherever you are but they should not cost you your career and education, which is why #LetGirlsLearn lent their support to help women and girls in Liberia get the access and resources they need to stay in school.
As I sat on a 16-hour flight from New York to Nigeria I was beside myself with excitement and the importance of what I was about to be a part of set in.
I’d never traveled this far and while I was overwhelmed by how fantastic the journey was, I read about how the Peace Corps volunteers from the camp I’d be visiting (in Kakata) were forced to evacuate when Ebola hit this region and were able to return less than a year ago and eager to get back to work. They knew the time away from these girls could change the course of their lives. The volunteers had been working hard to educate and empower others, and now that they were back they were going to hit the ground running.
Another reason this trip was deeply meaningful to me was the fact I was given up for adoption by my birthmother, a young headstrong African woman who could not, and would not, give birth to me in Africa because of religious and cultural reasons.
I was adopted by my mother — a first generation American — who had lived a full life of breaking stereotypes, risking her life to fight against racism and oppression and, at the time of my birth, decided to return to being an educator in the public school system where her master’s degree and life experience would benefit the next generation of children.
My mother instilled in me that school is very important — but what school does not, and will not, teach is equally important.
I was sent to summer camp with copies of Atlas Shrugged, required reading by my mother, and The Once and Future King, required school reading. She encouraged me to join multi-cultural groups and non-profits that taught leadership training, showed me how to find my own appreciation for art and literature from around and world, and to be truly proud to be a BLACK woman.
The GLOW camp I was about to visit in Liberia was an accelerated version of everything I’ve known to be true and believed in. It was also the opportunity to listen to these young women share their truth and what they want from this world. Their goals and questions would be addressed and answered in a group of their peers and Michelle Obama! FLOTUS was coming to listen and learn with these young women and now with the First Lady attending they would have an audience far wider than before. What drew me in to the Let Girls Learn/Peace Corps’ curriculum the most is the importance to all areas of education. Not only what people in the U.S. would consider the standard classroom or university education, but all of the other aspects that help women find their voice and empower them to make educated choices for their futures.
My time in Libera.
The moment I landed in Monrovia I was taken directly to the Peace Corp camp in Kakata City. I was a little jet lagged but ready to meet the volunteers and girls who were preparing for the big visit the next day. Over the course of the hour-long drive, I got to see a good portion of the city, but the moment I got the camp I could feel the energy shift. We were still in Liberia, the rain was periodically pouring, it was still a steamy 97 degrees but everyone was buzzing at the excitement of the GLOW camp the next day and the special guest, First Lady Michelle Obama!
Part of the reason this Peace Corp camp was so special, protected, and sacred was that some of the volunteers, who were giving me a full tour, were volunteers who were evacuated due to Ebola and were now back to continue their work. Everyone I spoke to said that these girls and this community was their family. Not “like” family. They considered them their family-family. They were bonded together and they would have done anything to return to their family in Liberia after being evacuated and sent back to the U.S.
Can you imagine if you were ripped away from your siblings or family and told that there was not a definitive date on if or when you would ever see them again? Liberia is gorgeous and lush but this is not a region where girls are texting all day and sending snaps to friends who are far away. There is no way to Facetime with a member of your family or group to check in and see how everything is going. The determination of the volunteers and girls to return made this entire event feel more important. Everyone was so happy and appreciative to be together again and the girls were ready to meet our First Lady and proudly show what they have learned and have been working on.
Liberia is BEAUTIFUL!
There was not a person at the camp that the gravity of this situation was wasted on. New Peace Corp volunteers to girls meeting for the first time, everyone knew that the First Lady coming meant business.
I think we are used to celebrities or people we admire to arrive and take up some of the space with their tremendous presence. This didn’t happen. After giving many, many thanks to the young women attending, volunteers, and staff, our First Lady turned the floor directly over to these young woman to get the day started. She wanted to actively listen and be a part of the conversation. These girls needed every moment of this special opportunity and I was so surprised and moved to see how quickly our First Lady was to join the group let these girls get on with business.
Today was about these girls, focusing on community lead change and making their time here important.
After the introduction the Peace Corp leaders began the day and the “stations,” The First Lady participated in each, and some the girls even taught her what they’ve learned. Each station had a specific focus designed to help these young women in every aspect of their lives. No matter what they decide to do with their lives they will move forward with the knowledge of the GLOW camp and the wise words of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Before we left the camp on this glorious day we were all given the chance to take a photo with the First Lady.
I was told we were going to do a selfie, and as someone who does NOT take selfies (you have my word and if we ever meet I’ll gladly turn over my camera roll for you to see) this made me a little nervous…okay a LOT nervous. I’ve been watching the First Lady’s official Snapchat account since she joined and for the past eight years I’ve seen her gorgeous photos gracing covers of magazines and newspapers. I was hoping, at best, I could toss on a few filters and possibly cut myself out of the pic. I mean I was meeting her! She was the focal point of the image. I assumed that we would be introduced, *click*, then I’d be quickly ushered to the area where I could pass out or cry from the overflow of emotions.
WRONG. That did not happen.
Throughout the day I met many members of her staff and they all felt this day in Liberia at the Peace Corp camp was just as important as everyone else. They wanted to talk about HelloGiggles and what we think young women and girls want to see and read about. So as I made small talk with them as I was about to meet our First Lady, I asked about protocol. “Do I just walk up and smile?” They suggested something that surprised me, they suggested that I actually speak to her! Aside from a “thank you” and a few arm “selfie” stretches I hadn’t given a tremendous amount of thought to what I should say. So when it was my turn to take a pic, I told her my story, I told her everything in this post about my life and why this trip was important to me. I told her how (in another life) I could have easily been a young woman at the camp and not a visitor. Then SHE ASKED ME FOR A HUG.
Okay, now I was very nervous. It was roughly 90 degrees with 85% humidity and, on top of it, I was now nervous-sweating, while my First Lady embraced me. I offered an apology for my damp appearance and she immediately responded with, “we’re all sweating,” and we took our picture.
Having my picture taken and riding the intense wave of emotion I got a rush of adrenaline clarity and as I was saying “thank you” and “goodbye” I asked Michelle Obama the one question I had, which was:
“How do we, as women, as HelloGiggles, as a community continue to grow initiatives like Let Girls Learn and help?”
Her response was simple and honest: we need to continue to do what we’ve been doing.
Covering the stories, publishing and sharing posts that have meaning for us. Shining the light on situations that we love. Speaking about the tougher issues that we might be afraid of, and perhaps diversifying what most of us share on our personal accounts. I, for one, will be skipping a food pic, or two, for something a little more important. An accomplishment of my own or someone else’s that I am proud of or can learn from. An article I find empowering. A post by someone who is meaningful. Something inspiring. Not that a perfectly poached egg isn’t gorgeous and wonderful, but if we’re all here to connect I’d like to pass on more than a culinary humble brag. Not every time, just some of the time, which is not much to ask.
Like the girls who attended this Peace Corp x Let Girls Learn x GLOW camp I’ve been changed and sent back home with the fire to inspire the women around me to have open and honest conversations about their goals and happiness. Leading by example is the best way.