As the two-week-long Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) Institute wrapped up on June 6 at Smith College, Harriet Adong of Uganda took a moment to reflect on the deeply personal lessons she’ll take home with her.
“I learned that healing starts with me,” she said.
Back in Uganda, Adong works with women and girls who have been traumatized by war and sexual violence. She has lost family members in the war between the government and insurgents in northern Uganda.
After spending two weeks strategizing with women from other war-torn nations in Asia and Africa, she is returning home feeling empowered to make change. “I can’t forget things that happened to me,” Adong said. “But seeing other people speak out and say how they have reconciled with someone who has committed an atrocity—what I’ve learned is, I’m going to share.”
Adong was one of 48 women delegates chosen to attend this year’s WPSP Institute, which was held on the campuses of Mount Holyoke, Simmons and Smith colleges beginning May 25. The lessons she learned about forgiveness, speaking out and the value in networking with other women echo the experiences of others who attended this year’s institute.
Smith College President Kathleen McCartney said the institute’s impact will be far-reaching. “Delegates will return to their home countries with expanded visions of what they can do,” she said. “Their efforts will mean the world will be a more just and peaceful place.”
Women’s role in bringing about peace was the underlying theme of this year’s gathering, titled “Reconstructing Societies in the Wake of Conflict: Transnational Justice and Economic Development.”
During training sessions, field trips, film screenings and panel discussions, delegates explored ways women can help move their countries out of poverty and away from violence. A visit to the Massachusetts Statehouse, a grassroots tour of the city of Holyoke and a forum with feminist leader Gloria Steinem ’56 were among the events that inspired discussions, ideas and strategies that the women were eager to put into action back home.
Katie Paulson-Smith ’14, one of 12 student ambassadors to the institute, said she was impressed by the delegates’ diverse stories and experiences — as well as the things they shared in common. “I hope this gathering made these incredible women even more confident that the work they are already doing in their communities is important, and that they are not alone,” she said.
As a result of the institute, Jennifer Liang, the founder of a nonprofit that supports rural development in India’s violence-torn Assam state, has made some new resolutions. “I need to focus on different things in my leadership,” she said. “I think I’ve got the courage to go deeper into working for peace and reconciliation.”
For delegate Achol William Amoi, a mother of nine and a speaker in the State Legislative Assembly in South Sudan, meeting Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas ’68 was a highlight. “I was so impressed with the way she engaged herself in politics,” Amoi said. “That’s not easy, especially in African countries, where women are not seen that way. She has given me new inspiration.”
Shabnam Baloch, who is program manager for Oxfam Great Britain in Hyderabad, Pakistan, said meeting other women leaders has inspired her to think differently. “I have jotted down a new to-do list,” she said. On it is a pledge to engage with college students in her country, “because educated women in Pakistan can influence the overall society,” she said. “I’m going to engage my family and my neighborhood in this work — everybody.”
Delegates will be able to stay in touch with one another via Facebook and Twitter and through secure websites provided by the Wilson Center, which is home to the Women in Public Service Project.
For more about the institute and a photo gallery, visit www.smith.edu/wpsp.