Young women get valuable lessons at empowerment conference

By Lauren Fox ¦ Globe Correspondent December 5, 2015

More than 350 young women from schools across Middlesex County gathered in Cambridge this week to experience personal stories from positive female role models and to recognize their own unique potential.

The “Empowering Girls 2015” conference, hosted at The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard by Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan and Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, was designed to encourage confidence-building, self-assertion, and goal-setting through compelling speakers and interactive presentations, officials said.

Ryan said the conference’s theme, “Curate Your Life: Creating Your Own Story,” was inspired by her own work as a prosecutor. She said she sees too many young women that are brought into a life, or a story, over which they have no control.

“The story they get involved in is not the story that they’re writing,” Ryan said of the girls, who were from middle schools and high schools in the county.

The district attorney said that in an effort to help the students realize how special they are, the girls were given an exercise curating jewelry from the Museum of Fine Arts.

Emily Stoehrer, a jewelry curator with the MFA, shared her personal story with the young women, as well as sharing the glittering items she brought.

Stoehrer said she taught the girls how to care for a collection, and how the same techniques can be applied to their life decisions.

“I presented an outline of what curators do,” Stoehrer said. ... “I think it’s just really important to bring these girls together and show them role models and mentoring.”

Ryan said Stoehrer’s presentation left the students in awe.

“What girl doesn’t love to be seeing all kinds of diamonds and religious jewelry and ancient jewelry,” Ryan said, laughing.

Speakers at the conference, which took place on Tuesday and Thursday, reflected on their own personal success and failure in order to encourage the young women to learn from their faults, not fear them.

Alissa Myrick, a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told students how she overcame a “geeky phase” and survived a D+ grade in college to get where she is today. Myrick even shared her high school yearbook picture with the audience.

“It’s just so hard at that age to imagine that you would ever get to where she was,” Ryan said.

Ryan added that Myrick’s relatable presentation encouraged her young audience to think, “I can be that person.”

Other speakers included Donna Decker, an author and professor at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, as well as Tess Shatzer a ranger from the National Historical Parks Service in Lowell.

After the presentations, the students created a story board using what they had learned about curation from the speakers, Ryan said.

In looking back at the sessions, the district attorney recalled what she believed was the “most inspiring moment” of the conference.

A girl, who Ryan said looked to be in the seventh grade, was practically falling out her chair trying to be picked to share what she had learned.

She went up on stage and used the jewelry from the Museum of Fine Arts to tell a story about the country it came from, which Ryan said was a stand-out presentation. However, Ryan noticed that two teachers from the girl’s school who were standing nearby were crying.

“This is a child who is on the spectrum,” one of the instructors told Ryan. “Her teachers back at school will never believe she was able to do this.”

In another unique exercise, the young women wrote a letter to themselves about what they wanted their story to be and preserved it in a time capsule to be opened at a later date.

After all of the stories, exercises, and discussions, Ryan said her goal was that the girls left with “an understanding of how precious you are and your ability to write your own story.”

Lauren Fox can be reached at lauren.fox@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurenbfox.

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