Inspiring event focuses on ‘Strategies for Success’, encourages women and girls to Rise
By Geeta Goindi
Falls Church, Virginia, October 9, 2015 – The fifth annual ‘Empowering Women and Girls Conference’, an eagerly awaited event organized by the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), put the spotlight squarely on Indian-American youth leaders.
Spearheaded by Mrs. Angela Anand, chairwoman of the conference, it drew remarkable teen activists to the Marriott hotel in Falls Church, on a Friday evening, to share inspiring, really incredible experiences. These are the girls who are rising!
In the spotlight was Sareana Kimia, a brave crusader who is home-schooling due to circumstances. As the founder of Youth for National Change, she passionately advocates for the interests of young people, representing their voices at the local, state and national levels. She is a political activist determined to make a difference!
Sareana speaks with a confidence far belying her young age of 17. Her story is compelling and she makes it even more so with a candor that is disarming.
Sareana told the conference attendees about her beloved mother who grew up in Gurgaon, India, how she was abused both physically and mentally. “This is a problem that is so prevalent in so many parts of the world”, she lamented. “We hear so many people talking about it and yet we shun them”.
Sareana recounted that her mother eventually came to the United States trying to break out of the cycle of abuse, trying to rise above her circumstances. “And she triumphed because she invested in me”, she declared.
“When I was younger, I was abused by my father”, Sareana disclosed. “This cycle of abuse was so harsh. It hurts so much not just physically, but emotionally”.
This spunky kid has also known hunger and homelessness. And she has learnt how to move forward!
The catalyst came when she enrolled in a magnet program on aerospace technology which was later cut. “This is not right”, she bemoaned, sharing her feelings at the time. “You have promised me three years of this program that I want to invest in, and you have taken it away from me”.
Thereafter, began her trip of advocacy. “All I cared about was keeping my school open, my magnet program running”, she recalled, and in trying to do so, she learnt so much.
“There are so many injustices in the world that aren’t just my school, or aren’t just abuse”, she noted. “It’s everything put together. So, I started investing more and more time in advocacy and learning about these issues”.
Her findings revealed, “We need to build a coalition of people, so we can get a better America and a better India. I was lucky enough because people really invested in me”, she said. “People invested in my dreams and my hopes, and wanting to change the world because nobody has justice right now”, she claimed.
Sareana told the gathering, “I had heard people say, if you invest in a man, you invest in an individual. If you invest in a woman, you invest in a community. That is exactly what everyone investing in me believed. Now, I want to invest back into my community. I want to do everything that I can”, she declared.
Expressing her profound thanks to NFIA members who gave her a generous endowment, Sareana recalled, “A year ago when I was homeless and trying to pay for school, my community stood behind me and helped me raise money. In fact, they doubled my goal and helped me raise $35,000. I know that when we stand behind a woman, a girl, we are empowering a community because she will give back. She will try to solve problems that we all face”, she said, to much applause.
Swetha Prabakaran is a 2015 White House ‘Champion of Change’ and at the young age of 15 is the founder of Everybody Code Now!, a non-profit working to empower the next generation of youth to become engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs.
A White House statement reads: “Under Swetha’s direction, Everybody Code Now! has taught hundreds of students how to code and has raised thousands of dollars for STEM activities in schools. Her mentorship programs have transformed shy young girls into confident students, community leaders and budding technologists”.
Currently a junior at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), Swetha informed the conference audience that, in 2011, only 0.4 percent of college female freshmen intended to pursue a computer science-related degree, and there are very few female engineers in America. Such startling statistics motivated her to encourage elementary and high school students to take up computer science, and she started a series of Coding camps at local elementary schools in Virginia.
“Kids absolutely loved it”, she gushed. Swetha now works with partners in twelve US states and three countries, including India, “to show girls worldwide that they have an opportunity in this field that is just waiting for them to make their mark on it”, she said, to loud applause.
Swetha implored the gathering at the conference “to reach out to local schools, community organizations, reach out to partners who you know might be able to make an impact on the life of a girl and show her that these opportunities exist. Together, we can inspire the next generation of girls to make their way to a better future”, she said.
Shreya Bhatia is a senior at TJHSST and a gifted singer who recently organized a music program which raised $7,000 for Alzheimer’s disease. She is effectively using her skills to highlight how music therapy can deter memory loss and dementia.
Shreya’s research on neuro-degenerative disorders and the role that music can play in treating them has made her a valuable volunteer at the Fairfax-based Insight Memory Care Center. She has also founded the Music Med Club in her top-ranking high school.
By her own admission, she is an optimist. “Always remember nothing is impossible because the word itself spells, I’m possible”, she told the conference audience.
Medha Reddy is founder and president of the Maryland Youth Legislative Council, and actively involved with Maryland Delegate Aruna Miller’s re-election campaign. She is passionate about her work in government and politics which she describes as “a service to people”.
She told the NFIA audience, “That is why we join government. Government is something that we do because it is hard work worth doing. It’s satisfying. We get to do things that we love and to help people. That’s why I love what I wake up to do every morning”.
Medha utilized volunteer opportunities which came her way to see how she could make a difference in government, including exploring avenues for kids to partake in the non-profit sector, and serving at a LGBT homeless shelter. “It’s the smiles that propelled me to keep going”, she said. “I find there is nothing more valuable than this hard work”.
About her goal, Medha says, “Let’s get youth talking about youth issues. That’s why I founded Maryland Youth Legislative Council”.
She commended NFIA “for inviting youth to participate in the conference”, the organization’s signature event.
The ‘Empowering Women and Girls’ conference drew a number of experienced professionals who offered their insights on the theme, ‘Strategies for Success’, among whom were: Jennifer Klein, senior advisor to Hillary Clinton on women and girls issues; Sheela Murthy, President and CEO of the Murthy Law Firm specializing in US immigration matters; Dr. Banahalli Ratna, Director of the Center for Bio/Molecular Science and Engineering at the Naval Research Laboratory; Dr. Ajay Kumar, First Secretary of Commerce at the Indian Embassy; Betty Bernstein-Zabza, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department; and Xinyu Zhang, Vice President of Warner International, Inc., television hostess of ‘Lens on the World’ on Channel 10 and ‘Window to China’ on Channel 30.
The speeches were interspersed with Indian dances in various styles by talented artistes of the Washington area, as well as a fashion show, a first for this event, coordinated and choreographed by Shweta Misra and Pallavi Darne who owns The Luxe Closet, Indian ethnic fashion wear.
Among the talented performing artistes who regaled the audience were students of: the Bethesda-based Natananjali School of Dance founded and directed by Lakshmi Swaminathan; Natyabhoomi School of Dance specializing in the bharatanatyam style, founded by Deepti Mukund and co-directed with her sister Shruthi, who presented a medley beginning with a ‘Pushpanjali’ in praise of Lord Ganesh and ending with a folk dance; Nrityaki Dance Academy in a Kathak fusion dance choreographed by the school’s founder and director Shweta Misra; Kuchipudi Dance Academy founded and directed by Lakshmi Babu; and Rhythmaya Dance founded and directed by Nirathi Rao Kalavapudi. The concluding dance was a solo performance by Sumona Apsara Parii, set to the beat of an Indian film song.
Another first at the conference was an author’s corner displaying the works of Dr. Afshan Hashmi (The Modern Mughal Mentality), Dr. Sambhu Banik (Sampling the Cuisine of India), Dr. Lalita Kaul (Multidisciplinary Approach to the Management of Obesity), Mrs. Uma Swaminathan (Herbal Transformations: Ancient Wisdom Revealed for Health and Longevity), Mr. Raman Pathik (The Simple Solution!) and Esther Kish (The Lost Souls and Their Bodies).