Please note that my power story goes into great depth about personal aspects of my journey. While sharing this story is both scary and exciting to me, I understand that others may not be willing to go into depth about their stories. Please tailor your power story to your own comfort level.
In 1976, there was very little for a girl to fear in the growing Chicago suburb of Libertyville. My hometown, in so many ways, was an ideal place. We had schools with high graduation rates, spirited sports teams and a strong arts program. Family businesses were passed down one generation to the next. Kids who needed braces would get them. Crime was uncommon and kids played in the parks with friends until dusk. On a snowy winter day, our main street looked like a holiday movie set.
My family was one of the first to move into a quiet development on Fairlawn Avenue. My mother slept while we were in school so she could work the swing shift at Condell Memorial Hospital. My father, always risk averse, was a risk manager at a local boat motor manufacturer. We ate our most special family dinners around a table purchased with S&H Green stamps that my mother had assiduously collected. On other nights, we’d go downstairs and eat in front of the color TV, careful not to drop food on the orange shag rug.
Libertyville felt like a place where I belonged, where bad things couldn’t happen.
But the peace and stillness of my town and childhood shattered when I turned 10. I was at my best friend’s house for a sleepover when the phone rang, and I was summoned home. I walked the short distance, my boots leaving footprints in the thinly crusted snow. When I opened the front door, I saw my brother, my three sisters and my parents sitting on the yellow-velvet couches in our living room. We never gathered in there unless we had company. Sitting with them was a police officer who held a coffee cup in his hand. My mother spoke slowly, “Your sister did not come home last night from work.” Kim had recently gotten her license and was working as a salesclerk at the mall. She was punctual, trustworthy and took her role as oldest child seriously. In other words, something was wrong.
The short winter day did not seem to have an end. Many of our community fanned out in a frantic search. Neighbors and friends brought food and sat in silence with us. At six o’clock, the phone rang and my mother ran to answer. “Dead or alive?” she asked. Then we heard the phone hit the linoleum kitchen floor.
A snowmobiler found Kim’s body on the banks of a frozen creek, dumped like a bag of garbage. Overnight, my sixteen-year-old sister went from being a popular high school cheerleader to a murder statistic and sensationalized news story. The car she was driving was abandoned by the side of the road, a crime scene with evidence of my sister’s last moments of life. This evidence would lead to the confession and arrest of a high school classmate. She died the victim of a suspected sexual assault attempt and manual strangulation. I imagine on some level Kim’s instincts told her to steer clear of this boy. But being polite trumped all else. She, I’m guessing, like other girls in our white, suburban, middle class community, was socialized to ignore her gut in that situation.
Kim’s murder dramatically shifted my identity as a girl, and I searched for ways to seem “normal” in the aftermath. Am I safe? Do I have the authority to make a choice even if I am defying my socialization? Where do I really fit in now that people feel sorry for me?
One place I found guidance was a girls group offered at a neighborhood church. Each week the group leader, with an aura of beyond-the-suburbs cool, would introduce us to a topic – what to do when a friend drops you, how to get your grades up, how to make s’mores over a camp stove. We were an eclectic mix of girls from different middle schools—popular, and sidelined, athletic types and bookworms. We would dissect issues such as discomfort with our changing bodies, our looks and the price of popularity. Without referencing the law, she brought up opportunities that went along with growing up in a post Title IX world, a trail she was blazing, though she was only a decade or so older than we were. She listened to us and we learned to listen to each other. Mind you, this wasn’t formal therapy. In a way, it may have been even better. It was community. It was a place where any girl, even a girl with a murdered sister, could explore who she was in relation to the limits of what the larger culture expected. The group was where I began to define myself by the power I had as a girl and the power a group of girls and women can give to each other.
That power took me places.
Years later, a week before my college graduation from business school, a book credit for returning Keynes’ Tract on Monetary Reform led me towards the small section called Women’s Studies. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex that caught my eye. The book broadened my lens and allowed me to see my sister’s death in the light of worldwide patterns of violence against women and girls. It connected me to other books, conversations and communities. But why was I left to discover the link between gender and violence by accident? How would my sister’s life have been shaped if others in our world had this awareness? I now understood the individual power that I had experienced in my girlhood group – my empowerment – was connected to the power of girls collectively.
And then, in 1995, I bought a low-fare airline ticket and boarded a plane for Beijing, China to attend the United Nations Women’s Conference. I was nearly thirty and a graduate school professor had encouraged me to attend. There, I bunked in cinder-block rooms and shared communal meals and ideas with women activists from grassroots organizations all over the world. In Beijing, I met women in a daily struggle to overcome the forces of poverty, sexual violence and appallingly limited access to education, who relied on shoestring NGO budgets and courage in the face of unimaginably repressive governments. Any fear or ambivalence I had in joining the global girls’ and women’s movement was erased by the political courage I encountered among the 40,000 women in attendance in Beijing. Before my trip, I doubted myself. I felt I had no authority to make a difference. After Beijing, my fears were replaced. I thought: Why not me? I returned to Seattle and cofounded Powerful Voices, an organization dedicated to creating programs and cultural spaces that promote a more just world for girls.
Now a mother myself, I try to give my daughters a broader lens and understanding of how power plays out in their lives. Most importantly, we engage in conversations about how to access their own power and where to find the sources of their strength. Together, with others in our community, we have created this project, The Five Powers of Extraordinary Girls. For more information on the powers I accessed in my story, check out Power Source and Power Circle.
I am Ann and this is my power story.