Submitted/Mary Banwart

"Women's Civic Leadership From the Heartland" attendees, from left, Hadir, Radwa, Imane and Amal at the “White House Decision Center" at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo. Twenty women from Morocco and Egypt spent a month at KU learning about civic leadership through a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Moroccan, Egyptian women come to KU for civic leadership lessons

U.S. State Department funds leadership academy

Editor’s note: The U.S. State Department requests that only the first names of participants are used.

By Lauren Beatty

Ntissar wants to build a leadership center to empower young women like her. Esraa aspires to connect nongovernmental organizations. Ghita’s hope is to preserve the heritage of her Moroccan hometown.

These three undergraduates from northern Africa, and 17 others, spent the month of July at KU attending “Women’s Civic Leadership From the Heartland,” a KU-created program sponsored by a $240,000 grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs. This was the first year the State Department invited proposals for women’s leadership programs, and KU’s was chosen as one of three women’s leadership programs to be hosted in the country.

Mary Banwart

Through workshops, projects and travel, the women learned valuable skills that will help them become messengers of change in their home countries. According to all involved, the institute was powerfully inspiring.

Do What You Are

The women, all from Egypt or Morocco, began the institute by participating in a series of exploratory exercises called “Do What You Are” that helped them identify and refine their life goals. They also completed the “Strengths Quest” and “Do What You Are” inventories, administered by the University Career Center. Then, the women were asked to develop mission and value statements.

“We discussed what means a lot to us — words that represent us, our favorite colors, images,” said Ntissar. “We found our best qualities.”

Esraa, a law student at Cairo University, dove into plans for connecting nongovernmental organizations in her homeland.

“A lot of times, they overlap and don’t learn from each other’s mistakes,” she said. “They lose a lot of time and effort. I would like to coordinate the organizations, giving courses to volunteers to give them knowledge and skills.”

Basma, a student at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, wants to better integrate people with disabilities into her society. She collected statistics, researched services already available in her native country and planned an awareness campaign with assistance from institute directors.

The women found that simply meeting each other and sharing their passions in an open and creative environment was beneficial.

“I learned a lot about the other girls, but I was surprised to learn even more about myself,” said Esraa.

Mary Banwart, associate professor of communication studies, is academic director and co-principal investigator for the grant that funded the institute.

“This has been life-changing,” she said. “I am so optimistic about the future of these women. We’ve seen firsthand a level of deep critical thinking on social issues and an incredible passion for change. You can see they’re going to persevere.”

Kansas and beyond

The core of the institute’s curriculum was designed by Banwart and Andi Witczak, director of the Center for Service Learning and co-principal investigator of the institute grant. Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science, also was a co-principal investigator. Linda Dixon, program assistant at the Center for Service Learning, was the administrative director of the program.

“We’ve been working on this curriculum for four years,” said Witczak. “We were trying to find a way for disciplines to work together because no one discipline can solve these problems.”

Part of the learning experience was going beyond campus. The women traveled to the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita and the Kansas Insurance Commission in Topeka. They met with Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a KU alumna. Another alumna, Barbara Carswell, first vice president of Capital Federal bank in Topeka, also addressed the group.

In early August, the group traveled to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The National Constitution Center hosted the women in Philadelphia, designing programming that included a meeting with Judge Marjorie Rendell, first lady of Pennsylvania. Keith Yehle, director of federal relations at KU, organized panels and meetings for the group to interact with alumnae living in the Capitol.

“We truly couldn’t have done this with without the assistance of these people from across the university, local community, state and alumnae networks,” said Banwart.

The next steps

By now, all of the women have returned home. But the institute is far from over. Throughout the fall semester, the women and their KU mentors will communicate via Webinars, videoconferencing and online discussion boards. The women also will complete reflection papers as they work to see their social innovation projects come to fruition.

In December, participants will submit mini grant proposals to fund their projects. Banwart says institute leaders will review the proposals and offer feedback. The goal is to use the proposals in perpetuity as they grow their projects and secure more grants.

Banwart is hopeful the institute continues beyond this inaugural year. She and her colleagues will submit follow-up materials to the State Department in hopes of receiving a two-year grant renewal.

“This was a personal and professional highlight for me,” Banwart said. “These women are incredibly impressive.”

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