Photo by Lauren Caldwell
Positive energy fills the room as high school girls from across San Francisco gather at the South San Francisco Conference Center for the 18th annual Young Women’s Health and Leadership Summit. Young women from high schools such as Lowell, Washington, International and many more eagerly introduce themselves to each other as they exchange excited looks.
The Young Women’s Health and Leadership Summit (YWHLS) is an annual event sponsored by the UCSF National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health and the San Francisco Unified School District. This year, YWHLS took place on March 15 from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.
YWHLS was co-founded in 2000 by Dr. Nancy Milliken, director of the UCSF National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and California Congresswoman Jackie Speier. The summit aims to empower young women to take care of their health and well-being by providing a safe environment for high school girls to learn from each other and from women activists. At the conference, young women listen to inspirational speakers, watch performances and participate in workshops to explore topics such as stress management, healthy eating, sexual health and healthy relationships. This year, more than 250 young women from San Francisco’s public and charter schools attended the event.
The summit is designed for young women by young women. The leaders in charge of planning the summit are on the Youth Steering Committee (YSC). The YSC is a year-long leadership program at UCSF for young women ages 16–18 who are attending San Francisco high schools. From August 2017 to early March 2018, the YSC worked to decide the summit’s theme, nominated key speakers for the summit, and identified important issues to be addressed during the workshop sessions.
The summit is designed for young women by young women.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Together with Love, We Rise Above.” At the summit, speakers, performers and students came together to share stories of resilience and strength. In honor of the summit’s goal to shatter society’s negative expectations for women, performance artist Ramona Webb took the stage to perform a poem she had written. In her poem, Webb shared her personal experiences of speaking up against sexual harassment. Webb’s poem earned a wave of applause from the young women at the summit, many of whom stood up and held up signs that read “#sistersupport.”
For the summit’s closing panel discussion, Webb interviewed young women activists who shared stories of how they became involved with activism and offered advice for girls who wanted to create change within their communities.
One of the panelists, Kiah Killens, shared that she and several of her classmates stood up to sexual harassment at her school by urging their district representatives to modify Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) sexual harassment policy. They wanted to make sure that victims could report sexual harassment without being penalized, and that the reporting process is fair and unbiased.
Killens and her classmates aimed to modify their district’s sexual harassment policy in response to “slap-ass Friday,” when boys at her school would slap and touch girls’ behinds for fun. These boys would touch girls inappropriately and when girls tried to speak up and report these incidents, they were ignored or disregarded, according to Killens.
Killens wanted to shed light on the importance of speaking up, and found that when girls stand together and speak up against sexual harassment as a collective voice, it really made a difference. “We spoke the truth, and our truth was powerful,” Killens said. This message of the importance of speaking up is exactly what the organizers of the summit want to encourage in young women through the summit.
“We spoke the truth, and our truth was powerful”
The summit was made possible by a group of young women on the YSC committed to making a positive difference in the lives of their peers. “I care about helping girls out because at the summit, you can see people’s faces — they look happier, and I think [the summit] really impacts them for a long time,” said Lowell senior Saleen Lee, who is on the YSC. “I know a lot of girls who go to the summit also want to apply [for YSC] after they’ve been to the summit, so it’s like a cycle of girls, and I just want the work to keep going on and I want to be part of changing this world.”