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Melinda French Gates - Powerful Voices Annual Luncheon

October 16, 2003
Remarks by Melinda French Gates, co-chair

Thanks, Julie, for that warm welcome. I’d like to thank the board and staff of Powerful Voices for inviting me here to speak today. It’s terrific to see so many familiar faces – old friends from Microsoft, some new friends from a visit I made last month to the Powerful Voices community. And I’m delighted to see so many girls from the Powerful Voices program here this afternoon. We are here because of them.

Bill and I both love living in Seattle. It is truly a fantastic place. And it’s because of the work of people in this room that Seattle is becoming an even better and better place to live. That’s what we’re about today – to support our region.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call Powerful Voices a community. Obviously, something special has already happened in the short life of this program to bind together the people who make it work – the visionaries who conceived it, the women who volunteer their time, those of you who support it, and the girls who invest so much of themselves each week. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about these girls – particularly the ones in juvenile detention. Last month I was able to witness how Powerful Voices helps these young women articulate their goals, identify the obstacles in their way, and outline the steps to fulfill their dreams. I saw these girls talk frankly about the challenges before them. They were talking about the compromising situations they often find themselves in. They were talking about how they needed to take charge of their reproductive health. And the counselors and mentors were there talking with them about sexual reproduction. It was amazing what these girls knew. And it was amazing to hear them talk very frankly and candidly, as Julie said, in an environment where no one was judging them, about sex and its consequences on their life.

I have to tell you, there was a lot of positive thinking in that room. One girl said the most important goal in her life was to become “the best mother possible.” Her goal was to regain custody of her 2-year-old daughter when she got out of detention in the next few weeks. Another’s personal mission, taken directly from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, was to find “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.”

It takes a lot of strength to speak in public about your goals. And their strength proves the transformation that can happen when a young woman, at a crucial stage of her life, is empowered with the simple message that her dreams do matter. We all know how hard it is to be a teenager, especially under the best circumstances, which I think most of us in this room were probably privileged enough to grow up under. But when you mix that with the problems that these young girls face in particular, it’s easy to see why so many voices get lost in the shuffle. People were given voices for a reason, and thanks to Powerful Voices, these voices in Seattle are starting to be heard loud and clear.

Since the Gates Foundation began, I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a bit, and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with many people who are making a difference in their local communities. And I can say, what I saw in Powerful Voices last month ranks right up there with anything I’ve seen around the world. And that’s because it started with a local vision and it’s got a power and a passion that drives it and keeps it going. I’m grateful to have seen it up close. The community is grateful that you built it here, where it has already has had an impact. And increasingly, that impact is spreading around the country, because people are coming to learn from your success. This organization is hearing from other organizations around the country that are looking at the model that they started. They are calling for materials and wanting to come on site visits themselves. I think this model will spread to other organizations, and that’s when you know you’ve got a great idea. Powerful Voices says a lot about the kind of place we want to live in, and by extension, it says a lot about the kind of world we want to live in.

As many of you may have seen in the newspaper recently, Bill and I’ve just returned from a trip to Africa. Every time I go there, or anywhere in the developing world, I learn again how hard it is for women – especially young women – to find their voice. There is a brilliant simplicity to the motto of Powerful Voices:  “Strong girls make strong women.”  We can safely take it a step further: Strong women make strong societies. Nothing matters more to our future than the well being of women and children.
 
In every nation on earth, it’s proven that when women have access to medicine, education, and jobs, they take these benefits and extend them to the entire family and community. And these benefits never end – they repeat themselves from generation to generation. Ultimately, healthy families build healthy economies. And guess what, those build peaceful societies.

How does a girl become strong? How does she enact change? How does she grow into a strong woman? It begins with a step that sounds simple, but isn’t. She finds her voice. A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult. It’s complicated by the fact that in most nations women receive substantially less education than men. In fact, in the developing world, the majority of women don’t receive an education at all. In a developed society like ours, or in Europe, women receive terrific educations. But we’re sorely lacking in certain subjects, such as math and science. We’re very underrepresented in those fields.

So finding one’s voice is made more difficult by the thousands of subtle pressures, covert and overt, that coax young women to mute their voices in order to please their parents, their teachers, their boyfriends and sometimes even their employers.

Still, there are so many examples of strong individuals who overcame those pressures, and in doing so, changed the world. Think, for example for a minute if you will, of a heroine of mine – Dr. Pamela Edainya. She’s a Kenyan doctor who volunteered to be one of the very first people to be inoculated with a new AIDS vaccine that’s under development. That day, she said, “I’m doing it for myself, for Kenyans, and for the world.” That’s about as strong a voice as you can get. Or think of some of the change agents in this room. Like the three women who came together to found Powerful Voices in 1995: Julie Edsforth, Ann Muno and Laura Culberg.

It’s not easy to bring a new idea into existence. It’s not easy even to stand up and talk about why things need to change. I know that from my own experience as a young adolescent searching for my own voice. It’s a long and difficult process, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s never finished. At least I hope it’s never finished. I think a voice is always a work in progress.
  
When I was growing up in Dallas, Texas, I was very lucky although I didn’t always recognize it at the time. Both of my parents took great care to find out what I was interested in. They could not have been more supportive of my education and that of my siblings.

Around eighth grade, at exactly the age we are talking about, something magical happened to me that was so subtle I barely noticed it at the time. One of my female teachers selected me to take an advanced math class, which meant that while I sat in the same room with everybody else, I sat with a table of boys, and worked on harder math problems than I ever worked on before.

Though I didn’t know at the time that I was good at math, my teacher recognized this talent in me. And for me, just knowing that someone else believed in my ability gave me an enormous confidence boost. And math, in fact, became my favorite subject, which gave me an advantage by the time I went to high school and started in math there. Math also led to my high school fascination with computers, and that led me to select Duke University to study computer science and, ultimately, a career at Microsoft. So arguably, you could say that the reason that I am speaking before you today is traceable to a female teacher’s silent decision to give me a chance in the eighth grade.

My life was also strongly shaped by the teachers I learned from in high school. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school in Texas. And the women who taught us had traveled the world. They’d raised families and lived life on their own terms. They taught us brilliantly, both inside and outside the classroom. They brought home to us the enormous importance of setting goals in life. It was something they had us do every single month in the classroom. We set yearly and monthly goals, and sometimes weekly goals. They encouraged us to do challenging work in the real world.  In fact, the motto of my high school was servitium, which in Latin means to serve. We held internships all through high school, at a local hospital, a local public school, and also at the Dallas County Courthouse, where we saw real life, up close and personal, and I can tell you, it was definitely good for us.

 I was also lucky because later in life, some very strong women took an interest in me, and helped me develop my voice. Specifically, they gave me the confidence that most things that should be changed CAN be changed, and the way we change them is by speaking up.

One in particular whom I would like to highlight and thank is Katherine Graham. You probably know who she is – the legendary owner of the Washington Post. She courageously championed the investigation of Watergate and performed countless acts of civil service and leadership during her long life in Washington, D.C.

You might think that because of her wealth and position, her strength was a foregone conclusion. And I’m here to tell you that it was anything but. If you happened to read her candid memoir, A Personal History, (which became a Pulitzer Prize winner and bestseller, not only because men read her book, but because so many women’s reading groups read her book) you know what a struggle every step of her journey was.

It was only after the tragic death of her husband, Phil, when she had to attend business meetings to save the newspaper, that she really discovered her voice. Her father had handed the newspaper to Kay Graham, but her husband had run it, up until he died. And she realized that if she wanted to save this newspaper that she loved, she needed to take it over.

In her book, she used words like “terror” and “agony” to describe her very first speech. But then she learned something very simple and very important. She said, “Just by putting one foot in front of the other, I was actually moving forward.”

After baring her soul in her book, she still didn’t know what title to give it, and a mutually good friend of ours suggested that it be called “On Wobbly Knees” – because, I have to say, that even at the rather advanced age of 70, she never lost that anxiety that we all feel when talking or writing about ourselves. What a relief it was to learn that!  And what great inspiration she gave me as I began to speak out that things were not right, the more and more I learned through the foundation’s work, about women and children across the globe.

That spirit has guided my own work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and particularly my belief in the change that is possible for all of us when women are given the chance to make their voices heard.

Before we started the foundation, Bill and I were thinking about how we might make a difference. And one of the places that we looked to and learned a lot from was the Grameen Bank. If you don’t know, the Grameen Bank is an organization in Bangladesh that spearheaded a global movement to offer business loans to poor people in developing countries. Prior to this, poor people really had no access to a bank, or hope of getting a loan. The Grameen bank gave these very small loans of $30 to $50 to poor people out in these villages. And I’m here to tell you that they made an enormous difference. Guess what? Ninety four percent of the bank’s loans go to women. And 98 percent of these loans are paid back in full.

So what are some of the things that these women do? It’s really quite remarkable if you meet some of these women. Some of them purchase a farm animal and start a small dairy. Another that we met purchased a barrel of seeds and started a small farm. Another one purchased a sewing machine and became a seamstress. One of them purchased the only phone that her village had and charged people to use that phone. She became her own telecommunications company, I guess.

Some women set up fruit and vegetable stands, others sell shoes and toiletries. But in the process they learn math skills. They learn how to balance their budget, how to make a profit and how to keep those records. And what do they do with the money they earn?  From these earnings, they buy essentials for their family. They buy food, they buy medicine, they buy clothing, they buy shoes, they buy books, they buy school uniforms. That’s how they support their families, and it works.

In different ways the foundation’s tried to give women and children the same kind of help that the Grameen Bank and Powerful Voices provide. We’re trying to give tools they need to live healthy lives and realize their goals. As you heard from Julie, a large portion of our giving is in global health and education. And part of the reason that I believe so strongly in health and education is that when you get right down to it, these are both essentially women’s issues. In this work, we are certainly not alone. In fact, there are many that have come before us and there are many that we stand with. We partner with some incredible people and incredible organizations that are coming up with creative solutions to problems and need our help to get their ideas to as many people as possible.

Another personal heroine that I’d like to highlight is Dr. Zeta Rosenburg because I so love her work. She has been leading extremely innovative work to help women protect themselves against HIV/AIDS. And I cannot tell you how critical this work is. In many countries where AIDS is most prevalent, women don’t have the power to demand that their partners use condoms. In fact, a lot of times they are abused if they ask their partner to use a condom. And they’re contracting HIV in much higher numbers.

Dr. Rosenburg is driving a research effort to help get a microbicide out to women. If you’ve never heard of a microbicide, let me explain what it is. It’s a clear, odorless gel that is in phase two trials, that we believe is going to block transmission of HIV/AIDS from a man to a woman. It looks like the best case is that we’ll have one hopefully in seven years. There are many of us that are pushing this along. This critical research will for the first time put the power of preventing HIV infection into the hands of women. Their partners don’t have to know that they are using this gel. We can mix it with or without a spermicide, and I think it will finally change the face of this disease.

I feel like I should just put one little note here, which is just to say that Bill and I believe, especially just coming back from Africa, there are so many things we still need to do on AIDS. And we are still going to be pushing prevention and condom usage where we can. On the other end of the scale, we believe the long-term solution to AIDS is a vaccine. We’re putting millions of dollars into research for an AIDS vaccine. But it could realistically be 18 to 20 years out. We have to have in interim solution, and that’s why I’m so fundamentally excited about microbicides.  Microbicides give women the message that there is hope. And once one is proven to work, you better believe that we’ll campaign tirelessly to get the message out to women worldwide that there is hope here. There is a microbicide that can save you and your children.

Bill and I are so grateful to live in the Pacific Northwest. And as we thought about establishing a foundation, we agreed it was essential to help vulnerable women and families of this region. And so we are working hard at exactly what you are trying to do, with such impressive results: giving young people, at a critical juncture of their lives, the most important tool of all – self-confidence.

Powerful Voice’s work with adolescents could not be more critical. Some recent scientific research has confirmed something that most mothers have known for thousands of years: the teenage brain is extremely complicated. At the same precocious moment when young people are figuring out what kind of person they want to become, they are surrounded by all kinds of dangers that can rob them of their future life choices. Almost overnight, problems from the adult world appear and can leave scars that last a lifetime. Domestic violence, drug abuse, alcoholism and poverty all have root in adolescence.

Girl teens face particular challenges to their body image and self-confidence. Many are pressured to be sexually active before they are ready, and to use drugs. Less dramatic, but no less threatening is the fact that many are expected to be less outspoken than boys and are directed away from certain career paths.

Have any of you seen the recent film “Thirteen”?  Anybody besides me?  A few people. I see a lot of movies and even though the title was “Thirteen”, I spent the first five minutes of the movie thinking that the main character, was in fact, 18 years old. I was so shocked and stunned. 

That movie made me so relieved that I’m not in middle school. It gives a terrifying stark portrayal of the social pressures felt by girls who are changing faster than their parents can keep up with them. That’s why I believe so strongly in one of the key messages of Powerful Voices – that reinforcement works. That professional mentors can have a profound effect on young women. That the simple act of talking to another person can lift burdens and find solutions. That tracking girls after they regain their freedom keeps them from falling back into bad habits. That counseling about health care and birth control provides an important tool for young women who are too often treated as either children or full grown adults – when the truth is obviously in between.

Studies indicate that girls do not learn in the same ways that boys do. They are far more relational, attuned not only to their peers but also to their role models. While they may not always admit it, they truly need people in their lives who care. 

This summer, NPR ran a powerful series on the U.S. juvenile justice system, and argued that even the toughest girls get their self-esteem and confidence from their community. Who are you to a girl? 

You are hope.

You are safety.

You are knowledge.

You are confidence.

You are everything.

In other words, what you’re doing works, and it works at exactly the right time. By generously sharing your time, your insights and experiences, all of you involved with Powerful Voices are leaving a lasting and powerful impact. And I suspect you’ve discovered something that I, too, have learned through the foundation’s work – that the impact is felt in both directions. No one enters a relationship like this and comes away unchanged.

So let me conclude with a simple expression of thanks for all that Powerful Voices is doing to shape a better future for Seattle. And let’s not forget all of the other organizations that many of us in this room also support, whether that’s Passages Northwest, the YWCA and the Girl Scouts, to name a few. They need our help too. Not just financial support, but they need the help of your time, and your mentorship and your caring.

There is no one more fascinating – no one more alive with the possibilities of life, no one more curious to learn from an adult or mentor who will spend some time with her. For energy…for spontaneity…for a sense of the full range of human emotion, there’s nothing like having a teenage girl in your life. If you don’t have a teenage girl in your life, you’re missing out on someone very important.

After decades studying the very different human societies that populate the globe, the anthropologist Margaret Mead reached an overarching conclusion: Women improve all of them. She placed a lot of faith in the ability of women to change the world.  In her words, “it has been a woman’s task throughout history to go on believing in life when there was almost no hope.” Whether we live in Botswana, or Bangladesh, or Bellevue, it is precisely that belief in life and its possibilities that unites all of us today. Thank you again for letting me add my voice to your own.

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