10/08/2013 05:26 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2013

Flipping the Narrative About Women and Girls: Lessons From the Social Good Summit


"The mind is everything. What you think you become."―Buddha

A few weeks ago I was a media participant at the three-day Social Good Summit in New York City and left there feeling like many others -- a bit overwhelmed and completely exhausted yet at the same time utterly inspired.

With over 200 speakers converging at the historic 92Y where "big ideas meet new media to create innovative solutions," I was able to witness some very significant and memorable moments. This ranged from Al Gore's very passionate plea to tackle climate change, to Malala's (and her father's!) poetic call on the "light" of education to help overshadow the "darkness" in the world. The innovations presented were remarkable and included the incredible SOCCKET (a soccer ball that generates power when played with) and, which is a news site that challenges the old-school notion that journalism should never intersect with activism for fear of diluting the integrity of the story.

All in all, one thing was clear to me about the Social Good Summit -- its narrative was built around the belief that technology and innovation will greatly improve our world and it was inspiring.

I want to also take the time to highlight what the Social Good Summit was not. It was not a place where problems were bigger than the possible solutions, it was not a place of self pity. It was not a gathering of skeptics. And it was not a critique of what isn't working, but what is. It was a platform for some incredibly passionate individuals who were on some, as one friend of mine stated, "gangster" journey for change. And because of that, they had me hooked - I stayed engaged, focused and even left inspired with some new ideas for projects I wanted to create.

So what's the lesson? As a filmmaker who makes film on issues affecting women and girls, I started asking myself, how could I harness that same energy and inspiration in my films? I've written in my previous post (Keeping My Soul Right: Making Global Health Films on Women and Girls) that I want to steer away from making more "victimizing" films but how could I take the incredible energy and hope I felt at Social Good and package it in my future films and create real change?

And then it occurred to me. I need to flip the narrative I'm constructing in my work about women and girls. And I need to do it not just for my audiences, but even more critically for the individuals I'm making the films about.

According to the article "Storytelling 2.0: When New Narratives Meet Old Brains" by John Bickle and Sean Keating, contributors to CultureLab, our personal selves are developed through a combination of external and internal narratives. They write, "Narratives, and the selves we construct through them, convey our individual perspectives of "self-in-world." While the internal narrative to me means the "inner voice" we all hear, I wanted to understand what constructs the external narratives, how they affect how we see ourselves in the world and how I, as a filmmaker, contribute to them?

I started revisiting the personal stories of the people at Social Good who have achieved remarkable things. Al Gore talked about the power of small discussions to address racism in the South.

Al Gore speaking at the 2013 Social Good Summit

While interviewing Kathy Calvin from the UN Foundation, she said it was her father and the messages he gave to her as a child that helped her become the woman she is today.

It made me also think of my own external narrative I had to overcome while being raised in a low-income, uneducated, single parent household. Luckily my mother helped instill a strong "inner voice" by telling me I was capable of doing anything. I also was pretty defiant against being seen as a "poor girl" (I lied about my mother's job, I use to have her drop me off several blocks from wherever I wanted to be so I would be seen in our poor-person's car (remember the Pinto?), and I even skipped lunch in high school so I didn't have to stand in the line for the "free school lunch" program.) I realized my internal narrative was much stronger than my external one that society was giving me and so I re-wrote my own future and am living a life I'm proud of.

It appears our perception of self in the world comes from our ability to balance the internal and external narratives we are faced with. If that is so, I believe I am doing a disservice to the women and girls I'm advocating for by reinforcing a harmful narrative that say girls are uneducated, are marginalized, are poor, etc. While these are definitely realities in the world, why must I focus so much on the problems? We all know girls are powerful, and there has been some movement to refocus the narrative on their potential, but in the same way I don't need to hear speakers from the Social Good Summit drown out their inspiring talks about funding struggles, I don't think I need to relay the hardships women and girls still face in order to make films that show they are remarkable beyond belief.

My new film ¡PODER! which tells the real-life story of two indigenous girls in Guatemala who did something remarkable for their community.

As I embark on my new initiative connecting artists with UN/NGO agencies entitled, "I Sell the Shadow" (based on civil rights advocate, Sojourner Truth's quote, "I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance), I plan to challenge the socially responsible artists who will be part of this network to really understand the power they have in shaping external narratives.

This weekend, I'm hosting my first workshop for artists that includes guest speakers from the development community who will talk about contracting creatives for advocacy campaigns and elaborating on some of the ethical considerations of making art about other cultures. For many of the attendees - which include filmmakers, poets, musicians and even an aerial dancer! - they are getting their first introduction into field of global health and development and it's wide variety of players. An exercise I will conduct will be to have them break down their own external and internal narratives to better understand their responsibility as future creative advocates who hold the power to construct imagery and story that can help build a positive, inspiring and beneficial external narrative instead of a destructive one.

[Exercise: What are your external and international narratives and how have they shaped your sense of self in the world? Feel free to post in comments.]

For more information on the workshop, please visit