Going back to your high school campus isn't always easy.
You might find that you recognize a maximum of five people... and that they're all former teachers. You might find that where you used to pretend to get a book from your locker (but really check to see if a fellow middle schooler was at his locker), has been turned into a near-Olympic-sized pristine swimming pool. Old classrooms have been replaced with zero-energy solar paneled ones and the gym you used to practice, perform, announce and even flirt in has received new paint, new lettering, new everything.
And yet, returning to Brentwood School on Saturday ushered in a whole other set of emotions as I took my seat for the first ever Young Women's Conference -- a concept three years in the making and fully student imagined. Were we this innovative as senior girls? Did we care this much about finding a voice and doing something to change bullying, to change the "mean girl cycle," to talk about body image and social media?
Jade Iovine, a senior at Brentwood School, was bullied in the eighth grade and pushed out of her friend group. She, along with a small group of girls, have worked for the past two years to create a conference mirrored after Maria Shriver's Women's Conference.
They titled their conference "It's Our Turn" and it was not some projector-run, slideshow-and-cue card kind of day. It was big. It brought in megastar Mary J. Blige, Maria Shriver (a Brentwood parent), and surprise guest Lady Gaga -- who quite literally shook the gymnasium floor when her name was announced.
"It's Our Turn" hosted an audience of young women and men, parents, members of the press and students from over 110 schools around Los Angeles. They welcomed women at the top of their game, hooked them up to mics, and ran panels discussing what it's like to be a best-selling author or a World Cup athlete; what it's like to run a television studio or represent shows like Friends and Sex And The City. And frankly, I was jealous. Why hadn't we thought of this? Why didn't we have this kind of conviction, this ability to take the ever-generic desire to change the world and do something tangible with it?
In high school, we wrote in journals, we published poems in the literary magazine. We didn't bring together hundreds of people to discuss on the biggest stage some of the most fundamental issues plaguing young women today. How do I look? What do I eat? How do I find this elusive idea of self-confidence? Who am I and why?
The wise-beyond-her-years Jade Iovine welcomed the audience with some opening remarks and I found myself writing down her words, thinking about her call to stretch our comfort zones, to not care about the answer to the question "What do you want to be?" but formulate an answer to "Why do you want to be?" She closed with: "We're not too young and we'll never be too old."
I am not one to join hands and root for girl power. I had a big brother around and a mother who taught us from the earliest age that we are equal (he still debates it). I was the only girl on a club boy's basketball team and felt uncomfortable chanting things like, "we are women, hear us roar." I had strong female role models in my life and looked up to the older girls at Brentwood. But I struggled with the same body image, self-esteem and identity issues as every single other teenage girl I knew.
Seventeen magazine's Jess Weiner revealed that globally, only 4 percent of women consider themselves beautiful (according to the Dove Campaign). Mary J. Blige asked the young women in the audience to "stop pushing yourself under the table to make other people feel good about themselves." She confessed that she still doesn't know that she belongs sometimes but said, "find out who you are and get to know yourself. Love yourself and love will come to you."
I sat in the audience and noticed the girls around me. Some wore short shorts, high boots, trendy mesh tops likely from Forever 21. Some wore glasses and hung on tightly to their best friends' hands. Some looked shy, some looked outspoken. They were all decidedly perfectly teen-aged.
But when a montage video played of 22-year-old Alex Morgan and we watched her miraculously score goal after goal in the Women's World Cup, iPhones were silenced and chitter chatter stopped. She spoke about confidence and referred to herself as "the most competitive person you'll ever meet." I could see the wheels turning behind the eyes of the young women in that room.
I spoke to Mary J. Blige backstage and asked her about the biggest lesson she learned as a teenager. She said, "I didn't really learn any lessons in my teenage years. But as a woman, I learned that self-love is just as important as anything. Confidence comes from loving yourself and then your identity shows up. Now you own what you are and people believe you when they look in your eyes and shake your hand." When I asked her what the best piece of advice she's received as a woman is, she paused and replied: "To get out of my own way. When I stop blocking myself, I win."
There were too many highlights, choice quotes and powerful moments at the Young Women's Conference to begin to recount them here. But that's not really the point. The young women in the audience on Saturday felt acknowledged. They felt that they have a voice, but that more specifically, the power of their voices can instigate conversation and change -- and that nothing, including themselves, should get in the way of doing that.
See photos from the conference below and read a bit more about what some of the presenters had to say: