Matilda Joslyn Gage Center Selected to Participate in "Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights" International Project

On September 17, 2013, Sally Roesch Wagner took part in a briefing on Capitol Hill for members of Congress, Department of State representatives and museum professionals, talking about our Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights project.  The Gage Foundation was one of three programs nationwide chosen to brief Congress on our Museums Connect projects, which were funded in part by the State Department and administered by the American Alliance of Museums.  This is what she said:

“The Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights project has opened my eyes, helped me discover my passion, and pushed me to find my voice. . .Learning about gender inequality on a global scale impacted me tremendously; I knew I wanted to do everything I could to fight injustices in our society.”

This is one of the voices of the Girl Ambassadors from my museum, The Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, NY. Leah took part last year in a Museums Connect project, Girl Ambassadors for Human rights.  The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience put us in touch with museums of memory in Chile and Sri Lanka in a daring experiment to see if teenage girls could connect and find common bond learning about gender inequality in each of their countries.

Our US museum celebrates the life of a forgotten woman’s rights advocate, while the Chilean museum holds the memory of those imprisoned and tortured under the Pinochet regime and the Sri Lanka site educates and empowers tea plantation workers.

20 girls, age 15-17, were chosen at each site.  In the US, the girls chosen came from a variety of backgrounds.  One girl described herself as fifth generation from slavery; another lost most of her relatives in the holocaust, while a third in her application chose one of Muhammad’s wives as the woman she most respected.  The Chilean girls came from more similar backgrounds, while the Sri Lankan girls all lived in the Tamil community of tea plantation workers.

There were aha moments when the girls discovered that, as different as their cultures were, they all shared some issues in common.  Women in both Chile and the US make about 75% of what men make, they found, with women about half of the labor force in both countries.  In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, women are largely the sustaining breadwinners.  While women work for job fairness in the US and Chile, the Tea Plantation workers in Sri Lanka struggle to keep their families fed.

The girls discovered that the path to equality is not a simple matter of one country leading others.  Change happens instead unevenly, in fits and starts.  For example, Sri Lanka and Chile both have had women heads of government while the U.S. has not.

They found their shared concerns: Girls in the US and Chile feel oppressed by the body image and fashion demands on them to be sexually attractive, while one of the Sri Lanka girls intervened to try to stop the forced marriage of her 15 year old friend.   Widely different experiences, but on the same spectrum of absence of control over their bodies and lives.

Our national foreign policy goals include promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world, which remains one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time and one that is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives.

The Girl Ambassador for Human Rights project met that objective in real, personal ways.  As their international awareness grew, our U.S. girls saw how improving the working conditions of the tea plantation workers improves the United States, as everyone is stronger when workers world-wide have the ability to advocate for themselves, as the Sri Lankan girls found voices to do.

From the large community events at each site during the International travel to the tremendous publicity we received in our communities, Museums Connect connected us locally as well as internationally.

Our Girl Ambassadors became spokespeople, doing public presentations and their class projects on the things they had learned. The girls invited their mothers to a session, asking them to talk about discrimination they had experienced growing up.  When the moms finished, they each shared their wishes for their daughters’ futures.  When the daughters, in turn, shared their wishes for their moms, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Gage Center.

If diplomacy can be measured in tears, the Girl Ambassador project succeeded.  As the girls shared their day to day lives with each other through their own Facebook community, and their human rights issues in each country through Skype, they formed friendships.  These ties strengthened as two girls and museum reps traveled to the other sites. By the time the Chilean and Sri Lankan Girl Ambassadors came to the U.S. for the final visit, the tears of goodbye cemented the friendships they had developed.

The vision of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is to expand the project, building with our three museums as the nucleus, to other museums around the world, creating a virtual network of Girl Ambassadors learning about and working for Human Rights.    In the meantime, we are continuing the project locally at the Gage Center, with several of the first year Girl Ambassadors continuing as the planning committee.  It was the mothers of the Girl Ambassadors who demanded that the project continue. As they watched the transformation of the lives of their daughters, they said, more girls need this experience.

Leah, the US girl, with whose words I began, ended her statement:

I owe so much to this project. I joined several social justice projects, was coaxed out of my generally shy shell, won a Central New York Peace Youth Action award and a social justice award was given to me by my school accompanied by an over $30,000 scholarship to the University of Rochester. 

From Leah’s Facebook friends in Chile who are now talking with her about coming to the US for college to the Sri Lankan girls who say they are finding courage to fight for their rights in their country because their US and Chilean friends are supporting them, these Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights are now in motion, working to promote gender equality and advance the status of all women and girls around the world.


Sept. 18, 2012

Dear Friends,

We’d like to invite you to spread the word about a unique opportunity we have for 15-20 girls ages 15-17 in our region to engage with girls from Chile and Sri Lanka in a program training Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights. The information below will give you more details about the program.  Please request anyone interested to fill out the application then email it back to us or mail it in to our PO box listed below.

We are looking for a diverse group of girls to participate and are eager to get applications as soon as possible. To be considered as one of the two girls traveling to Sri Lanka in December, we need applications by September 26.  For everyone else, we have extended the application process to October 5, which will be the last date for applications to be received.  We’ll be reviewing applications and will let all applicants know whether or not they have been chosen by October 8.  Since we have openings for 20 girls, there is a good chance of being accepted.

Here is the schedule of the activities girls commit to by applying:
OCTOBER 13 –  3:00-5:00 P.M. Get Acquainted get-together
Girl Ambassadors begin to think about what they’d like to share about their ideas of freedom with other sites in our first call with Girl Ambassadors from Sri Lanka and Chile and what older woman they would like to interview about her ideas of freedom
OCTOBER 22 – 6:30-8:30 P.M.
Our first dialogue with all the girls sharing ideas about freedom, plan our presentation for the girls from Sri Lanka and Chile
OCTOBER 26 – 9:30 – 11:00 A.M.  This is a school day so we’ll work with your school to get permission for you to be absent.
First international call with girls from Sri Lanka and Chile sharing ideas about freedom
SESSION TO BE SCHEDULED: Training in video equipment and oral history interviews
Two more local dialogues (in January and March) and two international teleconference dialogues (February and May)  GIRL AMBASSADORS WILL DECIDE DATES
December 1-5 –  two girls travel with Gage representatives to Sri Lanka
March 6-12 two girls travel to Chile with Gage representatives
May 1-6 Girl Ambassadors welcome girls from Chile and Sri Lanka to the Gage Center, all present a public program

Thank you for helping us reach out to girls who would like to participate in the program.

Sally Roesch Wagner and Vanessa Johnson,
Project Directors

Original post – August 9, 2012:

The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation (Fayetteville, NY) has been awarded a grant to participate in “Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights”, a one-year project which will bring together girls from the Villa Grimaldi museum (Chile), the Institute of Social Development (Sri Lanka) and the Gage Foundation.  The participating museums are all members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which partnered in the grant awarded by the Museums Connect Program, which is made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is administered by the American Association of Museums.

In an effort to help inspire and equip a new generation of women activists, the Girl Ambassadors for Human Rights program will bring together 50 teenage girls from Fayetteville, Sri Lanka, and Chile to explore and share the parallels between gender issues past and present through facilitated dialogue, social media technology, and international exchange.

Under the mentorship of community leaders, the girls will use the museums’ exhibits as a launch pad to explore local women’s history and roles in social change, questions of identity, gender-based discrimination, and definitions of what it means to be a free woman. They will share what they’ve learned through public presentations and dialogue, both virtual and in-person, to identify common goals and tactics that transcend differing cultural expectations and desires.

“Cultural exchanges are an incredible way to show the world America’s unique creativity and spirit,” said Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. “That’s why the United States supports programs like Museums Connect-to foster the people-to-people connections that strengthen a museum’s presence in its community, and the community’s presence in the world.”

“We are delighted to provide this opportunity for Onondaga County girls to develop friendships and a deeper understanding of women’s lives internationally and to highlight our museum and community to our international visitors,” Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, Executive Director of the Gage Center, responded.

Each site will choose 15-20 girls, ages 15 – 17, to participate in the project and a total of four Central New York girls will be selected to travel with Gage Center Staff to Sri Lanka and Chile to meet with their overseas peers.  In addition, the Gage Center will host the girls and museum staff from Sri Lanka and Chile for one week during the project year.  Teenage girls interested in participating should email for an application.  Located at 210 East Genesee Street in Fayetteville, the Gage Center for Dialogue on Social Justice Issues offers tours by appointment.


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