April 13, 2023
On March 29, 2023, the Young Professionals of UNA-NCA hosted a fireside chat for the 2023 theme for Women’s History Month, titled “Our Voices Are Our Strength: Women Storytellers.” This theme sheds light on women in the media is titled "Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories" as a recognition of women, past and present, who have been active in all forms of storytelling in the U.S. and worldwide. Furthermore, to recognize the impact of women who have been active in all forms of media and storytelling. Panelists will share best practices and tips related to storytelling and shed light on issues and groups often overlooked in the U.S. and globally.

The stellar panelists included Heba Katoon - Communications Manager, Conference and Convenings, Women Deliver, Melissa Noel - Multimedia News Journalist, Contributing News and Politics Editor at Essence, Magazine, and Melissa Tolentino - Communications Specialist, Hitachi, former Public Affairs Specialist U.S. Dept. State. All of these panelists spoke from their own lived experiences and do not reflect the opinion of the panelists’ employers or of the U.S. government.

Nadjad Salifou, Young Professionals Member of UNA-NCA, welcomed attendees and outlined the event and the importance of elevating women in storytelling. Young Professionals Member of UNA-NCA, Hayley Pottle, moderated the event. This was an opportunity for these female leaders in their respective fields to share their insights, advice and perspectives on the barriers and opportunities as women in their professions.

The first question for the panelists asked what prompted them to use the media to tell stories about issues and communities that are often overlooked? The first panelist, Heba, spoke to her life experience and growing up in Egypt and how she uses communication to highlight the need for inclusion and raise awareness of inclusion and representation. Through her work at UN Women and WomenDeliver, she has executed campaigns for the Generation Equality Forum and others. Melissa T. spoke about her experience as a first generation Guyanese American woman and how she wanted to be a storyteller and keep them connected to the world as she was inspired by her grandmother who stayed connected to her home country through a Guyanese newspaper in the United States. As a journalist, she found a lack of representation in her field as she worked in network news and she decided to freelance in the Caribbean and take her passion for storytelling to report in the region and created a Caribbean correspondent role. Melissa T. spoke to her experience as a Filipino American growing up in both Japan and America. She recognized that in both contexts, there was a lack of representation due to social norms and that she wanted to help provide an avenue to tell deeper stories that reflected those often not heard and how her work has taken her across both public and private sectors. All of these women recognized opportunities to use their voices to shed light on challenges, issues and support underrepresented communities.

The second question was on the 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories. The moderator inquired to the panelists, what does this theme symbolize to you? How are you celebrating and honoring those active in all forms of storytelling in the U.S. and worldwide? Melissa T. shared how it is vital to celebrate and honor women writers as well as women writers from marginalized communities as those stories and spaces are valuable and unique. All of the panelists highlighted how critical mentorship is especially in empowerment, solidarity, and combating imposter syndrome. Melissa N. also emphasized collaboration and mentorship is powerful to advance women into leadership roles, so that those stories can be ‘covered with care’ for women and underrepresented communities. And how that working with others has allowed “Some of the best work I have done in storytelling has been with other women.” Innovation and collaboration are the key themes that Heba shared as what this month and theme meant to her. A specific example of that was when she was working with the UN Women Arab States to show the lack of representation in STEM on the campaign “Finding Her” in STEM fields which went viral and was a visual and innovative way to engage with both the local and global communities.

Following, each panelist was asked what their first-order priorities are to prevent storytelling from being a source of gender inequality and other inequitable practices? Melissa N. shared how it is important for women to be able to tell their own stories, to be believed when they share and that safe space to share is necessary. As Melissa is working across women segments across their lives has helped her grow.
Heba shared how it is “important to call people in rather than out” in storytelling. And that by combining data with storytelling, a powerful story can be shaped. It is also vital to uphold accessibility measures (translations, sign language, closed captioning, etc.). Melissa T. spoke to how “storytelling is a two-way street” which was paramount when she worked on the Fulbright program. “We can’t expect people to want to share their stories if we don’t really listen” and by listening to Fulbright participants actively, she better showcased those stories.

The moderator, Hayley, then shifted to ask the panelists what lessons and insights they could share from their personal and professional experience in shedding light on issues and groups often overlooked in the U.S. and globally? In addition, what major factors do they think have led to these divides persisting, and what are their organizations or their main priorities and opportunities for fresh gains? Heba started this question off by sharing that being attentive to ensuring that language is inclusive (across intersectional identities) is significant. For example how we are referring to underrepresented groups. Also Heba emphasized the need to utilize the media to also impact minds, change behavior and for advocacy as “collaboration with others will amplify our collective strength for impact.” Finally an insight Heba shared was to “keep the conversation going to keep raising awareness for positive change.” Melissa N. took the time to survey what needs, stories, and issues that were not getting enough attention or news time in the Caribbean and then she worked to see how she could elevate those. The lesson is, “you don’t have to have the biggest platform to share a good story. Also timing is important, the timing will reveal itself when to make the biggest impact.” Melissa T. shared the wisdom that messaging and telling stories are not the same thing. Messaging is carefully curated and sometimes can lack authenticity. In telling stories, it’s important for communication professionals to take a step back and allow people to share their experiences unfiltered and authentically.

A short Q&A for audience members was provided to the panelists that asked about the art of networking. Melissa N. shared how networking should be intentional and that it can be non-traditional such as connections via social media that can serve both professional and personal growth. In her life, she has professionally collaborated and worked with colleagues in storytelling that she met via Instagram. Another question from the audience was whether the panelists saw impact from their work. Melissa T. shared that she did see how her storytelling brought people together through her work in Fulbright to open doors through international exchanges where participants were able to build relationships across cultures through the art of storytelling. Heba also shared that impact can only be sustainable when there is localization relevant to the context and community it is intended to serve (such as a program provided in the native language of the community).

In closing, the moderator provided thank yous to the panelists and both Nadjad and Lanice Williams as Young Professionals Leads with UNA-NCA provided closing comments and key takeaways. Highlights included innovation and collaboration is essential to uplifting women’s stories. And that for young women professionals, sharing and highlighting stories in local communities is important as well as engaging in mentorship and mentoring. And that in our work, we must hold an intersectional lens that embraces and supports multiple identities.

The fireside chat concluded with gratitude for the panelists and a call to action to elevate women and others across all stories.

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