What Monuments Will We Inspire?

KWLI participants in Washington, D.C. (2015).


What comes to mind when you imagine great leadership? I think of President Barack Obama’s oration on modern racism in America, Benjamin Franklin’s legendary diplomacy, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s determination in the civil rights movement.

My instinct is to think of many U.S. presidents who were great thinkers and change-makers of their time: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. When I think of modern leadership, I imagine Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg using their technical prowess to ensure a vivid and accessible digital world. I admire moral courage and great intellectual foresight, but my imagination is only populated by men. These men, though representative of my values, do not understand my daily life as a woman. I respect their wisdom and achievements, but I remember distinctly feeling isolated when observing monuments of men as markers of history in Washington, D.C. Men, I realized, were seen as worthy of being carved into marble because, throughout history, they were the only people seen as powerful, and are therefore remembered as more than just men. Statues of men evoke a sense of the institutions and social movements of their time. It matters greatly that I can’t remember visiting the statue of a woman and not feeling that she and I were utterly alone (hello, Eleanor Roosevelt). Women, despite what they may achieve, remain unworthy of monumental remembrance in the eyes of society. Therefore, I can only conclude one thing: The women’s movement is not done.


Learning Adaptive Leadership

As part of a six-week program this summer to further women’s rights, I worked for the 2015 Kansas Women’s Leadership Institute (KWLI) at the University of Kansas (KU). At the 2015 KWLI*, women from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Morocco, and rural towns in Kansas created and sustained a safe space to learn and practice adaptive leadership, defined as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” The theory of adaptive leadership recognizes that changes in the environment “demand new strategies and abilities, as well as the leadership to mobilize…” (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 14). Addison Keegan-Harris, the Academic Program Coordinator and Administrative Associate to the Leadership Minor at KU, describes the program in these words:

“Rather than learning what to do in a position of authority, people are taught to do what they can with what they have. Adaptive leadership is different because rather than learning how to direct, the women in our program learn to engage a system on important issues in their local community.”

Practically speaking, the KWLI empowers promising young women to take on problems they identify in their local societies. The participants learn how to mobilize a system, or group of people engaged in shared challenges. This happens through participation in intense coursework that involves self-exploration, problem identification, possible solution examination through the lens of “smart experiments,” and mapping stakeholders and allies. Adaptive leadership, rather than focusing on creating the almighty hero, provides the tools necessary to engage everyone in a mission.


The KWLI participates in a “Speed Mentoring” event (2015).


Ultimately, the goal of the KWLI’s programming is to elevate women’s voices. The institute achieves their goal by providing all women involved with opportunities to speak, to be heard, and to be supported. Through mentor events and interactive lectures, the KWLI seeks to create mutually inspiring relationships. In order to generate a global experience, the attendees, lecturers, and facilitators, are selected for their diverse identities and experiences—from the biology professor who picks her kids up from practice to the student political activist from India. Every woman learns from one another and encourages each other to confront the challenges they face in their respective societies. This summer program is possible only because so many women believe in its mission of raising women’s voices as the indispensable resources in various workplaces and societies around the world.


KWLI participants at Watson Library, University of Kansas (2015).


Dr. Mary Banwart, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at KU, Principal Investigator and Academic Director of the KWLI, iterates the goal of the KWLI to “elevate women’s voices” at nearly every event. Dr. Banwart is an enthusiastic director for the KWLI, saying she chose to teach adaptive leadership as a forward-thinking model because it “focuses on a systems perspective, which presumes that there isn’t an all-knowing perspective, but, rather, communities that can be mobilized to engage in a problem. Adaptive leadership also enforces the idea that we can learn from each other even as we have a shared purpose.” When I asked whether she saw her fellow faculty members as exemplifying the “systems perspective,” she said:

“Yes. Having learned traditional models of leadership, I knew that I neither wanted to teach nor embody a theory that suggests leadership requires a static authoritative figure-head. Adaptive leadership is the best theory of leadership that encourages its learners to engage in teamwork. As a faculty system, we work together to create a fulfilling learning experience. The activities in class ensure that our students live in a system of people invested in each other’s success so that when they do their Leadership for Change Project, they know how a system can feel. It can be chaotic to work as a team of equals, but it can also still be successful.”

KWLI mobilizes an intersectional group of women from around the world to address some of today’s most pressing and systemic issues.



The KWLI graduates seek opportunities to practice adaptive leadership by formulating a Leadership for Change Project (LCP) to implement at home. LCP outlines are presented to faculty, fellow participants, staff, mentors, and KWLI homestay families for feedback. Upon returning to their home countries, KWLI graduates implement their projects and receive online support from faculty.


Khaoula Abouzid, left, at SUSI cultural fair (2015).


For example, Khaoula Abouzid, a student from Morocco who completed the 2015 KWLI, plans to address the issue of sexual harassment on the bus ride to and from her university. On any given day, a woman can expect a bus ride full of berating comments that objectify and demean her. Khaoula says, “Nobody should have to travel through sexual harassment just to better her future. It’s a very discouraging reality.” Her “smart experiment” is to advocate for a separate, women-only bus system as a safe space for female students. In Khaoula’s words:

“My biggest stakeholders are the students and the dean of my university. The first thing I’m going to do is to explain my project to my fellow students, the dean, and the educators at my university. I hope that I can persuade them to support my project and we can work together to come up with a solution. I have an idea but I need their input and support. No student should have to choose between knowledge and safety.”

She expects that her university community will be invested in its learning environment. By the end of the school year, Khaoula hopes that her university agrees that public transportation should not stand between female students and their education. She hopes that safety measures will be taken to ensure that male and female students have equal opportunity to earn their degrees and recognize their full potential.

From last year’s KWLI, Rajae Hammadi, another Moroccan student, says that her project was about increasing women’s contribution in media, especially social media. Rajae observed that “more than 70% of women are active on social media but the majority of content shared is produced mostly by men.” The disparity in content creation, she realized, increases sexism and gender inequality because only the success and perspective of men are known and supported.


Rajae Hammadi, top left, engaged in coursework (2014).


Rajae’s commitment to addressing inequality through the media began before attending the Institute, however. She worked with GlobalGirl Media to produce Breaking the Silence: Moroccans Speak Out!, which won first place in the documentary category of Women’s Voices Now’s second short-film festival, Women Bought & Sold: Women United Against the Violence. During the 2013 WVN Global Tour, some of WVN’s staff and volunteers had the opportunity to meet Rajae on a visit to Rabat, Morocco, and the WVN community has learned much from Rajae and her colleagues’ work. After creating Breaking the Silence, she used the skills gained in the KWLI to hone her focus and learn about her potential to demonstrate leadership.

When Rajae returned to Morocco after the 2014 KWLI, she became cognizant of a lack of media content created by women. In doing so she decided to contribute to making women-created content more visible, online, through social media. Accomplishing this task required that she better learn how to manage herself, especially her shyness. She also had learned how empowering it is to be part of a team of people with a shared goal at KWLI. She continues to mobilize and build her network of women in Morocco. Rajae’s adaptive challenge was focused on giving women access to producer tools and knowledge so that they can create audiovisual content or blogs. These skills enable women to share their perspective on problems in society, to be heard, and to share each other’s content. After having difficulty establishing free courses through youth centers to young women (ages 18-25), Rajae is focusing instead on registering the Moroccan chapter of GlobalGirl Media as an association to raise funds and keep pushing for greater access.

Reflecting on her 2014 KWLI experience, Rajae shares:

“It was empowering to be part of a larger system of women committed to change in their communities. KWLI is a community that has enabled me to see myself belonging to something empowering. Being identified as a feminist isn’t easy in more conservative communities like Morocco. It’s a very big movement taking place worldwide, and I do my best to make myself useful to this movement from my field of expertise in graphic design, video editing, debate, and education.”


The 2014 KWLI, including Rajae, sixth from the top left (2014).


Rajae continues to focus on earning her master’s degree in marketing (expecting to graduate in 2016). She wants to earn another master’s degree abroad, in graphic design, or artistic and cultural management. Rajae says, “No matter what I do next, I will continue to fight for women’s rights because the world needs it.”

Rajae remains committed to the challenge of achieving gender equality. She knows that it is a complex problem, but, understanding her strengths, Rajae encourages herself to use her expertise to uplift other women so their voices and stories will be heard. It is clear that, wherever life takes her, Rajae will remain committed to the women’s movement.



At a networking event for the 2015 KWLI, the KU Chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, the first woman and African-American to lead KU, concluded her inspiring remarks by saying, “There’s still work to be done.” The KWLI program empowers talented young women to do the work of uplifting themselves and others, and to be confident enough to create change. At the same time, true change-making leaders must be humble and savvy enough to know that their work will be best completed with the mobilization of stakeholders in their mission.

I am confident that Khaoula and her cohorts will apply adaptive leadership principles in their home societies, which will in turn create incredible social change; indeed, they are cultivating their voices to motivate people and resources to make a difference. Together, I think they may make history.

In moments when I dare hope for a better future, I recall conversations with women from all over the world about human rights, the environment, legal justice, racial equality, religious coexistence, and gender equality. Placing hope in my generation of women is a way of validating my own powerful existence. It is necessary for survival. How could I dare to hope for a better future if I fail to believe in the potential of others like myself?

In thinking about the adaptive leadership model, I realize that expecting one great woman, made superhuman in stone somewhere in Washington, D.C., is an insufficient expectation. My fixation on the celebration of successful leadership in statue form was unimaginative. Now I understand that it is almost dangerous to present ordinary men as Atlases of their time, bearing the weight of the world, alone. History is rarely made by one thunderclap of human existence — it is the perfect storm that rolls in; the unique empowerment of a group of people.

I know better now: “Acts of leadership are sacred, and every one may count. The world would be a better place if we all, including us, practiced leadership a bit more of our time” (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 297). Adaptive leadership breaks power down into doable actions and puts the onus on all of us to do something. I hope that in the process of applying leadership principles, the KWLI women achieve their goals and pay it forward so that women are a powerful presence in society that cannot be ignored. Moreover, I hope that we see how each woman’s success was contingent on every other woman’s success.


From left to right: Noor Sabah Tauqeer (Pakistan), Samira Masoud (Afghanistan), and Erin Taylor (Kansas).


We have memorialized great men in monuments and statues. I want the women’s movement to inspire a monument that dwarfs any marble man. A building akin to the Washington Monument is now what I expect the women’s movement to inspire, each vertical foot a symbolic step forward. But first, history-making change must take place. Adaptive leadership expects more than the one-man miracle. In order to tackle the problems we face today, we need mass involvement, especially by women. The more women lead on today’s myriad of issues, the more they safeguard the future of a women’s movement. If each KWLI woman is successful, she will have built with her sisters a history together that they could not have done alone.


The KWLI at a cookout in Washington, D.C. (2015).


*The Kansas Women’s Leadership Institute (KWLI) is a Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSI) for Student Leaders program on Women’s Leadership, est. in 2010 under then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. SUSI programs for Student Leaders are five-week academic programs for foreign undergraduate leaders sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. With KU Endowment support, KWLI began welcoming several women from rural Kansas in 2014. The 2015 KWLI welcomed 12 Muslim participants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Morocco and had the pleasure of sharing in Eid celebrations after Ramadan. Together, these women embark on a journey that includes intensive academic coursework, an educational tour of other regions of the country, local community service activities, leadership skill building, and a unique opportunity for participants to get to know their peers from around the world.

All photographs featured in this article are property of the KWLI.