It’s 4pm on a Tuesday and I’m listening to young women share ideas about things they feel make up their identity: K-pop (google it, I had to), food (a consistent theme), religion (the teenage dos and don’ts of hijab-wearing), career aspirations, life goals and Netflix series. I’m sitting in on a Compass mentoring session about identity.
These sessions took place throughout February in the build-up to International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March. The sessions are new to the project, and it’s safe to say they’re going down well. They were created because the young women we work with said they wanted more time devoted to discussing and unpacking the concept of identity. Fast-forward to the third cycle of the project, and the Compass team has developed mentoring sessions that focus explicitly on this often-referred-to but rarely discussed idea.
Compass is a participant-led project run by our Institute that supports young women from black, Asian and ethnic-minority communities affected by deprivation, hate crime and extremism. The mentoring sessions provide a space where women and girls of different ages, occupations, talents, religions, beliefs and interests can share the many aspects of who they are, in the knowledge that they have one shared characteristic: being female.
Compass is a participant-led project run by our Institute. It provides a space where women and girls of different ages, occupations, talents, religions, beliefs and interests can share the many aspects of who they are”
In that space, they are free to share their lived experiences, sometimes for the first time, without fear of judgement or ridicule. It’s a space to talk about the joys and challenges of finding out who they are and how all these various elements fit together (and a place to find out the best series on Netflix!). And it’s a space for young women to embrace their multifaceted identities as their greatest asset to success, and not a burden or something to apologise for.
We have been amazed by the vulnerability, honesty and frankness that both the young women and their mentors have displayed in the sessions. We have heard the girls articulate the ways in which their identities intersect, clash and complement each other. As a team, the girls considered ways to navigate these issues. Compass has shown me that a project that helps young women to reflect on and unpack their identity is needed, and that supporting them to learn how to develop and champion all aspects of who they are is fundamental in this ever more globalised world.
This theme of identity is present in the other Compass activities. There are three main components of the project, spread out across a year-long journey. The aim is to support young women to feel content with who they are and what they want to achieve, while developing the crucial knowledge and skill set to do so:
We increase young women’s confidence to explore and take advantage of future opportunities through professional group mentoring with female volunteers from diverse backgrounds and career paths.
We provide opportunities for the young women and their families to discuss barriers to higher education and how to overcome them.
We give young women opportunities to explore complex issues relating to their identity and active participation in society, connecting them to inspirational female role models from around the world.
In my experience of the project, it is the strength of these three components together that makes them a winning combination. This is the power of three, with identity exploration being the magic ingredient.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to stop and reflect on what it means to be a woman today. I am excited to see what this day will mean for the brilliant young women in Compass”
In other projects I’ve worked on, mentoring opportunities and exposure to universities have always been prioritised in the journey to empowerment. Working on the Compass project has taught me that alongside professional mentoring and access to higher education, reflecting on and exploring identity is crucial. Understanding who you are grounds your aspirations and motivates you to make them a reality.
Compass is most accurately captured at the intersection of identity, aspiration and access to opportunity: the triangulation of empowerment. Compass does not shy away from trying to tackle the multiple intersectional challenges that young women face growing up in this increasingly interconnected but divided world. The project works in partnership with schools, universities and businesses to support young women to understand and advocate equal access to opportunities, gender equality and fair representation.
International Women’s Day has always been special for me, and I have celebrated it in various ways over the years. This year I will be involved with the project visit to the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre. Over two days, the Compass team will accompany over 200 young women and mentors to the festival, immersing them in talks and performances with women from across the world. A key outcome from this element of the project is the sense of connection and belonging the young women feel to their global female community, inspiring them to achieve despite adversity.
International Women’s Day is a reminder that there is still so much to achieve for gender parity, but it is also an opportunity to stop and reflect on what it means to be a woman today. I am excited to see what this day will mean for the brilliant young women I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few months working on Compass.