The 4th annual Women in the World Summit in the Lincoln Center Theater, NYC was the scene. It was an indiscriminate Friday morning, except for the tangible excitement and unfettered star power in the room that is :)
Reflecting on that day, I can’t believe now that something like dropping my iPhone four meters down into the pit beneath the stage could seem like such a blimp in time. My two-day experience at the Women in the World Summit succeeded not only in putting my “problems” into perspective, but also reminded me that no technological device (or anything else for that matter) can provide more human connection than can the ability to meaningfully inspire another individual (cheesy sounding, I know, but it’s true). Long story short, I was horrified in the moment, realizing that the chance that my phone had fallen to an abysmal in-a-million-pieces kind of death was pretty high, but as I sat in that theater and watched fearless leader after inspirational activist walk across the stage, I found myself beginning to wonder why I had worried about my phone in the first place.
One particular conversation stands out in my mind. Sitting there, feet away from Oprah and the woman she calls her hero–Dr. Tererai Trent–I certainly felt flashes of shock at times, but mostly I was feeling an unbelievable sense of commonality. As strange as that might sound, the celebrities, activists, CEOs, and women founders who had traversed the stage seemed to have so much in common with you or I, though we might seem initially to be worlds apart. And that was the beauty of it.
Thoughts of a falling phone were quickly drifting far below the ground, and I felt awe rising up in its place. It was the feeling of superficial connection being replaced by the real thing–more tangible than an iPhone, more meaningful than a flash of understanding–this was learning, understanding, and feeling what burying one’s dreams feels like.
Why? Because Tererai did just that, and sitting there on that stage and talking with Oprah, she told us how.
Born into poverty in rural Zimbabwe, Tererai was one of many children in her family, but her mother knew from the day she was born that she would be different from her siblings. She believed that her young daughter would be the one to break their family’s cycle of poverty. Drawing on an old Zimbabwean tradition where a piece of the umbilical cord is cut and buried in the ground so that the child will always be called back home, Tererai’s mother told her to remember that her dreams would be more meaningful if they were connected to her community. And so, she advised her daughter to write down her dreams and bury them in the ground. And Tererai did.
I want to go to America and get a bachelor’s degree she wrote. And she did it.
She then came back to her home in Zimbabwe and returned to the same rock under which she had buried her first dream. She took out another piece of paper and wrote a second one down. I want to get my Master’s degree. And once more, she did it.
Then, she came back a third time to the rock where her dreams were buried and took out a third sheet of paper. I want to get my PhD she wrote. She slipped the paper into the ground, pushed the warm dirt around it and went back to America to make her dream come true.
Finally, the now Doctor Tererai Trent returned to her homeland and began work to build a school so that the children in her community could fulfill their dreams and gain an education, too.
Tererai had buried her dreams and then come home to set them free.
As the lights dimmed and Dr. Tererai and Oprah left the stage, I couldn’t help but think about what a beautiful message and even more beautiful story they had left us with: bury your dreams and never forget your home.
It is true that my phone feels vital to my day-to-day life, because of course it enables me to communicate in seconds and provides me with the kind of virtual connection that myriad digital platforms simultaneously attempt to create. But somehow, in managing to drop my phone into the depths of the Lincoln Center during the 2013 Women in the World Summit, I was forced to recognize the true purpose of this mass meeting of female leaders. Yes, it was meant to inspire people around the world, to solve world problems, and to motivate young leaders, but mostly, I realized that it was designed to remind us what real connection feels like. When I heard the story of a 9 year old Ugandan girl who went from being a primary school dropout to a national chess champion, I felt connected. When I heard the story of a young orphan girl with vitiligo who, after being adopted, was able to fulfill her dream of becoming a dancer, I felt connected.
Connections come from stories, something our ancestors realized millennia ago. After all, it is story telling which leads to understanding, empathy, and ultimately, reciprocation. We are truly connected to those around us when we experience this full cycle, and certainly no text message can achieve that.
I left the Women in the World Summit feeling rejuvenated and thankful for all that I have and all that I have the opportunity to be–both for me and the many other amazing individuals who I am surrounded by daily.
I couldn’t help but think though that throughout that day, silently buzzing and pinging meters below my feet, my phone couldn’t possibly have known just how little I missed it. :)
(to put fears to rest, I should say that luckily I am no longer iPhone-less, thanks to a kind young man who was able to retrieve it for me)
A few pictures from the Summit: