Fourteen speaking events. Five Cities. Three incredible voices. Thousands of audience members. One epic journey that changed us all. As Martha would say in her Colombian accent as we toured the country, “Beyond. Be-yond!”
Soon this one word—beyond—became the mantra we all used to describe our experiences.
Martha, along with Beatrice from Uganda, and Sarvina from Cambodia, touched down in Portland, Oregon on October 2, 2011 exhausted, nervous, and elated. Collectively they had booked enough miles to circle the equator. Representing the 30 graduates of World Pulse’s 2010 voices of Our Future citizen journalism training program, each was also on her own personal journey. The rehearsals were filled with tears and embraces as each woman uncovered the deep stories she had to tell, whether it was losing a cousin to the sex trade, experiencing her entire family wiped out by HIV/AIDS, or an attack and attempted kidnapping by armed guerrillas.
Over the course of the next three weeks these grassroots women leaders who had never spoken before US audiences would rock stages advising diverse audiences from Silicon Valley to New York City on the power of media and technology to accelerate women's empowerment globally. They spoke to technology leaders, philanthropists, students, activists, sustainability leaders, media executives, and senior White House officials.
Every day was a new high. Every day I witnessed their voices and confidence grow. Every day I became more convinced of the power of one voice to spark change.
You could hear a pin drop as tears streamed down Martha’s cheeks. She described writing on World Pulse.com about a sexual attack she had experienced—and how the support of women commenting from around the world liberated her from the burden of carrying the pain alone. “I am a free woman now,” she said. “I am healed.”
Crowds roared as Beatrice recounted how she and her mother saved their land from being taken away by tribal leaders when her last brother died of HIV/AIDS. She had so much encouragement from the World Pulse network that her mother said boldly, “If you take our land women will come in planes from all over the world to face you!”
Reserved Sarvina who had never spoken English in public before grew more animated after each event. Her English grew clearer and her stories richer. She told how despite coming from a poor family she fought for an education. Now she successfully teaches her village to send their daughters to school, saving them from a living hell of sex trafficking. “I am powerful!” Cheers would erupt as she stretched out her arms.
After every event men and women approached me with tears in their eyes saying, “If they can do it, I can too.”
“This is BEYOND!” we said to each other backstage, after we spoke and danced on stage with Gloria Steinem
"This is BEYOND," we said as we talked at the US State Department on a live digital broadcast, answering questions from Sudan, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.
It was BEYOND as the correspondents received massages and spa treatments for the first time ever, even crying to be touched with kindness.
It was double BEYOND to see them sit around a gleaming wood table with high level White House officials and give their recommendations for how the US could help end violence against women in their communities.
“My voice was heard,” said Martha. “I know my thoughts went direct into their hearts and that my recommendation of no more money for our government to buy weapons or pesticides was something Obama will hear from his wife one night."
I wave goodbye to Martha at Reagan National Airport. Sobs of profound commitment rise in my throat. I watch her turn back to the rainforest she loves, where her land and life are threatened by the drug war. Now she returns with a national network of supporters and allies who will be there for her no matter what.
As for myself, I will never think of Colombia again without feeling the soul of Martha’s story. I will never be the same. We had embarked together on the tour to “turn up the volume” on unheard women’s voices. We did. Beyond.