The St. Anthony Hotel was abuzz with San Antonio leadership on Tuesday for the second annual Women in the World Summit. Founder and CEO Tina Brown, who formerly served as editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Daily Beast, returned to San Antonio to co-host the annual summit on women’s achievements across various domains, including combating global terrorism, escaping a brutal regime, fleeing a lawless homeland, and creating a line of eyewear for those who desperately need it.
“Texas has built a long legacy of strong, gutsy women who won’t take no for an answer,” Brown said who opened the summit and introduced her co-hosts Guillermo Nicolas, president of 3N Group, Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Manager Sheryl Sculley. “Our mantra is that every woman has a story and those stories have the power to change the world.”
Lara Logan, award winning journalist and ’60 Minutes’ correspondent, moderated the first panel, “Women Fighting the Terror Crisis.” Emma Sky, Director of the Yale World Fellows joined Juliette Kayyem, from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, on the panel. Kayyem was the former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. The third panelist was The Honorable Farah Pandith, the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities.
Kayyem talked about minimizing threat risks and protecting key public and private sector targets, including utilities and transportation hubs. Many municipalities receive DHS funding to develop critical infrastructure and key resources protection plans to minimize local threats. Kayyem addressed the need for Americans to “brace yourselves.”
“We don’t do this well in this country,” Kayyem said. Citing her forthcoming book, she added, “In ‘Security Mom,’ I talk about how to talk to kids in an age appropriate manner on ways to prepare and react in case of such a situation (surviving an active shooter attack).”
Pandith said the “bad news is that ISIS is not the worst that’s out there. This is an “us versus them” narrative. Extremist groups use this narrative to recruit on and offline. The potential recruiting pool, she said, includes the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide under the age of 30.
Sky said extremist groups like ISIS operate in the vacuum that civil war has created in Syria and Iraq. The lack of a clear strategy on what governance would replace authoritarian regimes after the collapse of established governments in Iraq and Syria has created a power vacuum.
“It’s not about religion, it’s about political power,” Sky said. “ISIS has its base in Syria and Iraq because they are benefiting from the civil war in those countries. The priority has to be to end the civil war in Syria and Iraq.”
Panelists agreed that a long-term approach is needed to reach Muslim youth, to encourage a global approach to combating extremism and to stay ready at home.
Brown interviewed Yeonmi Park, a 22-year-old human rights activist and North Korean defector, about her escape from her homeland. Park fled with her mother in 2007 when she was only 13 years old across the northern border to China. After her father was caught trading on the black market to keep the family alive during an extreme famine, he was sentenced to a forced labor camp for 17 years.
“There is no law, only what the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il says,” Park said.
It was then the family decided they needed to escape North Korea into China. While hiding from Chinese authorities who hunt down escapees and return them to North Korea, Park’s mother was raped by traffickers, and her sister was lost and presumed dead. Her father, who eventually joined them, died of colon cancer, while Park, only 13, was sold into slavery to a farmer as his wife for $250.
“I escaped North Korea for a bowl of rice,” Park explained. “After almost two years in China, I escaped for freedom, I didn’t know until then what that was.”
In early 2009, Park and her mother fled across the Gobi Desert to Mongolia, where they sought refuge in the South Korean embassy. Park’s sister escaped five years later and rejoined them in Seoul.
Brown asked Park what it felt like to finally taste freedom in South Korea.
“I didn’t know how to answer ‘What do you think?’ No one ever taught us that what we think is important. I never knew I had rights. In this country, (even) animals have rights.
“At 15 I was not afraid of dying, I was afraid of being forgotten,” Park said, explaining her willingness to speak out against the regime and its leader. Park now lives in Seoul and continues to speak publicly about human rights abuses in her former homeland.
“The Other Refugees” panel focused on those fleeing lawless Central American countries to cross the U.S. border. Public radio host Maria Hinojosa moderated the two-part panel. Hinojosa first interviewed Heidy Pérez Parada, president of the Red Juvenil Intermunicipal, an organization for at-risk youth in Honduras.
“I never thought I would come to the U.S.,” said Parada, “because I was focused on my work teaching the neighborhood youth trades and how to become a member of the community.”
Parada became a target of local gangs, who saw her students as potential recruits. Parada was warned she and members of her family would be killed if she persisted.
Once Parada was in a detention center at the U.S. border, she explained through an interpreter how, “I didn’t feel welcomed, I felt like I didn’t belong. Here, I feel like I don’t know whether I can live here or not. When I was at the detention center, I felt sometimes I’d rather be back home dead than here.”
For the second half of the panel, Hinojosa moderated discussion among three panelists. Lavinia Limon, CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, addressed the needs of immigrants fleeing the epidemic of violence in Central America. America Ferrera is an award-winning actress as well as ambassador for Voto Latino, a nonpartisan national youth empowerment organization engaging people on voter ID laws, education and immigration. Celina de Sola is co-founder of Glasswing International, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting local solutions to poverty and lack of education.
“Children don’t leave their homes on a whim,” Limon said. “What’s pushing these children to go is complete lawlessness in their homeland.”
“When kids, mothers with their small children, leave, they truly have no choice,” de Sola said.
Families break apart and the country suffers continuing brain drain.
The lawlessness in countries like Honduras, Guatamala and El Salvador is so pervasive children do not leave home for fear of being targeted by gangs. Ferrara talked about framing the refugees fleeing lawlessness in Central America not as an immigration crisis for the U.S., but as a humanitarian crisis.
“When this (crossing the U.S. border) is the only chance for survival, you’re not going to stop people from leaving,” Ferrara said.
Women in the World Texas is supported by presenting sponsor Toyota; leadership sponsor the City of San Antonio; and supporting sponsors HEB, AT&T and NuStar.
Since 2012, presenting sponsor, Toyota, has partnered with Women in the World to honor Toyota Mothers of Invention. The Toyota Mothers of Invention program identifies and recognizes women who actively contribute to their local communities and the world through innovation, entrepreneurship and invention.
Maria Dellapina, this year’s Mother of Invention, founded Specs4Us to improve the quality of life for children and adults with Down syndrome. Sarah Lucero, KENS 5 Eyewitness News anchor, moderated the panel with Dellapina, her daughter Erin, her adult son Anthony, and Dr. Cynthia Peacock from the Baylor College of Medicine.
With more than 25 years of experience in the optical field, Dellapina used her expertise as an optician to help her daughter, Erin, who has Down syndrome gain access to specially fitted frames. Dellapina’s business manufactures specially fitted frames for those with Down syndrome or other facial differences that prevent the use of widely available eye glasses.
Toyota chose Dellapina as the final 2015 Toyota Mother of Invention. Dionne Colvin-Lovely, national media director for Toyota, presented Dellapina $50,000 in recognition of her efforts to help people with special needs, an emotional moment for the single mother who has struggled to navigate available resources for her daughter Erin.
Tina Brown ended the summit by interviewing retired Adm.William H. McRaven, chancellor of The University of Texas System and former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, about “Things My Mother Taught Me.” In his 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin, McRaven called for graduates to make their bed every morning. McRaven said he learned in the military that “If you can’t do the little things right… you do the important things well.” His mother, who grew up in a small town in Texas made sure “I understood what right looked like,” McRaven said.
Brown asked how McRaven would advise the president to combat ISIS.
“We need to put U.S. boots on the ground,” McRaven said.
Arab nations, he said, will not lead the effort. European nations look for U.S. leadership on this issue. Once the U.S. decides to lead the effort, the focus should be to “root ISIS out of Ramallah, then out of Iraq,” McRaven continued.
Tina Brown closed the Women in the World Summit by reminding attendees to tell their own powerful stories and use their experiences to change the world. The next Women in the World summit will be held Nov. 20 in New Delhi, India.
*Top image: North Korean Human-Rights Activist and defector Yeonmi Park speaks with a guest. Photo by Scott Ball.