After months of explaining what happened during the 2016 election to stunned supporters on her book tour, Hillary Clinton finally got to talk about the future, one in which women are no longer the minority when it comes to holding office or STEM careers.
Before a crowd of more than 10,000 at the Los Angeles Convention Center Friday morning, most of whom were girls and young women from local schools there to celebrate STEM-related accomplishments, Clinton slipped into a new role. She was no longer a candidate; at the Girls Build Leadership Summit, she was a cheerleader.
“I hope that every remaining barrier, every legal or attitudinal barrier that still exists that tells a young girl you can’t do that because you’re a girl or makes that girl think that, we tear down once and for all,” she said to a roaring crowd, adding that as much as there are external hurdles, girls and women hold themselves back because of ill-conceived notions about their worth.
“Now I think the real barriers are inside people’s heads. How women and girls are treated. Lots of times young women start to feel self-conscious because they were energetic and enthusiastic as they were girls, but now they’re 14,15,16, and all of a sudden, the culture is telling them you’re not pretty enough, you’re not thin enough, you’re not this enough or that enough. Well say ‘Forget it, I am me and I am more than enough.'”
That line really got the girls going. Dozens rushed from their seats to get closer to the stage throughout her 30-minute Q&A with comedian Jessica Williams, their peach “Power in Numbers” shirts creating a sea of rippling color in the dark hall.
“I really believe that girls and women are the future, but we have to believe that about ourselves.”
For critics, her rah-rah kumbaya attitude may seem like Clinton being Clinton, using the guise of empowerment to promote herself. Sure, she brought up familiar campaign trail stories like the time NASA sent her a letter when she was a kid that said women couldn’t be astronauts, and her mother’s hardships, but for the girls, it was what they needed.
“There’s going to be a point in your life when you fall down and make a mistake, but she shows us that you keep going,” said Compton Early High School’s Torraynce Williams, 15, of Clinton’s commitment to stay in the public spotlight, and open herself up for criticism, even after her election loss.
Torraynce’s Girls Build team was celebrated at the summit ahead of Clinton’s speech. Her team — they call themselves “change agents”— formed a youth advocacy group to get representation on their school board. Other teams celebrated at the summit include teens from San Fernando who built a and Palmdale middle-schoolers who constructed a 30-foot planetarium out of cardboard that was visited by over 1,000 people.
Girls Build is an initiative of the Los Angeles Promise Fund, a nonprofit focused on preparing students for college, career, and life. Last year, 500 young women and girls participated in Girls Build activities such as maker fairs, coding clubs, and health workshops. Their guiding principle is a simple one: Train young women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math and show them how to use their new skills to effect social change.
And with that training comes confidence.
When 13-year-old Nailea Espinal first heard about the Girls Build team creating a planetarium at her middle school, she wasn’t sure if she should join. She wasn’t interested in science and the subject intimidated her. But that changed when she was encouraged by her teacher at Palmdale Learning Plaza.
“Us girls, we can do what we put our minds to even though you think you can’t,” Nailea said. “Now that I’m interested, it makes me want to learn more.”
These middle schoolers from Palmdale Learning Plaza built a planetarium at their school. “It inspired me to learn and get more involved. I want to learn everything about it,” said Celeste Anaya, 12 #GirlsBuildLA pic.twitter.com/it84FFRNPF
— Brittany Levine (@brittanylevine) December 15, 2017
There’s been a big push to bring more STEM education into schools in recent years, but female participation still lags behind. Only 27 percent of students enrolled in an Advanced Placement Computer Science class this year Less than 25 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, according to a by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“There are girls in STEM, but there’s not enough. They feel intimidated because of all the guys. I think we just need to build confidence in ourselves,” said Brianna Gutierrez, 16, of Compton Early High School.
And that’s what Clinton was there for. She told stories of how she struggled in math and science in high school, but still tried hard because she knew it was important to learn. She talked about how she was often the only woman in the room when she was a senator or Secretary of State, but those moments drove her to study more and come prepared.
“I really believe that girls and women are the future, but we have to believe that about ourselves,” Clinton said, adding later: “I don’t want anybody leaving here today feeling alone.”