Behind the Lens: Let Girls Learn

Let Girls Learn U.S. Exchange Program

The girls observe and read about the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the affect it had on African Americans at The National Museum of African American History and Culture
The girls observe and read about the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the affect it had on African Americans at The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Behind the Lens: Let Girls Learn

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, is an effort to support girls around the world with education and opportunity. Currently over 62 million girls are without an education.  While interning at Meridian International Center as a Marketing and Communications Intern in the GlobalConnect Division, I was invited to photograph the girls during the Let Girls Learn U.S. Exchange Program where girls from Morocco and Liberia were invited by the First Lady to come to Washington D.C. and watch CNN’s documentary “We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World,” a film based on the girls’ experiences and challenges in their pursuit of a quality education in their home countries.  The week was fittingly centered on celebrating International Day of The Girl.

Though I was invited Oct. 8, 2016 to take pictures of the program, I left with much more than photographs. The girls welcomed me and immediately everything that made us different became irrelevant and we bonded over our similarities.  One being the most obvious: we are all girls.  Girls, growing and finding ourselves through confidence and knowledge.  It was a day of extreme “girl power.”

The girls prepare for a tour around Washington D.C.

Our first stop: The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). We time traveled through the past and present of African American history and achievements. Their hands skimmed across the captions of pictures and artifacts as they took everything in.  The experience was breathtaking yet simultaneously solemn. In the end, hopefully we all left knowing that we have the power to make a change; and just being in that museum, we already had.

We enjoyed a pizza party at Meridian and participated in breakout sessions. In one session, we did an icebreaker activity where we had to discover a fun fact about one another. I told them an interesting fact about myself and introduced them to something special about our culture.  They shared dances and songs, harmonizing at parts they felt most connected to.  There was not one person in the room who did not have a smile on their face.  I learned how to say “I love you” in Liberian dialect.  I also learned about different cultural practices from Morocco. The sun beamed in through the blinds and it felt like a moment you wish, you had the ability to make last longer.  So I closed my eyes, to hold on to the experience so that I can later remember the joy I felt at that moment. One Liberian girl summed up the experience so eloquently. She said “we all go through the same challenges, but we cannot give up, we have to encourage one another.” Her comment resonated with me there was so much truth behind it. At times we all feel sad, disappointed, discouraged, and overwhelmed, situations may vary but the emotions behind them are consistent. It is how we handle and respond to these situations that make a difference.  We cannot give up and we must encourage each other.  I saw firsthand the display of love and compassion the girls had toward one another.  While we sat outside to eat our pizza I sat next to a girl from Liberia and we were talking about how much fun we were having during the day. As we talked, she stopped and pulled a handmade, blue and yellow beaded bracelet from her pocket and presented it to me.  Her kindness was unforgettable, the bracelet to me was a gesture of love.  It didn’t matter that I had only met her a few hours before, it didn’t matter that I did not live in the same country as her or speak like her, all that mattered was that we were friends.

The girls enjoy the fall festivities during the pizza party after workshops at Meridian.

In one day I made new friends. Hugs and smiles enough to make me think why shouldn’t this be every day, joyous, unconditionally kind, and welcoming.  Of course when the program was over we would return to our lives filled with trials and triumphs.  But on that day, in those moments we smiled just because.

Toward the end of the evening we went on a bus tour of Washington, D.C. We saw the outside of the White House, The U.S. Supreme Court, The National Monument, The Lincoln Memorial, and The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.   During the ride we shared stories, despite the language barriers and different dialects, we all understood happiness, laughter and just being silly.

I learned a bit of D.C. trivia from our tour guide that afternoon. She mentioned Ulysses Grant enjoyed having a drink at the bar of a local hotel after long hours of work. When people were unable to get an appointment with him at his office, they were aware that he frequented the bar at the hotel so they would wait for him in the lobby of the hotel.  These people were then named lobbyist, and the term is still relevant today.

I learned more about myself behind the camera as I snapped photos throughout the day, I literally saw the world through a different lens. I was able to capture emotions, visceral reactions. I was privy to an array of different experiences with the girls all captured with one click, frozen in time to re-experience.  I am grateful to say that I in some facet was a part of the Let Girls Learn Program.  When the day ended I wished I could do it all over again, it was one of the best experiences I have had in Washington D.C.  I left the day feeling encouraged, and empowered.  I realize what I learned I cannot keep to myself I have an obligation to share it with other girls kindness, empowerment, and girl power. We are girls learning now but we are becoming women who will make a difference.

Shay L. Brown