North America’s Emerging Leaders Conference dismantles a culture of commodification

The World Youth Alliance North America (WYA NA) held its annual Emerging Leaders Conference (ELC) from October 25-27 at the WYA Headquarters in New York.

Themed Wo(men) and Health: Dismantling A Culture of Commodification, the conference sought to examine the different factors that shape people’s understanding of women’s health and how this affects the over-all assumptions on women and girls worldwide.

“We wanted to start a better conversation… of this idea permeating our culture in the widespread depiction of the person as cheap, easy, quick and replaceable, without inherent meaning or value,” said Clare Halpine, Director of WYA NA.

Over 40 students from different high schools and universities from the United States and Canada attended the two-day conference, closed by a five-kilometer “Run for Dignity” in Roosevelt Island on Sunday, October 27.

The conference began with a discussion from WYA Founder Anna Halpine, who emphasized the need to view persons as “subjects” and not as objects. She said the failure of this recognition has led to many misunderstandings about who the human person is, what he can do and what he is capable of.

The next talk, given by Dr. Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, focused on the importance of knowing and understanding man’s biological make-up and keeping it in sync with the society. He said men and women naturally have their differences and that before one is able to change anything in his society, he must first recognize the need to change himself from within.

The second day of the conference focused on various issues women face.

Anna Halpine gave the case study for the Fertility Education and Medical Management (FEMM) Project. FEMM aims to help women understand how their bodies work in order to help them make better decisions.

According to Halpine, this kind of information is essential for women and their health and provides them more options for managing their fertility and reproductive health.

Author Jean Kilbourne spoke next about the effects advertising has caused on the image of women and girls.

“What does advertising tell us about women? It tells us that most important is how we look,” she said.

These messages have led to a “dehumanization” causing a view of women as objects for gratification. In order to counter this, Kilbourne emphasized the need for a “media literate audience” who are “citizens first rather than consumers.” It is up to the audience themselves to ask for better programs and advertisements to counter what is being propagated now.

The conference then shifted to the topic on gendercide and forced abortion. As an introduction to her talk, Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, showed a documentary entitled “It’s A Girl.”

The documentary explored sex-selection practices in India and China, that have led to millions of forced abortions, slavery and neglect. Littlejohn said these policies are the ultimate result of a “commodified” view of women, making them easily “disposable” simply because of their sex.

The final discussion involved a panel consisting of Anna Halpine, Reggie Littlejohn, and Huffington Post Canada Managing Editor for Blogs, Marni Soupcoff. National Review Online columnist Kathryn Lopez moderated the discussion.

In order to change such views on women, the panel gave various suggestions. Soupcoff harnessed the power of the Internet as a tool for information dissemination and allowing that “shared intimacy” to affect people in positive ways.

Halpine, to answer a question, said it is important for individuals to start living and forming habits of the kind if world they want to live in. She said the influence one’s actions has towards others should never be underestimated.

Some girls from Cathedral High School said they became very inspired after the conference.

“We thought we couldn’t really make a change because we’re only 16. What does our voice matter,” one of them posed. “But there’s actually so much we can do. After having found out about all these issues, we need to make others aware.”

Marie Murray, Director of Operations for WYA NA also remained enthusiastic after the discussions.

“The challenges they [participants] face are really tough, but I think the conference was successful in showing them that they can be courageous in choosing to be different, and that there are others who are willing to stand alongside them,” she said.

The WYA Chamber Orchestra closed the second night with a performance at the American Bible Society. On Sunday, some participants, friends and sports enthusiasts joined WYA NA to “run for dignity” with a five-kilometer run around Roosevelt Island.