Midtown: Community

Girls explore servant leadership

Last fall, you may remember, I answered an invitation to join a roundtable luncheon at St. Mary’s School. I listened as leaders of three all-girls schools shared notes about the importance of single-gender education, and how they teach, nurture and groom young women in environments free of social norms and traditions that can thwart girls’ potential.

I also heard them make a pact: to keep in touch, to share ideas and people, and to build bonds that sustain sisterhood. They dreamed of partnerships designed to expose their students to other cultures, ideas and ways of life, learning and leadership.

Today, I report, they’re no longer just talking and dreaming. They’re busy doing.

In Midtown last weekend, a partnership gained momentum between Saint Mary’s, the all-girls boarding and day school on Hillsborough Street, and the Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Wake County’s first all-girls public school.

The Girls Leadership Summit, Empowering Hearts for Service, invited about 25 girls from Saint Mary’s and WYWLA to spend the weekend together exploring servant leadership. It’s a model that prioritizes service to others, not power over others.

Another dream becomes reality in July when Saint Mary’s expects to send two rising sophomores to Australia for a month to study at St. Mary’s Anglican School for Girls near Perth. In September, when Australian students have their break, two students will travel from St. Mary’s in Australia to live and learn at Saint Mary’s on Hillsborough Street.

At the girls’ summit, the learning happened between the Saint Mary’s and WYWLA students.

The opening ice-breaker: service projects. Some dug into the school’s community garden to “Plant a Row” for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle; others cleaned up along Hillsborough Street as part of the Adopt-a-Highway program. The weekend also included a sleepover and workshops.

But the spark imagined last fall came during a keynote address by Ruth Anderson of the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, said Josette Huntress Holland, the Saint Mary’s assistant head and dean of students.

“She opened their minds to say leadership doesn’t have an age, leadership doesn’t have a gender, and leadership doesn’t have the loudest voice,” Holland said. “They were just soaking it in like these were the most important words they had ever heard because it’s their true experience. They see leadership in each other, and sometimes it’s not the traditional model of what the textbook says a leader is.

“Modern leadership is not about yelling orders. It is about leading through the heart, seeking to understand and lead with thoughtful decisions.”

The servant leadership concept was new for student and adult leaders, said April Love-Williams, WYWLA’s magnet and intervention coordinator.

“We’d all heard of leadership and have had many opportunities to practice leadership, but I don’t think we had all heard of servant leadership and the paradigm shift it requires,” Love-Williams said. “Although I’m the leader, I still need to listen.”

That was the biggest take-away for WYWLA freshman Frances Campbell, 14.

“I used to think ‘power over,’ she said. “Now I know it’s ‘power with.’ It’s not all on me as a leader, but it’s about expanding and bringing in other people’s ideas.”

The prized lesson from the summit for Holden Stanley, a Saint Mary’s junior is to “learn to work in group and learn to work with other schools, and not just in our own, smaller communities,” she said. “That was important to learn, to see there are other leaders out there, women leaders who are trying to accomplish some of the same things I am focused on trying to accomplish, and rely on them.”

While I applaud the partnerships born, WYWLA freshman Alicia Montforti applauds confirmation that her strength in and passion for leadership opens doors to her future.

“Everything I learn will help me in whatever career I go into,” said Alicia, who is interested now in a career in law enforcement and criminology. “Servant leadership put a name to it for me.”

Classmate Frances is glad she, her WYWLA schoolmates and their “big sisters” at Saint Mary’s are getting it now.

“It’s comforting to me that we’re talking about this at a young age,” she said. “This way, when we get older, we can fix the problem, address it straight on, instead of just thinking about them.”

I believe that’s exactly the point.