A Women Deliver delegate reads responses on a chalkboard in the Fueling Station. Officially the exhibit hall, the station housed more than 300 exhibitors as well as installations and meetings spaces. (Courtesy Women Deliver)
So often, when power emerges as a theme for a conference, it can end up feeling one-dimensional. A leader makes a dramatic entrance in front of a wide-eyed audience; an impassioned motivational speaker waxes poetic about empowering oneself. The other side of the power coin — difficult conversations about the abuse of power, power that goes untapped, and power that is denied — are typically not part of the agenda.
Women Deliver, which describes itself as “a leading global advocate that champions gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women worldwide,” organizes a global conference under the same name every three years. The team behind the conference knows all too well the downfalls of status-quo power. According to the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Gender Index, there isn’t a single country on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. Recent movements like #MeToo and an expanding global conversation on gender equality are creating a greater sense of urgency, as well as scrutiny. At this year’s Women Deliver, held June 3–6 at the Vancouver Convention Centre (VCC), Katja Iversen, Women Deliver’s president/CEO, set the tone and messaging for the program to follow. “In a gender-equal world, everybody wins,” she said at the opening session. “But, we’re in a time of pushback against women’s rights all over the world. Throughout this conference, we’re going to keep asking you, ‘How are you going to use your power for good?’”
When the Women Deliver organizers chose to make power the central tenet of their 2019 conference — which attracted 8,000-plus attendees from more than 165 countries — they went with “Power. Progress. Change.” as the official theme.
“We’re really trying to shake up power dynamics,” Hannah August, director of communications for Women Deliver, told me when I managed to snag a few minutes of her time on opening day. “The goal of the conference is really to bring people together from around the world who are working on gender equality, in order to share solutions and ideas to fuel their work when they go back home. For 2019, what’s slightly different is this lens of power that we’re focused on. We really are trying to demonstrate how people can use their power at various levels — whether it’s as an individual, part of structural power, part of a movement — to move the needle for girls and women.”
“In a gender-equal world, everybody wins,” Katja Iversen, Women Deliver’s president/CEO, said at the opening session. (Courtesy Women Deliver)
Walk the Talk
But what does that look like, exactly, when that mission is put into action? It can look like the conference’s opening panel session, “The Power of Us,” in which an 18-year-old Zambian activist, Natasha Wang Mwansa, shared the stage with four heads of state — President Sahle-Work Zewde, the first woman to lead Ethiopia; Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta; Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo; and host and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and challenged them to prioritize the needs of young people as well as to foster female empowerment. “No one person has the monopoly on all the right answers, regardless of their gender, regardless of their background, regardless of their position as prime minister,” Trudeau said during the panel. “Invest in girls. Invest in young people,” Mwansa encouraged the panelists and the audience, which gave her a standing ovation. “It will reap great benefits.”
Women Deliver makes good on its mission to encourage and support the voices of young women from around the world, borne out by its attendee demographics. One in every five participants at the conference — which included ministers, parliamentarians, journalists, academics, private sector executives, civil society leaders, and heads of UN agencies — was a young person. More than 1,400 young people registered for the conference, and about 20 percent of plenary speakers were under the age of 30. When Women Deliver surveyed its attendees, more than 90 percent of respondents said that they had learned something new from a young person; or networked, collaborated, or appreciated an interaction they had with a young person.
In addition to the thousands of in-person attendees, 100,000-plus participants tuned in to Women Deliver via 186 satellite events and WDLive, the virtual conference.
If attendees weren’t listening to big-name speakers — like Tarana J. Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement or Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia — or participating in one of the many workshops and moderated panel discussions on the schedule, they could probably be found in the Fueling Station. Even though it was officially the exhibit hall housing more than 300 exhibitors, the space functioned more like the conference’s Grand Central Station, featuring everything from film screenings, pitch competitions, and a live broadcasting studio to coffee stations, tech-charging lounges, and a dedicated Youth Zone complete with bean bags. Oversized, interactive installations — like a chalkboard where attendees could write a response to the question, “When do you feel most powerful?” — made the space feel more like part of a hip art scene than a conference exhibition.
Zambian activist Natasha Wang Mwansa (center) speaks during the Women Deliver opening panel session, “The Power of Us.” (Courtesy Women Deliver)
“Canada is one of the countries in the world that has stepped it up for girls and women; that’s why we’re here,” Iversen said when she kicked off the conference’s opening event. But winning Women Deliver required the city and the VCC to step it up as well. “It was a very emotional journey,” said Stephanie Johnson, VCC’s international sales manager. “We connected with [our local community] in a way we hadn’t before. We became part of [Women Deliver’s] mission.”
Before awarding the bid, organizers spent time getting to know the city as well, looking into how it interacts with native First Nations populations, at-risk communities, and issues relevant to Women Deliver’s mission, like health care. And Women Deliver’s creative approach to its programming — “They don’t think of it as a conference,” Johnson said — meant that the typical ways the center and the destination attract events wouldn’t work.
“From the inception of the bid process, we approached Women Deliver differently than most other conventions we’ve aimed to bring to Vancouver,” said Claire Smith, VCC vice president of sales and marketing. “Whereas we would normally showcase our facility and destination’s attributes, instead we focused on showcasing the challenges our city faces that align with Women Deliver’s movement and their goals. This way, we could demonstrate that their mission was just as important to us and that we recognized the opportunity for women and girls’ wellbeing that exists right here in our own communities. We were transparent about the hardships faced by many who live here, in particular women within one of the poorest areas in our city known as the Downtown Eastside and connected Women Deliver with organizations in this area. Our goal was bring to light that hosting Women Deliver in Vancouver would have immediate and special impact on our city and the people who live here.”
From securing the bid to the event’s conclusion, Smith said, Women Deliver “has been a labor of love.”
Women Deliver’s Fueling Station served as a larger metaphor for the event itself. “We see this conference as much bigger than just a normal conference, [rather] as a fueling station for people to gather together every three years and get these new ideas, and new energy, and new solutions to continue their work,” said Women Deliver’s Hannah August.