What does it feel like to be truly multicultural; to be born and socialized in one culture yet also have a strong connectivity to another very different one? And how can we use our individuality in a positive way? These are some of the questions we tackled this week at a gathering of the “By Girls for Girls” group from the Rinkeby area, one primarily populated by new immigrants to Sweden.
Opening up the U.S. Ambassadorial residence to those who have never been invited there before and sharing the message emanating from President Obama on diversity, inclusiveness and equality is one of the most gratifying and important things Mark and I try to do in Sweden as much as possible.
Over brownies and soft drinks, I told the group of twenty 16-year-old girls about my own immigrant background and the obstacles I faced growing up out of the mainstream. Most of the girls were born in Europe but their parents hailed from Kurdistan, Iran, Somalia and Turkey, and could relate to my stories of being teased for the impossible spelling of my last name or the school lunches my parents prepared for me (which were very “un-American” containing Polish sausages, herring and dill pickles, and eliciting endless laughter from schoolmates carrying perfect peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches).
Role models are important support systems especially for young women, so I invited one of mine to address the group as well and tell her story of she used being “different” to her professional advantage.
“You are the future,” said CEO of Storebrand SPP, Sarah McPhee, an American who landed in Sweden nearly 30 years ago and navigated a context where she felt at time displaced and lacking the knowledge of informal networks and codes of conduct.
Sarah emphasized using education as a tool and not getting discouraged by negative attitudes or biases in society. Together, we underscored the need to speak up, advocate for oneself and actively take a seat at the table leaving insecurities behind. Self-confidence is critical to succeeding in a competitive and global society, especially for women who may face gender biases, pay inequality and a lack of institutional support in the workplace.
Fortunately, self-confidence is something I saw beaming from this motivated group of young women who aspire to be dentists, doctors and politicians and speak two or three different languages. We laughed as we discussed daily stresses of choosing an academic direction in school, getting perfect grades and dealing with emotional and overly-attached mothers who don’t want their “babies” ever leaving home!
As the girls were leaving, one of them exclaimed that she never thought she would be invited to such a grand home and never really knew what an Embassy did aside from visas. That one comment alone made my heart soar. I look so forward to the next time the girls come over to vent, laugh and of course eat brownies!