Interview by Kerry Hannon
How did your childhood influence your leadership style?
I was born in 1963 in Anderson, S.C. At that time, my dad was the pastor of Royal Baptist Church. He, along with ecumenical ministers, white ministers, Black ministers, Jewish, Catholic, you name it, were coming together to integrate the city.
My dad was also the executive director of the South Carolina N.A.A.C.P., and he’d go around and investigate lynchings and write about what was happening. So you can imagine as a child, you hear about Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights. That was my culture, the environment in which I was raised.
When I was 5, my dad was called to ministry in the United States Navy, and we moved from South Carolina to San Diego. If you were to ask my 5-year-old self, what do you want to be when you grow up, my answer was twofold. One, I wanted to be a nun. And second, I wanted to fight for justice, for the underdog. And both of those have come true. The reason I said a nun is because the only visual I had of women in the ministry was Sally Field on the TV show “The Flying Nun.”
Moving from South Carolina to San Diego, I went from an environment that was a primarily Black community to a community that was primarily white and some Hispanics.
That singular decision by my parents made my brother and I, and then later my sister, when she was born, global citizens. It was that move that introduced us to other cultures and to then be able to be who we were and are and engage and build relationships with people that were different than ourselves.
How did moving during your childhood manifest itself in your character?
As a child, moving into new environments, new school systems, new cultures, new people, I had to learn flexibility. I also learned to stand firm and to not be bullied.
What I appreciate about the family that I grew up in was that my parents instilled in us an identity of knowing who we are, confidence, not accepting no for an answer and being willing to take risks.
My entire life, I’ve been challenged by attempts to be excluded. My senior year of high school, for example, when it came time to start applying for colleges and universities, the staff person at the career advisory center that’s supposed to help us told me I should look into going to community college. I had been in exceptional programs, advanced placement programs since elementary school. Having that self-will and determination, I dismissed what she said.
Your career has spanned myriad positions in the public and private sectors, corporate America and philanthropic organizations, and you are an ordained minister. That breadth of experience is notable. How has that influenced you as a leader?
All these different positions have been about service and have included a value system that I think is important: loyalty, honesty, respect and caring for others.
In every single job, I’ve been able to engage with people at all socioeconomic levels. It can be the down and out. It could be people living in poverty. It could be the person on the streets selling weed. And then it could be low-income families, or the single mother, all the way up to a U.S. senator or a chief executive officer at a global corporation.
This whole notion of advocacy and service is a through line. If you even look at being a federal prosecutor, one of the things that I did was to look at the whole person: Why did the person commit the crime in the first place? And what is an appropriate sentencing recommendation?
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a woman and a woman of color in the workplace, and how does that translate into your role today as the leader of United Way Worldwide?
My experience has always been a very lonely one, because I’ve either been the first or the only. As Black female leaders, we’re not trying to break through a glass ceiling. We’re trying to break through a concrete ceiling. When I look at how much progress has been made, if you could go back and look at the numbers from the ’70s and ’80s and fast-forward to 2021, there has been incremental improvement but not wholesale improvement.
I saw as a pivotal point, an opportunity, that happened with the murder of George Floyd. That’s when you heard all sectors say, we need to do better.
Today, I want to challenge these leaders who made these commitments to make good on their promises and to execute on them in a more intentional way.
What can women bring to the table at an organization like United Way Worldwide?
Women can bring to the table a sensitivity to the needs of communities in a unique way. United Way has three pillars: health, education and financial stability. And when you think about those three areas, that impacts where we tend to be. If you are a mother, especially if you’re single, you’re looking at financial stability. As a woman, you’re looking at education, and what are the barriers that I have to overcome, and how do I prepare myself to get jobs? How do I show up as my best authentic self and be accepted and given a chance?
What are the biggest challenges or the biggest needs in the organization?
The way people engage in community, the way service is rendered, in terms of volunteerism, donations, giving of time and talent, has changed. In 2021, employees want to engage in causes that motivate them, but they are doing that through the internet.
It used to be workplace giving campaigns were a way to connect as a volunteer through the United Way Worldwide, as well as giving, but there are Facebook groups on your phone, and you can give now.
We know that people care. They want to give to causes that resonate with them. And because of that, we need to fine-tune and refine ways through technology that we reach people and connect to their passions.
What do you see as your primary role?
At this point in my life, I want to do the most that I can as a transformation agent. The world is at a critical point where we have to decide how we work together.
The pandemic is an equalizer. It doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic status is, how healthy you are, how much access to health care you have, how smart you are, what your education level is.
I have a mission to serve and to be the voice of the underserved, for those who don’t have someone to advocate for them, to be that person of inclusivity.
What’s the most important advice you would give to a young woman today who wants to take on a leadership role?
Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of no. No is just a word. Do not attach emotion to that word. When you run into an obstacle that’s in front of you, look to your right, or left, and just walk around.
Ms. Williams was the first Black president and chief executive of Easterseals; held leadership positions at the YMCA of the USA; worked for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and the Senate Judiciary Committee; and was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, a trial attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and a special counsel on criminal law for Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. She is an ordained minister and served as a lawyer for and an active-duty member of the Air Force, including during the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
Interview by Claudia dreifus
What is it about Finnish society that makes it possible for so many women to achieve high office?
I think the main thing that has made this possible is that Finns have consistently worked for equality for more than a hundred years.
Also we’ve created a welfare society where there are a lot of possibilities for different people, men and women. We have a welfare society that enables women to work the same way as men. We have good quality day care. This is part of the basic structure that makes it possible for women to get leadership positions.
In the United States, children are sometimes told, “You can grow up to become president.” As a child, did your mother say, “Sanna, one day, you are going to be prime minister”?
Well, when I was a child or a teenager, I did not think I would go into politics. It didn’t interest me. I thought, “I want to educate myself. I want to go to university.” And actually, I’m the first one in my family to go to university. I come from a very humble background.
But when I was 20 years old, I had this wake-up call. I felt that the previous generation didn’t do enough for the issues that really mattered to me: climate, equality, human rights. And this was why I went into politics: to change things. I didn’t think of becoming prime minister.
So how did it happen?
Because of a series of unplanned events. Two years ago, I was the minister for transport and communication. But my predecessor had to resign. Because I was the first deputy leader of my party, the Social Democratic Party, I stepped up and took the prime minister’s position. It wasn’t my goal.
What have the 23 months you’ve been in office taught you about governing?
Well, it hasn’t been a normal circumstance. Almost all the time since I’ve become the prime minister, we had the crisis of the pandemic.
My focus had to be on trying to keep our citizens safe and putting their well-being first.
I think this has been economically wise. Because we have put our citizens’ well-being at the center of our policies, we have actually made it through better economically. It has been a wise strategy for us: to try to prevent the pandemic from spreading.
Another female pioneer, Tarja Halonen, Finland’s first female president, endured much sexism after ascending to office in the year 2000. Reporters were constantly making judgments about her appearance and commenting about her clothes. Does that happen to you, too?
Well, of course, there are those who comment on my appearance. And my gender. And my age. I try to ignore those and focus on my work and the things that are really important.
But since you mentioned Tarja Halonan, she made a change in Finnish society by being the first female president and over her career, breaking through many glass ceilings. She made the path for the rest of us.
I’m very thankful to those who made the path for me and for other younger women. When you look at the Finnish Parliament right now, almost all the party leaders are women. Also, the opposition leaders, many of them are women as well. In my coalition government, we have five political parties. Each party is led by a woman.
In Germany, the Angela Merkel era is ending. How did she change things for women interested in leadership?
She has shown that it is not only possible for women to get that high position and also stay in that high position and make a difference. She’s an icon. She’s an inspiration.
You are the youngest prime minister serving anywhere in the world today. Does that give you a special mission?
Yes. I think one thing I can do is show the younger generation that they can change society and be an influence in the world. I want to make the path easier for people even younger than me to go into politics and work for a better world. There is much for them to do.
I have a young daughter, Emma. She is 18 months old. I hope her future is a sustainable one. We really have to do more — all countries — to fight climate change. If we don’t manage that, nothing else matters. When I think about her future, I hope she will have a sustainable world where there is an environment that we can all live in.
interview by Claudia Dreifus
When Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistle blower, went public last month, how did you react to her revelations?
On one hand, it increased my suspicions about how these services work. On the other, I found it shocking to learn that some of the things she documented were done knowingly. For instance, the company knew the risk of the social media on mental health issues in young women.
Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for the breakup of Facebook. Do you agree?
It doesn’t really matter if I agree or not. The point is that we need change with Facebook. We need more companies to be able to get into that marketplace. And we need to make sure that the services provided are safe. Breaking up companies is a really far-reaching thing and it will take a long time; the issues at stake are urgent.
We have now had so many wake-up calls with Facebook. To name two: We’ve had the Cambridge Analytica scandal [in which the data firm used information improperly obtained from Facebook]. We had the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill [in which participants used Facebook to rally their supporters]. Democracy can be lost much faster than we think and that is why we need to take action now.
Speaking of the Cambridge Analytica episode, Europeans have more privacy safeguards on their digital usage than American consumers. Do Europeans value their privacy more than Americans do?
I actually find that to be a bit of mystery. As I’ve experienced America, it is a somewhat individualistic culture and I wonder why [digital] privacy is not something that they go to the streets to claim. “We want this because this is who we are!” Whereas Europeans, we have these big welfare states and very high taxes and this is where the launch of privacy in the digital age was born.
In 2016, you asked the Irish government to collect 16 billion euros (about $18.9 billion) from Apple, for what you asserted was the underpayment of back taxes. You also fined Amazon $303 million for low tax payments in Luxembourg. Both rulings were later overturned by the courts. What did you learn about Big Tech from the experience?
What surprised me most was the lack of respect for the many businesses that pay their taxes and with whom they compete. The majority of those companies are small and medium sized and they cannot plan how and where they pay their taxes.
Were you disappointed that your rulings were overturned?
Well, you know, it’s one thing to know that you can lose a case — it’s a different thing to do it. You don’t want to be in that situation.
We don’t know what will be the end of these cases because they are under appeal. But in the meantime, the world has agreed that a minimum level of effective taxation should be 15 percent and that taxing rights should be distributed to the countries where the value is actually created. And of course, this is not the end of discussing taxation, but it is a historical step forward.
Let’s talk about leadership. You are a formidable figure in European politics. Still, are there times when you are dealing with male executives that they react to you in a gendered way?
I would think so. And sometimes I would hope so because I bring something different. Just as men have brought being a man into leadership, I’m happy to bring the woman into the equation. That’s the point of diversity.
Do some of these male leaders have trouble dealing with you because you are a woman?
Not necessarily. But there was an instance a couple of years ago. I had a meeting with a C.E.O. and he found it hard to connect. We only had 30 minutes and he started talking about children. I love children. But when you only have 30 minutes, don’t do that. He tried this stereotyped way (of connecting) instead of realizing that what we had in common was our responsibility to solve a problem.
You’ve been involved in politics since you were 21. Why did you embark on this specific career?
You know, I never been a fan of career plans. For me they are a bit like those blinders you put on horses to avoid distraction of what goes on around them. Often, I find, the solutions are not necessarily right in front of you.
As I young person, it never occurred to me to become a politician. I became an economist.
Back then, my mother ran for parliament in the constituency where we lived. The probability of being elected for the Social Liberal Party in that constituency was really very little. With time, I took over, pretty sure that I would not be elected either. My motivation was more to practice expressing my opinion.
Eventually I found out that liked it. I wasn’t elected, though. Nor in 1998, where I also ran. But the day after the election, the leader of our party called me and offered me the chance to join the next government as minister of education. This, of course, completely changed my relation to politics.
If you were advising a group of female students what would you tell them about women in leadership?
That if they want to be politicians, they will need a button that says, “Nevermind.”
Today a politician needs to have a digital side and there’s so much hatred and spite out there. The tricky thing in being young and wanting to go into politics is to toughen up against the hatred, but never to lose your humanity.
So, I would say, “Thank you for engaging. Remember that we are a community to help you when you are successful and when you are low, as well. Don’t ever feel that you are alone because you’re not.”
Before moving to Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, Ms. Vestager was elected to the Danish Parliament and served as minister of education and ecclesiastical affairs. The lead character in the Netflix series “Borgen,” about a female parliamentarian who becomes prime minister, is said to be modeled on her.
interview by shivani vora
Most safari guides and animal trackers in Africa are men. Was your family supportive of your desire to pursue a career in a male-dominated industry?
Not really. Even when I was a young girl and looking after cattle with my brothers, my mother never hesitated to express that women didn’t belong in the wilderness. She wanted me to be a nurse and gave me a lot of resistance when I said that I wanted to study wildlife.
I went to one of my uncles — her brother — who supported my aspirations and I asked him to speak to her on my behalf. He did and explained that if she let me do what I love, I would be successful. That talk is all it took for her to allow me to attend guiding school.
What was your experience in school?
Out of a group of 23 people, seven were women. I had a great time because of them. We instantly connected over being in the minority and about our mutual love for wildlife. When we graduated a year later, only three of us decided to pursue guiding careers. The others picked different jobs or decided not to work at all.
How did your male colleagues treat you in your first guiding job?
I was one of two women, and we had 32 guides. But I was lucky in that they were nice to me. Rather than think I couldn’t do the job, they accepted that I was capable. It was a situation unlike the stories I heard about at other camps where male guides were very rude to female guides.
Did you ever face challenges because of your gender?
I had several encounters that weren’t easy. Once, two male guides and I were taking a large group out for a day of animal viewing. They had a tour guide, and we split the guests up into three vehicles. The tour guide vocalized that he didn’t want his guests to be guided by a woman. It got to the point where the camp had to call another safari guide on his day off. I was humiliated.
You’ve now become a mentor to other women safari guides. Can you tell us more about this role?
I started mentoring after a few years of guiding. Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp, where I started as a guide, was recruiting more guides, and I called one of my classmates from school, Alice Mantaine, and asked if she was interested in a job. She was, and when she came on board, I coached her on how to handle groups, how to keep everyone engaged, the places to go to spot the best animals and the best ways to work with a mostly male staff. Mentoring her was satisfying, and I wanted to do more of it with other new female guides.
I continued mentoring at Angama but have started mentoring guides at other camps as well.
What’s your most memorable animal encounter?
I was in the bush with several other guides, and we saw an elephant caught in a snare set by poachers. She was part of a herd of about 30. We worked together to free her, but part of the snare was stuck in her front leg, and she was badly cut. The vet gave her a tranquilizer so that he could operate on it, and while she was sleeping, before the operation, her herd came back, extended their tusks and tried to pick her up.
We managed to get them to move and do the operation, and she was eventually fine. The moment showed you the beauty of these animals and their loyalty to each other. It’s why I fell in love with wildlife.
Can you share a piece of advice for women who are interested in careers where they are a minority?
Just go for it. I had my own mother, who I love dearly, telling me that I was entering a field that wasn’t for women. Don’t listen to anyone but yourself.
What does your mother think now?
She is the happiest woman ever, and very proud of me.
interview by farah nayeri
There seems to be a space craze going on right now among the world’s billionaires. What motivated you to go on a space mission?
Since I was very young, I’ve always wanted to go to space. It’s what inspired me to study sciences, physics, math, and go in the direction I went. It was and still is a big passion of mine to understand our universe, how it’s built, my relationship to it. To me, it’s this extraordinary place of discovery and exploration.
The reason for the current flurry of activity is that in the past, travel to space was something that only government astronauts could do. Now there are new modes of going to space — whether it’s going to the edge of space for five minutes of weightlessness, or orbiting the Earth for a couple of days, or going to a space station. The cost is still very high, but over time, it will drop.
Why do you think Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson flew to space?
I happen to know both of them, and both of them are big space fans. Jeff Bezos grew up reading Jules Verne and has had a passion for space for many years. Branson bought the license for the winning spacecraft design in our XPrize competition, and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building Virgin Galactic.
From the outside, it looks like another billionaire splurge. In the case of those two men, I know it’s not just a whim. It’s something they’ve passionately cared about all their life.
What made you spend $20 million on your own space trip in 2006?
To me, I would have paid with my life. It wasn’t a matter of money. I felt that this was part of the purpose of my living on this earth.
What was life like on the space station?
My time up there was spent partly doing scientific experiments with the European Space Agency, partly talking to a lot of students and telling them how it felt to be there. I also wrote a blog.
For me, it was a moment of reflection on my life, the reason I’m here on this planet. It helped me see the big picture.
What about the practicalities of spending nine days up there?
Life on a space station is like being a child and needing to relearn everything — whether it’s washing your hair, eating in space, or working in space. You’re in microgravity, and things are different. You can’t have a shower. Water floats; it doesn’t flow. There’s no cooking going on, and no refrigerator. So all food forms are either dehydrated or in cans. You’re floating and not sleeping in a bed, so you need to get used to that. You’re not walking around, you’re flying around. Realizing that you don’t need to exert that much force to move around takes time. I banged myself around the space station many times, and got bruises.
When you’re orbiting the Earth, you see a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes, so your biorhythm is completely out of whack. Your body goes through a lot of changes. You get this surge of fluid that goes to your head and causes headaches and puffiness. Your spine stretches, so you’re taller, but you feel back pain. Your muscle mass changes; your bone density changes. Slowly your body starts adapting and changing as well.
How is space exploration and travel useful to humanity?
Space is the answer to our future on Earth. As the population grows, as our way of life requires more consumption of resources, we won’t be able to sustain life as we know it without access to the resources of space. We need to build infrastructures and technologies that will give us access to the continuous energy of the sun to power our cities, for example, and to move some manufacturing into orbit so that it doesn’t have a negative impact on our environment. Space will allow us to understand our planet and be able to predict things better.
Many technologies we use today come from the space program, whether it’s the lightweight material in clothing or shoes, or the lightweight material used in aerospace, satellite entertainment, GPS systems, the banking system.
Three years ago, you moved over to the nonprofit organization XPrize. Can you talk about its mission?
XPrize launches massive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges. We focus on specific problems that have been stagnant because of lack of funding or lack of understanding or attention. A lot of our work right now is focused on climate change, energy, biodiversity and conservation.
How do your competitions attract such huge sums?
We don’t, the teams do. When we have a $10 million competition, someone who’s been sitting on their couch at home just thinking about something will have a reason to go build it. They form a team, and we connect them with potential investors.
Are you tempted to go back to space again?
I would love to go back to space at any point in time. I would be happy and willing to go live in space. I felt at home when I was on the space station; I experienced a freedom I had never felt before.
A spiritual experience?
Yes, it was a spiritual experience — but not because I felt closer to God, because I don’t believe that God is up there and that you get close to him if you go into space! I felt like I was reaching a different level of understanding of humanity.
Interview by Mark A. Stein
How did you get your start in the labor movement?
I came up through the I.B.E.W. [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers]. My father was a union member and worked for PGE [an Oregon utility]. Clerical workers were not in a union, and my mother and I were organizing them. PGE was a study in the difference a union can make: Power linemen were respected and made good wages, and nonunion clerical workers were not listened to and didn’t have a voice.
Later, Enron bought the utility. Employees were encouraged to invest their retirement savings in Enron stock. When Enron’s fraud was revealed and bankruptcy was imminent, employees could not sell their stock. My father lost his pension, so that is truly what drives me to this day.
For much of your career, you were a young woman among much older men. What was that like?
Very challenging. When you’re the only woman in a room full of power linemen and older men, it’s challenging to have your voice heard and respected. I had to get creative in how I got things done. I also built a bench of mentors that I could lean on. All my mentors were men. I was always kind of assimilating back then. I have been passionate about women’s issues at work throughout my career, but it wasn’t until I came to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., frankly, that I opened up and really stepped into what it’s like to be a woman leader.
When you talk about building a bench of mentors, how did you do that?
My first mentor was Greg Teeple, an electrician from our sister local. He had experience lobbying the [Oregon] Legislature and I was new to it. He taught me a lot in terms of how to open doors at the Legislature and build relationships. He sticks in my mind because he saw me for who I was and took me at face value. In 1997, I was dispatched to California to campaign against an anti-union initiative. The I.B.E.W. president and secretary-treasurer came in and I worked with them on the ground. I think they saw some potential in me, and a year later, I was hired in the Washington office. That is where I met my next mentor, the I.B.E.W. political director. Then the union president at the time, Ed Hill, took a chance on me and made me his chief of staff.
You say you prepared for running the A.F.L.-C.I.O. your entire life. How did you prepare?
Being prepared is a bit different than seeing yourself in a role like this. I’ve always believed that if you do the work and you work hard, the work will speak for itself. So when I was 23 years old working for the local union, I never saw myself ever in any kind of leadership position. I was a worker bee behind the scenes. Being prepared means you exercised leadership in different ways, rolled up your sleeves and actually did the work versus looking at it from on high. The I.B.E.W. covers seven industries, so it was like a microcosm of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.; before I even got to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., I was working with people in railroads, electric utilities, telecommunications, broadband, construction.
What advice would you have for young women making careers in big organizations today?
Try everything. And don’t be afraid to fail. I have lived my entire career in a state of discomfort in the sense that I was kind of pushing myself beyond what I thought my limits were. Women often feel like they’re underqualified for a new role and talk themselves out of it. We should not do that because inevitably there is a man standing right next to you who is less qualified than you are but is willing to step up and say, “I was born for this role.”
I also would encourage young women to get lots of different experiences. I’ve spent my whole career in the labor movement, but I’ve done so many different things. I was an organizer at the local union, then dipped my toe into politics. I was researching and writing sexual harassment policies when Anita Hill was testifying before the Senate. I was building the I.B.E.W. website. So when the Washington job opened up, I was like, maybe I should try that. I took a leap of faith, knowing I could find mentors to guide me. Don’t think you will do it on your own. You’re going to need the support of a lot of people on the way.
How significant is it that a woman runs the A.F.L.-C.I.O. now?
Extremely significant, because we are half the work force and will be half the labor movement by 2025. Women are on the rise. Women predominate the emerging sectors of the economy. Women have been on the front lines of this pandemic and are finally being seen and recognized and appreciated for their work. It’s absolutely time to reflect that in our leadership at all levels: the A.F.L.-C.I.O., local unions, city councils and legislatures.
We are seeing a burst of union activism, at John Deere, Amazon and elsewhere. Is labor at an inflection point?
I’m glad you asked because we have been so inspired by the courage of almost 100,000 workers that have either gone on strike or have authorized a strike in dozens and dozens of workplaces across the country in different geographies and different industries this year: distillery workers in Kentucky, nurses at Kaiser, coal miners in Alabama. When we look back 10 years from now, I think we will say, “This was the time where things really opened up,” because people are seeing unions in a different way. Public sentiment is the highest it’s been in 50 years: 68 percent of the public supports unions, including 77 percent of young people. This is an inflection point. And I am so excited because we have unlimited potential right now. The question is, are we going to grab it?
Some people say technology and automation deskill labor and depress wages, but you think technology can strengthen workers’ voices and train them for the new economy.
I believe that the changes that we’re seeing in work because of technology are going to be the next frontier for the labor movement. Because of it, workers will be looking for a place to both upskill and find that next good job, but also have a voice in determining how technology will be implemented in their workplaces. In the hospitality sector, the Unite Here union was able to negotiate protections for not only how technology is used, but also, if workers are displaced, they have a fund to train people up.
interview by cynthia greenlee
When did you know you wanted to be a nurse?
I can’t actually pinpoint it. I’d just always wanted to be one. I was quite obstinate in my wishing to be a nurse.
You’ve been the “only one,” a pioneer in so many settings. How do you make change when you are the only one?
You work with others. You’re never on your own. And I’ve always loved working on a multidisciplinary team. I’ve always had a foot in the community and a foot in the health service. I couldn’t work any other way. You have a group of people who have similar ideas, who are similarly impatient to improve the service and get together. Even as we give the impression it’s all really hard work and difficult and challenging, it’s also good fun to actually be throwing ideas into the pot.
While reading your memoir, I was struck that your white nursing colleagues worried that you would not have opportunities for professional mobility. You didn’t perceive that yourself.
That was an eye-opener. Because when I decided to write my memoir, I interviewed people about how they saw me, and one of the people I interviewed was Janet, who’s still a friend to this day. She had been quite anxious about my career prospects because she couldn’t see Black ward sisters [a supervisory position], which was what nurses wanted to be at that point. I was naïve, going through life not even aware of these anxieties of friends.
What surprises people is when I point out to them I didn’t meet any Black people until I was 18. I grew up in a totally white environment: the children’s home, my mother and stepfather, and my grandparents. And much of it was great, though obviously you read I washed my face 10 times [with chemicals] when I was a child to try to become white.
So much of the learning that powered your leadership came from travel and trans-Atlantic exchange.
Visiting the U.S. was very influential for me. I was the first sickle cell nurse counselor [in the United Kingdom]. There were hematologists who looked after sickle cell patients up and down the country, particularly in London, but there had never been a nurse that had specialized in sickle cell. It was 1972 when the Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act was passed in the United States. Nearly 10 years later was the campaign with me and others to develop specialist sickle cell services in Britain.
I went out on holiday to places like Los Angeles, where my cousin was, but which happened to be the U.S. headquarters of what was then the National Association for Sickle Cell Disease [now the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America]. It was also where there was a comprehensive sickle cell center. I will always wave the flag for the U.S., and a sisterhood of Black American nurses who were so generous.
What are the challenges for the nursing work force in Britain now?
Just having enough, in this huge nursing shortage. Covid really tore the curtain aside to show health inequalities in all sorts of ways. One of those was the vulnerability of the Black work force and the huge vulnerability of the Black community as well: One of the first [U.K. health care workers] to die was a Ghanaian nurse who was pregnant.
You trained as a nurse, but you’re committed to being a storyteller as a nurse and beyond.
When I think of my Irish, Nigerian and Igbo heritage, those cultures are huge storytellers. I think the first influence was my Irish cultural heritage in terms of the children’s home. It was nuns, then my grandmother, then folk music, the songs of traditions.
I made huge use of storytelling in my own teaching, for example, when I used to run a course at the Institute of Child Health at University College London on genetic counseling. I chose four conditions, most inherited: sickle cell disease, thalassemia, cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease. Between all of them, they affected almost every ethnic group in this country. And then I would have a panel where somebody who had the condition or was a parent of a child with the condition shared with the students. There wouldn’t be a dry eye.
How do you square that with research that shows many clinicians don’t hear Black patients in particular?
Who dominates what we hear? Who’s got the power to dictate what goes into the newspaper, the radio program? I’m really urging people to tell their narrative, and I encourage people who might be a bit wary of writing. Don’t be put off. You can find a way to share your narrative in a format that you are comfortable with, and that will still reach people.
Some of the ideas you’ve emphasized — for example, home visits with sickle cell patients — can influence health outcomes for the better. But they haven’t always made it into the mainstream.
Slight swear alert coming: It’s the “Order of the Bloody Obvious.” You can observe so much in a person’s home: their beliefs, the way they’re living, how it’s impacting their health positively or negatively, their relationships. The women I worked with would open up to you within the home in a way that they wouldn’t in the clinic. Of course it’s their territory. It forces you to be respectful and not be in that authoritarian mode that you could quite easily [slip into as] a nurse.
What should we know about you that’s not visible?
I was so very shy. When I was 25, I met my father for the first time, and within months, I was growing in confidence. That inner confidence really helped me deal with the idiots and racists that I’ve had to deal with — but also gave me the confidence to encourage others and say to them, “You have areas of expertise.” I used to think that people were always staring at me, thinking I’m odd. It’s good to have gotten through that. I like being a bit different, actually.
Dame Anionwu’s memoir, “Dreams From My Mother,” was released this fall, which details her life growing up as the child of an unmarried Irish mother and Nigerian father; the stigma about unwed parenting and multiracial identity that sent her to a children’s home; and becoming confident.
interview by alina tugend
Were you raised in an activist tradition?
No, my parents were really quiet, but I was always a very inquisitive child. I read a lot of books — one I read in elementary school that really spoke to me was “The Broken Circle” by Rodney Barker, a true story about three teenagers in New Mexico who killed two Navajos. It spoke to me about so much of what I saw of the homeless problem and people in my family with drug addiction and alcoholism. I started questioning what I was being taught and the way people wanted me to conform.
When I went to high school, I always questioned the assignments, particularly those about Southwest history, and most teachers didn’t want that. I was asked to leave the classroom because I wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance.
But you didn’t drop out — in fact you continued your education, right?
I’m very stubborn. Back in high school there was a librarian who kept planting the seed in my mind that I should go to Fort Lewis College in Durango because it’s free — she would give me the papers and everything. So, I first went two years to community college and then transferred to Fort Lewis, where I double-majored in psychology and Native American and Indigenous Studies.
How did you start your work with sexual assault victims?
When I was in my second year at Fort Lewis, SASO (Sexual Assault Services Organization), a community nonprofit, came to our class and asked for volunteers. I did 30 hours of training with Indigenous classmates. SASO serves everyone, but my focus is Native Americans — about 20 percent of those it serves are Native.
How prevalent a problem is this?
According to a Department of Justice report, more than four in five Native American adults, or about 83 percent, have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, and for women that’s often sexual violence. That victimization rate is 1.2 times higher than for white women.
What is your role now?
I work on cultural outreach. The first year I was asked to teach cultural competency — what people should know when working with tribal members. It was really out of my comfort zone. I’m shy and introverted, and being a resource for the community right out of college was uncomfortable, but it pushed me.
Can you give an example?
I gave a presentation on Navajo culture to local nurses who do the medical exams on women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. I helped the nurses understand that there is historical trauma of forced sterilization experienced by many Native people. We have anxiety, we have fear when we go into medical spaces — not so much that we’re afraid of the exam itself, but because of the experiences our elders or people in our family have had.
What do you suggest they can do?
For instance, the nurses wanted to know how to make their waiting rooms more comforting, and I suggested that they could have sage or cedar available for the scent. One example I read about is when an elder was coming to get an exam after a sexual assault. There was a buffalo hide in the room and when she ran her hand over the buffalo hide, she felt calm, and she was able to tell her story.
What else have you done?
I’m organizing a task force — myself, and two other women — on missing and murdered Indigenous relatives in Colorado. We don’t rely heavily on law enforcement — we listen to community members and family when they say that someone is missing, and that they didn’t receive the justice they wanted. Our list of those currently missing in Colorado is at about 45 people, at least 35 more than what has been officially reported.
interview by tatiana schlossberg
How did growing up in Trinidad influence your interest in the ocean and your desire to become an ocean scientist?
I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, and there were not many things to do that didn’t involve being in nature. So I spent a lot of time on the beach, on the water — always snorkeling, always sailing, and just generally around the ocean.
It wasn’t until many years later when I was at university, in one of the first deep sea biology courses that I took, the professor was going on about how little of the deep ocean had ever been seen. It just hit home that it was this unexplored but massive place, and there was this real need for basic science. It’s exploration in its truest sense, but doing so with a lens to understand and then ultimately conserve.
You spend a lot of time advocating for ocean research and conservation. Was there a precipitating event that turned you toward advocacy?
When I finished my Ph.D., I got this opportunity to work on this emerging issue of seabed mining, and that was really when I began to think about the human impacts in this environment and how we, as scientists, can help to mitigate those.
And ultimately there are two. One is this top-down approach — working with policymakers and decision makers — and the other is from the bottom up, sharing what we learned with the public and other stakeholders to create that sense of value.
Through working on human impacts in the deep ocean, I felt like I had this real privilege of actually going down to the deep ocean and of having an understanding that most people on the planet don’t have. So I felt this profound responsibility to work to preserve it.
You have also been vocal about the need to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences broadly and in ocean science in particular. Why is improving access so important to the future of ocean science?
Deep ocean research is very resource-intensive, so most countries in the world, including small island developing states, don’t have the capacity to access these places, or to know, to understand, and to value these places, and because of that, the majority of countries in the world are not able to access their own waters.
So that’s problematic. But then when you think about international waters, which ultimately belong to all of us, it’s just staggering to think that most of humankind doesn’t have access to them.
It’s particularly poignant because we all have a stake in the deep sea, but we don’t all have a seat at the table, and that lack of perspectives means poorer science, and in deep ocean science there are brilliant emerging people coming from countries that haven’t been traditionally represented.
Ultimately, the more stewards we have from more parts of the world, the quicker we’re going to have a better understanding of and ultimately be able to preserve these places.
It seems like, especially lately, space exploration gets all the attention. Why should people care as much (or more) about the ocean as they do about space?
It is the biggest part of our planet that contains the most habitable space. And it’s not just this vast repository of biodiversity, of hundreds of thousands of species, but also it is critical to keeping our planet healthy and keeping us alive by providing ecosystem services and resources that we rely on — regulating our climate, sequestering carbon, absorbing heat, linking fisheries that sustain billions of people.
The deep sea has the ability to really solve some of the biggest challenges that face humanity.
It certainly has the potential to help us in ways we don’t yet understand, so it’s really important that we don’t lose those species, those habitats, those functions that we rely on before we know them.
interview by alix strauss
When you were 19 your family forced you into a marriage that became emotionally and physically abusive. How did this affect you?
I grew up in an extremely dysfunctional and abusive home where I had no plans or dreams for the future. The community I grew up in was so insular I had little understanding of how limited my life was. I thought being married to a stranger was a way out. My husband became abusive and threatened to kill me. I lost all my reproductive and sexual rights. It was paralyzing trauma. I thought I would be trapped for the rest of my life.
When you were able to break free, you took your life back. You defied your marriage and community, became the first person in your family to go to college, divorced your husband and obtained a restraining order against him, got custody of your two daughters and became a reporter, all while your family considered you dead. How did you find the strength and determination?
I knew I had to save my life and the lives of my two daughters. I didn’t want to just get out, I wanted to leave on my terms. It was an agonizingly painful process. It took 12 years just to be able to change the locks on our home. Anger was a spark; rage became energizing. It gave me the energy to push forward and persevere. I learned to wake up every morning and say, “I’m going to spend this entire day proving my family wrong.” And I did.
Why did you start Unchained at Last?
To get me through the trauma. I felt an urge to take action. Once I was safe and had my own home and a car and a job with stability, I turned my rage into helping others in similar situations. I’m energized by positive accomplishments now. Child marriage remains legal in 44 states, and nearly 300,000 children were married in the United States between 2000 and 2018. Child marriage numbers decrease yearly, but it won’t get to zero until we change the law in every state.
How did you begin without a budget, staff or resources?
Any money we needed came out of my pocket. We started with word of mouth to let people know we existed. Through college, and my jobs as a reporter and investigator, I formed a lot of friendships: One built our website, another did our logo, others became our lawyer and accountant. We applied for nonprofit status, created a business plan and formed a board of directors.
Our goal for the first year was to help five women escape a forced marriage. We ended up helping 30. That’s when I realized this is going to be bigger than I thought.
We now offer emotional, mental, financial and legal support. We have mentoring programs, career counseling, therapy programs and social services so these women can become financially and emotionally independent. Today we have five staff members and have helped over 740 women. We now lead a national movement to end child marriage and raise awareness.
Over the past six years your efforts have contributed to six states changing their laws and banning child marriage. How did that come about?
We have been pushing since 2015 for the states to change their laws. They didn’t start doing that until 2018.
There’s no formula to changing the law. You address one state at a time, and every state has a different process. We’ve had more failures than we’ve had successes. We have a multipronged approach: We create grass-roots support, build coalitions, do email campaigns, testify at hearings and work with the legislative sponsors. We get other organizations, individuals and survivors to join us. Most effective is meeting face to face with every single legislator. But each state legislature has their own gatekeeper. Not everyone will meet with us. It’s like fighting a constant war.
Since 2016, you’ve done “bridal gown chain-ins,” where you and supporters dress in bridal gowns, place black tape across your mouths and bind your hands with plastic chains. Then you stand in silence.
It’s a powerful, visual contrast that you can’t ignore. A wedding dress is associated with something happy and celebratory. The tape and chains are jarring. They are universal symbols of oppression and captivity. Supporters donate dresses. We get ready as a group. It’s very empowering and healing.
What continues to push you forward?
The desire for these women to be seen and heard. I want everyone to understand how this happened so there’s acceptance and knowledge. I want to give survivors of forced and/or child marriage a voice and opportunity to tell their story publicly so they can help prevent it from happening to someone else.
interview by shivani vora
Why is wellness especially important today?
Millions of Americans are suffering from some type of chronic illness, and rates of anxiety and depression are at all-time highs. These conditions have only gotten worse over the last 18 months as we navigate the prolonged effects of Covid-19. Now, more than ever, implementing lifestyle changes can not only prevent many of these chronic diseases but also reverse them by addressing the underlying causes. There is a better way to live, and the Well’s mission is to empower people to take greater agency for their health.
What kinds of lifestyle changes?
Basically, preventative care through modifiable lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management. If you have trouble sleeping, regular yoga and meditation can make a big difference. If you have high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes, decreasing the sugar and refined carbs in your diet and getting regular exercise can have a huge impact on your condition. Changes don’t have to be radical or time-consuming to be meaningful.
Let’s talk about affordability as it relates to wellness. Are pricey supplements, juices and consultations with health coaches necessary to live a healthy life?
I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness, and different people can benefit from different things. Wellness can be as simple as going on a daily morning walk or doing an online yoga class for free. There are many ways to be healthy that don’t cost anything or are inexpensive. At the Well, for example, we have a meditation dome with a crystal altar that’s open to the public for free. Meditation classes start at $20. We also offer weekly community acupuncture for small groups at a lower price than a private session.
When I worked in finance, I found it difficult to prioritize my own health and well-being. My mother, who started teaching yoga when she was pregnant with me, encouraged me to get back on my yoga mat, but I felt like I didn’t have time to get to a class.
She suggested I do the tree pose whenever I went to the bathroom at work, insisting that I could spare the extra few seconds. Her advice was free, manageable to follow and worked. I felt more grounded and less anxious almost right away.
You’ve said that insurance companies are helping make wellness more affordable. How?
They’re starting to cover more services. Acupuncture and some functional medicine protocols can be submitted for reimbursements, and the American Medical Association recently recognized health coaching as an insurance-reimbursable product.
Chronic illnesses are leading causes of disability and premature death and responsible for trillions of dollars of health care costs. There’s an urgent need to invest in wellness, and hopefully, we’ll see more policy moves to support a greater well-being for all.
As the Well has grown, what have you learned about being a leader?
Coming from a banking background, leadership was often associated with being tough and not showing emotion. As a female C.E.O., I’m learning that my “softer skills” — empathy, intuition, passion and vulnerability — are my superpowers. My partners and I strive to create a culture where we can show up as our whole selves and know that it doesn’t make us less effective — in fact, I believe it makes us stronger leaders.
What are your top three wellness tips that anyone can practice anytime and anywhere?
Spend time in nature — whether it’s a hike in the woods or a walk in a city park. Nature heals and helps us feel more grounded. Also, eat more vegetables and prioritize sleep.
interview by celestine bohlen
In an interview in Le Monde after you were named president of the foundation, you said that ‘the presidency that I want will be at odds with the old Sciences Po.’ What did you mean by the ‘old Sciences Po’, and what you would like to see change?
Our university has always been unique in France by virtue of its public-private status, the originality of its governance, the strength of its faculty and administration, and the variety and richness of its student body. I would like to step up the momentum. Sciences Po is among the best positioned in terms of equal opportunity. We will soon have 30 percent scholarship students, nearly 50 percent foreign students — and a strong commitment to research in the social sciences and humanities, with a larger, more influential permanent faculty than ever.
In terms of governance, I am changing the way our board of directors works to make it an open body that does not simply ratify decisions, but where all members put forward ideas, where we discuss the substantive issues, strategic directions and budget priorities. This summer, with the help of François Delattre, secretary-general of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were able to repatriate several Afghan students and their families who were trapped in Kabul. That’s just one example among others.
You are the first woman to be named to your position. What difference will that make to Sciences Po? How will you be able to influence the institution?
This is the first time that I have been reminded so often of my status as a woman, which no doubt speaks to the symbolic importance of this presidency. Does the fact that I am a woman mean that I am able to propose a new, more democratic aesthetic of governance? I hope so. Does a woman more easily embody a new political atmosphere? Perhaps.
I want to be available for the various segments of our community, to keep teaching, to be in touch with the students, to pay attention to the balance and well-being of all.
As for my relationship with the new management, the president should not meddle in everything but she must keep abreast of what is going on to assess the coherence between the strategic directions set by the board of directors and the policy implemented by the executive management. I will make sure of it.
Recently, there have been articles in the French press accusing Sciences Po of becoming Americanized. What do you understand that to mean? In your view, is that a good or bad thing?
When Sciences Po was founded in 1872, immediately after France’s defeat by Prussia, its founder, Émile Boutmy looked to foreign models for inspiration, particularly those from England or, precisely, from enemy Prussia. From there he drew his conviction that teaching the social sciences and humanities would better equip students to solve major contemporary problems.
The United States has forged a model that varies from university to university, but which has largely proven itself by its qualities rather than its flaws. When people talk about Americanization, it is not so much to pay tribute to the model as to lament its excesses: the commodification of education, the high cost of tuition, and tensions surrounding a normative discourse.
A number of prestigious French institutions have been accused of being too elitist. To counter that, Sciences Po increased the number of available scholarships and opened campuses around the country. How successful has Sciences Po been at attracting a diverse student body, and what more can be done?
Sciences Po has been a pioneer in this area in France, and the policy we have pursued for the past 20 years is now bearing fruit. Our road map is to press on and reinforce it. We will have more scholarship students, which irks the kinds of people who are forever warning of ‘falling standards.’ I presided over the entrance exam for 10 years, and I can tell you that we have never had so many excellent students.
What in your background prepared you for this new job?
I am taking up this presidency for the diversity of experiences, encounters and joint projects that it holds in store. I studied drawing, theater, history, and art history and have combined them all in teaching, as well as curating exhibitions. I hate repetition. I love constant variation. And that’s fortunate because Sciences Po is an organization that changes all the time.It forces you not to have fixed ideas.
After a lengthy selection process, the two governing councils at Sciences Po, one of which you head, chose Mathias Vicherat as the new director from a list of three finalists. He has a background in politics and as general secretary of the food company Danone. Why was he chosen? What qualities does he bring to the job of director of Sciences Po.
The councils chose Mathias Vicherat for his professional experience, for his ability to coordinate, to train, and to excite the teams. He has a modern understanding of governance, which matches what we want at Sciences Po today.