On Monday, to mark International Women’s Day, I got to attend and contribute to one of my favourite IWD events, the Titanic Foundation’s Inspire conference. Each year they ask 4 or 5 women to share their stories with delegates from secondary schools in NI. I was excited to be asked to talk about my journey of activism and was honoured to be among such amazing women. Dr Janet Gray, water skiing world record holder, Suzanne Wylie, Belfast City Council’s first female CEO, Teamrat Belai, an education champion at Trocaire Ethiopia and Grace Devitt, female Irish rugby team captain were on the bill compered by Denise Watson, a fascinating sports journalist.
I covered my story and the stories of some inspiring women I get to partner with in addressing the problem of human trafficking. As I prepared for the day, I wanted to encourage the girls like a big sister would. I have had so many people who are a further down the road than me invest in me in lasting ways, and I decided that a letter to myself 10 years ago would be a good way to do that. Incidentally, #DearMe started trending the same day, as people shared their advice to their younger selves. What’s yours? Here’s mine.
Dear 17-year-old Gemma,
Hello! I’ve – we’ve? – made it. 27 is actually really fun. You’ll love it. But hey – about you right now, what a life you are having.
School is fun, for the most part, but it’s getting tough. You are under a lot of pressure, not least from yourself, and sometimes it feels like it’s just too much. Learn as much as you can Gemma – knowledge is power.
But also, learn to let yourself off the hook. It’s ok not to have it all together, all of the time. In ten years, you’ll still feel like you’re making things up as you go along – and that’s ok.
Take time out, do fun things, and make room for those things. Don’t feel guilty about that. Not everything has to have a point. Your energy is not limitless and protecting it is important.
Make choices you want to make. Everyone will have an opinion on what you should do with your life. Listen to wisdom, and then listen to yourself. Try things out, explore the world, learn a lot and then ask: what does your heart beat faster for? What is your dream? Pursue that. Pursue it hard.
A lot of people in the world don’t get to make choices, so appreciate your privilege. Take opportunities, even when they feel uncomfortable. Stretch yourself. Learn. And use it for the good of others.
Listen to mum when she says it’s not so much about where you go than it is about who you become.
Not everything is black and white. You’ll learn to be OK with that and learn that there is beauty and truth in grey, too.
Don’t worry about finding The One. You will find someone to love as you live your life, not as you carry out a search party for him. Oh, and also someone may be cute, but if they don’t allow you to be yourself and grow as a person then send them, in the words of Beyoncé, to the left, to the left.
You already know that girls don’t always treat each other right. This is, I think, because when we are insecure or jealous. We try to protect ourselves by finding something we think is wrong with someone else. Don’t be that girl. Have your friends’ backs. Let everyone’s name be safe on your lips. This will pay off in the long run.
You are beautiful. Your body is sometimes a hard place to be in. You have not treated it as you should have, and you will spend your life learning to love it again. Gemma, you can breathe, run, see, swim, speak, laugh, lift, do. You are beautiful. Also, your body is yours – and yours alone.
You will come to know darkness in a way that you didn’t expect. Although it is tough, sit in it. Do not try to escape it. It’s worth it for how much brighter the light appears.
It’s also important because you have a responsibility to address the darkness and punch holes in it. The world is messed up. It will break your heart – and I’m not sure that will ever change. You will learn that even little you has something to give in trying to make it a better place. Don’t shy away from this: identify what is wrong – stare it straight in the eyeballs. Identify what you can do to help, and do it. You have a patch it: work it. There are a lot of battles to be fought. Fight, hard.
In doing so, don’t be someone else. Use what is in your hands. You can write. Do that. You are good with people. Spend time with them. You have a brain and a voice. Use them.
I’ve recently started messing around with lettering techniques – remember my point about doing things for fun? Here’s one I worked on last week – the quote is important for you.
So most of all, Gemma, what I want you to know is that it’s OK to fall. Because no matter how many times you do, you will fly – you can fly – and when you do, it’ll be totally worth it.