Amy Burton

November, 2022

Blog, Gracies Leadership Award

Haajrah Gilani’s Experience at the 2022 Gracies Leadership Award

On my way to the Gracies, a truck parked and filled with men honked at me as I crossed the street.

I found the blare so perplexing that I stumbled and fell in the middle of the street. In my mortified state, I picked myself up, dusted off my skirt and continued my walk.

When I arrived, I quietly shared the elevator with other attendees. I had copies of my resume and writing samples in my folder. I had remarks and questions in my mind. Still, we rode up to the eleventh floor in complete silence.

It’s so easy to feel small.

In classrooms and meetings, I try to be myself even if it’s at the expense of coming off annoying or any of the other connotations that come with being a confident woman.

But being a 21-year-old in a too-big blazer and no industry connections while standing on a Tribeca rooftop can be intimidating. I found myself nervously drinking water and wandering around, hoping my apprehension wasn’t apparent.

When I began meeting the other college students attending the event, I traded my third glass of water for a state of ease. We exchanged our ambitions and shared our anxieties of not fitting in with the accomplished lineup.

Somewhere along the way of being incredibly impressed by the attendees in my age group, I thought to myself, “there’s a reason why I’m here.”

As strange of a thought as was, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was invited to the Gracies, that I had every right to feel a sense of belonging in the vast room. The room was simply too big for me to feel conscious about how much space I took up.

Once I sat with the rest of my table, I began to think about how the event wasn’t incredibly different from a lecture. Like in any traditional academic setting, I was here to learn.

Of the seven honorees, Valerie Blackburn, Nancy Daniels, Marie Donoghue, Kim Godwin, Wendy Goldberg, Chesley Maddox-Dorsey, Debra OConnell and Dawn Porter along with the event’s keynote speaker, Soledad O’Brien, there was never a dull moment.

Nearly every honoree spoke about moments like the perturbing truck honk or hushed elevator ride, about critical points that caused them to question the value they brought to a room. And, still, all of them managed to overcome these doubts, woes and setbacks.

At one point during her acceptance speech, one of the speakers had to pause and ask for water. While we all laughed it off, I kept thinking about this moment for the rest of the event and how there was power to it.

The more I watched these high-achieving women accept awards with hearts-on-their-sleeves speeches, I realized that asking for help or tearing up on stage are acts that require admirable amounts of vulnerability.

Women are punished constantly for traits commonly associated with femininity, like openly displaying our emotions. If there was anything I took away from my time at the Gracies, it’s that strong women don’t shrink because of their weak moments.

While I fell, I also stood up. While I didn’t introduce myself in the elevator, I still made it to the event. While I don’t always feel my own value or power, that doesn’t negate from its existence.

Haajrah Gilani is a recipient of the 2022 Google News Initiative Student Fellowship. She is currently a student at Temple University, and we look forward to seeing how she continues to shape the world of media in the future.