Fierce Voices

The power of storytelling and the potential of women’s networks

It’s been more than five years since Joelle Hawes, a UK national living in Saigon, stopped on a bridge with a partner and challenged him with a critical question.

“I was by a bridge with this guy and I asked him for a reason to live,” Hawes told a mostly female audience attending the Leading Women storytelling event in March. She sought an affirming answer from the partner whose needs had superseded her own.

His answer: “‘I can’t give you that,’” his way of saying “he didn’t think I should be alive,” she surmised. She told the group that the events described ended a point of extreme depression and emotional abuse. Hawes would go on to remake herself and rise again in a period of self-discovery and personal growth, but that day one of the options on the table was to not realize this future. “That day could have ended in two ways, and I’m very thankful that it ended the way it did,” Hawes said. Her speech ended with rousing applause and hugs from audience members.

Hawes handed the microphone off to Leading Women ( ) chief Catriona Lygate who brought on the next storyteller from a lineup of speakers who told personally meaningful and sometimes difficult stories, like comic Vu Minh Tu’s story about how her mom told her she was ugly as a child. Or artist and designer Sophia Holt’s feelings of being constricted that lead the industrial designer to create her drawings of nude women.

“I think we’re lacking in places where you can be real… and where you can just talk about serious s**t,” Lygate said. The need for that space is in part what drove her to create the speaking engagements offered through her group Leading Women. The group’s name is a double entendre; the first word acts as adjective and verb. The group’s mission is to create a space where women can both be led through trainings and skill-building sessions as well as cultivate their own executive and communication skills. Leading Women’s activity portfolio contains workshops and networking events Lygate calls “speed friending” alongside its speaking engagements. The events draw a sprinkling of men, but the overwhelming majority of those attending are female.

Lygate said she was originally inspired by a teaching experience she’d had last fall. The young women she was teaching were self-selecting education topics that centered around women’s advocacy. It awakened a desire in Lygate to move beyond teaching that in the classroom, but to create something outside in the world of women. It was at the beginning of this year when Catriona Lygate put out her trial balloon, just an idea she was throwing out there. Would anyone be interested in meeting as part of a women’s speaking and storytelling group? She guessed maybe 25 people would show up to something like this. But with the first event created on Facebook, some 500 people RSVP’d.

“And I was like ‘s**t, s**t, s**t,’ Lygate said. About 50 people showed up to the inaugural Leading Women meeting. Despite Lygate’s fears, those who showed up seemed to know what she was doing right away. People showed up, they shared, they were listened to. The only part Lygate hadn’t budgeted for was the audience’s desire to participate. Spectators who came who wanted their turn to share their stories in their space. “I see the audience wanted to get involved. It was going to be something that people were engaged with,” she said.

Leading Women’s speaking events now include speakers who’ve been selected to share their stories, but Lygate takes audience comments between speakers where they can share their experiences too. Not all the stories are negative, but most are extremely personal and sensitive, things you wouldn’t think people want to share with strangers, yet here they are doing just that.

“People don’t think that people want to hear about that,” Lygate explained. “There may be a lot of situations where it’s maybe not the right time to bring something serious up. But we need to be able to have people and a support network around us; that’s a massive part of life.”

Lygate is not a trained clinician. She stopped after her first year as a psychology major and selected architecture as her discipline instead. Her facility with serious stuff comes from the wealth of it in her personal history. Before she entered university, her family had weathered a divorce and she acted as her dad’s caretaker as he succumbed to dementia. He died when she was 18.

“Of course I missed him… but it freed my whole family,” she said. His death occurred after she moved away from home, and “I had to forgive myself.” It’s helped her keep her life in perspective as she moved through her master’s degree work and left Scotland to relocated to Ho Chi Minh City. “You have to realize that even though there are days and nights where you’re like ‘f*** this’… You also have to realize how lucky you are.”

Lygate she she’d originally wanted to create an explicitly feminist group that would include the f-word in its name. “But I know feminism has a bad name sometimes,” she said. “I just needed to give women a voice and a place to have a voice. It’s not about me, it’s just about giving a platform to tell about how they feel,” she said.

The speaking engagements are what Lygate sees as a the beginning of a greater project that will include education projects made to empower Vietnam’s female population, both local and expat. The future of the project is to offer training for girls and women across the country through staff that will work through Leading Women.

The first pieces of this vision are coming together. Leading Women has executed a series of workshops on public speaking and, this summer, will offer a Ruby on Rails coding course. Leading Women is not only about teaching others, but about teaching herself. “I’m so sure of myself sometimes,” Lygate said. “I’m a bit egotistical.” The stories have “just humbled me,” she said. “I love to see how much that gives the speaker.”

For Hawes, telling her story of making the right choice at the bridge was enabled by who Lygate is and what she represents to her. “Cat gives a really comfortable space for people to talk. You almost go up there thinking you’re going to share a specific story and you end up telling everything,” she said. Hawes explained that there’s a special kind of power that emanates from women-led spaces.

“The secret? Women have ruled the world since day one, we just haven’t realized it yet because we don’t speak as loudly as men,” she said.

Images by Vy Lam

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