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The Bush Institute Talks with Holly Gordon about Empowering Women

March 6, 2015 7 minute Read by George W. Bush Presidential Center

This week, the Bush Center hosted a panel discussion focused on empowering women worldwide as part of an International Women’s Day celebration. Holly Gordon, Co-founder and CEO of Girl Rising: Educate Girls, Change the World, participated in the conversation to talk more about drawing international attention to girls’ education.  She is an executive producer of a film by the same name, “Girl Rising,” whose movement was named the “#1 Most Dynamic Social Initiative of 2012” by Forbes Magazine. Before her work on the project, Holly was a producer and booker for the major news broadcasts at ABC News for 12 years.

Holly has also served as a mentor for the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative Fellowship. Her 2014 Fellow, Miriam, was a journalist working to advance gender equality in Tunisia when they met. With Holly’s support through the course of the year, Miriam has further spotlighted the issue and held screenings of “Girl Rising” in Tunisia and Egypt while also starting her own project to combine photography and storytelling.

Holly talked with the Bush Institute about the “Girl Rising” movement, her experience with the Women’s Initiative Fellowship, and her hope for women everywhere.

“Girl Rising” is about the power of educating girls and building a movement to ensure girls everywhere have access to education. How did the project develop? What impact has it had around the world?

“Girl Rising” developed out of a basic fact that we uncovered as journalists: that in nations where girls stay in school through adolescence and acquire the skills they need to be productive, healthy members society, every indicator for poverty improves. We were captivated by this truth.

For a journalist, a big story is when one intervention can have an incredible positive impact on society. The story of girls’ education felt like the story of a lifetime. So “Girl Rising” grew out of a professional challenge: how could we share this incredible truth and how could we inspire audiences to act?

The impact has been extraordinary – millions of people around the world have seen “Girl Rising’s” message and thousands have taken action –starting groups to advocate for girls, raising money for girls programs, implementing new policies to break down barriers that girls face to education, sharing “Girl Rising” with new audiences, and much more. The tide is turning, and “Girl Rising” is just one actor in a growing community of advocates for girls’ rights.

How does a girl’s education affect her family and her community?

A girl who is educated is more likely to marry later, have fewer children, make more money, grow more food, vaccinate her children, educate her children equally, invest her money in her family, participate in community development, and lift her family out of poverty. Girls’ education is a game-changer.

You’ve been a mentor in the Women’s Initiative Fellowship. Tell us about your experience.

 It has been both an honor and privilege to be a part of the Women’s Initiative Fellowship, especially at a time that is so delicate and important in Tunisia. To be a small part of this cohort of bright women, all of whom share an interest in ensuring that the next chapter of their country’s history is one that values the role of women, is exciting and sobering all at once. There is something special about having a global friendship. I only hope that the women in the program feel as enriched by the experience as the mentors have. 

What progress did you see over the course of the year with your Fellow, Miriam?

 Miriam is an amazing young woman – brave, determined, optimistic, and above all, human. I have seen her, at times, alive with passion and her bold vision for how things must change and, at other times, deflated and despondent from the realities of achingly slow pace of revolutionary change. It has been rewarding to watch her work through her personal work plan – pivoting in the face of road-blocks and pushing ahead despite obstacles. I hope I have been able to encourage and guide her and that she has derived as much pleasure from knowing she has a champion thousands of miles away as I have had championing her!

Both “Girl Rising” and the Women’s Initiative Fellowship are built on the idea that one person, or a small group, can create a powerful ripple effect. Can you describe a ripple effect that you have witnessed in the case of empowering women and girls?

I just opened a Google Alert and read about a meeting that is being organized next week in Islamabad for women between the ages of 17-30 to train them in women’s empowerment as part of the “Girl Rising Pakistan” movement – the ripple effect in action! Equally, a few months ago, one woman in south Florida hosted a “Girl Rising” screening that raised over $50,000 which she split between three non-profit organizations serving girls – one in her town, one national organization and one international organization. When like-minded people come together and work hard toward shared and just goals, amazing progress is possible!

With all of the struggles women and girls are facing in the Middle East and around the world, what gives you hope?

I believe in the fundamental goodness of people – men and women. I believe that most discrimination against women and girls is tied to history and culture – rituals that may have made sense centuries ago, but are no longer relevant or necessary. I am optimistic that the women leaders of the Middle East, and the men who love them, will help to shape a future where women are no longer second-class citizens, no longer fear for their physical safety, and instead have full and equal rights afforded to men.


George W. Bush Presidential Center



As the 13th presidential library, the Bush Library and Museum promotes an understanding of the American presidency, examines the specific time in history during which President Bush served, and provides access to official records and artifacts from the Bush Administration.



The Bush Institute is an action-oriented, nonpartisan policy organization that cultivates leaders, fosters policies to solve today’s most pressing challenges, and takes action to save and change lives. Our work is inspired by the principles that guide President and Mrs. Bush in public life.

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