The Empowerment Project

01 December 2016 Written by  By Sal Sbranti, With Milanka Schneiderman
Published in December 2016 Articles

 The Antioch Rotary Club Empowerment Project is on a mission of changing the attitudes of Antioch schoolgirls toward themselves and towards the possibilities that lie in their future.

I somewhat fell into my role as project leader. I’ve been a member of the Antioch Rotary Club since 2013. I have been playing golf since college so my first assignment was to help promote the club’s annual golf tournament fundraiser. I became a team captain with the challenge of enlisting sponsors and players. There were two teams and we competed with each other. My Sal’s Super Stars took home top honors but it was a close race. The two teams raised a lot of money for the club.

Things changed when I was at the monthly Rotary board meeting. I was waiting for my turn to present my golf team report when the board members began to discuss plans to disburse funds that had been designated for support of public education, perhaps by assisting a project called Girl Power, which was an Antioch High exercise designed to empower high school girls to aspire to realize their potential in choosing a career.

As they spoke, something clicked in my brain and when it came my time to present, I described a film I had recently seen called The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things, which documents the travels through America of a crew of women filmmakers on a mission of inspiring and empowering young women to identify and then pursue their ambitions. The footage was taken during a pilgrimage that stretched over 30 days and across more than 7,000 miles while meeting with role models in locations that spread from Los Angeles to New York.

Members of the film crew put themselves in front of the cameras as well as behind as they interviewed 17 positive and powerful women leaders and change-agents spread across a variety of lifestyles, industries, and professions. The heart of the film was a challenge embodied in a question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?”

The powerful documentary is restricted to showings in a group setting as the basis for a directed conversation about empowering women.

I had personal knowledge of the film because my daughter Kimberley, a transcriber for movie projects, has worked on such shows as Dancing with the Stars. Kimberley became a personal friend of Emmy-Award-nominated Sarah Moshman, the movie’s director, writer, and one of the five crew members who both made and starred in the film. Sarah has been instrumental in showing the film around the country and encouraging the young women in the audiences to “say their dreams out loud.” My idea was to spend the available funds on making The Empowerment Project available as a resource to be used with the Girl Power Project. The board members were excited about my suggestion.
Stacey Duckett, the incoming club president, presented the idea before the principals in both high schools who agreed to show the movie. She asked me to help put together a program and enlisted four Rotarian volunteers to assist me in the project. I quickly realized that we needed to bring on board staff representatives from the schools in order to secure the necessary buy-in to make the project actually work. Deer Valley High assigned two vice principals to the team. Antioch High sent a vice principal and Trine Gallegos, the school’s community liaison person who was also the leader of the school’s Girl Power project.

The eight us of developed an event that was organized around a more manageable 54-minute version of the movie featuring nine of the 17 professionals from the full-length version. The film showing is followed by a brief introduction of the 4-5 member panel composed of local, successful women representing diverse careers and industries including such things as chemists, dentists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, and professors. As far as possible, we assemble each panel to reflect the ethnic demographic of the particular audience in order to present role models appealing to the widest range of audience members. A facilitator spends 20 minutes conducting a Q & A with the panelists including questions taken from the audience. When necessary, the facilitator will ask questions from a prepared list including suggested questions that are part of an information packet that comes with the project DVD. The packet also provides a template for quarter-size sheets on which audience members write their personal replies to the central “What Would You Do?” question. The responses, posted on a bulletin board, serve as a public commitment to a goal that becomes a powerful motivational factor.

In 2014 we conducted our first event that included two sessions at Deer Valley and one at Antioch High with a total attendance of more than 2,000 young women from grades nine through twelve. This year we presented the program to eighth grade girls. So at this point more than 3,000 Antioch girls from grades eight through twelve have seen the movie. In 2017 we are going to present the program to eighth graders and continue doing that on into the future.

Audience members pose real world questions to which panel members provide responses that are always practical and occasionally profound. For example, one audience member asked for advice on how to raise daughters to feel empowered. One panelist, Diane Aguinaga, is a captain in the Antioch PD. Diane said that she has two daughters. Their doctors and dentists are all females, which Diane said provides the nonverbal message that women can be in those roles. Diane said that she also enrolled them in self-defense programs as a way of building up their confidence and reinforcing their self-image as women of power.

We know that our efforts will be more productive if we can follow up with some reinforcing so we are planning to do that. We provided a little bit of reinforcing at the events by passing out bracelets with the Rotary icon and the What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid To Fail? question. We created a separate version for both high schools using the school colors. There are too many middle schools for this to be practical, so we created the bracelets in Rotary Blue.

BACK STORY
Throughout my life I’ve been a charge-forward-and-get-it-done kind of guy. The trait apparently came through my DNA. Uncle Joe was an Antioch builder. In 1955 he started a company called Sbranti Builders Inc. Uncle Joe and my dad are of Sicilian descent. “Don’t Talk About It; Do It” was their philosophy.

I worked hard in school, got good grades, and in my senior year was Vice President of the student body. The pursuit of school success had a subtle motivation because Dad believed in the principle that independent living helped young people make the transition to responsible adulthood, so from time-to-time he would tell me, “When you are 18, you are out of the house.” Dad wasn’t as stern as the words make him sound because my brother was still not “out of the house” and he was my elder.

Following graduation from Pittsburg High in the class of ’67, my transcript and résumé were sufficiently high that I was accepted at Berkeley, San Jose Sate, and Cal Poly. I chose Cal Poly because it was the one farthest away from my folks. I always got along well with my parents but looked forward to the sense of independence that would come from not having them too near. They could come see me anytime they wanted and could afford time for the eight-hour round-trip. There was no chance of becoming homesick at my new school because when I showed up I discovered that my fellow classmates included a group of Pittsburg Italians who had been buddies of mine.

Following graduation from Cal Poly I became an electronic engineer, got a position in the Maintenance Department at US Steel, and rose through the ranks to Operations. When the plant became a joint venture with the Korean POSCO company, I became part of the modernization team that managed the changeover. After things were running smoothly, I was promoted to Vice President of Operations where I served for 21 years before retiring in 2013.

I took satisfaction from being actively engaged in making things work right. I admired the technology, appreciated the manufacturing processes, and enjoyed the camaraderie that I shared with fellow workers. These attitudes prepared me to become an effective Rotarian when long time member, Gordon Gravelle, challenged me to join the club when I retired.

Because of my get-involved attitudes, I was ready to do what I could to begin practicing the Service Above Self philosophy that sets the direction for all of Rotary’s efforts. Our club is part of an international program of healing and service for our world. We belong to a global network of volunteers that is 1.2 million strong, and serving in more than 200 countries and geographical areas.

Rotary International dedicates resources, time, and talent to confronting the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges.

I’m proud to be part of something that has been so good for so long. Our Empowerment Project exemplifies on a small scale the kind of change that Rotary works to bring to the world. A girl recently told our club president, Milanka, that the Empowerment Project inspired her to plan to go to college.

That’s what this is all about. We’ve thought the project will be worthwhile if we can only get a couple hundred young women to change the direction of their lives. However, someone recently shared with us a thoughtful quote:

A hundred years from now it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank…. But the world might be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child. (Forest E. Witcraft)

We will obviously never be able to measure the actual effects of our Empowerment Project in the hearts and minds of the young women who attend our events. However, no matter the number, as the quote points out, our world might be a better place a century from now if we empower only a few members of the next generation of women to reach their potential to be all they can be and to do what they can do. God only knows the results; they could be huge!

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