Updated: Jan. 16, 2018 at 2:25 p.m.
After one student had the chance to interview former First Lady Michelle Obama and appear on the cover of Seventeen Magazine with her, she was inspired to follow in her footsteps and empower other women.
Zaniya Lewis, a sophomore majoring in political science, founded a national women’s empowerment movement called the Yes She Can Campaign during her first year of college. Through the campaign, Lewis highlights women from all over the country on the group’s blog that have overcome adversity while completing their education and hosts panels and workshops for girls in high school.
“This campaign has shown that many girls have kept climbing even though they’ve had obstacles in their way, so I hope they’re empowered to do more,” Lewis said.
“This is not for me, this is for the girls.”
When Lewis was a senior in high school in New Jersey, she was chosen to meet Obama and speak with her about the difficulties of being the only black student in her class. Lewis, who appeared on the May 2016 cover of Seventeen Magazine alongside Obama, said she was inspired after having the opportunity to share her story with the former first lady.
Lewis started the campaign in December of that year and began sharing her story – and about 40 other women’s stories – on social media.
Lewis said she is lucky to have this opportunity to inspire young girls and wants every girl to see that they can also attend college or have a fulfilling career by reading examples of other women.
“This is not for me, this is for the girls,” Lewis said. “So if I have to stay up five hours one day doing just this, I’m going to do that so other girls have opportunities too.”
The campaign offers summits and ambassadors and has a national team with leaders across the country, including another sophomore – Udochi Esomonu. But the core of the campaign still lies in telling women’s stories.
Esomonu, the media coordinator for the Yes She Can Campaign, said she got involved because she was inspired and hoped their work would help others too.
“People who are scrolling through can see people who are in their shoes, who are in high school just like them, or in college just like them,” Esomonu said. “Maybe they are experiencing the same thing and they have someone to look at and say ‘if she made it through, then I can make it through.’”
The blog posts tell stories of women conquering hardships and accomplishing their goals. Readers started contacting the campaign to get more involved.
Lewis said she received so many messages that she decided to create an ambassador program where these representatives promote the campaign in exchange for scholarship help, access to post on the campaign’s Inspire Blog and help with college preparation.
After adding about 30 ambassadors, the campaign expanded even further to two new programs – Sparkle Summit and Yes She Can: On The Road Series.
Lewis said she enjoyed hearing stories from people she looked up to in panels and conferences, but felt that often the voice of a regular woman was missing – so she created her own.
She hosted the first Sparkle Summit this past summer, where she offered workshops to high school girls on topics like finding your passion and preparing for college.
And now Lewis is already planning the second summit this summer in New Jersey to be even bigger. Workshops will focus on college preparation, finding your passion and community service. The summit will feature more diverse panels and additional events.
“Women growing up are often told ‘that’s not for you, that’s a man’s job’ but everything is a woman’s job.”
“You can go to a summit and be inspired, but then you’re left with ‘what can I do next?’ So we’re going to have vendors right there so they can see that these are organizations from your community, here’s how you can sign up and get involved,” Lewis said.
But she also takes her team on the road. The Yes She Can: On The Road Series allows the team to come to the girls directly. Lewis and her team go to schools and tell their experiences, talking with the girls personally and allowing them to ask questions.
The campaign is only a year old and still growing, but the team has big aspirations. Esomonu and Lewis said they hope to turn the program into a non-profit or have multiple chapters in schools throughout the country.
“Women growing up are often told ‘that’s not for you, that’s a man’s job’ but everything is a woman’s job,” Esomonu said. “If they want to run for office, if they want to be a CEO, they can do it. It is essentially letting them know that nothing is off limits.”
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Lewis went to high school in Vermont. She attended high school in New Jersey. We regret this error.