“Malala really wanted to be here today…but she’s in school.”
This opening remark from Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of new documentary He Named Me Malala, was answered with deafening cheers and claps from an audience of 7,000 schoolgirls in downtown Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater.
The girls had packed the venue for the West Coast screening premiere of the film as part of the L.A. Fund’s Girls Build LA initiative, which encourages girls to focus on their education and become leaders in their communities.
Considering 80 percent of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District live in poverty, many of them may face social and economic challenges that lead to disengagement with learning and high dropout rates. The L.A. Fund, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Participant Media coordinated the screening with LAUSD in the hopes that Nobel Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai’s story would inspire girl students to have a similar passion for education.
Yousafzai of Pakistan was shot in the head in 2012 by the Taliban for speaking about the right of girls to go to school. The documentary follows her activist upbringing, the assassination attempt, her recovery and her subsequent rise to becoming a girls’ rights icon.
First Lady Michelle Obama even made an appearance (via recorded video message) to tell the girls she’s proud of their commitment to school and wants them to keep striving:
Maybe there are people in your lives who doubt you. Folks who don’t see you for who you really are…Don’t listen to the doubters. Don’t listen to the haters. Just work harder to prove them wrong.
Civil rights leader Dolores Huerta also took to the stage to remind the audience that even as young girls, they still have the power to raise awareness of issues like immigration and poverty. She said,
As women, we think ‘Well maybe I can’t do that.’ Take a deep breath and do it anyway.
Among the thousands of schoolgirls in attendance, a handful were from Girls Learn International (a program of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes Ms.) and were given the opportunity to share how feminism shaped their world views. They said they’d learned not only about barriers affecting girls in other countries—such as early forced marriage—but also about challenges here in the U.S., including sexual violence, negative media portrayals and the gender pay gap.
Chloe Vaught, the co-president of the Feminist Club at Alexander Hamilton High School, said to the audience:
Before I joined my feminist club, I thought everything was OK, and we are treated equally. But I quickly learned that’s not the case and that many people, including myself, face discrimination based on gender and race, sometimes without even knowing it. But I also learned that if we work together, we can organize to change things.
Judging from the boundless enthusiasm of the thousands of young feminists that took over downtown L.A. yesterday afternoon, many girls here feel the same way.
Photo from Twitter user College & Career Ctr