When you think of star-studded award ceremonies, images of red carpets, black-tie attire, and clinking glasses of Champagne might come to mind. But the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards bring something more special than sheer celebrity to the annual event: humanity.
Now in its 11th year, the nonprofit, founded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her First Lady days, trains and mentors women around the world to tap into their inner leader.
“Vital Voices speaks to me more than all the others because it empowers women all over the world,” board member and fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg explained at the event, held this past Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. “It’s not about giving charity, it’s about helping women tap into their strengths.”
The evening kicked off with mingling in the Kennedy Center’s second-tier lounge. Honorees and board members mingled among high-top tables and posed for swarming photographers. Chair of the Vital Voices board Susan Davis chatted with me about her work for the organization, describing the passion of the award winners and their ability to achieve against all odds.
“Our problems are small compared with [those of] these women who have to fight for democracy and human rights,” she told me.
Wolf Blitzer and Claire Shipman kicked off the evening at podiums flanked by potted yellow spider mums and hot pink hydrangeas. Tina Brown presented an award for leadership in public life, and actress Jennifer Morrison spoke on behalf of ANNpower, a fellowship for young girls created by ANN Inc.
Chelsea Clinton gave a speech on behalf of her mother, who had to miss the awards for the first time ever as she was in Turkey at the time. Clinton noted her mother’s ability to seek out female voices everywhere she travels.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of the evening was the presentation of the Global Trailblazer Award by Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer. The award typically goes to one person, but this year it went to five female leaders of the Arab Spring. One of the awardees, Manal Alsharif, was unable to attend for fear she would not be able to return home. She earned the nickname “the Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia” after she posted a video on Youtube and Facebook of herself driving, an activity illegal for women in her country. A fellow global trailblazer, Amira Yahyaoui of Tunisia, garnered a standing ovation for her passionate acceptance speech reproaching Saudi Arabia.
The program closed with a rousing musical number by the NEWorks Tribute Singers. As choir members filled the aisles of the house, the awardees emerged from backstage and the audience stood and danced along with them.
The dinner that followed was especially congenial. The open seating plan and buffet service in the atrium promoted conversation between multitudes of young women and the awardees and presenters.
As the event wrapped up, guests filtered out into the cool evening carrying baskets woven by women in the Vital Voices Entrepreneurs in Handcrafts program filled with the nonprofit’s eponymous book, authored by president and CEO Alyse Nelson. Waiting for a cab, I overheard the woman next to me saying the night’s presentation had brought her to tears and reminded her how truly lucky she was to be a woman in the United States.