Annika Lewis, 15, plans to bring the lessons she learned at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women home to Cortez.
The Montezuma-Cortez High School student joined an Episcopal delegation to the U.N. in March to weigh in on a global discussion about the status of women in rural areas. On April 22, she gave a presentation to her home congregation at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church about how it changed her perspective on women’s issues in Cortez. In the near future, she plans to form an advocacy group at her school to help find solutions to the problems facing other teen girls.
Lewis described the culture shock of stepping into a big, bustling city after spending her teen years in rural Montezuma County, going through “airplane security” to get into the U.N. headquarters and meeting the other members of her delegation, a group of 20 Episcopal congregants, in person.
During the two weeks she spent in New York City, Lewis and the rest of her delegation spent about eight hours a day in conferences designed to foster discussion about problems facing rural women and girls, from lack of education to human trafficking and modern slavery. It was an eye-opening experience, she said.
“Different people of all colors, who spoke different languages and were from different countries, were all here in New York, and they were all here to bring change to the world,” she said.
She said that hearing stories about the plight of rural women in other countries, especially victims of human trafficking and sexual violence, made her realize how much progress has been made in the U.S. in granting women’s rights.
Her time in New York wasn’t all work and no play. She also did went sightseeing, watched a Broadway musical and spent time just walking around the city. That was also eye-opening, she said. Seeing the diversity of people in the big city convinced her that Cortez has much room to improve when it comes to accepting people with different skin color, beliefs and lifestyles.
The delegates also set aside time each day to discuss what they learned and how to apply it to their hometowns. Lewis said the discussions about girls education reminded her of issues in Cortez, where she has said girls often feel pressured to get married early instead of pursuing higher education. But the most enlightening topic discussed at the commission, she said, was the privilege generally enjoyed by white, straight people in America compared with minorities. She said she wants to make sure Montezuma County residents who don’t fit that mold have a voice in the public square as well.
“I don’t think that I should be the one to be the face or the head of an issue that I haven’t been oppressed by,” she said. “Instead, I need to listen.”
Lewis returned from the commission with a few ideas for applying what she’d learned. In her presentation at St. Barnabas, she suggested the church start a tradition of wearing black on Thursdays to raise awareness of gender-based violence, something the delegation did at the U.N.
She also said she wants to start a group at her school where teens can talk about problems facing women and minorities in the high school, and come up with possible solutions.
“It’s a good thing that we talk about these topics and make it OK to ask questions,” she said.
She plans to approach the school and her fellow students about making a group this spring, and hopes to start meeting when the next school year begins. Jack Schuenemeyer, a member of the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School Board who attended her presentation, said he would support the idea, although he urged her to think “beyond the school” as well.
Lewis said she plans to apply for the delegation to the UN again next year.