Incredible Women. Incredible Fashion. Every Day.

Porter
Incredible Women

11 Incredible Women on what makes them feel their most powerful

Clockwise from top left: Jorja Smith, Blair Imani (inset), Heidi Bivens, Rejina Pyo, Kelly Marie Tran, Amika George and Elif Shafak

For Women’s History Month 2021, PORTER asked a series of inspirational, influential women – filmmakers, founders, activists, artists and writers – to share what makes them feel their most powerful and self-assured, and to recall a time they raised up their voice for themselves or others

Rejina Pyo, fashion designer

“Doing something I care about is when I feel most powerful and confident. Running my own business has meant I’ve been able to follow my own path and create things I believe in. Of course, it doesn’t mean never making mistakes, but it’s having the courage to make them, learn from them and, ultimately, trust my instincts. It has also given me the chance to work with a team of talented, inspiring people and it feels like, together, we can achieve so much.

“As an adult, one of the first moments I remember feeling empowered was leaving Korea when I was 21 to travel around Europe on my own. It was my first time traveling so far from home and I didn’t speak the languages, but I dreamt about experiencing the cultures of cities like London, Paris and Rome. With every broken conversation and every exchange, I felt incredible independence. It was learning to have the confidence to speak, even when you don’t know the words.”

Screenwriter and director Dee Rees

Dee Rees, screenwriter and director

“It’s difficult to describe the thing that makes me feel my most powerful and assured self, because it isn’t necessarily an object or place, it’s more a stretch of time where I can settle into a quiet, balanced routine of thinking, working out and ‘play’… so I guess it exists in a kind of patterned solitude where my time is completely my own. I feel that all things are possible when I can be unrushed, internally focused and acknowledging what’s happening in my body and spirit.

“The first time I remember feeling really empowered to speak up was around the release of the short film version of Pariah. Specifically, I think it was the Frameline Film Festival screening at the Castro Theater in San Francisco where I really began to feel that I could change things, to use my personal lived experience to help advocate for people. Telling a version of my story, especially in short form, felt particularly vulnerable and risky, and everything in me wanted to hide under a rock, but I made myself face the attention and stand behind the film. So, in that way, Pariah became a kind of shield for me, something from which I could finally step out and into myself as an adult human being. Over time, it morphed from shield into my ‘armor’, in that it gave me courage to speak up about what was happening for other LGBTQ+ people and be a voice for those who weren’t yet in a position to tell their own stories. Looking at it, I realize that’s pretty late in life to feel empowered (I was almost 30), but that’s when it happened for me.”

Kelly Marie Tran, actor

“When I think about how far I’ve come, the strength and courage it took to get me where I am today, the ways in which I’ve contributed to my community, I feel really happy about the person I am. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for existing – or maybe surviving is a better word. We’ve all experienced pain in one way or another, and putting in the work to overcome those traumas is an act of courage, especially in a world that is constantly moving at such a fast pace. I am powerful because I have survived, and I will continue to do so.

“I’ve always been surrounded by strong women. My mom, my friends, my sisters – they have always encouraged me to speak up for myself, to listen to my own voice and to trust my instincts. More importantly, they always did those things for themselves, and, to me, there’s nothing more empowering than seeing other women speaking up for themselves. It reminds you that you can do it, too. As I’ve gotten older, it has become easier to speak truth to power, to recognize my own strength and to stay true to myself – and I owe so much of that to the incredible community of women around me.”

Elif Shafak, author

“I feel most powerful and most assured when I understand my own flaws and failures and follies; when I learn to love and embrace who I am, just as I am, not some imaginary perfect person shaped by somebody else’s expectations, but a real, imperfect human being with myriad conflicts, doubts and scars, as well as curiosity and empathy. That kind of openness to learning, that kind of compassionate wisdom, is something I treasure.

“Empowerment does not come to us at once. It takes years and long journeys. I am a big believer in sisterhood. I was raised by two women – my mother and grandmother – who have supported each other through some really hard times, and I do know first hand that when women are there for each other, the impact of that kind of solidarity goes beyond generations.

“I am a storyteller, and stories always change us; they help us find ourselves, connect with people who might seem to be different to us at first glance, and build emotional bridges. Stories rehumanize people who have been dehumanized. So, there is something empowering in the art of storytelling – especially when we break silences and give voice to the silenced.”

Mikki Kendall, author

“Things that make me feel powerful include a bold lip color, the love of my family and friends, and hyping myself up before I tackle anything that makes me nervous. If I am not rooting for myself, then no one else will either, so I’m my own cheerleader.

“In my late teens I was still a people-pleaser, until I had a job where my boss was a bully who would always threaten to fire people for imaginary infractions. A favorite threat was that no one else would hire us. One day, I had enough and quit. Two of my co-workers quit, too, leaving that shift woefully understaffed. The best part was being able to say, ‘We deserve better than this, and so does everyone else.’ A small victory, but it changed the way I saw myself and the world around me. My world did not end just because I left a crappy job.”

Blair Imani, writer and activist

“Feeling powerful and having power are different things. I feel powerless often, and that’s because of the systems of oppression that deny Black women access and power. I do feel powerful, however, when I am able to put something into the world on my terms and see how it impacts people. I feel most powerful when I’m educating others and helping them to deconstruct their biases.

“I will say that the first time I spoke up about an injustice, it was not the first time I felt empowered to do so. For people without privilege and who have been marginalized, historically and in the present, speaking up is a matter of survival, not a matter of confidence. Feeling empowered to speak up requires knowledge that you will not face punishment, or that if you will face punishment, you have a support system that has your back. And that was in elementary school, as the only Black girl in my classes. My parents always told me that if I should speak my mind, they would support me 100 percent. And that led to the foundation to be an outspoken advocate.”

Author, activist and cultural critic Mikki Kendall

Heidi Bivens, costume designer

“I feel my most powerful self when I’m successfully collaborating and effectively working with others. Bouncing ideas, riffing and melding minds is half the fun. Then there’s the great satisfaction of having conviction in a thought or opinion that may be in contrast to others and going with your gut. I often feel my most self-assured when I listen to my instincts, and they serve me well.

“Justice and principles are important themes in my personal ideology. I think I’ve been sticking up for myself and others since I was very young. Through the years, I’ve found ways to look for solutions rather than focus on problems, and explore how to be effective in the immediate, as well as in the long game, when trying to effect positive change. For example, with The Film Path [an organization that aims to create equity and inclusion in the entertainment industry], I’m able to empower myself and others by hiring diverse crew in the immediate, and to lobby the film and television unions for bigger overall changes that take time.”

Writer Morgan Jerkins

Morgan Jerkins, writer

“When I’m writing, I feel supercharged into my highest self. Though not every session is what I consider to be a ‘win’, I’m thankful to have the time and space to nurture what makes me sublimely happy, and that passion always makes me feel like I can do anything, even if I may not feel that way once the work is done.

“The first time I remember feeling empowered to use my voice was when a fellow student in undergrad published a narrow-minded, discriminatory op-ed in our school newspaper and I responded to him via a national publication. The reception from my article from peers, friends and strangers alike encouraged me to keep going – and I’m thankful I did.”

Jorja Smith, singer-songwriter

“In terms of feeling powerful, when I’m having a good day, [it feels like] nothing bad can happen. You can be negative to me, but it won’t come off. This is the stuff I’m working on, because I’m too hard on myself. When I’m on stage – the energy, the fans singing back to you, we’re all there together and the music’s playing so loud – that makes me feel good.

“The second song I wrote, [when] I was 11, was about all the shops closing down because the credit crunch was happening. I’ve always been observing and writing. I’m confident and then I’m not. I just do it and that’s that, and I deal with the consequences.”

Petra Flannery, stylist

“I feel powerful when I am able to let go. I strive for perfection – it’s the Capricorn in me. I’ve learned that, sometimes, letting go and allowing a situation to take its natural course can give you a clearer and stronger mindset. It’s not always about being in control that gives you power; rather, it’s being aware; it’s being present. I believe in this for both my personal and work life.

“I can’t remember a time when I felt being a woman could hold me back. Maybe that’s because I was raised to be confident in myself and I want to exude that confidence onto others. Every day at work, I am championing women to feel empowered through their expression of style. That’s why I love my job so much, because I work with incredible and talented, powerful women who always inspire me.”

Amika George, activist

“This might seem a little odd, but I actually feel at my most empowered when it’s clear that someone won’t, or can’t, take me seriously, either because I’m a young person, or a woman, or a person of colour. As a young activist who works alongside so many countless, incredibly powerful young people who have refused to accept the world as it is, who have taken back control, I know we should never be underestimated. If I feel I’m being dismissed, that really energizes me – I become more single-minded, more determined and more thick-skinned, because I know I need to work harder to be heard.

“Until I started Free Periods [an organization fighting to ensure that no young person misses out on their education because they menstruate], I don’t think I’d ever felt so strongly about speaking up for change. There was an overwhelming injustice that was so gender-specific, affecting the education of half of us. I started fighting for change and I realized how easy it is to raise your voice when you care about something so deeply.”

Stylist Petra Flannery

RELATED READING

Meena Harris stars in the first of our Changemakers podcast

This International Women’s Day, our community of Incredible Women unites in the #PowerToChange