Katy Ma is a youth activist and internet enthusiast passionate about improving girls’ access to education and promoting gender equality. A high school senior from the Greater Philadelphia region of Pennsylvania, Katy is actively involved in leadership, volunteerism and advocacy both on and off campus. Earlier this year, she founded the I Am Proud campaign, which is committed to building confidence and inspiring every girl to reach her full potential. Katy is also a blogger at SPARK, an intergenerational campaign dedicated to resisting the sexualization of girls in the media, using her penchants for writing and nonprofit service to raise awareness of humanitarian initiatives. This week, Katy spoke to Women LEAD Hong Kong President Megan Foo about the importance of harnessing the power of women and how to get involved with furthering women’s rights.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Katy Ma: Currently, I’m a senior in high school and I’m from the Greater Philadelphia region of Pennsylvania. My parents emigrated from China, which makes me the first generation to be born here in the States. I’m passionate about human rights, gender equality, volunteerism, and the arts. Presently I serve as a Huffington Post blogger, Givology’s Community Manager, a blogger/activist with the SPARK Movement, and a member of DoSomething and College Board’s Youth Advisory Council on the college process. At school, I enjoy being involved in student council, Key Club, National Honor Society, and I recently started a new Girl Up club! High school has been a whirlwind for sure, and my next chapter is just beginning. I look forward to moving on to college and taking my activism further wherever I happen to end up!
Women LEAD: Why is women’s leadership important to you?
Katy Ma: It’s amazing what women and girls are capable of when given a chance, and the statistics support the fact that empowering women offers tremendous hope for the future. Empowering women and girls to be leaders benefits everyone; when women are educated, they are more likely to ensure their children are educated, engage in politics, and have ripple effects on their families to last for generations. We need more women leaders in business and politics. We need more female leaders like Hillary Clinton or Arianna Huffington or Sheryl Sandberg who have redefined how our society views women in positions of power. We need women leaders simply because young girls need role models to look up to; you have to see it to believe you can be it.
Women LEAD: Could you describe one woman who has inspired and encouraged you in your life?
Katy Ma: I’ve had the privilege of befriending so many amazing women so far in my lifetime, but my ultimate role model and inspiration is my mother. She came to America with no money, little knowledge of English, and no college education because of the political and economic turmoil that her afflicted her family which prohibited her, as a woman, to attend university in China. To provide for our family she decided to pursue nursing, and she would actually study as she rocked me to sleep (I was still an infant at the time). Through perseverance and effort she passed the exam—in English—on her first try. She’s my biggest inspiration and supporter.
Women LEAD: You are the Founder of I Am Proud, a diversity and self-esteem campaign for girls. Can you tell us about this campaign?
Katy Ma: The I Am Proud campaign promotes media literacy, diversity, and positive self-image, and highlights great sources of alternative media. In addition, it’s a photo campaign that invites girls to share why they are proud to be uniquely themselves. I was inspired to start this campaign after deciding that I was tired of seeing media in our culture that relentlessly presents girls in stereotypically as divas, fashionistas, dramatic, overemotional, and solely the subjects of men’s desires, and not how we actually are: intelligent, interesting, creative, independent, high-achieving, and brave.
Women LEAD: You are also a blogger of SPARK Summit, a girl-fueled activist movement to demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media. Can you tell us about your experience with SPARK?
Katy Ma: SPARK is an intergenerational movement that connects girls like me with seasoned activists who give us advice and support. Working with the SPARK team has been an amazing experience. Together, we work to combat harmful media and also create media of our own such as blogs like I Am Proud that foster girls’ self-esteem and diversity (in all senses of the word).Although it seems like mostly an online organization (we’re heavily engaged with social media, blogging, and petition writing), it’s actually a balance of raising awareness online and engaging in on-the-ground advocacy work. Besides blogging for SPARK, I represent SPARK at various gatherings and events. I’ve gotten to speak at the United Nations, guest lecture at a college media literacy class, interact with the press, and actually lead a flash mob in Times Square. Through SPARK I’m learning so much and continually inspired by the amazing girls I work with.
Women LEAD: What would you say are the biggest challenges to ending gender based discrimination?
Katy Ma: The biggest obstacle to any social movement is interrupting the pre-established views that have been accepted and perpetuated by society. The biggest challenges to ending gender based discrimination is reversing a worldwide culture that has generally always prioritized men above women and places women in a very narrow box of what we can look like, do, and think. Sometimes it’s frustrating to understand how people can be sexist or racist, but you have to stop and realize that a large part of that stems from social conditioning. What excites me about media activism, in particular, is having the opportunity to change that social conditioning. That’s why creating alternative media is so important. The hope is that efforts to create better, alternative media will result in the mainstream media realizing that promoting positive messages is indeed profitable and worthy to adopt.
Women LEAD: Are there any websites and books that are inspiring you right now about the theme of girls’ education and gender equality?
Katy Ma: Of course, one of my all-time favorites is Nicholas Kristof’s book Half the Sky. I’m looking forward to reading Malala’s memoir, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, and Girls like Us by Rachel Lloyd. There are great documentaries and films on the theme of girls’ issues too! Some of my favorites are Girl Model, Miss Representation, Girl Rising, and Dark Girls. Since I’m always on the Internet, I’m constantly hunting for websites, blogs, and organizations creating wonderful alternative media! The list of these sites is ever-growing. Some of my favorites include Rookie Magazine, SPARK’s own blog, Who Needs Feminism, and Smart Girls.