Kara Brown is co-director of The Young Women’s Movement and chair of DARF, a grassroots organisation working to end FGM in Scotland. She has represented Scotland’s young women at the United Nations and worked on human rights and gender equality projects in China, India and Ethiopia. Other notable work includes the launch of initiatives such as Scotland’s first Feminist Fest and the groundbreaking Status of Young Women in Scotland report.
I really enjoyed reading Breaking the Mould and wish it had been more widely publicised so that more people had heard about it; I knew so few of the women before I read it. Many women’s stories are silenced and we don’t hear a lot about all of the amazing things they have done. When I was at school I was looking for role models, wondering where my career would take me and what I could potentially do, yet in history and in modern studies I didn’t learn about them. So reading it now was interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to shout more about some of those women, the things that they’ve achieved and the role that they’ve played in shaping Scotland and the fields they worked in.
One story stuck out, I read it more than once, because I thought it was so powerful. It was the story about Anna Hutchison, someone from about an area that you don’t necessarily hear positive stories. We tend to hear more about women like me who have been relatively privileged and have had doors opened for them because of their background, because of privilege and because they’re white. Hearing that story really struck a chord because I thought it was particularly inspiring, what she’d done – it felt very real and community-led.
Our Status of Young Women in Scotland research has been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done at YWCA Scotland. Before that there was all this interesting research in other parts of the world but nothing in Scotland where we could have a look and see what young women were thinking about equality today and also that holistic diverse picture of all of the different issues that affect young women’s lives. I feel like we’ve only scraped the surface. Our report was the first of its kind, it feels like something that has been a highlight for the organisation as well as for me personally, and it’s the essence of what we’re all about – young women’s voices just un-edited and out there.
While we’ve still got a lot to do as a movement I feel very proud of the fact that now over 700 members and have grown bigger than we expected to without really setting out a campaign or trying to do that. But, I’m not so interested in the numbers, I think it’s the individual stories that are important. For example, when we ran Feminist Fest at the Fringe last year one young woman who hadn’t done a lot of writing before came and went to see shows and wrote a couple of blog posts and then she got picked up by a national media source that wanted her to write for them. Another woman who hadn’t left the house for a very long time, came with a completely different history. She didn’t have the confidence to write a blog post, but after she got involved she signed up for an IT course because she wanted to be more engaged with the movement.
A lot of my motivation, challenges and learning have come from other people that I’ve met around me. It’s been inspiring to meet activists and people who are fighting against inequality in different settings. I was very fortunate to work with Ranjana Kumari who runs an organisation called Centre for Social research in New Delhi. She was an amazing person to spend time with and she became a bit of a mentor to me in the beginning, my first feminist role model and a good friend. In this job, Jackie Scutt is a role model, I’m so grateful for the fact that she saw the potential in a young woman and thought, ‘we’re going to invest in her, support her and give her the opportunity to be creative and innovative and see where she goes’. Another is Fatou Baldeh who is an incredible person, a survivor of violence who has turned it into something really positive She’s encouraged and invited me to be part of DARF and we work together, as allies. She’s just relentlessly positive and driven and motivated.
I thought social media would be quite a useful thing to know how to do when I left university because not many people were using it in the third sector and in the field of human rights. A lot of other voices were louder, including the for-profit companies using social media for their branding and marketing. I saw a potential gap and I thought if I start building experience in that area then when it comes to the time that I want to get a job, surely that will be something that will be attractive to employers. I applied for different internships and opportunities and one came up in India, which sounded like a really great thing and an exciting new adventure for me to go on and do. It was in women’s rights and communications – something that I had didn’t have a lot of experience in. But I went for it and they took a chance on me.
The No More Page 3 campaign was particularly inspiring for me; to see humorous, positive, alternative messages for young women and give young men and women an opportunity to have their say online and talk about feminism and equality. It gave me the confidence to share my own thoughts and my own voice, even more so than I was doing before and it inspired me to build something similar in Scotland, to create a space for lots of other young women’s voices to be heard. So that network and meeting all those interesting activists, particularly lots of amazing young women, in different parts of the UK, both online and in person – that was a great resource.
Hard graft is important, both as an experience and also as something that makes you really grateful when you get the opportunity that excites you the most. A lot of my peers have said ‘why you?’ or ‘how come you’ve got that?’ and it’s not always been very pleasant, I think they just see somebody being successful, particularly a young woman and decide ‘oh she must know somebody’ or they say ‘you’re so lucky’. I find that notion of luck challenging because I’ve been volunteering and working since I was 13. I’ve always wanted to work and it’s been important to me and my family. It took me a long time to get a job in this sector.
I usually like quoting women but I always remember listening to a talk that Steve Jobs gave, he said that he’d all of the things that he’d done, all of the little pieces and experience that he had came together when he built Apple. I find that quite inspiring because that’s what my own experience was like. Whether it was working as a PA and learning admin skills, or doing a communications internship in Ethiopia and in India, or volunteering at a Human Rights Film Festival when I was much younger or babysitting and being an au pair in France – I use all these different skills in my role today.
Self promotion is a tricky balance. I try to be humble and not promote myself too much but I think being part of this movement in particular has changed my thinking a little bit. I try to encourage other young women and myself to not be ashamed to say ‘this is what I think and this is something that I did well’ but also to stay aware of my privilege and the fact that I do have the voice and the platform that I need. I would like to use it to make sure that other people are also heard so it’s not always my voice.
The end of university for me was a real low point, I’d really struggled with mental health and stress, I was under a lot of pressure to succeed that I put on myself really…it was a very competitive environment. I got a D in my UN Law Exam and one of my professors said:’if you want to go to or work at the UN you won’t be able to because you don’t have the grades and you haven’t been to Oxford or Cambridge’. Four years later I found myself speaking at the UN. I was shaky and nervous and I felt sick and I didn’t want to do it but it was so important for me to go and stand up there and say something about my own experience and my own work because I’d been told by that man that I couldn’t and I thought ‘I’m going to prove him wrong’. Since then, a lot of what I’ve done has been driven by that sense that no, even if young women are told they can’t do something, of course you can.
If I think about things that have helped me along the way, the fact that I had free access to education in Scotland was massive. I feel so grateful that I could go to nursery, primary school, high school and university here and not have to worry about how it’s going to be paid for.