June 15, 2021

The Force Behind the Stories of 1000 Women

I had been quite a newbie on Twitter in 2016 and had taken my chances to DM (aka direct message) Sharon D’Agostino to network during a Conference. This was one of my first attempts at networking back then and I was not quite sure what to expect.

Sharon immediately invited me to sit down, and reflecting on that day, she did not say much but instead was quite interested in my journey, work and dreams as a young woman. I had shared that, one day I was determined to be the Minister of Health in South Africa and she was one of the first people I had met who did not think my dream was too huge or unrealistic, she actually became an avid supporter and fan!

When she heard that my dad had passed on, Sharon would consistently check in, sharing the possible experiences/ feelings I may have, shared memories of her father and how she deals with grief. Unbeknown to many, I don’t speak much about it because I often break down immediately. What Sharon does not know is she became a much-valued pillar of strength through this journey.

If I had the power to announce a woman like no other in this world or give the title of Nobel Laureate it would be Sharon D’Agostino, she has pioneered an online platform https://sayitforward.org allowing women and girls the space to share stories and support each other.

This month I thought it’s about time we pay tribute and get to know Sharon –

  1. Sharon, tell us about yourself?

I grew up in a small family, living with my Mom, Dad and brother, but surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins who lived nearby.  My sense of connection and community began there, and has stayed with me since.

After a long career as a business leader in the private sector, working with bright people from whom I learned so much, I retired and launched SayItForward.org.  This not-for-profit web platform was founded on the belief that every woman and every girl has an inspiring story to share, and that she has the right to tell her story in her own words. 

I am a passionate advocate for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere, and for the human rights of all. 

2. What led you to work on and focus on gender? What was the turning point, the ‘why’?

Many, many life experiences led me to my focus on gender equality.  Even as a little girl, I remember questioning my Mom about why girls were not permitted to do some things that boys were allowed do.  Years later, she told me that I was born a feminist, not recognising the role she and my Dad played in my belief that gender should not determine the possibilities that are open to us. 

Throughout my life and my career, and in mentoring younger women over the years, I have lived and re-lived the experiences that women encounter when they are faced with the cultural norms and barriers that have the potential to silence them.

3. Where and how did you discover the storytelling approach? Was there a particular experience which led you to want to dedicate SayItForward.org?

The short and honest response is that I do not know exactly when I first understood the importance of storytelling in my life… and in the lives of everyone! My Mom was the second youngest of seven sisters, most of whom were great storytellers, and I loved listening to them, and also loved reading stories throughout my childhood.  I was at our local public library every week.  As an adult, I began to understand that most of the stories I was reading, unless they were autobiographies, were stories about people, written by others.  I remember reading a book by an acclaimed male author and thinking how unlikely it was that a woman would have actually spoken the words this author attributed to her.  It was a feeling I could not let go.  And then, years later, I decided that I wanted to create a safe space every woman and every girl was welcome to tell her story in her own words, SayItForward.org was born!

4. How many stories in total are featured on SayItForward.org could you also tell us more about the venture, how it works, how to write a story or even follow all of the action?

The timing of this question is perfect, because the 1000th story was just uploaded on SayItForward.org – 1,000 unique stories of empowerment shared by women, girls, trans women and even a few boys and men. Every story inspires me!

There are no requirements for sharing story, except that it is told in the storyteller’s own words – her story, in her words.  Stories can be as short as a few sentences, or many pages long, and they can be shared in any language, though most of the stories on the site now are in English.  Stories can be shared anonymously if that feels safer to the storyteller.  When someone is ready to share a story, this link leads to the place to do so…  http://sayitforward.org/share-your-story/

This is as safe a space as we knew how to create – there is no mechanism for commenting on a story, or rating it, or liking it.  There is no counter to indicate how many times a story has been read or shared.  We hear from many women and girls who do not yet feel ready to share their own story, but who visit SayItForward.org to read the other people’s stories.  Nothing is sold on SayItForward.org and there are no advertisements, sponsors or donors.    

Links to stories are often shared via our social media platforms, @SayItForwardNow on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

5. What are some of the lessons you have learnt from setting up SayItForward.org, what are the nuances involved in having stories told and shared openly?

I have learned so many lessons, not so much about operating the website but rather from the courage and wisdom in the stories published on the site. While our experiences are as unique as we are, I have learned that we have some shared experiences even with people who seem so different from us.  Our stories connect us, and help us recognize our own strengths, triumphs and struggles as we read the stories of others.

Sharon, you are among the most humble that I know, thank you for finally sharing what I believe is only the tip of the iceberg about yourself.

Your mark on this world has already been made, I listen in to the new Power of Stories podcast series each morning; women discuss grief, the impact of their families, work-life balance, careers and activism https://www.iheart.com/podcast/269-the-power-of-stories-podca-77151815/

Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning independent public health practitioner, and pens #ThoughtSpace with a touch of inspiration, critical thinking, and creativity

Tweet: @ChoonaraShakira

Blog Space