It is dinnertime in a village in rural China. The men in the family are eating at the main dining table while the women are eating at a separate table. The women are not allowed to sit at the main table with the men. Growing up, this was the norm for Julia Qian, founder of Redefine, a non-profit organization that empowers Chinese women. As a young girl, the physical separation between men and women at the dining tables raised many questions for Qian. Why wasn’t she allowed to sit with the men? What made women different from men? Now, decades later, she is helping young Chinese women answer these questions as they navigate their own identities.
Giving back to her roots
While studying at Barnard College in New York City, Qian became heavily involved in leadership. As president of the student body, she implemented initiatives that addressed issues ranging from mental health to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, she found that she was not doing enough for students of her own identity-- young Chinese women. These students were facing their own set of issues such as inadequate winter housing.
“I wanted to do something for this group of people and give back to all the people who helped me become who I am,” Qian said. She imagined a community where Chinese women had the freedom to redefine the meaning of leadership and womanhood, redefining their own identities in the process.
But Qian quickly realized she was thinking far ahead of her Chinese peers. “Most students are still just beginning to think about who they are, rather than rethinking or reimagining who they can be.” Taking a step back, Qian decided to focus on helping Chinese women reimagine what they could achieve professionally and personally. Given the restrictiveness of the gaokao system, Chinese students are often extremely constricted in their career options. Since its founding in 2015, Redefine has held workshops, online courses, summer academies, and annual conferences in China and the US. These programs help women gain critical leadership and professional skills, unlocking their full potential.
Participants at the second Redefine Conference in 2017. Redefine founder Julia Qian is pictured at right (front row).
Redefine also creates a space for Chinese women to engage in meaningful dialogue. Women are exposed to new ideas while being supported by a network of other women going through similar experiences. Young Chinese women are given a space to reflect, discuss, and debate on issues most relevant to their development. Describing the annual conference, Qian said, “You can have reactions. That’s allowed. That’s normal. That’s accepted. But you will also be challenged and inspired to think bigger-- that’s when I always feel the energy.”
Navigating the politics of China
When the #MeToo movement took off around the globe, it sparked waves of activism in China as well. However, the government continues to maintain a tight grip on civil society. Feminist WeChat and Weibo accounts are regularly censored. In March 2015, five feminist activists were detained for distributing anti-sexual harassment stickers on public transportation.
Qian’s own organization faced government censorship. In an online presentation on the history of women in China, an audience member submitted a question that contained the Chinese word for “feminism.” The entire platform was then shut down. Consequently, Qian advocates for a pragmatic yet uncompromising approach. Her team is careful not to use the Chinese word for “feminism” in its WeChat publications. “But careful doesn’t mean less progressive,” she said. “We won’t compromise in any way our ideals for gender equality, but in terms of how we go about it, we’ll be smart.”
Qian believes the process of empowerment among Chinese women is internal and personal. Rather than fighting against external oppression, she hopes to support women in fighting their internal battles, helping them navigate relationships, and finding their own paths. Emphasizing the collaborative nature of Redefine’s work in China, she said, “If you approach [feminism] as a fight, you are almost set to fail. Instead, it’s more a collaboration. You have to involve people in the conversation.”
photo by Redefine org
Redefine is run by a group of professional women who juggle their own careers and education while managing a non-profit. The experience has been rewarding for Qian, whose leadership role has shaped her own personal growth.
“[Working for Redefine] continuously teaches me that most of the time, we should not be leading for ourselves,” Qian said. “If circumstance permits, you should always do something for others. You can always fight for the things you feel passionate about. There is always a choice to do that. When you are trying to fight for others, often times it’s you yourself that experiences the most growth and reward.”
By creating a space for women to discover their potential, Qian has found her own community of women who grow together and support each other. “When I can’t hold on anymore, when I go away from my values or when I need support or cheerleaders, they are there,” she said of her co-founders and team members. “They are also my closest friends.”
What’s next for Redefine
Redefine’s 4th annual conference will be held on April 27th in Fordham University, New York City. This year’s theme is “Reach out of your comfort zone.” The event will feature panels and lectures from influential female role models as well as skillbuilding workshops and career roundtable discussions.
Qian hopes the dialogues at the conference will allow participants to delve deeply into the various topics relevant to a young woman’s life, which range from career, to mental health to romantic relationships. “That’s the first step, to really understand and comprehend. The second step is to have a group of similar minded people to figure out how we can support each other.”
2019 4th Annual Redefine Conference Poster
Registration information for the conference can be found here. The promo code “Diinsider” may be used for a discounted registration fee. Redefine will also host a summer academy that empowers women through mentorship.
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