MMC Alum Connects Students with International Equality Advocates

In March, equality advocates from around the globe headed to the U.N. for the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67), an intergovernmental body focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The meeting set off a whirlwind of events over a two-week period. But, thanks to Sharon Thomas Letalon ’86, a seasoned organizer who helped plan several CSW67 forums, some participants added an extra stop to their busy itineraries: MMC.

On Saturday, March 4, the College hosted six U.N. experts, who led in-person and virtual workshops with more than a dozen International Studies students. Their talks offered insight into CSW67’s focus on using technology and innovation to advance women and girls. Letalon also invited several students from the United Kingdom attending CSW67 as guests of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to participate.

“This was an incredible opportunity for MMC students to develop a greater understanding of the issues and themes CSW67 explores, discuss them with students from other countries, and build bonds of friendship across geographic and cultural divides,” Letalon said.

Letalon is a U.S. representative and core group member of the UNCSW NGO Europe and North America Caucus, a coalition of grassroots and civil society organizations. It holds dozens of events that run parallel to the official CSW session each year.

Hoping to extend a bridge from the U.N. to MMC, she worked with Jennifer Mueller, assistant professor and chair of the Department of International Studies, to organize the College’s workshops.

Featured speakers included Nick Newland, advocacy director and chief privacy officer of Associated Country Women of the World, an international organization for rural and urban women, and president of the NGO-UNESCO Liaison Committee, which connects more than 400 NGOs with the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO.

He was joined by Berthe de Vos, a U.N. representative for Soroptimist International, a global network that advocates for women and girls, and vice president of NGO CSW Geneva, a strategic platform for NGOs engaged with the U.N.; Martha Kebalo, president of the Ukrainian Women’s Association and the World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations’ main representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council; Jo Thompson, chief policy officer of Woman@thewell, a U.K. organization supporting women affected by prostitution; and Zarin Hainsworth OBE, chair of Widows Rights International and the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance, NGO CSW Geneva secretary, and a Europe and North America Caucus core group member.

Shaila Rao Mistry, CEO/founder of the consultancy group STEM Institute and founder/president of Jayco MMI, an aerospace and medical device company, appeared virtually. Mistry is a participant leader at the United Nations Global Compact.

“Students wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to meet with delegates and ambassadors like this,” Letalon said. “These are the people who are in a position to hire you if you’re seeking a career in international affairs and advocacy.”

As an example of the benefits for students, Letalon connected an International Studies major with Newland so that she could use him as a source for her thesis project.

Letalon herself was introduced to international advocacy by a mentor with ties to the U.N.; having studied business at MMC, she spent much of her career as an executive and financial planner/trader. Still, as an immigrant who came to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago as a child and often spent her college summers in Europe, she has long paid attention to international causes.

Letalon hopes the workshops at MMC will be the start of bigger things and open the door to bringing MMC students to CSW forums and events next year. She’s also working on launching a program with a Brooklyn school district that would educate students about the UN CSW process and allow them to participate in CSW events.

“I was at Marymount when Geraldine Ferraro announced her historic run for vice president,” Letalon said. “She told us that we can sit at any table we choose, which is my message for this generation of students. You can’t be complacent—you have to take your seat at the table.”