Nicole Goldin is Senior Advisor in USAID’s Policy, Planning and Learning Bureau

I made my way to Johannesburg along with 76 bright and dynamic young women – 44 from across South Africa and 32 from other countries in sub-Saharan Africa – for the U.S. Government-sponsored Forum for Young African Women Leaders.  Ranging in age from 16 to 30, they were nominated and selected by U.S. Embassies, USAID missions and NGOs for their accomplishments in media, education, philanthropy and service, business, and promotion of democracy and human rights.  Among them were a number of USAID program participants and beneficiaries like Sarah from Tanzania who has gone from student to teacher as part of Maasai Women Development Organization (MWEDO), Wilkista of Kenya who serves as a leader in the Global Give Back Circle to educate, empower, and mentor girls, and Raharison from Madagascar who has worked on a USAID-funded malaria project distributing long lasting insecticide treated nets

For two days these women would discuss issues around youth and female leadership and empowerment among themselves, with six prestigious women of African society (Forum ‘Anchors’), with the U.S. Government, and perhaps most importantly with first lady Michelle Obama.

First Lady Michelle Obama shares a laugh with the Young African Women Leaders. Photo Credit: Nicole Goldin USAID

My role was to lead and moderate the opening and closing group discussions – to spark and facilitate intent and substantive conversation around our key themes.  But beyond that, I was there to listen. To bring back the thoughts, ideas, insights and shared experience of the young women to our Youth Policy Team currently writing the Agency’s first-ever policy on youth in development, and to our Africa Bureau to continue to inspire and inform our programming.  As our State Department colleague reiterated, this is the continuation of a conversation with the youth of Africa, strengthening our dialogue and partnership with these leaders of today and tomorrow.

This is their continent.  These are their challenges and opportunities.  This was their Forum.

I was fortunate, however, to be welcomed as part of their emerging sisterhood. Although we shared just two days together, bonds were formed that I have no doubt will last for years.

Together as participants, anchors, facilitators and organizers, we were inspired by each other and by Michelle Obama – not just by her uplifting speech at Regina Mundi church (nearly everyone in the 1500 person audience left chanting “Yes we can”), but by the off-camera interaction while taking the class photo, in programmatic breakout conversations around mentoring and social business, and during community service gardening at an HIV/AIDS clinic. We connected with her on a level that none of us – especially not the participants – could have expected.

As we wrapped up, we told the women that our expectations were high.  We anticipate great things from them, for as the women said of themselves from the very beginning “We have a voice…We are ready now…We are the agents of change.”