Malala Yousafzai Holds Space for a new kind of American leadership at the White House

Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai met with President Obama, sharing both her vision for education for women and girls and a challenge for US policy. She reported: “I thanked [him for] supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drove attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.” (AP)

It’s a big challenge for American leadership, to stand in controversial peace with the same courage Yousafzai faced the Taliban, with a steady vision and unflinching call for education and peace, for changing culture and empowering people rather than policing and waging war.

Yousafzai with the Obamas at the White House, Creative Commons

Yousafzai with the Obamas at the White House, Creative Commons

This is a vision for leadership that transcends national boundaries and focuses on people’s needs rather than divisive arguments. In many ways, that vision, along with her age and clarity, is what makes her leadership remarkable.

If you want to see Malala in a conversation, not just a speech or a sound bite, you should see her excellent interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. In that interview, she said:

“You can stop war for a second, but you don’t know if you can stop it forever…. The best way to fight against war is education, because you can see children are suffering…. Education is the best way. Going to school is not only learning, it teaches you communication, how to live a life, and other than that, it teaches children how to live with others together, it teaches us justice, respect, it teaches us equality. That is why I support the idea of sending children to school. The issues and problems are enormous, but the solution is one: and that is education.” (quote slightly paraphrased and condensed)

For me, the question is: are Americans up for this challenge? In our own country, divided with its own political and religious fundamentalisms, with a government stalled and vital budget discussions broken down, we can’t seem to find common ground for a core vision that will help people, not just parties. Our own educational system, inclusive and diverse as it may be, is equally fractured into home schooling, charter schools, good districts and bad, with test results still held to be more important than integrated knowledge. We would do well to listen, and examine our own country as well as our actions in Pakistan.

Washington Post leadership blogger Jena McGregor wrote yesterday, about Yousafzai’s nomination being passed over for the Nobel Prize:  “There is still plenty of time to receive the Nobel Peace Prize if, at 16, she can say of the man who tried to kill her, “I can’t imagine hurting him even with a needle”—and that she would respond to a future Taliban attacker by talking to him about education. If this astonishingly courageous girl continues to prove that she is not just a hero but a leader for an issue that will need one for many years to come, it won’t be a matter of whether she wins this prestigious honor. It will be a matter of when.”

Increasingly, Yousafzai proves herself to be a leader with an infectious vision, more than a role model for courage to stand against violence. She gives developed nations a look at another way to lead, pricking our conscience and our consciousness, to understand the power of education and inclusive development as our best weapon against terrorism.


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