Pitt Tonight shines spotlight on Women’s Empowerment Week


Thomas J. Yang

Sydney Harper and host Jessie Irwin share a laugh during the Pitt Tonight women's empowerment episode. Thomas Yang | Staff Photographer

By Emily Suruda / Staff Writer

Student Government Board Vice President Sydney Harper is awestruck when she thinks about the women who have come before her and left behind inspirational legacies.

On Sunday’s women empowerment-themed episode of Pitt Tonight, Harper reeled off numerous names — from her ultimate inspiration, Harriet Tubman, to “queen” Oprah Winfrey, to Meryl Streep and Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I am someone who has always gotten chills when it comes to thinking about amazing women who have done amazing things, and I’m surrounded by them all the time at Pitt,” Harper said. “I wanted to make a space where it is celebratory and also explanatory in terms of where are we, where have we been and where are we going.”

To celebrate these pioneering ladies, Student Government Board — in association with other student groups including Pitt Program Council, Campus Women’s Organization and Black Action Society — is hosting its first Women’s Empowerment Week from March 20 to 24. Harper and 13 others on the women empowerment planning committee have been planning for this since November 2016.

“The one big reason we called it Women’s Empowerment Week was because we wanted to use the acronym ‘WE’ because empowerment of everyone comes when everyone supports it,” Harper said. “So nothing this week is limited to just women because we want everyone to be a part of empowering women and all students.”

The purpose of the week is to create a space for all students to come together: to network, brainstorm, look at art, engage and leave feeling empowered. There will be six events throughout the week including a comedy show by Leslie Jones and a screening of the movie “Girl Rising.” Additionally, Women’s Empowerment Week will include the GAL-A, the Pitt Women’s Leadership Experience retreat and an art gallery featuring work related to themes of women’s empowerment.

More than 200 students gathered to watch Harper kick off the week, along with Geri Allen, Grammy-nominated pianist and Pitt Jazz Studies professor, and Sidney Cannon-Bailey, a fourth-year bioengineering major.

In between guest segments, Cannon-Bailey showed Irwin how to play the “asparagus piano” and make “elephant toothpaste” — innovative science experiments fit for humanities majors. She said it can be hard for women to find the support they need in STEM fields, but when someone is giving her a hard time, she asks herself how best to prove them wrong. The show concluded with a dance performance by the Ya’Baso African Dance Team.

In addition, more than 10 women-focused groups and student organizations — such as Resident Student Association and Women in Business — were invited to be a part of the show and hang up flyers and posters at the event.

“The whole point is to get everyone in one room to promote the week, and to shine a light on people who don’t get the light they deserve,” Jesse Irwin, host of Pitt Tonight, said.

After the show, Liz Chiyka, a first-year biology major, said she and her three friends initially went to watch an episode of the show, but left excited for the upcoming week of WE events.

“I think it’s really important to recognize all the different facets of women’s empowerment — from dancing to science and STEM fields — which I thought [Pitt Tonight] did a really good job highlighting,” Chiyka said.

Irwin said Pitt Tonight is “run by women” and the show would be nothing without them. According to Irwin, who is a comedian himself, comedy is a tough industry to break into because it is filled with men who talk about women. Before the shows conclusion, he thanked the women who inspire him, including Pitt Tonight Executive Producer Hayley Ulmer.

Ulmer said after the show that she was the one who pitched the idea to Harper to have a women’s empowerment-themed episode, and that the timing “couldn’t be more perfect.”

“I know the guests talked about how women’s empowerment meant going after opportunities and equality, but to me, women’s empowerment also is about supporting and listening to each other,” Ulmer said.

The rest of the week will feature one event each day.

  • An art gallery featuring work surrounding the ideas of of feminism, womanhood and femininity will be in the Kimbo Art Gallery in the Union starting March 20, for the remainder of the week. The art is from both male and female students.

  • Leslie Jones, actress and comedian, will speak to students March 21, in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room at 8:30 p.m. in an event hosted by the Pitt Program Council.

  • A screening of the movie “Girl Rising,” followed by a roundtable discussion, March 22 at 8 p.m. in the O’Hara Student center.

  • GAL-A, a networking event for women, March 23 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the University Club hosted by the Office of Career Development and Placement Assistance.

  • Pitt Women’s Leadership Experience retreat, which about 80 women have signed up to attend this year, March 24 to March 25. Students had to complete an application by March 5 to attend the retreat, which was created by Senior Vice Chancellor Kathy Humphrey.

To Harper, the goal of having the Women’s Empowerment Week is personal. She said she has left leadership and networking events feeling, “I’m awesome, you’re awesome, we’re awesome, let’s do this.”

She wants everyone to leave feeling the exact same way.

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