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Half the Sky Student Ambassador Kaley Belval To Meet Author, Activist Sheryl WuDunn

ITHACA, NY – Kaley Belval had an unexpected opportunity come her way this fall. The Ithaca College sophomore, who serves as the campus ambassador for the Half the Sky Movement, was organizing an on-campus screening of the newly released PBS documentary about the organization when she learned Sheryl WuDunn would be visiting Ithaca College.

WuDunn is coauthor of the book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," the source material from which the movement sprang. The book focuses on challenges facing women and girls in developing countries, including difficult issues such as maternal mortality, forced prostitution and sex trafficking. The organization that shares the book’s title seeks to raise awareness for these issues and provide solutions to fight them through empowerment of the women who face them.

WuDunn speaks at IC on Nov. 1 as part of the Peggy R. Williams Difficult Dialogues Symposium. During her visit, Belval will be on hand at the airport to pick WuDunn up, and will have the chance to chat with her over dinner.

Belval, a documentary studies major with minors in women’s studies and honors, has followed the movement closely since reading the book a year after it was first published in 2009, at the recommendation of a high school teacher who knew of her passion for women’s rights. She said it was the narrative style that really struck her and brought the issues to life, and she considers it one of the strengths of the book, the movement and the documentary.

"It's really powerful when you talk about a big issue and you tackle it by telling personal narratives," Belval said. "Because that's the way that people can connect to the issue and see how it really affects others."

She applied to be a campus ambassador with Half the Sky this past summer after the movement announced it was launching a program for college students. She set to work organizing the campus screening and discussion of the documentary. Several other student groups assisted in sponsoring the screening and helped drum up interest: IC Feminists, SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape), More Than Me and She’s the First.

Belval said the screening pulled in about 50 people, though the brunt of the discussion afterward focused more on the execution of the film rather than the larger issues. A particular point of friction for some was the use of celebrities such as Gabrielle Union, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera in the film. For her part, Belval said she understands the sway celebrities can have in raising awareness.

"It shouldn't be how it is, and a lot of people have had issues with the celebrities in the film because they feel like it detracts [from the message]," she said. "But at the same time, how are you going to reach that many people if they're not really interested in gender-based violence [in the first place]?"

Still, there was a positive takeaway from the discussion. "Overall I think it was really great, and it promoted a discussion about how we use media," Belval said.

Belval also plans to use the experience to open a dialogue with WuDunn over dinner with Ithaca College President Thomas R. Rochon. "I think that it's important for her to see the flaws that people are seeing in the movement, and address those as well as the positive aspects."

Belval said she’s excited to learn how WuDunn got started writing about gender issues, and if she plans to focus attention on issues facing women in the United States – which is another criticism she’s heard.

"I think I really just want to see what kind of reaction she has personally gotten to the movement and the film, how it's affected her view of media and journalism and how you can bring awareness to these issues," Belval said. "Because that's something I'm always looking at as a documentary studies student: How do I bring these issues to light without representing people the wrong way or making people offended or upset?"

Belval hopes those who see WuDunn speak come away with the sense that ground-up solutions can help overcome the serious issues Half the Sky helps confront.

"When you address these issues, they seem really daunting. But there's always something you can do about it, even if it's really small. You can always help, even if it's just a few people, and then they can help other people, and that's kind of how it expands," she said.