Filmmakers Drive Across Country To Find Inspiring Women

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) “The Empowerment Project,” is a documentary which features the inspiring stories of female leaders across the country. According to one of the creators, “The film encourages girls and young women and young men to think about what they would do if they weren’t afraid to fail.” The documentary was recently released on itunes and amazon.


In 2013, Sarah Moshman and Dana Michelle Cook packed a minivan with camera equipment and a film crew and drove from Los Angeles to New York, capturing the stories of 17 remarkable women along the way: an astronaut, a brewmaster, an architect, an admiral and more.

The road trip lasted a month. The impact, they hope, will last a lifetime.

They turned the stories into a documentary called “The Empowerment Project,” and they’ve spent the past three years showing it in high school auditoriums and college lecture halls, in cities across the country, in countries around the world, from Haiti to Holland, from Rwanda to Australia.

On January 17, it was released on iTunes and Amazon.

“The film encourages girls and young women and young men to think about what they would do if they weren’t afraid to fail,” Cook told me.

In preparation for the road trip, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. When the campaign reached its goal, they asked the 404 people who’d pledged money to tell them whom they’d like to see profiled. The suggestions poured in.

“We especially wanted to focus on the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, math, because not only are women underrepresented in them in real life, they’re also underrepresented in media portrayals,” said Moshman, who grew up in Evanston, Ill. “You don’t see a lot of female scientists in movies or on TV.”

Operating with the belief that girls can’t be what they can’t see, the crew got to work.

They tracked down Molly Barker, the Charlotte, N.C.-based founder of Girls on the Run, astronaut Sandy Magnus and Michelle Howard, the first black woman to command a U.S. warship and the first woman to reach the rank of four-star admiral.

They profiled U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, chef Mary Nguyen and mathematician Ami Radunskaya, who tells them, “I solve systems of nonlinear differential equations, and I love it.”

After showing the film, Cook and Moshman lead their audiences in discussions about what they can achieve.

“We’ve seen with our own eyes the power of looking someone in the eye and saying, ‘You can do anything, and here are 17 examples of that,’ ” Cook said. “We’re so grateful to be able to listen and observe and really be the vessel for these important conversations.”

I spend a lot of time considering what my kids see and hear about women and from women.

In my own field, male bylines outnumber female bylines in almost every major newspaper, according to The Status of Women in the U.S. Media, a 2015 report from the Women’s Media Center. Men are quoted in front page stories three times as often as women.

Opinion writers are overwhelmingly male. The OpEd Project looked at the three biggest newspapers and the four major syndicators of opinion columns and found 143 columnists were male; 38 were female.

We’re not conditioned to hear women’s voices and opinions and stories outside a very limited realm, mostly within the home. It’s the reason I get mail every week telling me to fix my hair and pay more attention to my children. It’s why my business reporter colleague just received a note admonishing her to behave “more like a woman.”

Women are upending stereotypes and breaking glass ceilings left and right. We outnumber men in college, we’re the primary earners in 4 out of 10 families, we now hold 21 of the seats in the U.S. Senate, more than ever before.

But we don’t hear women’s voices nearly as often as we hear men’s, in the news media, in movies, in books.
And that’s what I love about “The Empowerment Project.”

“There are so many inspirational women out there,” Moshman says in the documentary’s trailer. “But why is it sometimes so hard to see them?”

Their film makes it less so.

“Some of the girls come up to us and talk about how they feel inspired to pursue that class they were afraid to take or go for that degree they’ve been thinking about,” Cook said. “Other times, months will pass, and we’ll get an email, ‘I saw your film a year ago, and I wanted you to know I was inspired to make this change.’ It’s just the most amazing thing.”

The next time my kids and I are settled in for an “American Ninja Warrior” binge, our current source of empowerment programming, I’m going to suggest we take in 17 stories of women who overcame obstacles of a different, but no less daunting, sort. Seventeen stories of dreams achieved.

Seventeen stories that remind us what it means to behave like a woman.

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