The launch of the speaker series “Finding My Voice: A Conversation Between Mothers and Daughters,” featured Valerie and Laura Jarrett in a virtual discussion in which they touched upon myriad topics including leadership, legacy and finding one’s voice. Valerie served as President Barack Obama’s senior advisor and is now on the board of directors of his foundation; Laura was a practicing attorney before becoming a CNN correspondent and then an anchor for its “Early Start” program.
Shero’s Rise, founded by Sonali Perera Bridges ’98, which supports young girls ages 8 to 19 from underserved communities, co-hosted the event with Mount Saint Mary’s University. The discussion was open to those affiliated with the Mount, the Women’s College Coalition — a consortium of women’s colleges in the US and Canada that is housed at the Mount — and Shero’s Rise.
Resiliency: An intergenerational trait
The Jarretts come from a line of hard-working women; at 93 years of age, Valerie’s mother still works. Despite the “mighty juggle,” Valerie says her mother was never too busy to impart lessons to her, such as “It’s not what happens to you but what you do about it.” She also allowed Valerie to stumble and fall — not too much, as she was always there to ensure a soft landing, but enough for Valerie to learn to recover from failure and bounce back.
“The idea around resilience, just remembering that history does not define us,” is what stood out to Shavone Turner, whose daughter Janai is new to Shero’s Rise. “Making sure we not only step into our future with resilience but continue to dream big — not just for ourselves but for our daughters, for our sons — to stay resilient, because that’s what we do.”
By the time Valerie worked with the Obama administration, which was admittedly a 24/7 position, Laura was in law school. But during the years of Laura growing up at home, Valerie worried about how to balance work with being a single parent. She was plagued with doubt and wondered if Laura would ever be proud of her the way she was of her own mother.
Kelli Bernard, whose daughter Lacey Thompson has been with Shero’s Rise for several years and now serves on its board, liked how Valerie reframed intergenerational trauma as what strengthened her understanding of what her family and generations before her had gone through. “It’s not the trauma that got passed along but the strength from the stories,” she said, “and I think that’s oftentimes forgotten. We are the manifestation of our ancestors’ wildest dreams, so I try to pass that along to Lacey, and it’s great to see her here and volunteering and passing it on to the younger girls.”
Valerie advised the audience to pace themselves and recognize that it’s okay to not be okay. “That’s the opposite of what my generation did,” she says. “But if you are completely okay in these times, then something is wrong with you.”
Laura encouraged everyone to challenge an unequal system for the betterment of society. Previous generations didn’t have the option to challenge things the way she does, and she feels a responsibility and obligation because of her position and platform to use her voice in ways they couldn’t have.
It’s never too young to use one’s voice said Valerie, pointing to gun control. While it has taken a long time to achieve incremental changes to gun control legislation, nothing would have been accomplished had it not been for the activism from kids, particularly the contingent from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who have been relentless in their pursuit of more regulation after losing 17 members of their school to gun violence in 2018.
Krishauna Hines-Gaither, the Mount’s vice president of equity, diversity and justice, asked the Jarretts, as women of color who navigate very high-powered spaces, what strategies they use to ensure that their voices are heard. Laura said that women need to figure out who in the room has their back. Valerie added that sometimes you’re on your own, and that’s okay too. “Even if I didn’t win the day, I knew that what I said enriched the conversation,” she said. “Make it about your ideas; it’s not about you.”
Additional advice included listening most closely to those who disagree with you and looking people in the eyes to know if what you’re saying is resonating with them. The hardest lesson that Valerie learned: “When you’re doing something for the greater good, it’s not going to be good for everybody.”
Their mother-daughter dynamic has gone through several major shifts throughout its lifetime. Initially, parents try to protect their children while still trying to role model risk-taking. “I’m your mom, I’m not your friend,” Valerie said of this period.
A Shero asked if Laura felt like she was living in her mom’s shadow growing up. “When you’re young, you see everyone only in relation to yourself,” Laura replied. “I never felt like I was in her shadow, but that’s more a testament to her and the great job she did. I would go with her, especially when she worked in city government, to public hearings where people would yell at her or be really aggressive toward her, and I would be horrified that this is what she’d deal with in her everyday job. It was good for me to see what her life was like on a daily basis, but she never projected anything onto me. She never brought baggage home.”
Valerie stated that “mother” is the most important position she will ever hold, because it’s the only one that’s permanent. “Having children is really serious,” she said. “I encourage you all to wait until you are good and ready. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have the traditional family by any means, but it has to be something that you choose to do, because the biggest impediment to your having the life that you want is having a child before you’re ready.”
Valerie said that everyone knew that if Laura called her at work that they had to put the call through no matter what. Her mother had done the same for her; Valerie would call the administration office at the school, and just hearing the sound of her mother’s heels striking the floor as she approached the phone helped calm her down. She understands that some women are constrained in their ability to dictate such rules in their workplace, but adds that “sometimes we could do something but we don’t because we’re afraid. The way the workplace changes for the better for women is when we do push the envelope when we’re in a position to do so.”
Valerie says that she was far from the perfect mother. If there was a potluck, she’d be the one bringing the paper plates and napkins because she didn’t have time to cook or bake. She missed events, like school open houses, if her attendance wasn’t important to Laura. “I didn’t always have a lot of time with her, but we managed to do the things that were really important to her or that I knew would be important to me.”
“I loved the fact that there seemed to be an evolving relationship, that how one interacts and experiences the relationship in the early part of their lives is different from how they experience it in the later part of their lives,” said Sandra Jackson Dumont, whose daughter Karlissah Laguerre is a Shero. “But more than anything, I loved that they always had the act of listening to each other; that was really powerful.”
Note: For a recording of the discussion, click here