February 19, 2010 — Award-winning "Dateline NBC" correspondent Sara James gave a dynamic keynote speech at the University of Virginia's second Women in Leadership Conference on Feb. 18, recounting professional and personal tales of everything from raging Australian forest fires to encounters with international icons.
James, a 1983 graduate of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, chronicled the leadership positions she has held throughout her news career, as well as her full-time job as a mother of two. James' speech centered upon a few influential women she has met through her career as a journalist, who she said "led by example," the theme for the conference.
"The best way to appreciate leaders … is by observing their deeds, which sparkle behind them in a brilliant spangle of light like the trail of a comet splashing across the heavens," she said.
James retold stories of women whose courage and perseverance led them to become noteworthy leaders, many of whom she interviewed as a "Dateline NBC" news anchor. She joined NBC in 1994, covering both national and international stories, such as the Columbine High School shootings and treatment of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Her work has won her numerous awards, including an Emmy, a Headliner and several Gracies.
Among James' list of female pioneers was Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank, a Jewish girl, from the Nazis during World War II, protected her diary and eventually released it. She noted her remarkable bravery in the face of danger, her persistence in sharing Frank's story with the world, and the honor that it was to interview her before her recent death.
James also mentioned Zohra Rasekh, a young woman with whom she traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 1999 to document the treatment of women by the Taliban regime. James noted her intense drive to improve the lives of women and her pursuit in updating research for Physicians for Human Rights, "a report for the first time documenting the emotional, psychological and physical suffering women were enduring at the hands of the Taliban."
Rasekh founded Global Watch Group, a Washington-based non-governmental organization focused on Afghanistan,
"Leaders are restless and they are relentless," James said. "They want change and they want it now."
Finally, James spoke of another young woman who helped her sneak into Sudan to expose the enslavement of women and children there. James described woman's anger and her confrontation with a slave trader.
James then described her own victories for female leadership, including her persistence in finding a suitable educational environment for her two young daughters, one of whom suffers from epilepsy.
"One day I was reporting on child soldiers, and one day, I was a soldier, a warrior for my child," she stated. "I wanted to change the world for children with disabilities and their siblings."
James said she is in the process of writing a book about the innovative institution in Melbourne, Australia that her daughter attends. The book will be her second publication; in 2007, she co-authored a memoir titled "The Best of Friends" with Ginger Mauney, documenting their 30-year friendship since growing up together in Richmond.
"I never consciously set out to be a leader," James said. "But I most certainly did think about the ways as a reporter that I could bear witness to and crow about the achievements of women in so many fields."
She added that she merely did not want to write, but also felt "a responsibility to go out and try to change things,"
"In order to lead, we have to tap into our power. We have to use it for good causes that exist," James said. "These women were not afraid, nor should we be."
She concluded her speech by citing a quote from Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" – a relevant tale given her residence in Australia, wittingly nicknamed 'Oz' – who asked, "Do you suppose there's some place where there isn't any trouble?"
"With leadership I think we can get there," James said. "If we use our love, if we harness our power, if we shore our leadership, our tenacity, our courage, our vision, we can get there. We can do so many great things in the here and now and in the then and there. … Either you will find a cause, or a cause will find you."
Betsy Casteen, the wife of U.Va. President John T. Casteen III, opened the conference with a short history of women in leadership. She chronicled the emergence of women in higher education and noted that the University currently boasts a 56 percent undergraduate female population, a trend that has been noted in numerous colleges throughout the United States.
"Women have to be persistent and have to be flexible. They have to be innovative. There are no roadmaps," Casteen said in reference to attaining positions of leadership. "You really sort of have to pave your own way."