Inspirational Woman Interview: Lauren McCann

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Lauren McCann is a 2016 graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Economics with concentrations in Marketing & Operations and Social Impact. A Fulbright Scholar, Lauren is currently teaching in a school in Hyderabad, India. She is the Founder of Dear Penn Freshmen, a website compiling encouraging letters written by upperclassmen to their freshmen selves. Dear Penn Freshmen has been replicated on campuses across the country and featured in QuartzThe Philadelphia InquirerNPRNBC and more for its unique concept and delicate approach to mental health issues. Passionate about social impact and community engagement, Lauren has filmed documentaries and short films on a variety of issues including human trafficking, education, global aid, and health injustices. In the last 3 years, she has worked on education and healthcare projects in Botswana, South Africa, India & Brazil. During her time at college, she also volunteered at Why Not Prosper?, a Philadelphia organization dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated women and sex workers reintegrate into society. Following her Fulbright experience, Lauren will be undertaking a position at Google.

What is your background?

Lauren McCann: My name is Lauren and I’m originally from a small town in the tiny, yet mighty state of Rhode Island. I think this small-town upbringing is at the root of my insatiable curiosity to understand the world we live in. I recently graduated this past May from UPenn/Wharton, where I met countless incredible people and went on some amazing adventures while also studying social entrepreneurship, marketing and product design. I also informally did some film work while at Penn.

I’m really passionate about healthcare, education and human rights. Particularly, I’m fascinated with how we can leverage business and emerging technologies to tackle these critical spaces. I hope to spend the next few decades finding interesting and effective ways to bring these two often silo-ed worlds together.

Currently, I’m living in India as a Fulbright Scholar. I spend each day unlearning and learning everything I thought I knew.

You are currently a Fulbright Scholar in India. Can you share some of your key discoveries in India (either about yourself, social impact or research/profession/data related), and how has the research experience been so far?

Lauren McCann: India has been a collection of many humbling but exciting moments, often ranging from complete awe to overwhelming frustration, even from one minute to the next.  Sometimes it can feel like a constant pendulum of starting to feel comfortable and realizing that there’s so much more I don’t understand and need to wake up to. But again, it’s only been about 2 months.

I’m working as an english teacher at the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Magnet School, or TSWRMS for short. My school is a residential institution for girls coming from rural or tribal communities around Telangana State who might otherwise not have access to any/quality education in their area. It’s one of the most empowering, energetic and motivating places I’ve ever been. I have consistently been absolutely blown away by the girls’ ambition, their kindness and their curiosity. Each day is an adventure.

To give you just a little snippet of what it’s like, here is the school pledge they all say every morning.

  1. I am not inferior to anyone.
  2. I shall be the leader wherever I am.
  3. I shall do what I love and be different.
  4. I shall always think Big and Aim high.
  5. I shall be honest, hardworking and punctual.
  6. I shall never blame others for my failures.
  7. I shall never beg and cheat.
  8. I shall repay what I borrow.
  9. I shall never fear the unknown.
  10. I shall never give up.

The most surprising thing about my teaching experience so far is just how much I truly enjoy it. While I knew I’d like it – I’m a huge kid person – I’ve been surprised by how much I really, really, really love it. In fact, it’s making me entirely question my return to the US and working in tech/corporate world. I’m worried I won’t find the same purposefulness in my work. I really thrive in this environment…I’m essentially having a bit of a crisis about the working world before I’ve even truly entered it.

Aside from working with the awesome students/teachers at my school, India has been an incredible place to live in and explore. I’ve had the chance to do a fair bit of traveling so far and it’s opened my eyes to what a wildly diverse country this is. India is a really dynamic collision of the old world and the new. In many ways, it’s a country of paradoxes.

I’ve also really enjoyed learning a lot about feminism in India from my female friends here. I’m doing my best to wrap my head around how very different it is than the Western, liberal feminism I was surrounded by at Penn.

You also filmed and produced A Known Unknown: Human Trafficking in the United States, a documentary about the atrocities of human trafficking in the US. What were your main findings from creating this documentary, and what are your hopes for this film?

Lauren McCann: I spent this past year studying human trafficking in the US, specifically focusing on the Philadelphia context. In conjunction with making my documentary, I was working at Why Not Prosper?, a transitional house serving women coming out of trafficking or the prison system.

While I could spend a lifetime studying this incredibly complex issue, my documentary primarily focuses on identifying and understanding vulnerability factors for specific populations as an attempt to understand the gendered dynamics driving stigma in the sex industry. Furthermore, my interviews assess resource availability, analyze recovery methodology and debate the concept of “free choice” in trafficking narratives. The film examines the origins of human trafficking in the United States and includes potential solutions as understood through the perspectives of organizations, experts, activists, academics, and victims.

There were a lot of main ideas and findings. First, human trafficking is a huge spectrum. Not every sex worker is a victim of human trafficking. Not every person who has been trafficked went through a “Taken”-esk capture. I heard many different types of stories – everything from the overtly abusive and coercive to the subtle crossing of the line. There are nuances to everything and we should respect that.

The next important finding is that in the sex industry, women are disproportionately hurt by our legal system. While women are routinely locked up for “prostituting”, creating a recidivist cycle, their Johns may go an entire career without a single arrest. Women bear the burden of any law involvement. The stigma (obviously) also affects them disproportionately.

Another key idea is around employment. Folks coming out of the prison system have a nearly impossible time securing a job. Yet, once women have spent time in jail for prostitution specifically, their hire-ability drops to rock bottom. Again, stigma.

A really fascinating theme I saw in my interviews was the police system’s involvement. Every woman who had been trafficked noted the regularity with which they would encounter cops who would threaten to arrest them unless they exchanged oral sex or intercourse. Many times, they would take all the money from a John and force the woman to have sex with him to avoid arresting both of them. This story was not uncommon. This is happening in our own backyards.

Lastly, while every narrative is different, its important to recognize the role that substance places in the story. Many people will discount the decisions women are making/unable to make because they are addicts. Yet, most stories start out with a boyfriend/pimp/john relationship in which he gets her addicted to a substance so she is forced to remain in his circle. By forcing a substance reliance, it makes it even harder for women to leave, ignoring all the threats of violence and abuse that also accompany that decision.

In short, this is an incredibly complex issue that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Until laws are changed to accommodate women, address the root of the problem and break the cycle, little progress will be made. Furthermore, society needs to drop the stigma surrounding sex workers in order to have honest conversations about what’s happening.

You also started Dear Penn Freshmen, a collection of letters from Penn upperclassmen writing to their freshmen selves. What inspired you to found Dear Penn Freshmen and what has its impact been so far? What are your hopes for Dear Penn Freshmen?

Lauren McCann: Dear Penn Freshmen, (DPF) started as a class project with Adam Grant’s Organizational Behavior class in fall of 2015. Our class was lamenting certain aspects of Penn Culture when I realized we were all seniors; that is, everything we learned about how to best navigate this environment would be graduating with us. I wanted a platform to share our experiences with as many people as possible and hopefully start some discussions along the way.

Thus, DPF was born, a collection of dozens of letters from Penn upperclassmen writing to their younger selves. The letters depict wildly different college experiences but shared many of the same messages: you will recover from failure, you are not the measure of your accomplishments, value people above all, etc.

The reception of DPF was overwhelming and thrilling to say the least – the idea really seemed to resonate with people. It started some critical conversations on campus about mental health, wellness, competition, etc and how we can address each of these things with increasing vulnerability and strength. DPF has spread to over a dozen campuses across the country including Brown, Cornell, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon, to name a few.

In the end, the goal of the blog is to foster an even more collaborative and cohesive culture at Penn, with a focus on our mental health and well-being. We hope the letters inspire readers, spark their curiosity, make them laugh or even help them out of a rough patch.

I recognize that this is only a tiny step towards a more healthy environment, here at Penn, at college campuses around the world, and in society at large. But, with many small steps, we’ll get there.

Can you talk about some of your favorite experiences related to social impact, whether on campus or off campus?

Lauren McCann: During my semester abroad, I traveled and lived in India, South Africa and Brazil through a program called IHP for 6 months. We were broadly studying public health, yet this naturally overlapped with various sectors such as education, human rights, housing, etc. It was a time of hyper growth and intense learning, evaluating, and re-thinking. The semester really shaped how I began to independently think about social impact on a global scale and recognize the need for different solutions across different contexts.

Another great experience with social impact was during my sophomore summer when I worked at CareMessage, a Y-Combinator social enterprise dedicated to leveraging mobile technology as a vehicle to empower low-income patients’ health. This is where I really began to see the limitless potential for social impact and technology to accelerate one another effectively.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Lauren McCann: I have a lot of bad-ass, awesome women in my life. Two in particular are my mom and grandma. My grandma was an ESL teacher for refugee children for her entire career – in many ways, she’s an inspiration for what I’m doing here in India. Both her and my mom have always supported my work and believed in me when no one else did. They were always encouraging, even when what I wanted to do was scary or made no sense to them.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Lauren McCann: Women’s empowerment matters to me for the same reason it must matter to everyone – we are only as strong as our weakest, most oppressed. Currently, women disproportionately represent those groups. From social mobility, to health indicators, to discrimination in the workplace – and the list goes on – women are hit the hardest.

I believe one of my 12-year old students put it quite right in a speech she made in my class last week. She said, “Women have failed to recognize our power for far too long. Men recognized that we hold the power of the race and so they tell us we are always second because they are threatened by our potential. But if women begin to believe in themselves, and demand equality, we can not only rule the world, but the universe too. And I believe we can progress forward together – in a more thoughtful, more empowering way than those before us chose to lead. Women are powerful and strong. And I am so proud to be a girl despite growing up in a society that tells me otherwise.”

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