Storytelling takes center stage at the 2019 Women Who Empower summit

Nina Fialkow, Emmy Award-winning producer (far right), Tina Eliassi-Rad (center) and Christo Wilson (center-right), associate professors in Khoury College of Computer Sciences, and Mai’a Cross (center-left), Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science in the College of Social Science and Humanities, speak at a panel moderated by Renata Nyul (far left), vice president for communications, during the Women Who Empower event in East Village. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Storytelling is an activity as old as the human race—it’s how communities have passed down their histories, how people have created their identities, and a means through which to understand the world.

Sometimes, people have to dig deep—into their personal histories, into complex social systems—to reveal stories that might otherwise be overlooked. And it’s those stories that were told and celebrated at Northeastern’s Women Who Empower summit on Wednesday. 

“Stories create meaning, add context, have impact, challenge norms, and accelerate action,” said Diane MacGillivray, who is one of the event organizers and Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement. 

Some stories, she said, were perhaps considered  “too dangerous to tell” by their subjects. These stories required all the more digging to uncover. 

Students and alumni who have written books and founded organizations shared their stories at the fourth annual summit. So did two sisters (one of whom is a Northeastern graduate) who created a cookbook that also highlights trailblazing women throughout history. A New York Times bestselling author and an Emmy Award-winning producer shared their stories, too.

“Stories are a means for us to share our experience; they’re also a means for us to create shared experiences,” Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said to an audience of more than 250 entrepreneurs, students, faculty, and staff.

In her documentary The Great Hack, producer Nina Fialkow explores the way tech companies collect and utilize personal data from social media sites such as Facebook. The film focuses particularly on the role that the data company Cambridge Analytica played in elections in the United States and the United Kingdom in 2016—namely, the presidential election and the Brexit referendum. The film follows journalist Carole Cadwalladr on her hunt for the truth. 

Fialkow joined a panel of Northeastern professors, whose expertise ranged from computer science to political science, in a discussion about the implications of data privacy (or lack thereof). The panel was moderated by Renata Nyul, vice president for communications at the university.

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“The work of documentarians is about telling a good story,” Fialkow said. “I think documentarians are working hard to be truth-tellers.” 

The truth revealed in The Great Hack is: There’s a whole lot of personal information that’s ripe for the harvest by companies that can use it to target us specifically for advertising or political messaging. 

“We can find out a lot about you, just from your social media profiles,” said Tina Eliassi-Rad, who is an associate professor of computer science at Northeastern. “We know who your romantic partner is and we can tell if you’re going to break up with them,” all based on the connections in your social network, she said. 

Diane MacGillivray is one of the organizers of the Women Who Empower summit, and Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The ad-targeting technology that Cambridge Analytica used in the 2016 elections was not new technology—it was also used by the Obama campaign to target voters in the 2012 election, Eliassi-Rad said.

The difference, four years later, was the amount of disinformation that also spread, said Mai’a Cross, who is the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science, and who studies the European Union. 

“What started to enter into this dynamic was the disinformation part of it,” she said. “The people who wanted Brexit to happen were willing to misrepresent what it would mean for the U.K. people.” 

Nyul pointed out that such micro-targeting can often be a welcome addition to our online experiences. If we’re shopping for something but don’t know exactly which brand to look for, the ads that follow us can actually be helpful, she said. So where do we draw the line? 

“That’s something we have to decide as a society,” Eliassi-Rad said. 

Christo Wilson, an associate professor of computer sciences, and a founding member of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute at Northeastern, offered some context for the decision. 

“It’s estimated that there are a thousand companies watching you browse the web and use apps every day, and we didn’t really consent actively to any of this,” he said.

Earlier in the day, sisters Karen Cuneo and Grace Cuneo Lineman shared what it was like to create a cookbook together. The book, Empowdered Sugar: A Collection of Sweets, Treats, and Female Feats, pairs dessert recipes with information about notable women throughout history. 

Three students and one recent alumna told their stories of entrepreneurship—of staking their claim in the world. 

And Leslie Morgan Steiner, who wrote the bestselling memoir Crazy Love and whose TED Talks have been viewed more than five million times, shared her story of resilience. 

She discussed growing up with an alcoholic mother, developing a severe eating disorder just before starting college, and dealing with domestic violence in her first marriage. One of Morgan Steiner’s friends told her one day, “‘Leslie, you’ve had so many bad things happen to you,’” Morgan Steiner recalled. 

But she learned from each of those experiences, Morgan Steiner said, and offered words of wisdom to the audience: “Embrace your personal problems.”

“You can make a lot of mistakes in life and still grow up and leave the hard times behind you at any age,” she said, “especially if you have a little help from friends and other people in your life who believe in you when you’re not able to help yourself.” 

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