AlumnaeMay 15, 2020

Diana Edensword Conway ’83: a civic activist changing the world at the local level

Work in international non-proliferation beckoned, and her career as an activist was underway.

Today’s spotlight is on an MHS alumna who is changing the world at the local level: Diana Edensword Conway ’83, civic activist, mom, and champion for women, public health, and the environment.

After MHS, Diana went on to become a public policy major at Brown University and then earn a law degree from the University of Virginia. One year into life as a corporate lawyer, she quit her job, eager to make a bigger impact. It was a tense time in the world, as Iraq had invaded Kuwait and the first Gulf War had begun. Work in international non-proliferation beckoned, and her career as an activist was underway.

Her vision, voice, interpersonal efficacy, and gumption — core competencies of the MHS graduate — persisted into parenthood and, much to her surprise, Diana found herself President of the PTA at the Chinese language immersion school her two daughters and son attended and serving on the Planning Board of her town. Her ability to create meaningful dialogues, empower the collective, and move the needle on issues important to her propelled her into local politics.

Today, she writes testimony around policy change and testifies at the county and state levels at the Maryland State House, tackling social justice issues one by one. She has fought homogeneity in schools, advocated to make family farms financially viable, worked to establish a pre-release center for incarcerated women, and advocated to uphold the prohibition of gender discrimination outlined in the state constitution.

“You don't have to apologize for your thoughts, your feelings, or your views. You just have to stay open to other views and other thoughts and other feelings. You don't have to give up your own power.”- Diana Conway ’83

Miss Hall’s seniors Yuki Wei, who has her sights on law school, and Kande Charles, who aspires to be an international journalist, interview this week's Changemaker.

Diana’s Advice for Aspiring Activists

Stay local:
“If somebody had told me when I was in law school that I was going to become a PTA president, I would have cried. I thought I’d be solving the Israeli Palestinian problem... But the beautiful thing about working at the local level is you can really move the needle. You can change the world at the local level. You can change tax rates, you can change transportation systems. It's not like it’s going to be on The New York Times front page, but if you take satisfaction from it, that's what life's about. It’s about finding meaning, finding something that means something to you and then doing it.”

Don’t give up your own power:
“I've always had strong opinions, but when I first started testifying — I remember the first time I stood in front of the PTA at my kid's elementary school to ask for something for the class — I was literally trembling. My voice was trembling, my hands were trembling, my brain was trembling. But as you get older, at some point you say, “Look, this is something I believe in. If you disagree, we can talk about it, but I'm not going to let you intimidate me before I even open my mouth.” Some of this is intimidation, it's you giving power to another person over you, and some of it is you just doubting yourself. Doubting yourself, on one hand, is healthy because you want to always check yourself and think, am I saying this wrong? Am I right about this? Have I done my research? Should I be listening instead of talking? Giving someone else power over you, especially for females, is almost an automatic reaction. It's something that we learned without knowing we were learning it. It's classic for women to start their sentences with, “Sorry to interrupt.” And it's fine to apologize for interrupting, but you don't have to apologize for your thoughts, your feelings, or your views. You just have to stay open to other views and other thoughts and other feelings. You don't have to give up your own power.”

Have something to say:
“I remember the first time somebody asked me to speak at a National Abortion Rights Action League rally. There was a podium and a microphone, and I said, “Are you people taking pictures? Oh my God.” Once I got into it and was actually speaking, I became too busy explaining why I cared to worry anymore. If you have something to say, the power of your belief in yourself comes pouring out of you. So pick the right issue, something that matters to you.”

Learn how to communicate in writing: 
“It's a good idea to take a lot of writing classes. If you can't communicate your ideas in writing, it's very hard to create momentum, whether it's in an office or in a civic activist world, because you don't have time to talk to all these people individually. You have to be able to reach them in writing., and you have to be able to do it in a way that's coherent. I remember getting involved in an environmental fight, and I was trying to teach somebody the importance of bullet points because she wanted to explain everything, and it was just this long list of paragraphs, and I realized, nobody wants to read this. You look at it, and your eyes glaze over. Instead, have bullet points with one sentence in bold, and then the details if they want it. When you're meeting with elected officials, they've got meetings coming out of their ears. You have to have it down to just the bare minimum.”

Rethink your failures:
“Failure is really packaging. It’s letting people tell you you failed. A lot of things happen for reasons that we don't see. For example, when I left my corporate law job after law school because I didn't like it and wasn't happy, was that a failure? I don't know. I don't think so, but people could look at me and say, “Wow, she spent all this time in college and in law school; she went to these good schools, and she didn't last a year. Poor girl. Her parents must be so bummed.” But then I had a great career doing non-proliferation work right after Iraq invaded Kuwait in the first Gulf War. All of a sudden, I was doing interviews with Japanese TV, so that wasn't a failure. Had I not left my law firm, I never would have met my husband. We wouldn't have this family. To look at failure just as failure...don't stay in that space. Get out of that space. Learn what you can from failure, but don't leave it in a capital F failure pile. It's a tool. It's a learning experience.”