These remarks were delivered Wednesday to The Kiwanis Club of the Sandhills during its annual presentation of the Junior Builders Cup scholarship to four high school seniors. This year, the club honored Sylvia Hipp of Pinecrest High School, Elizabeth Moore of The O’Neal School, Madison Petersen of Union Pines, and Miranda Smith of North Moore. The story of these students appears in today’s A section.

We live in a great moment of awakening, astonishment and accomplishment. When I think about it, more than 50 years have passed since the undertaking of the women’s liberation movement, and it resonates today, in many ways stronger than ever.

As a nation, we have worked for years to uphold the precepts of equality, if not quite the realities of it. Women have made great strides in that time despite the barriers that remained, and the women in this room today are evidence of that.

But as a culture, we have fallen short many times over the years. I submit that our culture talked the talk but didn’t always walk the walk. Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s still been a man’s world.

So what’s going on now? This is different. It is not just standing up but stepping up. There is no corner of our culture unaffected.

Women today are exercising strength and leadership in ways that are changing that culture — sometimes at breakneck speed — forever: from the courtrooms to the boardrooms to the classrooms; from the friendly skies to cut-throat Wall Street to the halls of Congress; from hockey rinks to theater stages to the floor of the United Nations.

The future is not female. It’s the present — and it’s present before you today with these four amazing young women we celebrate.

Sylvia, Elizabeth, Madison, Miranda — these are not just future leaders. They are today’s leaders. They and their peers have taken full measure of their world and found much work to be done.

Our young women today are not waiting for direction. They march in the streets in protest as comfortably as they march to a community garden or a church project. They take up the mantle of justice as easily as they take up the hand of a Special Olympian or lift up a fellow teammate on the cross-country field. They lead with courage, conviction and confidence.

There is a favored word today to describe this moment we’re in: “woke.” According to Urban Dictionary, to be “woke” is to get a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth.

I thought of this the other day when I saw Janet Jackson on the news. Until this past Sunday night, she had not been on U.S. television in nine years. For a Jackson, that’s like a lifetime. For these students today, it’s half their lifetimes.

Receiving an Icon Award at the Billboard Music Awards, Jackson said, “I believe that, for all of our challenges, we live at a glorious moment in history. At long last, women have made it clear that we will no longer be controlled, manipulated or abused. I stand with those women and with those men equally outraged by discrimination, who support us in heart and mind.”

Today, a record number of women are running for Congress. The New York Stock Exchange has just received its first woman president in its 226-year history. This nation’s debate over gun regulations and school safety is being led by a handful of young women who have yet to earn high school diplomas. These are remarkable stories — stories of awakening, astonishment, accomplishment.

Each of these four young women is notable in her own way, but they are not alone. We have an amazing generation of students working their way up.

Each of our scholarship winners has a tremendous story. But they’re all stories of where they are or where they’ve been. The best story for these four — and for all the others back in their classrooms, the gyms, the libraries, the labs or those already in the world struggling with life’s challenges — is yet to be written. They just woke up.

Contact editor John Nagy at (910) 693-2507 or thepiloteditor@gmail.com.

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