what does girl empowerment look like?: My Interviews with Alexis Brown and Julia Manship of Girls Inc. of Santa Fe

As a feminist who is more familiar with the academic world than girls’ daily lives, I often wonder how feminist theories of girlhood and girl empowerment can be translated into practice. When we talk about girl empowerment, about girls having agency – what exactly do we mean? what does girl empowerment look like? and what tools or skills do we consider essential in order to achieve girl empowerment? One way we can approach these questions – and indeed maybe even answer some of them – is if we step outside the walls of academia and turn our attention to girl-supportive non-profit organizations, such as Girls Inc. of Santa Fe.

I wrote a brief post a while back praising the work of the national organization Girls Inc. After posting a link to the entry on Facebook, I received tons of positive feedback as friends, and friends of friends, recounted their experiences working with girls through local Girls Inc. affiliates. It was through a friend on Facebook (heya Ricky!) that I came to know Alexis Brown and Julia Manship, two women who work with the Santa Fe affiliate of Girls Inc. I was fortunate enough to coordinate interviews with both women and I gained tremendous insight into their organization’s various processes and programs for fostering girl empowerment.

Alexis, who serves as the Director of Fund Development and Communications, provided the background history of the national organization and the inner workings of the Santa Fe affiliate. Alexis noted how the first Girls Inc. was founded in 1860 and was actually called Girls Club. The organization was created as a support system for young women who worked in the factories around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Over time the program evolved and the focus become instilling girls with certain skills, such as proficiency in homemaking in the 1950s. In its current iteration, Girls Inc. offers research based programs that provide girls with what I would call tools rather than simply skills. In every program, from Operation Smart to Economic Literacy to Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy to Media Literacy, Girls Inc. promotes girl empowerment by giving girls the tools to succeed in school and life, and by encouraging girls to become advocates for themselves and others in their communities.

The Girls Inc. affiliate in Santa Fe was founded in 1955. Alexis noted how early on it was difficult to convince parents and guardians that the organization was more than a childcare program. As everyone began to see the positive effects of Girls Inc., they soon realized that the organization was, and still is, carrying on the legacy of change and hope for a better future, a future that improves girls’ lives and as a result improves the community. The Santa Fe affiliate has expanded over the years and currently employs 8 full time staff members and utilizes 25 facilitators. In the interview Alexis shared the affiliate’s goals for the future. She noted that in 2005 Girls Inc. worked with over 250 girls in the Santa Fe area, and that by 2008 that numbered jumped to 405. By 2012 Girls Inc. of Santa Fe hopes to work with 10% of the girl population, which would be approximately 800+ girls. In working towards that goal, Girls Inc. of Santa Fe opened a second center, allowing more girls to participate in the summer camps and the year-long programs.

In discovering how Girls Inc. of Santa Fe supports and empowers girls, I also interviewed Julia Manship, who is a program facilitator with the affiliate. Below is our Q & A in which Julia discusses the program Sticks and Stones, why she volunteers with Girls Inc., and the ways in which she’s seen  Girls Inc. improve girls’ lives.

Q: Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your role/involvement with Girls Inc. Santa Fe,

JM: Well, I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana but I went out to New Mexico to go to college.  After graduating, I worked a real basic retail gig.  I saw a sign for Girls Inc and was compelled to research further.  I interviewed and got a job for the afterschool program.  I’ve been at Girls Inc of Santa Fe for about four years now.  It’s been a life changing experience.

Q: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges girls currently face in society? What are the unique challenges for girls in Santa Fe?

JM: In society, girls face a lot of the same issues they faced in past decades.  The use of their bodies as sexualized backgrounds for products and media is a big hot button issue for me.  It creates a binary world for them.  Hot or not.  Smart or dumb.  Athletic or lazy.  Girly or tomboy.  Virgin or slut.  Pushover or bitch.  This society creates such a bubble of an existence.  I hear my girls say “I’m punk/goth/emo/tomboy, which means I can only like this” or “Well, we can’t be friends because she’s blonde and popular.  She’s too girly”.  So many “I can’ts” or “Too hards”.  They don’t realize that there’s a whole world available to them.  They can be girly and still love sports.  They can stand up for themselves and still be kind.  They can be goth and like pink.  They can be a girl, a woman, a female and not be open business for ogling and harassment.  That was a huge challenge for me.  It’s a huge challenge still.

In terms of unique challenges for girls in Santa Fe, well, it’s hard for me to really say.  I wasn’t raised here.  I know the big ones.  Teenage pregnancy and sexual education is an enormous issue.  Race is also another subject we discuss a lot in our groups.  What does it mean to be Hispanic?  What does it mean to be Mexican?  Where do you fit in if you’re mixed race, if you’re black, if you’re white?  I’ve found that relational aggression is a big problem in the schools.  Teachers don’t engage.  It sounds like they’ve given up or have run out of options.  My girls are always coming to the group saying “Someone brought a knife” or “I saw a fight today” or “Someone started a fight with me and I got in trouble for defending myself”.  If they don’t fit the status quo, then they are a problem.  But relational aggression is a national issue, not just a local one.

Q: Why did you all create the Sticks and Stones program? What needs does this program address?

JM: Sticks and Stones was started before I began at Girls Inc.  A former Program Director started putting together a curriculum.  When I started, Sticks and Stones was little more than a few sheets of paper discussing slurs.  So we wanted to expand on that and bring it up to date.  We serve girls ages 5 to 15.  The activities needed to be age appropriate and needed to get to the roots of problems.  And we also wanted to discuss all facets of diversity.  Race, of course.  But gender, sexuality, families, religion and mental/physical differences all come into play.  This needed to be a building block for discussion.

I think that Sticks and Stones, in terms of needs being addressed, opens up lines of communication.  They are allowed to learn about race as a current subject.  It’s not just something that happened when people sailed across the ocean in wooden ships, wore powdered wigs and fought wars with cannons.  Just because a books says that there are equal rights doesn’t mean that racism and prejudice vanished.  It’s real.  It’s important that they know that their experiences aren’t singular or irrelevant. They have something to contribute.  Their lives are worth sharing.  Actually, they also got to experience this when we did the She Votes! program during the election.  We went over the history of voting and the girls learned that some American citizens were unable to vote well into the 1980s (the Voting Accessibility Act was passed in 1984!).  They need to be educated on these topics.  Sticks and Stones can help answer those questions.

Q: Please tell me a little bit about the process of developing this particular program. What age group did you start with and how do you decide how to improve the program? How do you evaluate the effectiveness of a particular program or workshop? How much are actual girls involved in this process – for instance are they asked to give feedback about a program or workshop, or do they have a hand in developing it?

JM: Kim Brown, our Program Director, Melissa Willis, our Site Manager and Madonna Hernandez, our Site Coordinator wanted to expand Sticks and Stones.  Thomas Griego and I were asked to try it out with our girls.  They were the two oldest groups and both Thomas and I had been there long enough to know how the programs worked.  We broke it up by types of diversity(i.e. Race, Gender or Family) and explored how to make the curriculum as experiential as possible.  We didn’t want it to be a lecture.  We didn’t want it to scare them or make them sad.  We wanted them to have A-ha moments.  So we would do an activity and if it failed, we’d sit down and figure out why.  Did it not apply to their local paradigm?  Did we get too academic?  Did we lecture too much?  How do we make this relevant to our community of girls while still making viable for a national community?

Age group wise, we started with 7 to 10 year olds.  Once we went through the first round and wrote down all the activities, I typed them up and tried to adjust for age.  Obviously, what excites a 9 year old won’t excite a 5 year old.  With the teens, you’ve got to be willing to be honest and not push them.  You want to give them the chance to explore.  And you’ve got to be subtle.  If you go in saying “Okay ladies, this is really important and you need to learn it and blah blah blah” they’ll shut down.  So it’s still a work in progress on that front.  Which is great!  We’re learning a lot about the program this year because all our activities are going to be tweaked and refined even more.

Evaluation wise, I stated earlier that we would go back through and talk about how an activity worked or failed.  We have to be honest with ourselves.  I might be really proud of an activity that I created but the girls despised it so I have to ask myself why.  And with this being a fledgling curriculum, we don’t have pre or post-surveys built for us by national.  We made our own to see how things shifted but it’s really done each day.  We talk with our girls, ask them what they think, what they learned, how they will apply this to their lives.  You can see a shift in how they talk to each other.

This year, I’ve been really lucky to have the 10 to 12 year olds.  I ask them all the time how I can make this activity better for them.  How do they enjoy learning?  For example, one of the activities was building a poem about diversity. The activity had specific directions that I wrote down last year but when I was with my girls, I wanted them to have a say in the matter.  Should we write separate poems?  Should we write one large one?  You want a large one?  Okay, should it be one consistent voice that describes itself in all types of skin tones or should it be clear that each line is a new person?  One consistent voice?  Okay.  What else do you want to do?  You want to have a collage of skin tones and body types all around the poem?  Awesome!  What else?  The girls are crucial in building curriculum.  They get a big chance at the end to build the curriculum. The culmination of the Sticks and Stones program is the Advocacy Project.  The girls get to vote on how they can get the message of diversity out to the public.  One year we made buttons and the girls designed them and made them and gave them to their friends and family.  But each year they find a different way to advocate for diversity.  Making a protest or doing a letter writing campaign or making a ‘zine.  They determine how they affect change in their community.  They learn that they can.

Q: How have you seen Girls Inc. improve the lives of girls in Santa Fe?

JM: Well, my second summer at Girls Inc, I was trained as the Economic Literacy specialist.  When I got to the 9 and 10 year olds, we were discussing pay inequity and how it’s still a problem.  The girls got very upset.  These are moments that counselors should really utilize.  I asked them if they wanted to write a letter to Governor Richardson and his wife about pay inequity.  See, my father was an editorial writer and my mom worked for the state government so I was taught that I could affect change in my local government with my words.  So we wrote a letter.  The girls dictated their primary concerns and we built a very matter of fact letter to the governor.  I just wanted to show them that there was nothing stopping them from asking, “Why is this happening”.  You can call politicians to task.  You elect them.  They are supposed to serve your interests.  Even if you are 9.  Especially if you are 9.

Well, he wrote back.  And he really wrote back.  It wasn’t a form letter.  Governor Richardson answered specific questions they asked.  He told them about things he’s done to lessen the pay gap.  He told them things he wanted to do to lessen it even more.  He signed it with a pen and everything.  Those girls got to see that their voices mattered.  They saw that people in power were listening.  I was so proud of them.  We got to do something similar this year with writing a letter to the editor about relational aggression and how it’s real and how it’s scary and how it can be stopped.

Q: Why is it important to have Girls Inc. – both in terms of the national organization and the local chapter in Santa Fe?

A: All girls are at risk.  Girls Inc. is a safe space.  They are allowed to ask questions. They are allowed to make mistakes.  They are allowed to strive.  Across the country, girls are reading the same magazines and watching the same shows and going to similar schools.  They’re all getting the same messages: Their worth is measured via their bodies.  Not by intellect.  Not by achievements.  They have to be perfect little dolls.  Don’t get dirty.  Don’t fall down.  Don’t play with bugs.  Don’t explore nature.  It’s a world of “don’t”.  But at Girls Inc., we love them for just being them.  Scraped knees and all.

Locally, we’ve tried worked hard to unify our families into a community.  Outside of our usual camps, we offer P.A.P.(Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy) workshops for girls and a trusted adult.  We host game nights where families come and play games and have some food and we do a door prize raffle where everyone walks away with something.  We do outreach to the schools we can’t directly serve at this time.  Actually, we’re hoping to build a viable outreach program where we could go to the schools and the girls could choose to be a part of Girls Inc. as an afterschool activity.

We also collaborate with some really fantastic local non-profits and organizations so the girls get to try new things.  We’ve done self-defense classes and art classes.  We’ve had the chance to introduce them to things like training assistance pets and saving birds of prey.  They get to do ropes courses and rock walls and rock climbing.  Photography classes, making a magazine, putting on a play.  All of this is possible because we collaborate.  We build relationships with amazing people and fantastic organizations.   Santa Fe is a perfect place to do this.  It’s a community-oriented city.  I know I’ve been using the word “community” a lot but that’s how we work.  We couldn’t function without honoring the space in which with operate and live.

What I love most about Girls Inc. is that it provides girls with choices.  When I was growing up, we were all being told that we could do anything a boy could do.  Great.  But what does that mean?  Girls Inc. shows girls what that means.  A lot of my group is heading to middle school and they are trying on lots of hats and wearing lots of different personalities.  There are days when they fight me about doing science experiments or they are furious that I hate Bella from Twilight.  And I really have to watch my music.  So I’m just honest with them.  I say, “Hey, I’m not here to tell you that you have to be an entomologist.  I just want you to know that you have choices.  My job isn’t to make you change your life to suit my ideals.  Tell me why Bella is your heroine.  I really do want to know.  I’m here for you.  I’m listening.”

**Thank you again to Alexis Brown and Julia Manship for taking the time to share their thoughts and insights on working with girls through Girls Inc. of Santa Fe.

~ by actyourage09 on May 20, 2010.

3 Responses to “what does girl empowerment look like?: My Interviews with Alexis Brown and Julia Manship of Girls Inc. of Santa Fe”

  1. Such great interviews! Thanks for posting this. We sent the link to our Facebook and Twitter fans.

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