Gimme a Grrrrrrr…

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Guys normally love to watch girl cheerleaders. But when members of the Girls Project in Manhattan perform their own cheers, any guys in the vicinity might want to clear out.

After declaring that they won’t bake pies – not that there’s anything wrong with that – the girls chant:

“We can beat you any day.
We’re fast, we’re strong,
And we know how to play.”

For these girls, assertive cheerleading is part of a process to break through myths that often hold girls down. Programs around the country are showing that there are many ways to achieve that objective: Members of the Girls’ Resiliency Program in West Virginia fix people’s roofs. In Portland, Ore., Sisters in Action for Power wins cheaper bus fares for kids. And at the Active Girls Initiative in Boston, the girls take a new approach to jumping rope.

This makeover in girls’ programs was born of two frustrations: a relative lack of programs designed specifically for girls, and a tendency among programs that did exist to inadvertently reinforce female stereotypes. This frustration has been backed up by research:

• A 1995 General Accounting Office report to Congress (“Coordinated Community Efforts Can Better Serve Young At-Risk Teen Girls”) said local social programs for girls “were nonexistent, unknown or ignored by those in need, or located far from neighborhoods.”

• A youth development study released in 2000 by the Public Education Network also concluded that girls have largely been neglected. “A surprise early in our research was the dearth of opportunities for young women,” reported “Community Counts – How Youth Organizations Matter for Youth Development.”

“We found only a handful of them.”

Most youth programs focus on the after-school hours of boys, especially young black males, the report said. Even coeducational programs that include girls often do so “as an afterthought,” it said.

“We found both an absolute level of under-service to girls overall in communities and too many instances of girls being treated as second-class citizens in coeducational programs,” said the report, authored by Stanford University education professor Milbrey McLaughlin.

• Last June the Ms. Foundation’s Women’s Collaborative Fund for Healthy Girls/Healthy Women released its own report, “The New Girls Movement: Charting the Path,” on the status of and need for girl-oriented programs. The report capped a three-year study.

“Unfortunately, the message that girls have different approaches to leadership and social change work is still often unheard,” Ms. Foundation President Marie C. Wilson said when the report was issued. She called on funders “to support programs that take a ‘gendered’ approach to youth development and civic engagement. … One size does not fit all.”

Working with girls requires understanding how they’re different from boys, researchers and program operators say.

“Girls are socialized differently than boys,” Elizabeth Combs, chief operating officer of the Vista Maria girls program in Dearborn Heights, Mich., said at a workshop about girl’s programs at the Child Welfare League of America’s annual conference last month in Washington, D.C.

“Girls are relational. They are highly motivated based on relationships and interactions with other people. … They internalize far more,” Combs said, while males tend to express or act out their feelings and move on. And for girls, she said, “having sex is not just about having sex,” it’s about nurturing and relationships.

“As they [girls] move through adolescence, there is a decline in their self- worth,” Janine Zweig, a research associate at the Urban Institute, said in an interview. She also noted that girls are far more likely than boys to be victims of assault, including sexual assaults by people they trust.

A growing volume of research says girls can thrive in an environment where their specific needs are met, including last year’s Ms. Foundation report and two reports from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: “Guiding Principles for Promising Female Programming: An Inventory of Best Practices” and “Investing in Girls: A 21st Century Strategy.”

More girls’ programs are appearing now, and existing programs are changing. Many still include sewing, cooking and skipping rope, but there’s more focus on “empowerment” and confronting the social and psychological pressures specific to girls.

The Ms. Foundation report concluded that effective girls’ programs must include several elements “to help girls retain their natural sense of confidence and ability: creating safe space, redefining leadership and seeing girls as activists and agents of change.”

Activism is one key to helping girls grow into healthy young women, directors of several girls’ programs said. That means getting girls involved in civics and politics. But it doesn’t mean a girl has to be a civic activist to have self-worth. The programs use activism as a tool to build self-confidence and to show girls they can change their world.

Following are several examples of locally developed girls’ programs that focus on empowerment.

The Girls Project
New York, NY
Institute for Labor & the Community 541 E. 12th St.
New York, NY 10009
(212) 505-3184

The Girls Project mixes empowerment with arts. “We sing, we dance, we move, we write,” said Girls Project leader Cydney Pullman. “Art is a way to get to people.”

The project taps community-based performance groups – like “Wanted: X-Cheerleaders,” a group of former cheerleaders who develop workshops on women’s and girls’ issues – to help participants express themselves through activities such as writing their own cheers.

“These are groups who are already community-based and jump at the opportunity to work with another community-based organization,” Pullman said.

Participants in the Girls Project meet in weekly workshops to tackle issues such as teasing, bullying, media stereotypes, body image, sports, health and work. In addition to talking about the issues in a safe environment that allows frank discussions, the girls decide if a particular issue warrants a related activity. If so, they develop a plan of action.

For example, girls in the project wrote letters to Marvel Enterprises to object to the minor roles and scanty clothing of girls and women in the comics.

A letter-writing campaign may not be groundbreaking, but for the 9- to 12-year-olds in the program, such activism is critical to helping build esteem, Pullman said. “They need to understand they can act as individuals and as a group.”

The project targets girls in the upper elementary and middle school years. “It’s important to empower girls, especially at this age, because they are vulnerable as they enter adolescence,” Pullman said. “Girls begin at that time also to lose their voices.”

Pullman designs her projects to “sustain the strength and confidence girls in this age group already possess and to prevent the devastating ‘crash’ in self esteem, physical activity and academic achievement girls too often experience in adolescence.”

The program includes leadership development, cultural expression and gender analysis, as well as physical activity and civic action. A troupe known as the Urban Bushwomen taught the girls dance moves to help them celebrate their bodies. Girls have had poetry workshops, learned self-defense for the streets and the schoolyard, and learned about work discrimination and pay equity.

“If girls can develop the necessary skills to protect and strengthen themselves as pre-adolescents, they are less likely to be abused or discriminated against as teens and adult women,” Pullman said. “Girls can learn to take control of their own lives and become confident, informed, eager and effective leaders.”

Pullman is the executive director of the Institute for Labor and the Community, which runs sexual harassment, teasing and bullying classes for adults. In 1996, local school officials asked Pullman to modify her classes for young girls, and the project was born.

A $10,000 grant from the Ms. Foundation helped get the program on its feet in 1997. Other contributors include the Sister Fund of New York, the New York Women’s Foundation, the Robert Browne Foundation of New York and the United Methodist Women. The project has an annual budget of about $100,000.

The Active Girls Initiative
Boston, Mass.
Patriots’ Trail Girl Scout Council
95 Berkeley St.
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 482-1078

Can jumping rope be an effective tool for helping young girls? The Active Girls Initiative (AGI) in Boston uses sports to promote healthy lifestyles among its low-income and underserved clients.

Many girls in the Boston area face obstacles to healthy lifestyles, such as lack of access to fitness facilities, inadequate medical care and poor nutrition, program organizers said. AGI introduces the girls to sports as part of what program leaders call a “holistic” approach to development. The girls participate in skiing, rowing, swimming, double Dutch jump rope and gymnastics.

Sports are emphasized as a healthy activity and to provide context for discussions about health, sexuality and life skills. The girls learn how to work together as a team, see that it is OK to take risks and fail, and discover the rewards of perseverance and success.

Girls meet twice a week: one hour for the sports activities and one hour for health education. Health topics include drugs and alcohol, smoking, relationships and sexual activity, nutrition, body image and violence prevention. Lessons also emphasize cooperation, communication, conflict resolution, diversity, self-esteem, assertiveness and positive decision-making.

“We want to teach girls to make good decisions, or at least be knowledgeable,” said Mercer Reeves, an outreach specialist for direct services with the Patriots Trail Girl Scouts in Boston, one of several organizations that help to run the program.

Girls participating in the program are ethnically diverse, and many are recent immigrants. AGI has established partnerships with area health care centers and providers to help meet mental and physical health needs of the girls. Using a case-management approach, the program serves more than 60 girls a year at five sites.

The program was formed in 1998 as a collaborative project between the Girl Scouts council and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Initiative for Children to address the needs of area low-income girls. The Girl Scouts continue to run the AGI model program.

AGI also receives support from several foundations and organizations, such as the Boston Foundation, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation of Atlanta. The Scout council provides administrative support and an office for the program director. AGI’s current operating budget is about $80,000.

The Girls’ Resiliency Program

Lincoln County, W.Va.
8106 Court Ave.
Hamlin, WV 25523
(304) 824-5660

Girls in rural West Virginia face many of the same problems as their peers in the toughest inner-city neighborhoods: drugs, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy and academic difficulties.

But they have different problems as well. They are especially susceptible to images in the media, says a coordinator at this girls’ program. “The media is a reality when you live in a rural area. [Beverly Hills] 90210 is the way all people live, except where you are. They think that’s the way the world is,” said Shelley Gaines, executive director and founder of the Girls’ Resiliency Program (GRP).

They also have to shed the hillbilly stereotype. “These girls have a limited sense of their own capabilities and have low aspirations for themselves,” Gaines said.

The GRP was designed to equip girls with tools to overcome social and personal barriers. Hope is a precious commodity in Lincoln County, where jobs are scarce and more than 64 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

The GRP focuses on action, not platitudes. “If [they] feel helpless and hopeless, telling them they are special and important doesn’t cut it,” Gaines said. Girls need to know firsthand that they can change things they don’t like.

Empowerment comes in part through activism, Gaines said. Girls in the program initially pitched in by completing community service projects, such as helping the poor fix their roofs or paint their homes.

The group recently turned its attention to a proposal to consolidate four county junior high schools into one facility. The girls are researching the issue and trying to rally community opposition.

“That’s the first real project where we’re doing something really direct - closer to doing what people consider social change and grass-roots organizing,” Gaines said.

The program meets every other week, with an average of 25 girls attending. Group meetings include discussions, role-playing and creative arts to examine issues such as substance abuse, conflict resolution, self-destructive behavior, healthy relationships and teen health.

Their activities have included a rope course, leadership conferences, drafting economic development grant proposals to open a coffee shop, and compiling an original CD with nine tracks of songs with a country-pop flavor. They are planning a traveling production of a play they wrote about sexual harassment.

GRP was launched in 1996 at a junior/senior high school as a combination of leadership training and prevention activities. (It grew out of a co-educational program.) Organizers gradually expanded the program with a $30,000-a-year, three-year grant from the Ms. Foundation, and grants from the Tides Foundation of San Francisco; the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund; federal juvenile justice funds through the Title II state formula grants program; and state assistance. The operating budget is about $200,000.

Sisters in Action for Power
Portland, Ore.
1732 NE Alberta St.
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 331-1244

Students in Portland, Ore., can thank Sisters in Action for Power for making it less expensive to get to school.

For director Darlene Lambos, the successful campaign waged by the girls program to lower fares on public transit for students served another purpose as well: It was a perfect application of the program’s philosophy.

“We really believe low-income and people of color should be able to help make decisions,” she said. “Our mission is to develop the leadership of young women, especially minorities, and to promote social change and justice.”

Sisters is a leadership development program within the Sisters in Portland Impacting Real Issues Together (SPIRIT). Members of the Sisters in Action program recruit new members, ages 11 to 19, from the larger SPIRIT group, which provides a safe place for young women and girls to hang out in Portland.

About 20 girls are asked each year to make a commitment of up to two years to take full advantage of the program. Upon completion, the girls and young women can become interns and help run Action and SPIRIT meetings.

Girls must fulfill requirements in eight categories, including recruitment, fund-raising, public speaking and civic involvement. They benefit along the way from hands-on experience, using the skills they’ve picked up to institute social change, Lambos said.

Sisters in Action gained national media attention for its three-year battle to get the Portland area transit authority to provide student bus passes. Students who did not get school bus service had to pay about $33 a month to ride the transit buses to and from school.

Sisters in Action began a campaign in which the girls spoke to the media, the school system and transit officials, and organized protests and rallies.

The transit system agreed to provide student passes for $16 a month. The girls also convinced the Portland Public Schools to provide free transit passes to all students who qualified for free and reduced meals.

Aside from deciding what local issues to take on (such as sexism), the girls learn self-defense, for protection and for a positive body image.

The program’s $180,000 budget is funded in part through dues and grants. The 125 members, half of whom are under 18, are asked to pay $12 a year. The program has won grants from, among others, A Territory Resource of Seattle, the McKenzie River Gathering of Oregon, the Peace Development Fund of Amherst, Mass., and the Ms. Foundation.

Andrew D. Beadle can be reached at


Kelly Parisi, Director of Communications
The Ms. Foundation for Women
120 Wall St., 33rd Floor
New York, NY 10005
(212) 742-2300

“Coordinated Community Efforts Can Better Serve Young At-Risk Teen Girls”
U.S. General Accounting Office
(202) 512-6000

“Community Counts – How Youth Organizations Matter for Youth Development”
The Public Education Network
(202) 628-7460

“Investing in Girls: A 21st Century Strategy,” October 1999
U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Juvenile Justice Clearing House
(800) 638-8736

“Guiding Principles for Promising Female Programming: An Inventory of Best Practices,” October 1998
U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Juvenile Justice Clearing House
(800) 638-8736