“Leadership skills” are great, says Lyn Mikel Brown, but intergenerational activist work is better for girls’ development and health. This is the animating philosophy behind Brown’s new book, Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists (Beacon Press, 2016). In it, Brown gives an in-depth view of the potential benefits of progressive feminist activism led by girls and women together, and some of the major challenges that both adult women and girls face when trying to do this work together. Working alongside teen girls to create social change is a big part of what we do at About-Face, and yes, while it can be really fun, it’s also messy.
Dubbed a “field guide”, Powered by Girl is not a step-by-step, how-to book on how to be the super-cool adult who works with girls. There’s no “say this, not that” type of talk. Instead, Brown outlines an overall, but extensive, philosophy and many, many takeaways for every youth group leader who wants to do the hard work of enabling girls’ real power. This is no light “how to lead girls through this curriculum” type of book. There’s a “tough love” feel to some of the writing — toward women who are working with girls. The challenge in that is refreshing.
Act, Don’t Conform
The “girl-development” realm can seem saturated with teaching girls how to attain leadership skills that are often about achieving political or corporate power — that is, fitting into existing structures. One main point Brown makes is that we don’t need to teach girls to “lean in” and follow women’s leadership development programs that teach them to live within the confines of our systems. Instead, we should teach them to change those systems by becoming activists for social justice and equality. As Brown says,
In my experience, those who work with girls often get anxious when I suggest we talk about igniting girl-fueled activism. Instead they want to talk about preparing girls for leadership. For a time, this confused me. I didn’t draw clear distinctions between the two. Participating in activism offers an opportunity to identify a problem, work in coalition, leverage allies and energize people, think critically, listen well, speak up, stand up, and take calculated risks – all leadership skills.
But after a series of conversations like the one described above, I’ve come to understand the differences between leadership… and activism have everything to do with locus of control. Girls’ leadership program is typically code for teaching girls how to fit in; how to “lean in,” to “get a seat at the table.” … [In that view,] Our role as adults is to model the skills that have worked for those few at the top and to supervise girls’ assimilation into the current system.
Activist work, on the other hand… is, well, active. By its very nature, it requires questioning and critique, risk taking and agency. Defined by qualities like assertiveness, outspokenness, and at times that most unfeminine emotion, anger, girl activists interrupt the sanctioned and rewarded version of feminine girlhood typically associated with niceness, compliance, and accommodation. Conventional femininity and activism ”are subversive of one another.” This is why so many of the girl activists sociologist Jessica Taft interviewed for her book Rebel Girls tie their narratives of becoming activists to stories of leaving girlhood. As Taft explains,”the traits that they most often associated with girls are the opposite of the characteristics they associated with activists.” (p. 49)
Learning how to be activists is a key way for girls to eschew some of the more harmful effects of compulsory femininity. So why would women not adopt it as a key girl-development strategy? We should all ask ourselves that question and answer with the hard truth — we are sometimes scared to see girls take risks: We want to protect them. This book addresses that issue.
Sharing the Spotlight
Let’s get personal for a minute. I’ve known Lyn as the Founder of Hardy Girls Healthy Women in Waterville, Maine, for quite a few years, and met her when she was launching Powered By Girl, a social media meeting space for young women. What most struck me was her belief and theory that girls don’t need to be “fixed”, and that they are the “experts of their own experiences”. That was a shift in thinking for me — from “saving girls” from media messages that victimize them while the adults did About-Face’s activism to “enabling” girls to act once they’re aware of the harmful effects of mainstream media.
In fact, Lyn Mikel Brown has been working with girls for more than 25 years. She’s a professor at Colby College, and she is the author of five previous books about gender and girlhood. With her deep qualifications, Brown has so much to give to this conversation that she could have written this book without consulting the many adult and girl activists whose quotes and interviews pepper Powered by Girl. Instead she chose to share with us others’ voices and back them up with her own experience, to great effect.
Brown also cofounded three organizations, including SPARK, which supported the awesome girls in their SPARKteam to lead successful actions to petition Seventeen magazine to stop the Photoshopping, make Google doodles more gender-equal, and other important, confidence-building actions. SPARK’s work as a major example in Powered by Girl lends even more color and credence to the power of intergenerational activism.
Given that About-Face is now the home of SPARK’s Action Squad, a group of about 300 girl activists throughout the country, I was even more inspired to take to heart so many of Brown’s exhortations to let girls be themselves and think for themselves, acting as an adult guide, not their “mother hen” or their “boss”. Unfortunately, adultism (the idea that adults are better and know better than children) can be the norm in many youth development programs.
Having done this type of work with girls for about 9 years, being in my early 20s when I started working with About-Face, and never having had an empowering adult mentor as a girl, I saw my own experiences in so many of the points Brown makes about the ways adults and girls work together or clash. I know that teaching activism from the inside out (i.e. what girls really care about, not what their adults care about) is truly powerful and life-changing.
Being the Adult in the Room
Melissa Campbell, a former intern at About-Face (who created a great street theater protest against American Apparel’s sexualizing of women) and the former program coordinator at SPARK, was in the rare position of being close to the girls’ ages and also their adult coordinator when she started working there in her early 20s. As quoted in the book,
[Being the adult in the partnership is] about finding a good balance. Because you don’t want to be totally hands-off, because you’re there for a reason, but then you don’t want to be directing the conversation too much. So your voice should not be a leading voice, it should be a gentle, guiding voice.
If you’re a woman who works with teen girls or young women regularly, and you want them to be an equal and active part of creating their own futures, I’m personally assigning you this book. Read it and give this book a chance to change or strengthen your views.
And if you’re a teen girl trying to “make it work” with adults who aren’t quite there yet, you probably will learn a lot of new ideas from this book, too. Share them with those adults to make your relationship more powerful.
— Jennifer Berger
Jennifer Berger is the Executive Director of About-Face.