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Girls Speak Out
by Andrea Johnston

Girls Speak Out

Reprinted with permission from Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self. Copyright © 2005 by Andrea Johnston, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA. To purchase Girls Speak Out, click here.

"GIRLS SPEAK OUT envisions a world where girls revel in their power — and then provides a vibrant, animated map of how to get there."

I n t r o d u c t i o n

It has been nearly a decade since I wrote this book, and in that time more people have worked to change society and make it fair to you. There are more books, magazines, newsletters, products, and events for girls. There are websites, CDs, DVDs, and video games. There are more programs focusing on girls' self-esteem as well as classes to raise math, science, and basketball scores. It's exciting to know more people are thinking about you and trying to make your life better.

The best news is, more of you are finding your true selves and each other. After all, the Girls' Movement is about girls changing things for themselves. It's about being in charge. It will take time to make life better for all girls, but day by day, girls are making a difference; girls of different races, classes, cultures, sexual orientations, and abilities are finding ways to be themselves and also to be part of a larger movement.

But a movement starts with individuals like you. This introduction will let you know what other girls have done and are doing to make girls feel more powerful and to inspire them to challenge what's unfair. It may help you hold onto who you are as you grow up. Most of it comes from girls themselves on five continents who write to me and share their connection with the ideas and people in this book. It's important to know there are girls like you, especially if you don't know girls with similar interests in your community.

When I travel, I talk with girls in different countries, and when I'm at home, I correspond with girls all over the world. No matter where they are, one of the things I share with them is what researchers have discovered often happens to girls growing up in male-dominated societies, which is happening in every country today. Many of these researchers are women working in universities who interview and observe groups of girls over time. Even though most studies focus on white girls from middle-class families, girls of color and girls from other economic classes tell me the same things happen to them-but in different ways. Similar studies of more diverse groups of girls are also being conducted now in many countries. In the meantime, you can decide for yourself whether the findings are true for you and girls you know.

Here is what can happen: Most girls silence themselves between the ages of nine and sixteen; that is, they give up a part of who they are because they think it's necessary to do so to survive. They begin to act like a stereotype, a false idea of what it means to be female. Girls play the more feminine role that is based on the mistaken belief that females are weaker than males. There is a lot of pressure on girls to fit this stereotype rather than fight for their unique differences. For example, girls want to be thin, even anorexic or bulimic, because girls of different sizes and shapes are not as easily accepted. Carol Gilligan, one of the first researchers to study girls, describes the change in many girls as losing their different and unique voices. Instead of trusting themselves, girls may become uncertain and lose self-confidence.

How do you feel about these discoveries? Girls who are nine years old and haven't reached this point yet usually say, “No way. It's not going to happen to me.” Girls who are fifteen and sixteen often shake their heads and say, “Yes, it's happening” or “It's already happened.” Wherever I go, and in the letters and emails I receive, girls who have lost their voice describe what happened to them and say they don't want it to happen to other girls. Some say people tease them if they say positive things about girls and women. Many girls stop raising their hand in class because they've decided it's safer being ignored than drawing attention to themselves by knowing the answer. Girls who are treated as objects, some of whom are seriously abused, pretend everything is okay. They feel powerless, and they don't know what else to do.

While it's important to know that some girls lose their voice, research also shows that girls are resilient, which means they have the ability to bounce back when something unfair happens. So the lesson is, even if you lose your voice, you can get it back.

Being aware of what often happens to girls can help girls hold onto their voice. For example, Lakesha, a seven-year-old girl from Houston, Texas, went with her parents to a bookstore where I was speaking and signing copies of Girls Speak Out. She was sitting on the floor near me, waiting for her parents. Soon she stopped drawing on the napkin she had on her lap and stared at me for a long time. I asked her what she wanted to say. Here is part of our conversation:

“'Sexism,' 'sexism.' You keep saying 'sexism.' What does it mean?”

“It's what's outside you that says boys and men are better than girls and women,” I answered. “It's supposed to be true whether or not it feels right.”

“Oh,” said Lakesha, “I didn't know it had a name.”

Lakesha asked people at the book signing to share ideas on how to “change the rules at school that say I can't play on the football team even though I like football.”

Sometimes people don't take even older girls seriously because of a mistaken belief that girls can't do things on their own. A girl in North Carolina wrote to me about her solution to a problem: “I tried to start a group for girls in my area. Although there were loads of wonderful women willing to help, I got little response from schools. I think it was hard for them to believe a sixteen-year-old girl like me was serious about bringing girls in her community together.” However, she said, “I intend to work on this project again when I graduate. I'll have more time than I do now to visit each school I want to involve and to write articles for the newspaper.”

Lots of girls find it's exciting to be among the first in the Girls' Movement. It's also a challenge. Sometimes it can be lonely if people around you have different ideas. Amulya and I have been emailing each other since she began high school four years ago. After she read this book, she wanted to organize girls in her school in India and find out their opinions. She began doing surveys, and at first she was frustrated and angry: “I wish I felt as energetic as you are thinking I am. I am all out. I have been feeling so low the past few days. I feel I'm getting into one of those stereotypic images of girls that I have always hated. I don't know why.

“My school is supposed to be a school that encourages and sets new trends, and the girls are supposed to be really confident and all that. But the truth is many of them are idiots. They still believe that girls should be submissive etc. They all want to get married and 'settle down.' They are not worried about freedom and careers, and sometimes when I do something outspoken about girls' rights, they say it's gross and girls are not supposed to do that etc. It's all so irritating. And what's worse, I sometimes have to agree with them.” Can you identify with Amulya's mood? Sometimes I also feel like too few people care about girls. But this mood passes because people who are starting something new, especially close to home, know it's hard work as well as fun.

Here's what Amulya wrote in a recent email: “People say that colours reflect your mood. I'm on a high right now like bright red and yellow or a deep purple. I finished my tests and now we have fests, loads of them, and they are really fun. This time we're coming up with new ideas, and I am on creative teams to have events about choices for girls' futures, and it's rocking. It's busy, but it's fun. At the end of the day when I think about how many things I have done, I wonder how I managed to find time to do all those things and still I don't feel tired. I love arranging things to let people know girls are strong, and people say I am good at it. I come up with crazy ideas that others and I feel are good. And that's what counts for an activist like me.”

When I tell girls about girls in other places, like Amulya and Lakesha, they often want to meet each other. When I first began the program, girls in different parts of the USA who participated in Girls Speak Out programs wanted to have a global girls' conference. The National (USA) Girls Coalition was formed in 1995 to help organize it. It became a model for other girls' conferences, and it is something you can adapt for your own community.

The most important thing we did was to trust girls and give them control over the content of the conference. We also eliminated an adult keynote speaker so girls could see each other as role models, have more time to meet each other, become friends, and create their own Plan of Action. Women were on a panel talking about their girlhoods, and others volunteered to take notes during workshops.

From the beginning, girls helped to plan the First National Girls' Conference. Girls from four different regions of the USA formed a Girls Steering Committee that met monthly. The steering committee chose topics that women had discussed at the Fourth World Conference on Women, which was sponsored by the United Nations and took place in Beijing in 1995. Those topics were Confronting Violence against Girls, Girls' Rights, and Images of Girls in the Media.

We wanted to hold the conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, but it was unusual for girls to organize an event there. At a meeting of the National Girls' Coalition, girls asked a woman representing the United Nations if there could be a sleepover at the United Nations during the conference. She explained that it had never been done before; it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange. Clara, an eleven-year-old member of the Girls Steering Committee, was sitting across the big oval table from the United Nations representative. Clara pulled her chair closer to the table and leaned toward the woman.

“I know what the problem is,” Clara said. “When the United Nations was built, you didn't think about girls. That's okay. We can still work it out.”

There was a moment of silence. Then the woman smiled at Clara and said, “Maybe if we had thought about you, and sleepovers, there wouldn't be so many wars and fights.”

The conference was held on January 3 and 4, 1997. More than 140 girls from thirty-nine states attended along with girls from eleven countries including the USA. They were of different races, classes, cultures, sexual orientations, and abilities. They lived at home, at school, in shelters, or in group homes. The National Girls' Coalition had raised money to pay each girl's travel and living expenses. The United States Committee for UNICEF (which stands for the United Nations International Children's Fund) is the organization that cosponsored the conference. It brought the girls from various countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. We met at UNICEF House in New York City, right across the street from the United Nations.

Girls at the conference were as unique as each of you reading this book. They were eight to sixteen years old. They included a fifteen-year-old girl who lived on a fishing boat in Alaska; girls aged nine to sixteen from public housing developments in New York, Chicago, and New Jersey; an eleven-year-old from a ski resort in Montana; a ten-year-old who lived on Central Park West in New York City; a nine-year-old from a Native American reservation in Minnesota; and two sisters from a village on the Ivory Coast.

It was magical when all these different girls came together. Soon they were one clear, powerful voice. For two days, girls worked to create a Girls Global Plan of Action that is used as a model in many countries. They wanted a document that showed what girls think and how they could change things. You can find part of it at the end of this book, and you can send for more information about the Girls Global Plan of Action using the contact information listed at the end of this introduction. Although the girls worked hard, they also told jokes and sang.

Two girls who have worked with Girls Speak Out since it began, and also helped organize the conference, want to tell you about their experience before and at the girls' conference. Christina Dry writes about events leading up to the conference:

Hi! I was a girl from a small town in northern California when I helped start Girls Speak Out. My mother is Japanese-American, and she grew up in Hawaii. My father is white, and he spent most of his life in Monte Rio, which is where my older sister, Cindy, and I grew up, too.

I'd managed, sometimes unintentionally, to go against almost every stereotype set for girls, especially Asian girls. I'm outspoken about anything and everything. I've loved playing sports all my life. I've played basketball and softball forever, and in school I was on the varsity teams for basketball, softball, running, and swimming. I participated in sports that make you sweat, which I was told is very unladylike. But you know what? I don't care! I never worried about all the frills girls are supposed to worry about.

I helped create Girls Speak Out almost ten years ago. It started with meetings in Andrea's classroom when I was eleven and she was my sixth-grade teacher. Soon the girls and I moved from talking about our personal problems to problems other girls experience.

I remember being in Andrea's living room for one of our first meetings after she left teaching. There were about eight or nine girls, and we were all sitting in a circle on the floor. Andrea had a ceramic box that was cut and painted to look like a thick book with a pumpkin on the cover. It was called Cinderella 1990 (by Constance Alyce Westvig Roberts). Inside the box were about fifteen miniature wooden feet and one wooden slipper. The feet were different sizes and colors. Some had dainty, painted toenails and others were hairy. Some stood out more than others did, but none of them fit the little wooden slipper.

We sat there in a circle comparing the different feet when we suddenly made a connection between them and ourselves. The feet were symbolic of all of us. Some of us were big and others were little. We were different colors and from different backgrounds. The little wooden slipper represented the stereotypes and borders that have been set for girls. None of the feet fit the slipper, just as most girls don't fit stereotypes set for us.

Girls shouldn't fit stereotypes because stereotypes are so unrealistic. Knowing this has made a huge impact on the way I live my life. Life becomes much simpler and more enjoyable when you don't worry about being someone you're not.

I believe the most important part of Girls Speak Out is diversity. Girls from different places, races, cultures, and classes bring different views and experiences into the discussions. Sometimes I feel as if my personal experiences are very different from most girls. As I learn about more girls' lives, I understand how our different experiences make us more interesting and my world bigger. For example, I was a member of the Girls Steering Committee for the First National Girls' Conference. I worked to organize the conference with girls in Minnesota, West Virginia, and New York City.

We were discussing topics to cover at the conference. Each girl could choose three from a list of fifteen topics. The girls in New York wanted to include Violence against Girls. I didn't see the importance of it because violence isn't a big part of my life. As we talked, I realized what it is like for girls who live with violence every day. Now I know it's the number one problem in girls' lives around the world.

Experiences like these have formed a new understanding for me of how the world works. They make me feel good about myself. I've done something to change things. All these experiences helped me realize how much I can get done, and how much any girl can do.

I thought of the slogan we used at the conference, “Don't Deal with It! Change It!” I guess that's what I've been doing and what I will do all my life.

Elizabeth “Lizard” Foster-Shaner has been working in the Girls' Movement since she was nine years old. She started by writing speeches and organizing plays about girls and women when she was in middle school. She's an actor and a writer. Lizard was fifteen at the time of the conference. She recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and she creates and organizes street theatre productions.

Each girl who came and participated in the conference sent in an application. We were assured each girl was serious in her beliefs and desire for change. Women mentors were there to take notes and to help the girls, but only if we asked them. After all, it was our conference. We saw artifacts from prehistory that show us how girls and women were important. Sharing what we felt helped us feel each girl's power.

Next, we broke into groups. Each workshop had about fifteen to twenty girls, and three steering committee girls were the leaders. Each girl went to three workshops, one on each topic: Confronting Violence against Girls, Girls' Rights, and Images of Girls in the Media. We listed how the topics affect us and brainstormed a plan of action. Some of our ideas were to start a girls' group at home or at school, write a girls' newsletter, and start a web page and chat room as a girls' support center.

We focused on talking about our personal experiences. We used statistics. There were many problems talked about at the conference from our right to be ourselves to safely walking the streets at night. Our goal at the conference was to find some answers to these problems. After each girl had participated in one workshop on each theme, we gathered one last time at a speak-out to come up with our plan of action. So many ideas! They included support groups for victims of abuse as young as four and five years old, sending our plan to governors and the president, and having mini-conferences at home.

The conference was not only the official start of the Girls' Movement. I think it was also a chance for girls to find hope and meet other girls with the same feelings and thoughts.

There has never been such a sharing of ideas and feelings. I am very proud I was part of it. It helped me believe that no matter what, we are going to make the future ours.

If you want to share what you're doing in the Girls' Movement, you can write to the Girls Speak Out Action Network at the address at the end of this introduction. Remember, there are as many ways to be active as there are girls. You don't have to participate in a conference to help make a bright future. What you do and say matters, whether you stay close to home or connect with people in different states and countries.

Two years ago, I went to the YWCA Toronto, Canada, for a Girls Speak Out workshop. I hoped to find a woman who could train other women to help spread the program without me in charge. I found a young woman named Amy, and a few months ago, with the help of other women at the YWCA Toronto, she began training women from the YWCA of Canada. Today, we are certifying Girls Speak Out workshop leaders all over Canada. A group of young women in Fiji are also working with me to train organizers and bring the program to females in schools all over the islands.

I never imagined that so many girls and women outside my native country, the USA, would respond so deeply to this book and to the Girls Speak Out program. One of my latest dreams is to have girl-led program workshops just as the First National Girls' Conference was girl-led. I believe it will happen in the next decade because I see, hear, and feel girls growing stronger no matter where they live.

For now, women's help is essential to ensure that girls connect with each other and raise powerful voices across oceans and continents. Wherever they are, women know that girls are strong and brave. I hope this book helps you imagine and live in a new millennium in which girls everywhere will be inspired to be their true selves all their lives.

Over time, I've developed a trusted network in the United Nations and with nonprofit organizations in different parts of the world that support girls who speak out in a way they choose. There is someone near you who will reach out to you if and when you ask or need help and/or inspiration. For more information, to ask questions, to give answers, and to share your ideas, plans, and experiences, please use the following:

Girls Speak Out Action Network
c/o Ten Speed Press
PO Box 7123
Berkeley, CA 94707
Email: [email protected]

Remember, Don't Deal with It! Change It!

* * *

Reprinted with permission from Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self. Copyright © 2005 by Andrea Johnston, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA. To purchase Girls Speak Out, click here.

* * *

ANDREA JOHNSTON is the founder of the Girls Speak Out Foundation, an advocacy organization working with girls and their supporters on five continents. A 30-year veteran of public and private school teaching, Andrea convened and helped organize the First National Girls Conference at UNICEF House in New York in 1997. She has appeared in a Lifetime documentary, on CNN’s Talk Back Live!, and on local and national radio shows. She has also been a frequent keynote speaker at YWCA youth conferences, on college campuses, for parenting organizations, and in the General Assembly and Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. She has a son, Jesse, and lives in Northern California.

Read Andrea's monthly column at Feminist.com:
"Girls Speak Out About Girls"