The Girls Are All Right
With Colbians leading the way, girl-empowering Hardy Girls Healthy Women sparks a national movement
By Laura Meader
Published January 10, 2011
The Colbians who lead Hardy Girls, left to right: Lyn Mikel Brown, professor of education and cofounder; Jackie Dupont ’04, director of programs; Megan Williams ’04, executive director; Allison Cole ’07, director of development; and Karen Heck ’74, cofounder.
Photo by Chris Bennett
Hardy Girls Healthy Women was always there for Knights, but in fact it’s a relatively young organization that grew out of a challenge in 1998. A trustee of a local educational foundation offered financial backing if Heck could put on a conference for girls. Heck, who at the time worked for Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP), solicited help from area agencies and KVCAP colleagues, including health educator Lynn Cole. The result was the first Girls Unlimited (GU) conference, in 1999, based on Brown’s research on girls’ development (see sidebar).
After a second successful GU conference in the spring of 2000, Heck and Cole knew they were onto something. If they could raise money for a one-day event, they thought, they could raise money to start an organization with year-round programming. With Heck’s and Cole’s backgrounds in nonprofit development and Brown’s in research—and what the trio calls “the conversation on Karen’s deck”—Hardy Girls Healthy Women officially began.
For five years the cofounders volunteered and built the organization from the ground up. From their office across from Waterville City Hall they created a resource center, established a board of directors, developed programs and trainings, raised money, and refined curricula. In 2005 the cofounders hired Williams as Hardy Girls’ first executive director.
One of Williams’s biggest achievements was establishing the Girls Advisory Board (GAB), a group of ninth- to 12th-graders that advises the executive board on issues important to girls their age. The GAB helps the board keep the program fresh and relevant.
The advisory board played an important role in Hardy Girls’ newest venture, Powered By Girl, intended to create an online space for real girls. Then-seniors Beth Ponsot ’10 and Sarajane Blair ’10 brought vision and technical savvy to the concept while GAB members offered ideas for content and interactivity. A year later PoweredByGirl.com was launched as a teen girl-driven social media site.
Last fall PoweredByGirl.com was populated with material generated by five Colby students engaged in an independent study project with Brown. They took turns blogging, posting images or videos, and training advisory board members and other high schoolers on how to write and post material. Now anyone who joins can post material, including sexualized ads that can be re-captioned or “graffitied.” PBG offers an alternative to negative social media while educating teenagers about the impact of media in their lives. With PBG’s creative tools teens can interact with one another and talk back to the media to demand more realistic images of girls, Brown said.
Powered By Girl made its debut at SPARK in New York and was one of 15 workshops for the more than 100 girl activists from the Northeast. Other workshops taught girls how to employ flipcam journalism, street theater, radio broadcasting, and blogging to push back, speak up, and band together for social change.
Mackenzie Riley, a Waterville High School senior and president of the Girls Advisory Board, was thrilled to meet other young activists. “In our little GAB we get really excited about topics about feminism and sexualization—but [SPARK] is more than 100 girls. It’s so exciting,” Riley said in New York.
Riley and the other attendees were equally charged up by the national figures who spoke at the summit. MTV’s “sexpert” Amber Madison emceed SPARK’s opening session, which included a talk by Jean Kilbourne, documentary filmmaker, author, and advertising expert. The keynote was delivered by actress and activist Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (www.seejane.org), which strives to “improve gender portrayals in children’s media.”
“We judge our value in society by seeing ourselves reflected in the culture. If you see yourself, then you feel important,” Davis told the rapt audience. “So what message are we sending little girls—and boys—about girls if the female characters are one-dimensional, sidelined, hyper-sexualized, or simply not there at all?” she asked.
“We have an opportunity to be agents of change,” Davis said. “Because it’s by changing the cultural message that women and girls are less important that we will be able to empower women to reach their full potential.”
For Hardy Girls, SPARK strengthened partnerships around the country that will expose Hardy Girls to issues facing a broader population of girls than the primarily white, lower-middle-income girls they serve in central Maine. The summit also built momentum and established connections between high schoolers, Gen-Xers, and baby boomers in an intergenerational give and take that will amplify girls’ voices through shared ideas and activities.
“Movements have to be things that aren’t just inclusive of independent activities to move an issue forward,” Williams said. “In its very nature it has to be a lot of different players who are doing their own thing and sharing those things amongst each other.”
When Gloria Steinem joined a post-SPARK reception on East 65th Street (at President Franklin Roosevelt’s former home), women young and old eagerly awaited their turn to speak with the feminist icon. Steinem listened intently to each person and later, addressing the group, said, “This feels like the beginning of a movement.”
For longtime activists like Steinem, Heck, and Brown, involving young girls in the fight is crucial to future success.
“We need everybody on board. We don’t need girls just being able to look pretty, we need their brains,” said Heck. “That’s where I center my hope.”