At this moment, so many of our students are experiencing trauma. Classrooms across the nation have adapted curriculum to incorporate a brave space for students to express themselves, identify fears and insecurities and learn coping mechanisms in order to build resilience. This type of learning, referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL), is especially vital now during the Coronavirus pandemic, but has been at the core of Girls Leadership, a national nonprofit, since 2009. who work on inspiring girls to be leaders.
Exercising Their Voices
“I was raised in a culture where as a girl, I was taught to suppress my own needs and feelings in order to ‘keep the waters calm’ and be a low-need child,” says Simone Marean, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of the CA-based nonprofit, which empowers girls to cultivate the power of their voices.
Girls Leadership, founded by Marean and bestselling author Rachel Simmons, offers culturally responsive and trauma-informed programming that teaches girls, and their primary influencers – parents, caregivers and educators – the invisible, social and emotional skills at the foundation of leadership.
When teaching leadership to adolescent girls, Marean and Simmons observed that the barrier to leadership wasn’t the performance of skills nor readiness to lead, but instead, the internalized thoughts and belief systems that develop in response to what makes us of worth and value in our culture as a ‘girl.’
“There was something happening as girls became young women where they were taught to give up their power. They are rewarded for it! Gender expectations were limiting girls’ ability to speak up and self-advocate,” Marean says. “We saw the opportunity to reconnect girls to that innate power.”
For over ten years, Girls Leadership has offered professional development for educators, family-based programming, and direct-service for girls. Their social-emotional programming serves girls in kindergarten through high school and teaches them the skills to exercise their voice. To-date, the organization has impacted over 200,000 girls, and is on track to reach one million girls by 2023.
At Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, Director of Admission Rachel Yu saw the importance of the program as both an administrator and parent. “Girls Leadership programs are an important part of our social-emotional learning curriculum,” says Yu. The school invited Simone Marean to speak with community members on the topic of raising resilient girls, an evening that prompted open discussion about the ways parents struggle to help their girls navigate stress and adversity.
In addition, Yu participated in a 4-week workshop with her daughter, a third-grader. “I loved spending dedicated time with my daughter helping her expand her emotional vocabulary, and learning practical tools for handling difficult but necessary conversations with her friends.” The workshops incorporate role play, games, and discussion, to help girls develop the confidence and skills to lead.
“Every day we make countless decisions that influence others,” Marean says. “Do we make eye contact, raise our hand when we know the answer, raise our hand when we don’t know the answer, take a risk to try a new activity, or support others doing the same? We want every girl to recognize her influence and power in those countless choices, and use it.”
Adapting to the Now
As an organization rooted in in-person workshops, seminars and trainings, the Coronavirus pandemic had a deep impact on operations, forcing Marean and her team to temporarily halt programming and embark on a new model — “During this crisis, when our girls have been isolated and experiencing new heights of mental health challenges, Girls Leadership has worked to deliver exactly what they need in order to come through this more connected, stronger and more resilient than ever before,” explains Marean.
Throughout March, Girls Leadership provided free resources such as ‘Zoom-ba’ and meditation classes, book clubs and storytime sessions, expert educator tips for parents, and more to over 20,000 girls, parents, and teachers ‘sheltering in place’. By May, Girls Leadership piloted its first digital course and has since successfully shifted to a highly impactful and sustainable online model, offering a wide array of programming rooted in authentic communication, courageous growth, equity, and play.
In July, the organization announced groundbreaking, new research to deepen our understanding of how race, gender, and income impact identity and leadership development. These new findings have drastically impacted the way that Girls Leadership, as well as schools and other youth-serving organizations, approach leadership training for girls across the U.S.
As schools and youth-serving organizations grapple with the challenges of reopening, establishing distancing protocols, sanitizing routines, mask policies and other vital safety standards, there is another factor that must be considered: the social and emotional impacts of pandemic life on our youth. It is our job to hold a space that is not only clean and safe, but is also one that will promote equity, community, empathy, and healing. We will have to be strategic and intentional: social-emotional learning and healing-centered engagement cannot be “nice-to-haves,” but instead, must be the drivers of how our spaces operate. Now, more than ever, is the time to center these needs in the service of all our youth.
Marissa Viray is the chief engagement officer of Girls Leadership.