Empowering Girls as Girls Become Women-By Amber Lennon The Bubble, Volume 6, Winter / Spring 2012 http://www.ojaipost.com/2012/03/girls-empowerment/
I must officially be an adult because the conditioning of today’s youth disturbs me. It’s not so much the music (although a few minutes of the MTV Music Awards did elicit in me the dismayed sigh of the aged). Rather I’m speaking more of the accelerated pace of development and the media exposure that seems to be ripening a whole generation of young fruit before its time.
Luckily, in the Ojai Valley there is hope. Unlike previous generations of adolescents who had to fumble their way through tough teenage issues, today’s youth in Ojai has a chance to empower their decisions through education. The program is called the Girls’ Empowerment Workshop, and the number of eager participants is growing yearly. In 2006, the first workshop had fifteen middle school girls in attendance; in the spring of this year, over 80 of the Valley’s blooming youth completed the free workshop.
So what does the program offer that the youth is so hungry for? Tobi Greene, the workshop’s creator, said the groups affirm that the issues facing today’s youth are universal, and that “they are not alone.” The 8–10 week course covers a lot of ground, from assertiveness training and self-defense to healthy relationships, sexuality and the effect of the media’s beauty standards. Greene’s professional background as an educator and advocate for sexual assault awareness helped her develop a curriculum aimed at empowering women. “My philosophy on the program is that the more people know, the less likely they are to go do it,” Greene said.
They are topics that perhaps many parents wish their middle school girls didn’t need to discuss. But the truth is that media exposure and the social climate in schools is spreading these topics anyway. In an interview with PBS, Brian Graden, President of Programming for MTV, noted, “I can’t help but be worried that we are throwing so much at young adults so fast. And that there is no amount of preparation or education or even love that you could give a child to be ready.”
So, yes, your 11-year-old might already know about oral sex and might soon be put in a position to make decisions about it. The thought of it makes me want take my young kids into the hills and lead a life of gathering roots and berries. But a close second would be to at least inform them through the Empowerment Workshop, so that they know how to distinguish which attitudes and behaviors are poisonous and which are edible, so to speak.
Greene starts by going into girl’s P.E. classes at the beginning of the year and doing a small presentation on the Workshop, usually with a humorous icebreaker like, “Imagine if you were just born and instead of a girl, you were a boy. How would your life be different?” You can imagine the slew of adolescent comments about peeing while standing and the like.
From there, the preteens sign up voluntarily to participate, and once they are inside the safe parameters of the workshop, they are free to discuss taboo subjects and learn how to care for their bodies and spirits. “We focus on how you feel, how much time do you spend on your soul (doing things you love, for example) compared to what you look like?” said Greene. “There is no real gauge for that.” So one class will be about media-fed body images and might note the fact that only 2% of Americans naturally have the model body they see in magazines. Another class discusses assertiveness and positive empowerment. For Greene, this is the foundation of the class because “if you can conquer your assertiveness, self-esteem and respect for your body, then all those other things will be taken care of.” Greene also brings in positive women role models from the community to discuss their challenges at that age, like eating disorders or sexual assault.
At each class, there is a box on the table, where the girls can submit anonymous questions. Then Greene attempts to answer them at the next class. This is undoubtedly one of student’s favorite features of the workshop because they can ask questions without risk of ridicule. Greene recounted the story of one girl who wrote a question about suicide. Another girl in the class stood up and said she had actually tried to commit suicide. In front of the class, she revealed, “I’ve been so depressed that I didn’t want to live anymore, and I’m reaching out to whoever that girl is to say that if you ever want to talk to me…I’m available.”
By sharing about matters of the heart, the workshop transcends cliques, which can be so divisive amongst adolescent social scenes. One participant, Karen Quezada, had just moved to Matilija Junior High in the 8th grade and had the opportunity to take the workshop. “They teach you to be confident with yourself, and within a few days we were all so close and telling each other our problems,“ commented Quezada. “It was a great opportunity to talk with new people and learn about what’s out there in the real world.”
Greene’s transformational workshops continue to expand. This year The Rotary Club of Ojai funded Matilija’s growing class, and Greene now has two trained assistants. She will be offering the workshop at Nordhoff for the first time and continues to develop the boys’ program, which is currently available at Ojai Valley School. She also plans to compile a book of the girls’ anonymous questions with responses from fifteen women of different backgrounds. Once the curriculum is finalized, schools can adopt the program as an educational tool for self-awareness.
If young people grow up imbued with positive perceptions of themselves and informed in their choices, they can be the role models for future generations. Then perhaps the media and other social influences won’t be such a strong force in their lives. “When you look at women you admire, what do you admire them for, and how does this contradict what is put in our face day after day?” asks Greene. “We are all feeling this same pressure at any age.”
A Midwestern Native, Amber Lennon has lived in the Ojai Valley for 11 years, where she raises two young children with her husband. She writes for regional publications such as Ventana, the Ojai Valley News and Visitor’s Guide as well as regular blog entries at http://audacityofparenting.blogspot.com