Nordhoff High School Rangers had just scored a touchdown against San Joaquin Memorial, and Hannah Greene went in to attempt the extra point. It was the first game of Nordhoff’s much-anticipated 2012 season, and 16-year-old Hannah was about to play the first down of her varsity football career. The junior placekicker took her position and leaned forward, awaiting the snap.
“It felt like my heart stopped,” Hannah says. As a sweeper on the girls’ soccer team, she is used to playing in big games. But football offers a much bigger stage than soccer, and placekickers are exposed to enormous pressure. Nevertheless, Hannah tuned out the crowd and focused on the kick. Looking on from the stands, her mother held her breath and waited for the play to begin. The center snapped the ball, Hannah stepped forward and kicked it between the uprights, and Tobi Jo Greene finally exhaled. She would have the same intense reaction all season long, every time her daughter went into action.
“I haven’t missed one kick,” Tobi says. “My breath stops, my heart races, my body just fills with joy. I am so proud of her.”
Nationwide, it’s still unusual for girls to play high-school football. But this year, two Ojai schools had female placekickers: Nordhoff and Villanova Prep. That may be a coincidence — or it may reflect a growing level of confidence among the current generation of Ojai Valley girls. If some of them seem more willing to assert themselves these days, and to make choices that defy convention, then Tobi Greene may have something to do with it.
Since 2006, about 1,000 local girls have taken Tobi’s Girls Empowerment Workshop — including Hannah, who has been through it five or six times. The point is not to produce female football players; it’s to produce strong-minded girls who stand up for themselves, especially in their relationships with boys. But strong-minded girls tend to be less intimidated by male-dominated situations, and that includes football tryouts. Hannah sought out that challenge, and now she is winning cheers from far larger crowds than those that typically show up to watch the girls’ soccer team. As the Rangers’ main point-after-touchdown kicker, she is an inspiration to Ojai’s other girl athletes — and to her mother, who used to be a girl athlete herself.
Tobi grew up in Ojai, the daughter of Rick and Tessa Turner. At Nordhoff, she played softball and basketball for the Rangers, but the only time she played football was during the school’s annual Powder Puff game, which pits the senior girls against the juniors. “One day out of the whole year, they let the girls play football,” she says. (And it’s flag football, not tackle.) Tobi did occasionally play backyard touch-football games with boys, who would compliment her by saying she should go out for the varsity. But it was not a serious suggestion. “I knew that it was a joke,” she says. “It never even crossed my mind that it was a possibility.”
The girls she hung out with at Nordhoff were accomplished athletes and good students. Even so, some of them ran into trouble. “Two of my friends dropped out at 16 because they were pregnant,” she says. “Two others were raped by their boyfriends.”
Small-town Ojai is considered a relatively safe place to grow up, in part because there are fewer strangers around. But that doesn’t protect girls from abusive relatives and boyfriends; or shield them from “mean girl” bullying; or prevent them from being bombarded by media images of preposterously thin and immodestly dressed women. The predictable results: Bad decisions, eating disorders, even suicide attempts. “People think growing up in a small town is so sheltered,” Tobi says. “But this stuff happens everywhere.”
After graduating from Nordhoff in 1991, Tobi went on to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she earned a degree in recreational administration with a focus on environmental education. “I wanted to work with children in the wilderness,” she says. She also volunteered at the local rape crisis center, counseling girls and young women. After graduating from college, she worked for three years as a San Luis Obispo park ranger, while continuing to volunteer her time as an advocate for rape victims. She also conducted sexual-assault awareness and self-defense classes for girls. “All of a sudden I realized that this is my passion,” she says.
Tobi quit the ranger job and took a fulltime position teaching sexual- assault awareness. (Later, she taught sexual health.) By this point she had married Mike Greene and started a family: Hannah was born in 1996, and her brother Finn arrived in 1999. Then, in 2004, Tobi and Mike decided to move back to Ventura County to run Mike’s mother’s restaurant, Bobbi’s Mexican Food in Camarillo. Two years later, Tobi and Mike settled in Ojai, her old hometown, from which they commute to Camarillo for work. “I never imagined I’d be back,” she says.
They continue to operate the restaurant, and Tobi also designs a line of greeting cards, which she sells at Made in Ojai and other places. But she found that she missed working with girls, so she developed the idea of the Girls Empowerment Workshop, which she can operate on a part-time basis. Looking for a site to host the first sessions in 2006, Tobi says she approached Barbara Kennedy at the Oak View Park and Resource Center: “And she said, ‘Yes, go for it.’”
Since then, several local schools have embraced the program, including Matilija Junior High School, the Ojai Valley School and Chaparral High School. Tobi continues to tweak the concept, but generally the program consists of eight to 12 weekly sessions, followed by a wilderness trip. The topics covered include self-fulfillment, sexuality and health, sexual-assault awareness, and how to see through the unrealistic images of women as purveyed by the mass media. One session is always devoted to guest appearances by accomplished local women.
The common thread: to provide girls with information they can use to become strong and stay safe. But just giving them advice is not enough. “I think it is very easy to tell girls, ‘Be strong, you are beautiful, you are capable, don’t do this, do that, don’t worry about that, who cares what others think, etc.,’” Tobi says. “What I think is missing is the idea of instilling worth. How do we raise a girl to feel she is worthy — worthy of good friends, worthy of healthy relationships, worthy of speaking her mind and of being heard, worthy of her dreams, worthy of trying something nobody else has done?”
You do that by building their confidence, she says, until they feel worthy.
“If I don’t feel worthy, I might do something I don’t really want to do, because I don’t have the deep courage or strength to say so. I may be coming from a place of fear rather than a place of personal love, respect and power,” she says. “I want young girls to walk through town with their shoulders back and their head held high, and to make eye contact. I want girls to feel deep down, in the face of a difficult situation, that they know they will be OK because they know they will figure out how to be OK.”
The Girls Empowerment Workshop’s supporters include the Ojai Valley Youth Foundation, the Rotary Club of Ojai West, the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs Association — and County Supervisor Steve Bennett, one of Tobi’s former teachers at Nordhoff. Bennett says Tobi “is really the right person” to mentor young teenagers: She exudes confidence, and her enthusiasm is contagious. “She’s got a zest for life,” he says. “It’s no surprise that her daughter is kicking on the football team.”
Actually, it was something of a surprise to Tobi. As a sophomore last year, Hannah played soccer and ran sprint relays on the girls’ track team, but showed little interest in football, not even as a spectator. She preferred the continuous action of soccer. “I didn’t like watching football,” Hannah says. “It’s too stop-and-go.”
But placekicking, it seems, is in her blood. Her father once kicked field goals for St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, and 12-year-old Finn is currently the placekicker for a team in the Ojai Eagles Youth Football League, where Mike Greene is one of his coaches.
Last May, the Greenes hosted an Eagles-related barbecue at their house, and at one point Mike made a lighthearted suggestion that Hannah too should uphold the family tradition, by trying out for the Rangers varsity as a kicker.
Hannah was intrigued. “I wanted to try a different sport,” she says, “and I thought that I could use my soccer skills at the game of football.”
Mike’s comment had planted the seed, but it was Tobi’s Girls Empowerment Workshop that brought it to fruition. On June 3, the workshop sponsored an Ojai Playhouse showing of “Miss Representation,” a documentary film that posits a connection between the media’s misrepresentations of women and the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence. Hannah attended the screening and was inspired by the film’s reference to Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut. As a child, Ride had no female role models for what she wanted to do, but she did it anyway. “She never had anyone to look up to, so she decided to be her own,” Hannah says.
After seeing the movie, Hannah made up her mind to give football a try. Her size was not really an issue; at 5 feet 6 and 125 pounds, she is big enough and rugged enough to play the sport at the high-school level. Her parents were supportive, as were the football coaches. She tried out and made the team, and was relieved to find that her male teammates were very welcoming. “I thought it would be awkward,” she says, “but they’re all like brothers to me.”
“She works hard at everything she does, and I am sure that has a lot to do with her success and acceptance on the football team,” Tobi says.
Hannah quickly became a crowd favorite. She has been almost perfect this season, converting 29 of 32 extra-point opportunities for a high-scoring Rangers team that posted a 9-1 record and made the playoffs. Of her three failed attempts, one was blocked, and one was a two-point attempt that turned into a busted play, forcing Hannah to scoop up the loose ball. She was tackled immediately, but bounced right back up after the whistle blew. “That was a blast,” she says about being tackled. “I got such an adrenalin rush!” Hannah intends to return as a kicker in the 2013 season. Already she is inspiring other girls to dream about following in her footsteps. Tobi points with pride to a recent journal entry by 8-year-old Riley Schneider, who competes alongside boys in several sports, including flag football.
“Next year my dad said I could play tackle football,” Riley wrote. “I think it will be a lot of fun! I want to be like Hannah Greene. She is the kicker for High School Tackle Football. She is really nice! She is great at kicking. She is the best kicker. … I hope I can be like her. I really hope! Cross my fingers. I think she is awesome.”
Tobi thinks so, too. “Hannah is a positive role model,” she says; “not just in her athletic accomplishments, but in who she is, and what she stands for.”
As for Hannah, she likes to spread the credit around. Her dad has had a lot to do with her gridiron success, and her younger brother cheers her on. But it also seems that Sally Ride was not the only woman who has inspired her.
“I think of my mom as a role model for some things, like being responsible, and going after goals, and wanting to see change or make change,” Hannah says. “In many ways she inspires me — she raises our family under good solid rules and keeps us close, and she helps young women around the community become strong and confident.”
The Rangers played the last game of their regular season Nov. 2 against Santa Paula. It was Homecoming, and Hannah had been selected a Homecoming princess. At halftime, when the court was introduced to the crowd, Tobi proudly accepted the tiara for her daughter, who was in the locker room getting ready for the second half.
“When I think about the possibilities my grandmothers had growing up, that my own mom had, what I had, and now what Hannah has, I see generational progress,” Tobi says. “Perhaps each one of us wasn’t able to do exactly what we dreamed of due to the era we lived in, but for our daughters, and granddaughters, it just keeps getting better. Hannah is living proof of this.
“As much as I loved sports and competing with the boys growing up, going out for the football team did not even cross my mind as a possibility, and now look! I celebrate this in every kick Hannah takes. Not just for her, but for all girls.”
THE GIRLS EMPOWERMENT WORKSHOP
Akka B. believes in being open with her 13-year-old daughter, Raksha Boiteau, so she has always encouraged her to ask questions on any topic. But after Raksha starting taking the Girls Empowerment Workshop at Matilija Junior High School last spring, Akka found herself fielding questions on certain topics that had never come up before.
“They were touchy things that are sort of taboo, actually,” Akka says. “I don’t think kids generally get to have these conversations with their parents.” But they ought to, she says — and their schools can help, by giving them access to programs like the Girls Empowerment Workshop. “We focus on academics and we don’t focus on how to deal with life situations,” Akka says. “And we should! You can be a straight-A student and not know how to deal with the world at all.”
The workshop encourages girls to ask questions on any topic, and provides a question box for those who prefer to remain anonymous. “That was really cool, because you could ask questions without embarrassing yourself,” Raksha says. The person who fields all these questions is Tobi Jo Greene, who designed the workshop and leads the sessions, with help from Shannon Kay Skillern. Many of the questions Tobi gets are relatively innocuous, but some reflect the darker realities of life.
“We have had girls who have shared stories, usually through the anonymous question box, about being suicidal, sexually assaulted, molested or abused, and they have found skills and healing through what we have taught and discussed,” Tobi says. “That’s very important, but also important is that the girls who have not had these experiences get to hear about them, so that they are not only more empathetic toward the girls they walk down the halls with at school, but are better able to help a friend or family member who may experience something like this.”
In addition to Matilija, other local schools that have hosted the Girls Empowerment Workshop include the Ojai Valley School and Chaparral High School.
“Tobi really is an exceptional person, and very outstanding in terms of communicating with adolescents,” says Carl Cooper, head of school at the Ojai Valley School Upper Campus. “The conversation she has with the kids is absolutely open and candid.” Candid, but also private. “I felt really safe with her, like I could tell her anything and she wouldn’t repeat it,” says Nordhoff sophomore Taylor Moran, who took the workshop twice while she was at Matilija.
“I thought it was brilliant,” Taylor says. “I’ve had a lot of friends who had eating disorders and emotional problems,” and they found a sympathetic ear at the workshop: “You could ask questions about anything, and they’d answer you.”
Tobi operates the program in one school at a time. She holds weekly sessions for eight to 12 weeks, and then (depending on class size) she and Shannon take the girls on a wilderness trip. Not all the topics they address are touchy or taboo. Most of the sessions have more to do with developing self-confidence, learning how to set goals and achieve them, etc.
“It’s trying to get them to find their voice and to think independently,” Carl Cooper says. “To find ways to say, basically, ‘This is who I am.’ And to be comfortable with that.”
But teaching the girls how to keep themselves safe is a recurring theme. Tobi gives them psychological tools to use when faced with potentially perilous circumstances. Especially when they are facing pressure from their boyfriends to have sex.
“I understand that we want to protect our youth and embrace their innocence as long as possible,” Tobi says. “But I feel we owe it to our youth to trust them to make good decisions. The only way anyone can make a good decision is when she has information about what she is trying to work through.” Rather than just tell the girls to say “no” to their boyfriends, Tobi tells them how to say “no,” or “not yet.” And if and when they finally decide to say “yes,” they need to know how to be safe in those situations too.
“In the states where ‘abstinence only’ education is taught, we have higher rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” Tobi says. “Telling our kids not to have sex does not work. What does work is providing our kids with a safe place to talk about these things and valuable resources they can reach out to when needed, and building confidence and a deep-rooted belief that they are worthy. Kids who receive comprehensive sex education actually wait longer to engage in sex. And when they do have their first sexual experience, they know how to protect and care for themselves.”
Self-confidence is the key. The Girls Empowerment Workshop teaches girls that they are not helpless. “You learn that you’re not completely a victim of your situation,” Akka says. “And that’s huge.” “Boys need it too,” she adds. “What about a Boys Empowerment Workshop?” Tobi says the workshop does conduct sessions for boys, led by Casey Murphy. But her main focus is on girls.
“What it comes down to is my deep belief, and I know I am not the only one, that when girls feel confident about their bodies, their intelligence, their worthiness and their sexuality, they have the opportunity to go into the world and fully express themselves — as girls, as women, as humans,” Tobi says. “If we spend too much time having conversations with ourselves about not being good enough, pretty enough, sexy enough or accepted enough, we are limiting ourselves to what we think the world thinks of us, rather than putting forth what we think of ourselves, what we find important, what we want to contribute to the world. Everyone has something important to share, and if that beautiful energy is wasted, then the world never gets to see it, and a girl misses out on what it feels like to be strong, free, worthy and capable.”
For Akka, the workshop’s most important aspect is the candid conversations it sparks – not only between the girls and Tobi during the sessions, but with the girls and their friends after the sessions, and with their parents at home.
“When girls are given permission to speak freely, no matter how sensitive the subject, a little at a time it starts chipping down the wall of fear that keeps them from expressing the fullness of who they are,” Akka says. “Instead of just reacting, they feel empowered to make an impact on the world. I saw the evolution of that with Raksha.”
Raksha’s impact is amplified by the blog she writes on the Girls Empowerment Workshop website, addressing many of the issues raised in Tobi’s sessions.
“I think we all felt more confident in ourselves after taking the class,” Raksha says. “I see girls who just don’t have any confidence in themselves, and this program is amazing. I think every girl should take it.”