News of women being silenced domestically and abroad isn’t new. Nor is the lack of accuracy when it comes to how women are portrayed in stories about rape, race, poverty, and immigration – if they’re covered at all.
Determined to change the rules of the game, organizations such as GlobalGirl Media, WriteGirl and The Op-Ed Project are arming young girls and women with the tools they need to make their voices heard.
Empowering girls is just the first step
Ariel Edwards-Levy had no problem convincing her parents to let her join WriteGirl, an LA-
based creative writing and mentoring organization that promotes creativity, critical thinking, and leadership skills to empower teen girls.
“I was always very interested in writing,” Edwards-Levy says. “When a friend told me about this program when I was in middle school, I immediately signed up.” Edwards-Levy says her mom was incredibly supportive. Having done some producing in the past, her mom was aware of the opportunities this type of program could afford her daughter.
Like Ortega, Edwards-Levy took advantage of the opportunity head-on — not realizing the impact it would have on her.
“A certain transformation happens,” Edwards-Levy says. “There is a force of belief that exists.” One can hear the confidence in Edwards-Levy’s voice as she talks about how the mentors at WriteGirl express their belief in each and every girl who walks through their doors.
“It’s not belief in the soft sense of the word,” she explains. “It’s not the ‘I believe in you,’ it’s more the ‘We will make sure you will write. What do you need us to do to help you?’”
Keren Taylor founded WriteGirl in late 2001 to bring the skills and energy of professional women writers to teenage girls who do not otherwise have access to creative writing or mentoring programs.
“Many girls don’t have these types of opportunities to express themselves in a girl-centric environment, at this critical time when they’re questioning whether they’re really important on this planet,” Taylor said by phone.
Taylor’s program is designed to help girls learn to speak up and be bold, she says. Each girl is paired up with a mentor who makes it a point to be there for her mentee every week. Every other month, WriteGirl hosts an all-day workshop filled with different types of interactive activities and writing exercises. Topics range from writing poetry to writing longform journalism.
Unlike other writing programs, WriteGirl’s mentors are not all published authors or writers. Nonetheless, the vetting process for mentors is rigorous; all mentors undergo a training program on how to be an effective mentor. The program, which is currently only based in Los Angeles, welcomes mentors from throughout the LA area. Those interested in becoming a mentor are encouraged to apply.
“We want our girls to grow and thrive, and there are ways in which you have to communicate with teenage girls in order to be heard,” Taylor says. “Some of our girls arrive without even basic communications skills. We train our mentors to stay on top of them — [to] keep calling and texting and setting up meetings. Don’t give up on them. For many of our girls, this is the only safe place where they can let their guard down. Some girls have other major things going on in their lives, from abuse to neglect and violence. No one in their lives is nurturing their creative side. No one is encouraging them. We’re here to help them cultivate their voice.”
WriteGirl operates throughout the school year, from October through June, and hosts summer internships. Currently, approximately 500 students are part of the program, which includes 350 teens and 150 college alumni who return to help with the internships. Edwards-Levy is among those who keep returning. In fact, she credits the program for piquing her interest in journalism.
“My very first experience with a newsroom was through WriteGirl,” Edwards-Levy says. “A mentor allowed me to shadow her for a few days and helped me write my first article that appeared in print.”
Today, Edwards-Levy is a political reporter with The Huffington Post, where she began as an intern in early 2012.
Taylor knows that not all of the girls in the program will go on to become journalists or writers, but that’s not really the point. It’s more about helping women silence the voice in their heads that says they can’t do it, and amplify the one that says they can.
“A lot of these girls don’t have that little voice in their head that tells them they can do it,” Taylor notes. “Somehow, people expect girls to have that inner voice, but they don’t.”
Taylor and WriteGirl have been recognized for their unique programming through a number of major, national accolades. Michelle Obama awarded WriteGirl the 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, and CNN named Taylor a “CNN Hero” earlier this year.
Taylor didn’t mention these awards until I asked her about them. Instead, she proudly shared that 100 percent of the program’s graduating seniors have enrolled in college, many of them on full or partial scholarships.
Women who have taken part in WriteGirl and GlobalGirl Media are working hard to change the culture of how women and girls are represented in the media. They demand to be heard.