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by Vali Forrister

I don’t like being spoken for. I don’t like other people telling my story. I don’t like seeing it happen to other people.

 

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Haviland writing, ALAG Year 1.

It’s a big part of why I started Act Like a GRRRLI wanted to protect my niece Haviland from being spoken for, having other people decide what she was good at and what she wasn’t. I was determined that only Haviland was going to author Haviland’s story.

 

Due to public coverage of tragic events I experienced as a young woman, I had lived through the reality of being spoken for by newspapers, TV stations and public officials and whispered about by church members and classmates.

 

It didn’t matter how well-meaning these narratives were, other people were telling my story, putting definitions and limitations around what I had experienced and would become because of it.
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Vali and Rachel

Nate Eppler’s play, THE ICE TREATMENT   (premiering at Actors Bridge July 15-24) addresses what it feels like to be spoken for. With humor and heart, it exposes the injustice and rage of having your life authored by strangers.

 

In my work with women and girls through Act Like a GRRRL and Big GRRRL, I constantly encounter brave souls daring to take back their stories and tell them on their own terms.

 

I know in my personal life, healing didn’t really begin until I was able to give voice to my own story in my own words, making myself the hero and not the victim of the experience and be publicly witnessed doing it. Read about that here.

 

Nate is brilliantly addressing this type of personal reckoning with the story of Blondie, a Tonya Harding-like character, who was made the villain in her own story by a world that didn’t like her because of she didn’t meet their standards of beauty, grace and privilege. She became fodder for the newly born 24-hour news cycle (Hard Copy and the like) and had no power to shift the narrative that they had chosen for her.
 
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ALAG co-leader and GRRRL champion Rachel Agee

Our GRRRL, Rachel Agee, is doing the greatest work of her career in the role of Blondie. As always, she is wickedly funny, but there is also an undercurrent of something so much deeper and heart wrenching as you watch her take control of her story in THE ICE TREATMENT.

 
It is an enormous honor for me that Nate chose Actors Bridge to premiere this gorgeous play. World premieres are always special — getting to see the first performances of a new play coming to life — but, this one is extraordinary.

 

Please be sure to see it. Don’t let the next two weeks fly by without getting this show on your calendar, buying tickets and bringing friends. BUY TICKETS HERE.

 

Trust me. You will belly laugh (something we all need right now) and be deeply touched.

 

I promise you will be so glad you were there!
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Tony Nappo, Rachel Agee and Amanda Card in THE ICE TREATMENT opening July 15 at Actors Bridge Ensemble at Belmont’s Black Box Theater

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Words. Words came easy, just grunts set to a common melody. The writing aspect of Act Like a Grrrl, the connection of pen to paper, watching the ink dry, that was the easy part.

However, knowledge of the grrrl using the pen took/takes and will always take effort,

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Ajayi (aka Y, aka Faso) in the 2009 ALAG circle.

and fucktons of it.  ALAG is what you make it; it is what you make it. Because I gave my all, because I placed myself under a magnifying glass and exposed and explored and accepted all aspects of myself each year I came back, then whenever pen hits page or fingers touch keyboard I check into myself and am able to write in my truest voice.

 

 

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Ajayi 2015

Act Like a Grrrl is not just about acting like a grrrl, it is about becoming a grrrl. Honestly, acting like a grrrl isn’t difficult. Camouflaging yourself and putting on the show for Vali, or even fellow grrrls is fairly easy.

 

But who I was, when no one was watching, when it’s just a pen and some paper that is who will always be there and if I found that the person she was wasn’t who I needed her to be; then I’d pick up the pen and tell her story, however dark or light. Because by allowing her voice to be heard, I was giving her space and time to be healed, honored, and loved.

 

 

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Ajayi 2016 ❤

ALAG is a space where there was space for the pain, and the dirt, and the grime of myself. And that allowed me to fully embrace the really good parts, of which there are many.

 

ALAG taught me that my good parts don’t have to be Jenna’s good parts, and that is what keeps the circle fresh and beautiful. I stepped into the circle as authentically me as I could be each year, and they loved me. And they upheld me and supported me in all the best ways.

Ajayi was a GRRRL for 8 years. She is in her first year as a co-leader.

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By Marisa Flores

I first met Vali in a Program Evaluation course this January. Hearing her share the story of Act Like A Grrrl and the grrrls for the first time made me wish that ALAG had existed where I grew up. By mid-semester, we decided to move forward and put the program evaluation into motion this summer. I’ve worked within camps for almost a decade, and with youth longer than that, but there is so clearly something especially unique about the ALAG program, grrrls and leaders.

 

I wasn’t exactly sure what I would find as I joined the journey into the woods with twelve teenage grrrls and six women coleaders. I knew it would be an adventure—and I hoped to witness some magic.

 

Over spring break when I first met some of the grrrls, I told Vali it was like finding out unicorns were real—and more, they have their own camp.

 

After even just a handful of days here with ALAG, this continues to be my understanding.

 

The land at Golden Wings has a steadiness and peace that it shares with us. Open space and fresh air allow each of us to breath a little deeper. The warm, sturdy earth beneath our bare feet helps to keep us grounded as we begin each day. I am writing from the porch of our retreat home, sitting on a red rocking chair, watching dusk heavy the air. Fireflies sparkle in the space between myself and the grrrl filled yurt. just across the field. From here I can hear giggles and belly laughs, stomps and snaps as the grrrls work through a dance movement session. I hear the steady call of the coleader calling out the counts to the rhythm of the beat. These noises find their place amongst the chirping insects preparing for evening. All of these sounds feel like they belong here.

 

Together. The grrrls are growing in their capacity to appreciate and connect with the generations of ALAG, guest artists and guides, with nature and with their truest selves. This time together allows each of us to connect more fully with each of these pieces of ALAG—giving us space to ask and answer questions that we’ve never asked or answered before.

 

I see grrrls reclaiming their strength, curiosity and silliness. I see grrrls listening, really listening to each other. I see grrrls begin to trust the circle around them and the voice inside of themselves. I see grrrls becoming visibly more relaxed and confident—not only in their writing but also in conversations around the dinner table. I see returning grrrls work to navigate and share this space with the newest cohort of grrrls. I see grrrls catch them selves in sarcasm- and begin to say what they mean and mean what they say. I see grrrls immersed in prompts and activities that require them to jump out of their comfort zone. I see grrrls take brick after brick down from their wall and leMarisat us see pieces more of their authentic selves. I see grrrls work towards becoming their best selves.
So much of the beautiful happenings are taking place within each grrrl- exploding more and more through writing, song, dance and conversation. I can only imagine what will happen when these grrrls share their voices with the world.

 

Marisa Flores is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and co-leader at Act Like a GRRRL 2016.

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Dear Friends,

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Tasneem and Yemurai

 

Have you ever watched a girl grow up? Ever seen her audacious toddlerhood, racing and flying as fast as the wind? Ever watched in amazement when she begins school and exclaims – with jumps and shouts – over every morsel of knowledge she learns?

 

And have you seen that same girl slip away and seek security in the shadows? Have you seen her wither into self-consciousness and fear that her spirit and sass may invite words like: “Straighten up and sit like a lady,” or “Oh, grow up and calm down!” and – the worst – “Stop acting like a girl!” If you’ve seen this happen, then you know my anguish. You know my frustration as I watched my 11-year- old daughter grapple with the choice to be her loud, funny, self-loving self or a seated, silent shadow girl.

 

And then my girl attended the March (2015) spring break session of Act Like a GRRRL. After five days, my daughter was transformed into someone more vibrant and awesome than ever.

 

Today, I look at her tall stance, her broad smile and loud shrieking laughter (that Vali never once tried to mute!) and realize that her sass hadn’t disappeared. It was waiting for an opportunity, and invitation, to shine again as a GRRRL.

 

If you’ve ever watched a girl tussle with the limiting, shushing, belittling notions of girlhood, then you can understand the power of ALAG. This program, through writing, dance and drama, convinces our precious daughters that they were born to boldly be themselves.

 

The impact of ALAG, and Vali’s vision, is sustained through a network of “GRRRL allies” who believe that our entire community is elevated when our grrrls have a place to find, and use, their voices. I hope you consider investing in this revolution and proudly add your names to those believe that grrrlpower is valuable, necessary and beautiful.

 

In GRRRL gratitude,

Tasneem Grace Tewogbola

Tasneem currently serves as Parent Liaison for Act Like a GRRRL. She was a co-leader in ALAG program in Northern Virginia in 2015. 

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As ALAG continues to expand, we’ve been asked to explain some of our “operating procedures” for new folks who may want to bring ALAG to their community.

 

One of my self-imposed rules since the beginning of Act Like a GRRRL (ALAG) has been

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GRRRLS and Vali at ALAG 2015

that I try not to talk to parents.

 

(And, let me express my deep gratitude all the ALAG parents/guardians of the last 13 years for their understanding.)

 

It’s not that I don’t like parents. If you’re a new ALAG parent reading this, let me say I KNOW you’re undoubtedly cool if you’re sending your daughter to ALAG. I am sure you’re “my people.” 

 

It’s just that I’m trying to stay as transparent as I can with the GRRRLS. Every year, the first norm the GRRRLS create for their work together is “what’s said in the circle stays in the circle.” I want to avoid even the slightest appearance that I might have occasion to slip and repeat something to a parent that a GRRRL said in confidence in that circle.*

 

Another norm that always makes its way onto the GRRRLS’ list is “no parents in the space.” It’s important that Act Like a GRRRL belong to your daughter. It’s something she doesn’t need to share with you.

 

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GRRRL Tribe:Co-leaders Kamilah, Vali, Dylan

This is her space. We are her people. She is finding her tribe. This is a time when her search for independence and identity may be at an all-time high. ALAG is giving her the space to develop those things in a supportive, intentional community. But, it stops being about growing independence and self-agency when parents join in.

 

 

I recently read that the great question of adolescence is “Who Am I?” and the great fear of adolescence is “Am I Normal?” The best answers to those questions come through independent self-discovery. It’s essentially what we are doing 24/7 at ALAG. Being told who you are is nice, but it’s not as powerful as recognizing it for yourself.

 

ALAG is a positive risk-taking activity. Performing your own material is terrifying. When that material is deeply personal autobiographical narrative, the stakes go up exponentially. To be publicly known for who you are and what you stand for builds character, charisma and confidence.

 

It’s work that demands parents take a step back. It’s the first of many steps you’ll make

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Kamilah introducing the GRRRLS

to let your daughter assume her own space in the world. She can expand because you give her the room to do so or because she steals the space by distancing herself emotionally, physically and mentally. (It’s important to also cultivate a space where families celebrate togetherness.)

 

 

In my experience watching GRRRLS and parents navigate these years, the strongest familial relationships are where parents willingly step back and let their daughters take this time and space to grow, even when parents don’t like what they see/hear initially.

 

My mother, who was the greatest mother ever, did not always agree with the things my brothers and I believed. But, she always respected us. She was famous for saying, “that’s what happens when you raise your children to think. They don’t always think what you want them to.” She always kept an open mind and even allowed her thinking to be persuaded by our best arguments.

 

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Mom presenting her Nobel Prizes

My mother referred to her children as her “Nobel Prizes,” explaining that she never got around to saving the world herself because she was too busy raising my brothers and me. “But, that’s okay because they’re going to do it for me.”

 

 

 

 

Your daughters are our Nobel Prizes. I have no doubt that they are going to save the world, one corner at a time. They are building amazing skills by learning to articulate their values, negotiate differences, take up space and give it to others as they serve as witness to each other. They give me confidence that the future is indeed brighter than the past. And, you are an award-winning parent for having the foresight to let your daughter have her own #RRRevolution. 

*Obviously, I have a reporting responsibility if I think a GRRRL is being hurt or may be a threat to herself or others.

 

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Skills GRRRLS Need

I recently read an article by a Stanford University dean about the skills every 18-year-old needs, but most do not have. Read article. Every skill on the list is one that is taught through Act Like a GRRRL.

From learning to talk to strangers to managing deadlines, handling interpersonal issues, finding their way around and taking personal risks, our program gives GRRRLS practical instruction with real life benefits.

There is no deadline more immovable than “opening night.” There is no better way to learn to manage conflict or take risks than writing your own material for public performance in collaboration with a group of other teenage girls. Spending a week living in community with 20 other girls and women with no parents or housekeepers is an ideal way to learn how to contribute to running a household.

Over the course of several summers, GRRRLS learn to manage “ups and downs.” No two years of ALAG are the same, and as the GRRRLS build empathy, they learn to navigate not only their personal highs and lows but those of their peers. (Most GRRRLS who enter ALAG when they are 12 or 13 will stay in the program until they leave for college.)

All of these situations are real. We are not manufacturing a false sense of responsibility. We are giving these teenage girls grown-up obligations and the tools and authority to be successful. And, what I’ve witnessed over the last 12 years is, with the right support, teenage girls always rise to the occasion.

We are creating future leaders, problem solvers, and change makers. As they like to say: “A GRRRL is easy to spot in a crowd because she is either at the head of it or going the opposite way.”

Many of our graduates have returned to ALAG as co-leaders. These veteran GRRRLS not only earn and manage the money they make as staff of the program, but they learn how to manage an operating budget while shopping for ALAG groceries, supplies, costumes, etc. When you give to ALAG Scholarships, you help ensure we will have the funds to provide summer employment to these young leaders, building their professional resumes and helping develop their talents as teachers and mentors.

If you are able, please consider making a gift toward scholarships for this summer’s program. I guarantee your “return on investment” will be off-the-charts.

Here is a link to making a donation online.

You are always welcome to send a check (made payable to Actors Bridge and earmarked for GRRRL scholarships) to:

Vali Forrister
Actors Bridge Ensemble
4610 Charlotte Avenue
Nashville, TN 37209

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My name is Jenna Stotts. I am a twenty years old, and I have been a part of Act Like A GRRRL for eight summers, seven as a participant and two as a co-leader (I co-lead in Northern Virginia the week after my last performance as a grrrl). Throughout the past eight years with ALAG I have learned so much and grown exponentially. Since I have been exposed to the greatness that this program is from the age of twelve, I rarely think about how different my life would be without it. Recently at the Actor’s Bridge Ensemble’s twentieth birthday party, I was asked multiple times if I thought my life would be the same had I not participated in ALAG, and my answer without hesitation was always, “Absolutely not.”

 

11140028_10207134877715455_4886102649518303832_nWhen I came into the program at twelve, I was one of those girls who believed that other girls created drama and therefore I was safer to only be friends with boys and never trust a girl a day in my life. I also grew up with two brothers, so I had no scheme of reference as to what a healthy relationship with a female my age could look like. I thought that somehow my tomboyish thought process made me cool and edgy, until I got to Act Like A GRRRL and was gently nudged away from that by the eight other grrrls I met my first year. As the month of June went on, they tried their best to make me see that by refusing to have female companions I was falling into the trap society has set up on teenage girls. You know the trap, the one that says teenage girls are just wildly emotional beings who will backstab and gossip about any friend they have just to win some boy’s attention. And while I will be the first to admit that it took a while for me to grasp this, when I finally did, I never let it go.

 

11059877_10207694708910885_6769745349079615551_nEight years later and most of the best and longest lasting friendships I have stem from Act Like A GRRRL and the grrrls I met there. Even if we go months without seeing each other, when we are together it’s like we were just cuddled up on the couch last week. All of my friendships, whether or not they were formed through ALAG, are stronger because of the communication skills and compassion I learned through the program.

 

All of that is only a slice of how different my life has become since I started Act Like A GRRRL. Every aspect has changed for the better and the people I need to thank for that are all connect to this program in one way or another. Ever since the party I’ve been mulling over how to show my gratitude to everyone at one time, then I realized there wasn’t a more fitting way than through written word. If you have been connected to Act Like A GRRRL in anyway, this letter of gratitude is for you.

 

First and foremost, I want to thank Vali Forrister for the vision and faith376216_3884229539693_40750767_n in herself to bring her dream of this program to fruition. Also for continuing to believe in the program and all the grrrls that have and will go through it. Along with Vali, I would also like to think everyone who supported her in the very first year: whether you were a grrrl, co-leader, a donor of time or money. I also want to be sure to thank the ones who continue to support Vali’s vision: the Actor’s Bridge Ensemble board, current coleaders, parents/friends/fans, and the current grrrls. Without everyone from the first year and the continued support since the beginning, Act Like A GRRRL would not be going into year twelve.

 

From this point on I’ve made a list, to try my best to ensure I get to thank every person possible.

 

To the co-leaders (past/present/future): I never truly understood how much behind the scenes work each of you do until I became a co-leader and I began planning for the next day or running errands outside of the allotted ALAG time. Thank you for giving up a month of your time to help guide grrrl through the peaks and pitfalls of adolescence; for being so willing to teach but also learn; and for always believing in us especially when we doubted ourselves. The love and support each of you gave me, and continues to give me even now, has truly shaped how I lead and how I love both in the circle and in my life.

 

To Jessika Malone, Mitch Massaro, and every other person who has done tech for an ALAG performance: You all spend so much time to ensure the grrrls shine as brightly and confidently as they can on stage, and sometimes as a grrrl it is easy to take that for granted. But this summer when I helped paint the stage floor black, and got a tiny glance into all the work everyone does for the two night production, I realized this is truly a labor of love. Thank you for  believing in ALAG’s work and spending so many hours year after year making the grrrls look good. You are all definitely behind-the-scene-heros.

 

To every guest artist, big grrrl, person who has donated even ten
minutes of your time to the grrrls:
Thank you all for showing me a glimpse of what my life could look like in 5, 10, 20 years. Thank you for having enough courage to tell a group of teenage grrrls your life story, even the messy parts, and for showing us how we can truly grow up to be anything and anyone we dream of. You all have also shown us that the concept of being both/and is achievable; I can be both a mom and a professional, both a scientist and an artist. The time you give up to spend with the grrrls does not go unnoticed, and the love you show through your words and actions doesn’t either.

 

To every grrrl I was in the circle with: Even though most of us have graduated from the program and many of us no longer live in Nashville, I still feel like we are connected. Thank you all for showing me what sisterhood can feel like, what compassion and empathy really are, and most importantly for teaching me the lessons it takes some people a lifetime to learn. You have all made me a little wiser, a little more adventurous, and a lot more accepting. Without the friendships I had with all of you, I would probably have no idea about so many different ways of being, belief sets, and traditions. Thank you for gently correcting my mistakes, listening and giving feedback but never trying to fix me, and most importantly loving me unconditionally.

 

Now as some may know, Act Like A GRRRL has a satellite in Northern Virginia (ALAG NoVA), and I am lucky enough to be connected to that circle as well. I have a few specific pieces of gratitude for that group.

 

To Rhonda Eldridge, her family, and the Blueberry Hill Community: First to Rhonda, thank you for loving the idea of ALAG so much that you reached out to Vali to try and start it in your community. Your dedication to the process and the grrrls is awe-inspiring. Thank you for your love, support, and friendship to not only the NoVA circle but also the Nashville circle. Your family and community have supported us in such tremendous ways; inviting us in with welcoming arms, being sure we have everything we could ever need, and being excited to see the end product of our work. Thank you all for believing in this cause that is so near to my heart.

 

To my fellow NoVA groundbreakers: Gabrielle Saliba, Dylan McCann, Augusta Freeman, and Vali Forrister- this started with the five of us. Even as shakey and unsure as we all were, we made it work. Without all of us working in the ways we did, the grrrls we have worked with since the first year would have never known what the three R’s mean to them. Thank you all for taking the risk as a team.

 

To my fellow NoVA coleaders: Gabrielle Saliba- without your guidance my first year of coleading, I would be so lost. Thank you for mentoring me through that transition and being supportive and gently correcting me when I made mistakes. The friendship we have made through our DC explorations together means so much to me, and I am so grateful for you and your love. Tasneem Grace Tewogbola- Thank you for being both a mentor and a mentee, a dance partner and director, a co-worker and a friend. Experiencing my first co-director and co-choreographer job with you (for the Capital Fringe, no less) was an absolute joy, a stressful joy, but one regardless. I’m so grateful for our teamwork and how well we balance each other; I am so happy that I can call you my friend.

 

To the NoVA grrrls: You all have such a special place in my heart. Each of you, whether you have been in the program one year or all three, you all continue to teach me such important life lessons: how to be a good leader; how to listen to an issue without the purpose of fixing it for you; but probably most importantly is how to love and believe in someone unconditionally. Thank you for looking up to me as a mentor, but I want you to know that you all are also mentors and teachers to me in your own ways.

 

Now that I have shown gratitude to everyone who is part of the initial process, I want to thank those who support the GRRRLs outside of the circle.

 

To the family/friends/fans who come to the shows: Sharing any writing publically is scary, but sharing very personal writing on stage is terrifying. Thank you for coming in with an open mind: a mind ready to listen, learn, cry, and giggle. Thank you for being the silent head nodders the “Ooooo yes, girl!” in the crowd. Thank you for your appreciation notes, your hugs, your words of shared experiences. Thank you for helping each grrrl feel a little less alone in her journey.

 

To the donors: Without your fiscal contributions to this program, my life and the lives of many others would be drastically different. I would not have the friendship, the compassion, the opportunities that I have gained from this amazing program. It is because of you, and your belief in ALAG and the future of teenage girls, that I have become who I am today. Thank you for any donation you have ever or will ever make to Act Like A GRRRL, whether it’s one dollar or upward of one-thousand. Your donations have shown teenage girls the potential they have, given them hope for the future, and the confidence to strive toward their goals. Your dollars and cents have given me the courage to try and achieve every wild career idea I have ever come up with; given me the friendships that have taught me compassion and acceptance; and given me  the confidence and tools to publically thank everyone who has gotten me this point in my life.

 

Every word of gratitude comes from the deepest part of my soul. Without this community of people, I would not be the Jenna Stotts I am today. I don’t know who I would be, but I don’t think I want to meet that version of myself. Because of all of you I am a more balanced, compassionate, and outspoken version of myself. A version that twelve year old Jenna never knew existed.

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