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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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When Megan Barry was prepping for the YWCA’s Mayoral Forum earlier this year, she reached out to me to ask what I thought the biggest challenges were facing adolescent girls in Nashville from the vantage point of my work at Act Like a GRRRL.

 

I thought it was a sign of great leadership: to seek counsel in areas where you are not an expert and to credit those who advise you  (she graciously gave me a shout-out at the forum).  

 

After noting the obvious challenges of sex trafficking, the right to choose when to start a family and pay equity, I turned my focus to self-worth and the pervasiveness of bullying among women and girls.

 

 

 

This is part of what I shared with our now Mayor Megan Barry:

 

 

What I see as the biggest issue facing the teenage girls with whom I work is Girls Knowing Their Worth… and actually Feeling Their Worth in Their Bones. Because:

 

  • When you know your worth, you stand up for yourself.
  • When you believe in your worth, you take the risk to stand up for others.
  • You don’t enjoy humor at another girl’s expense.
  • You don’t choose future-limiting behaviors.
  • You don’t operate from a position of scarcity, as if there is a limited supply of beauty, talent, intelligence that you have to fight for.
  • You can genuinely celebrate someone else’s success because you know it doesn’t steal anything from you.

 

The numbers are staggering:

 

  • 7 in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with family and friends. (Real Girls, Real Pressure: National Report on the State of Self-Esteem, Dove Self-Esteem Fund)

 

  • 1 in 4 girls today fall into a clinical diagnosis – depression, eating disorders, cutting… On top of these, many more report being constantly anxious, sleep deprived, and under significant pressure. (The Triple Bind, Steven Hinshaw)

 

  • By age thirteen, 53% of American girls are “unhappy with their bodies.” This grows to 78% by the time girls reach seventeen. (National Institute on Media and the Family)

 

Bullying is so pervasive. Bullying in school gets talked about a lot. But, the kinds of bullying that most concern me are the subtle forms that girls see enacted by their mothers, teachers, mentors… the kind that passes for normal interaction. The kind that teaches them that:

 

  • it is funny to make fun of and belittle another girl/woman (to be funny is to get attention).
  • trash-talking someone behind their back is the standard way women and girls interact (you can’t trust another women/girl).
  • competitive slurs are a sign that you are “driven” or “success-oriented” (we reward survival of the fittest).
  • you are really “doing a favor” when you point out someone is fat, ugly, acne-prone, out-of-fashion (someone had to tell them).

 

These are the subtle behaviors that lead girls to doubt their worth because they are getting the message repeatedly that they are not enough: not smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, popular enough.

 

If we really want to stop bullying, mothers need to stop trash-talking other mothers (or themselves) to their children. We need to stop using conflict as a means of attention-getting. When all that parents have to report at the end of the day is who-did-what-to-them, kids learn that’s what life looks like.

 

“You can’t be what you can’t see” is a guiding mantra for us at Act Like a GRRRL. Most of our grrrls tell us that ALAG is the first place in their life where they have seen adult women modeling real friendship: supportive, not competitive, interested in each other’s success.

 

When I tell them that “Act Like a GRRRL can be the sisterhood you’ve always dreamed of,” and ask them to describe what that means to them, they always describe a place where they can be fully themselves without fear of being made fun of, cut down, sabotaged, judged or discredited. Then, they say they don’t believe it is possible because they have never seen girls or women behave this way.

 

That truth is terrifying to me: that girls rarely have examples of healthy female friendships. Without trusted friends, girls are much more likely to participate in self-sabotaging behaviors like risky sex and drug abuse or self-harming behaviors like cutting and disordered eating. When the future looks like an adulthood full of more-of-the-same, there becomes little reason to try or care.

 

As parents, leaders, sisters, mothers, we are in the unique position to embody what collaboration and encouragement and solidarity among women looks like. Girls rarely become what they don’t have an example for.

 

At Act Like a GRRRL, we believe in the concept of “both/and.” You can be both smart and beautiful, competitive and compassionate, strong and kind. Adolescence is  “either/or” territory. Girls often feel they have to pick one and lose the other. As I watch GRRRLS come into their power and trust their ability to create the world they want to live in, I see them naturally choose to be both kind to others and fierce in their opposition to bullies; both wicked smart and super silly; both beautiful and tough; but, always confident of their intrinsic worth.

 

Act Like a GRRRL has a great track record. In our 12 year history, there is no reported drug use, truancy or unwanted pregnancy among our participants. There is a reported increase in self-worth, academic excellence, intolerance for bullying and improved relationships with family and friends. Most importantly, our participants report a huge increase in hope for the future. They know their worth. They feel it in their bones.

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