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Haviland writing, ALAG Year 1.

Haviland writing, ALAG Year 1.

We always honor beginings. It’s important to remember where we came from in order to articulate where we want to go. As we head into ALAG 2015, I’m thinking about my grrrl, Haviland, who is the reason I started Act Like a GRRRL.

How Act Like a GRRRL Began

When my niece, Haviland, was 12 years old, she shared her poetry with me for the first time. I told her it was good.
“No it isn’t. My teachers say I’m too dark.”
“You’re 12. Of course you’re dark. And, you are a great writer.”
“I think I’d like to be a writer when I grow up. But, I know a woman can’t make a living as a writer. So, I’m going to be a teacher or a secretary.”

I was stunned. This was 2004. For my niece to think these were her only career options horrified me. Don’t get me wrong; teacher and secretary are both excellent career paths, but for an intelligent young girl to believe that those were her only choices sent me reeling.

I had to do something. I was in the process of leaving my “day job” to run the theatre company I had co-founded a few years earlier. With more time to focus, could I create an opportunity to blow Haviland’s mind with all the options her future could hold? Could I create a place for Haviland and girls like her to be both dark and light; angry and joyful; little girls and grown women as they journeyed to discover themselves?

Out of those questions, Act Like a GRRRL was born overnight. ALAG is a month-long writing and performance program for girls ages 12-18. The program is augmented with visits from guest artists: empowered adult women living creative lives. The “GRRRLS” write every day and read what they write in our circle, giving each other supportive feedback and encouraging each other to go deeper. The program concludes with a public performance where friends and family witness the GRRRLS in full voice speaking their deepest truths.

We chose the name “Act Like a GRRRL” to reclaim language that is often used as an insult. In our culture, it’s never a compliment to be told you do anything “like a girl.” But a GRRRL is something entirely different! It’s a fresh word that allows each individual to define what those “extra Rs” mean for her: “A GRRRL is ready to take on the universe.” “A GRRRL is a burning fire in the middle of the ocean.” “A GRRRL takes all the hatred in the world
 and smiles as she buries it with all of her truths.” We are also tipping our hat in gratitude to the Riot GRRRL Movement of the 1990s.

The research is clear: 70% of girls believe that they are not pretty enough, smart enough, or popular enough (Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Study on the State of Self-Esteem). At age thirteen, 53% of American girls report that they are “unhappy with their bodies.” This rate grows to 78% by the time girls are seventeen (National Institute on Media and the Family). In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported a “dramatic and huge increase” in suicide rates among young people. Rates for girls ages 10-14 rose most significantly: 76% from the previous year.  Suicide rates among teen girls ages 15-19 shot up 32%.

In my experience, the way to connect girls is to remove competition and give them an impossible task that can only be accomplished if they work together. Today’s culture tends to give girls the idea that there is a limited amount of beauty, intelligence and attention in the world, and they have to fight for it. This leaves them feeling separate and alone. Act Like a GRRRL exposes the competition myth as an artificial construction that distracts us from realizing our true potential. When we decide to create our own reality in an intentional way, we get to make our own rules.  We all get to be beautiful, talented and intelligent.  The GRRRLS get to create the “sisterhood” they’ve always longed for.


These young women come from the most diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, but they have two important things in common:

  • they believe in the power of stories to change lives, and
  • they fiercely support each other.

They begin on day one of the program with a blank page. Three weeks later, they have a finished script complete with original monologues, dances and songs through which they take the massive risk of publicly declaring:

This is who I am. This is what I believe. Here is what I worry about. This is what I dream of becoming.

By the end of week four, they have a polished performance in which they each take a turn at being the star of the show. They play to sold-out houses, and the city buzzes about their work for months.

It’s rigorous work.  I run a professional theater company, and I hold these teenage girls to the same standard I demand from professionals. They have never disappointed me. As the lights go down on the final performance, they realize that they have completed a rite of passage. Their truths have been publicly witnessed. They have been heard. They are transformed, and the audience is reminded that it’s never too late to reclaim one’s own potential. I’ve watched it happen many times.

In March, 2011, the GRRRLS performed at the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day in San Jose, Costa Rica.  Act Like a GRRRL had been chosen to be the U.S. representatives for the gala and the only teenage performers. I was a little worried about how their work would be received, but as soon as they took the stage the crowd leaned in, talked back and responded with a deafening standing ovation. Our fellow performers from around the world applauded madly from the wings and embraced the GRRRLS as they ran off stage.

The next day a visual artist from Costa Rica who now lives in Vienna came to us with tears streaming down her face saying that in spite of all the success she’s garnered as an artist, her mother sees her as a failure because she doesn’t have a husband. “I wish I had this program when I was a girl. It would have helped me learn to stand up for myself at a younger age.” She told the GRRRLS that when she becomes a millionaire, she’s going to send them into every school in Costa Rica.  Since then, we’ve conducted a bilingual, multicultural version of the program in Bolivia, a 3-week intensive in Washington, DC.  We’ve created successful versions of the program at the Tennessee Prison for Women, in Metro Nashville Public Schools. The adult women’s version of the program is entering its 5th year of life-changing work.  The message of hope and empowerment is warmly welcomed wherever we go.

What happened to Haviland?  She graduated magna cum laude from Agnes Scott College with a double major in astrophysics and philosophy, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and is now completing her first year of a PhD program in atmospheric chemistry. She was just awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship. A far cry from that girl who thought her only options were teacher and secretary.

This post is updated from a piece that ran in The Feminist Wire in 2012.

Me and Haviland.

Haviland and Vali.

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Three Forrister GRRRLS: Hav, Jen, Vali

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Heather Talley: Why I Give to Act Like a GRRRL10253791_10100555045541128_380644568668952185_n
 
Recently, I found myself in precarious position of being picked (or not picked until the very last rounds as it turned out) for an adult tug-o-war game. As soon as I was in that familiar line å la 7th grade gym class, the feelings of embarrassment and shame and anxiety that once flooded my 11-year old self came back with a force. The experience was a great reminder of how far I’ve come and how far I have left to go.
 
For so many women and girls, our journey is the same. We seek to embody an authentic confidence, to embrace our biggest vision for our lives, and to live in integrity while deeply connected to other girls and women. 
Over the last 15 years, much of my work has focused on research and interventions that improve the lives of women and girls. What astounds me is that when I spend time with the grrrls of ALAG, I don’t see the self-conscious and timid girl of my past. Instead, I see grrrls who already reflect the very best of our selves.

Is Act Like a GRRRL an outreach program for ‘at-risk’ teenage girls?

I get that question A LOT.

As far as I can tell, all teenagers are “at risk” as I understand the term. The dictionary definitions describe pretty much every teenager I’ve ever encountered: at-risk, adj.: “exposed to harm or danger” (yep), “vulnerable, especially to abuse or delinquency” (check).

Regardless of their socio-economic status or the prestige of their high school, teenage girls are exposed to a shocking level of bullying, verbal abuse and illegal behaviors. Private schools don’t change that. Academic magnets don’t change that. Even home schooling doesn’t completely protect them from the harshness of teen culture.

Act Like a GRRRL is a program for *any* teenage girl who wants to think critically about the world in which she lives using writing and performance as tools for personal and social change.

It’s a program for GRRRLS who like to write, GRRRLS who want to be leaders in their communities, who want to better articulate their values and beliefs so that they can be change agents in their schools and communities.

Act Like a GRRRL is successful because girls from a variety of backgrounds come together for a common goal that is far bigger than any of them could accomplish alone. It works because they meet other teenage girls who are very different from themselves. Together they create an environment of tolerance and appreciation of one another’s uniqueness while learning creative writing, songwriting, acting and dancing as well as leadership skills like negotiation, consensus-building and compromise.

They co-create the kind of community they have always longed for. There is nothing more empowering than creating something beautiful and whole born of your imagination and longing.

Act Like a GRRRL is a program that builds resiliency in the young women we serve. Their resiliency is what will keep them from becoming “at risk.”

We can’t change what they will encounter. We can broaden the range of tools they have to respond to what they encounter in an unpredictable world. We can give them hope in their power to co-create community, give voice to their values and change their world for the better.ALAG_silly_2013

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Dylan’s first summer at ALAG

By the time I joined Act Like a GRRRL at 13 years old, I was a first class bully: I was convinced that friendship was a complicated series of manipulations and competition and backstabbing. Throughout my childhood, I had learned from painful embarrassment and keen observation that weakness shown was future ammunition to be used against you. I had been surrounded by toxic groups of girls that were just plain mean, cutting each other down and passing mean notes behind each others backs. I had learned fairly quickly that my early-sprouting breasts and growing baby fat were prime targets for grade school ridicule but a childhood of reading had given me a sharp wit. I could make people laugh; I found it was harder to be cut down when you were the one doing the cutting. It was fun to throw a zing and know I was safe from anyone else’s cruel words in the giggles of my friends. It was nice to have a weaker, common enemy to focus on. Sometimes it makes me really sad to remember mean things I’ve said or done in the past, considering the people I was mean to then are likely the adults I’m friends with now. Sometimes I want to grab myself by the shoulders at 9 or 13 or even 17, give myself a shake and tell myself that it’s OK to stand up to the popular girls at school, it’s okay to be interested in books and writing stories and listening to the Ramones. It’s okay to be kind and vulnerable and defenseless.

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Co-leaders Dylan and Kamilah with Vali, June 2013

Act Like a GRRRL was a fresh start. The year after my first summer I began the surprising habit of squashing gossip in its tracks. Physically removing myself from places where I would be tempted to gossip, stopping myself mid-sentence and apologizing for whatever mean thing had began to come out of my mouth. I began writing. I had always been writing; my entire life, but Act Like a Grrrl was the first time my writing had been encouraged beyond just a hobby I scribbled away at when I was alone in my room. For the first time I was a Writer with a capital W. I was so invigorated with my writing that I began a personal journal and I haven’t quit since. The more I believed myself to be a writer, the more I wrote, the more I wrote, the better writer I became. Out of all the beautiful gifts ALAG has given me, the confidence to pursue my writing is the most important. I am currently working toward my BA in Creative Writing and hope to continue my education with an MFA in the future. Act Like a Grrrl was a gift to me. I spent four years as a participant and have worked as a co-leader for the past three, and it has been a true joy to pass that gift onto other girls. I love to see the transformation from the small, shy girls that enter the program at the beginning of the month to the bold, gorgeous young women that take their final bow at the end. There aren’t many places in our society that make space for girls or their stories. We need more people to say, “Wait! Everybody listen, this girls got something to say! This is important.” Before I had someone do that for me, I thought I had nothing to say. The less power I thought I had, the less I believed in myself. It was so simple yet so deeply complicated. I feel honored to help girls recognize their potential through Act Like a GRRRL, it is a program that I hold very close to my heart.

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Olaomi Amoloku

GRRRL Hero, Goddess and Healer

 

What is your favorite word?

Epiphany

What is your least favorite word?

Bitch

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

wide open sunny space

What turns you off?

body odor

What is your go to self care strategy?

sea salt bath

What idea most changed your life?

the fact that god was originally a woman

Who is one of your grrrl heroes? Why?

audre lorde…she was led by her desires 

Reveal one thing about yourself that people would never know from looking at you.

 I’m extremely shy

I am both sensual and nerdy.

A GRRRRL is the source of life.

ImageKAMILAH AJAMU
 
 
 

Original GRRRL, ALAG Co-Leader, Old Soul, Burrito Expert, Elk Face Maker
 
 
 
 
 
What is your favorite word? CRISP
What is your least favorite word? I have 2: Haberdashery, and dangling (subject to change.)
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? The ocean, getting and giving hugs from the people that I love, reggae music, dancing
What turns you off? male chauvinist behaviors
What is your go to self care strategy?  Getting to the ocean! Traveling, taking hot baths, and laughing on the phone for hours
What idea most changed your life? Witnessing the birth of my little brother gave me the idea that I could help bring new life into the world.
Who is one of your grrrl heroes? Why? My mother. Because she has been the only constant force in my life since I was born. She’s extremely wise, and she inspires me everyday. Also Vali Forrister. Cause she was my mom in a past life, and never lets me forget it. ❤️
Reveal one thing about yourself that people would never know from looking at you. My road rage is something to be feared.
I am both sensitive and cutthroat.
A GRRRRL is always unapologetically herself.

ImageFIONA PRINE

GRRRL Advocate,  Friend, Vagina Warrior, Thistle Farmer

What is your favorite word?
We

What is your least favorite word?
Fine

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Tears – all kinds of tears.

What turns you off?
People who don’t love children.

What is your go to self care strategy?
Alone, all alone…

What idea most changed your life?
That wine does not always help.

Who is one of your grrrl heroes?
Carol Burnett

Why?
Is there another??  

Reveal one thing about yourself that people would never know from looking at you.
My knees are weird.

I am both deadly serious and extraordinarily silly.
A GRRRRL is wild funny quiet strong tender and precious.