Teresa Kelly and Kerry Anne Ridley sat at the front row of Girls Empowerment Network’s We Are Girls Conference in November. Girls and their parents filled the gym at Austin High. Girls joined conga lines weaving around the gym to the tunes of girl power anthems. It was early on a Saturday morning, but they were pumped up about being a girl.
Kelly and Ridley were surrounded by the next generation of girls who would be empowered by the Austin-based nonprofit organization they and other like-minded women started 20 years before.
It was overwhelming for Kelly and Ridley. They hugged. They cried. And they shared big smiles.
GEN strengthens girls through after-school clubs, workshops in schools, summer camps and the We Are Girls Conference. It has grown from a gathering of moms in Kelly’s house to an organization that reaches 15,000 people a year across Texas.
It began with a book
In 1996, Kelly read Mary Pipher’s book “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls” and was horrified. “It knocked me backwards,” she says.
The book talks about how girls begin losing their “true selves” in middle school in favor of fitting in, becoming what media messages say they “should be” and not who they are.
“When girls do this, the book described how they often turn inward, become depressed, start cutting on themselves and go on to make poor life choices,” Kelly said.
At the time, Kelly’s daughter Kate was 10, but it wasn’t just Kate she was concerned about. Kelly was a Girl Scout troop leader of girls who were 9- and 10-year-olds and had confidence. “Girls at this age are so brave, loud and utterly themselves,” Kelly said. “The thought of losing that crushed me.”
She thought, “Not my daughter — not anyone’s daughter,” she says.
There had to be something she could do.
She invited about a dozen other moms to read the book and come to her house for a discussion. At that first meeting, the women talked about the book. “The more we talked, the more depressed we got.” They met the next week and the following week. Kelly’s background was as a newspaper reporter, not a child psychologist. She realized they needed more help.
She contacted Renée Spencer, who was then a local psychologist with an expertise in adolescent girls.
That April, calling themselves “Some Moms of Daughters in the Westbank,” they invited parents to come to a workshop at Hill Country Middle School led by Spencer about what was happening to girls.
More than 100 people showed up. “She talked for an hour,” Kelly says of that event. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Kelly remembers Spencer’s specific point that “girls lose themselves in adolescence and regain themselves in middle age.”
The interest level told Kelly that they were onto something, and it couldn’t end with a one-school talk.
“We began educating ourselves and working with our own daughters,” Kelly said. “But we couldn’t leave it at that. We wanted to share what we learned.”
That year, Spencer helped Kelly organize a series of mother-daughter skill-building retreats that were a combination of fun activities and consciousness raising. “We got moms and girls talking with one another,” Spencer says.
Tate Janek, who is now 30, was one of those early girls and designed the Ophelia Project logo. “I loved it,” she says of the workshops. She loved being with different girls and “embracing being a woman and spending time with my mom.”
She wishes it had been more established at the time. “It was so grass-roots,” she says. “One of the things that was challenging to me was explaining to friends what it was to get them excited about it.”
These pioneering moms called their movement the Ophelia Project. One by one, more women started coming forward to help launch a new nonprofit organization to empower girls.
Across town, different people were starting to do other small programs around girls and self-esteem. Ridley was working at West Ridge Middle School, where she had started an arts and crafts group for girls where they could come after school and talk about what they were feeling without any pressure.
“I would find the teachable moment … around the feelings they were feeling,” she says.
She, too, was affected by reading “Reviving Ophelia.” “As a parent, it was terrifying reading that book and thinking what could happen with my daughter and other young women.”
Ridley saw the power in joining forces with Kelly and combining their efforts. She also brought past experience of having started a nonprofit organization 20 years before — a battered women’s shelter in Bellingham, Wash.
At Canyon Vista Middle School, math teacher Debbie Rodell had started a girls’ club. She had witnessed a girl in the hallway becoming uncomfortable as a boy tried to hug her.
“I remember being that girl,” Rodell says. “I thought, ‘She needs words and she needs power and somebody to tell her that it’s OK to be uncomfortable and it’s OK to say no.’”
Rodell’s club was made of 10 very different girls who didn’t hang around one another but whom teachers had identified as being a good fit for the club. “I wanted some girls that were leaders, and I wanted some girls like that girl in the hallway that were vulnerable and shy,” Rodell said.
After getting parents’ permission, the club started. These girls bonded and became friends.
“It was a very special club,” Rodell says. “It was invite-only. It became like everybody wanted in. I remember boys sitting outside the doors and wanting to be part of it because they heard about it.”
Rodell head about what Kelly was doing. She got Kelly’s number and began expanding on the girls’ clubs idea.
Rodell and a fellow teacher, Traci Swanstrom, began developing curriculum and going to teachers, counselors and principals at other schools to pitch starting a girls’ club there. Their curriculum gained national attention, and some of it is still used by the ClubGEN groups in 21 middle schools and elementary schools in Central Texas today.
Not everyone who joined forces with the Ophelia Project was the mother of a girl. Kim Soechting had a son going to Hill Country Middle School when she saw the flier for the “Reviving Ophelia” discussion with Spencer.
She was a volleyball coach for a select team and saw her girls having lots of issues with body image and needing to find a voice about who they are. “I wanted each girl to find whatever works for them to empower themselves,” Soechting says.
Growing Ophelia Project
“We didn’t start out wanting to be an organization, but we knew that’s what it would take,” Kelly said. They called it The Ophelia Project.
Soechting got to work establishing Project Ophelia as a nonprofit. They set up a board with Kelly working as the volunteer executive director and Soechting as the development director, Ridley as the board chair, and Rodell as a board member. They recruited others.
Within six months, they had established a speakers series that included seven other middle schools, and participation by counselors, principals and area psychologists.
Every time they faced a new challenge, “the right woman appeared at the right time,” Kelly says. They got connected to former Gov. Ann Richards, who agreed to be a keynote speaker at their first big conference in April 1997. She waived her $25,000 speaking fee for them. More than 900 mothers and daughters showed up.
Richards spoke about girl power and told the story of being in high school and being on the basketball team. She felt uncomfortable in her uniform. One boy screamed, “Hey, Bird Legs.” “It just cratered her,” Kelly says. “She became self-conscious about her body to that day. The memory of that hurt.”
In a letter to Kelly following the event, Richards wrote: “You are onto something important. You have touched a tender chord with all women and girls. I am happy to help you in any way I can.”
Soechting says the Ann Richards speech really brought them to the next level. “All the way up to the event, people came out of the woodwork,” she says.
That November, they invited author Mary Pipher to speak. Now they were moving into a new realm. They had to raise the money for her $13,000 speaking fee. “We had no money,” Soechting says. “What are we doing here? We’re putting ourselves out on a ledge financially. Teresa said maybe we should stop. Oh, let’s just do it! It went over fabulously.”
They partnered with the Texas Psychology Association to share her fees.
They got sponsors and organized house parties to spread the word about what they were doing. MeriBen Ramsey and the Austin Community Foundation came on board to handle funds and help guide them in the early days of becoming a nonprofit. By then, they were in 17 middle schools throughout Central Texas and still growing.
By 2000, the familiarity of the book “Reviving Ophelia” had begun to wane, and they needed to get to the next level. Milkshake media headed by Kat Jones developed pro bono the brand Girls Empowerment Network, or GENAustin but as services have expanded, they just became GEN.
Many of the volunteers who had taken on what amounted to another part-time or full-time job were getting burned out. It also was time to bring the clubs, the workshops and the speakers series to another level and hire an executive director. Ridley says she feels like “a true pioneer,” “but we really needed to take it from a volunteer organization to a well-funded brand.”
It was a big step to be able to raise enough money to fund that executive director position, Ridley says. “It’s easy to forget how hard it was to raise that money,” she says.
Girls served on the committee to choose the first executive director, Anita Mennucci, who served about seven years before current Executive Director Julia Cuba Lewis was hired in 2006.
“What GEN is today is beyond this initial group of parents forming these support groups and having speakers,” Ridley says. “It’s because of these amazing executive directors and getting really strong board members that it has grown into what it is.”
When Cuba Lewis joined, they had an office, but it was in a portion of the wood shop classroom at Fulmore Middle School. “When I first came, I showed up at our office … a kid was making a boat with a saw. I was confused. Then I saw a few smiling faces.” Staff members handed her a laptop, and they went to work at a 6-foot banquet table.
She remembers having a meeting there with a donor. The doors to the shop room were open to the outside and a fly landed on her cheek. The donor told her, “I’m going to grant you this because you have got to get out of here,” Cuba Lewis says.
At the time the Ann Richards School was opening and found space in a portable for GEN. They have continued to grow and now are in an office building off Interstate 35.
Cuba Lewis has watched GEN grow from that shop class in Austin to programs that are now reaching to Houston. Each year, the We Are Girls conference brings in about 2,000 people in Austin in the fall and 1,600 in Houston in the spring. Girls come from all over Texas to attend.
The reach of ClubGEN has also grown as grants made it possible to reach more low-income schools; the clubs are now in the Austin, Hays, Del Valle, Manor and San Marcos school districts. GEN gets requests all the time, especially from the Houston area, to start clubs there.
GEN also started the 180 Program in 2011 after a judge was tired of seeing girls come through his courtroom with the same problems: teen pregnancy, truancy, running away, etc. These are girls who are part of the juvenile justice system or are in danger of becoming part of it. Now there are 180 groups in schools as well as one-day workshops. It’s the program Cuba Lewis is most proud of. “We know that the girl who comes six times or more has lower school discipline problems, lower truancy,” she says. “They get coping skills for something that happening to them at home. They find a future for themselves.”
In summer, GEN offers a Pathfinder camp to help high school girls develop personal and professional leadership skills, and for girls in fourth through eighth grade, a weeklong CampGEN is all about developing confidence.
Cuba Lewis says GEN has set its sights on growing. “It’s definitely in our dream statement to go to another state, to see the organization skyrocket to the national level.”
When Kelly and some of the other founders came for a visit to tell the staff and current board the origin story 20 years later, “our mouths were hanging open,” Cuba Lewis says. “It still feels so true. What they were saying was that nothing has changed.”
Of course, “the change is the growth of the organization and the number of girls we’ve been able to touch and graduate into the real world,” Cuba Lewis says.
Spencer, who continues to study gender issues as a professor and chair of the Human Behavior Department at Boston University, says many of the problems in “Reviving Ophelia” remain. The difference is that girls are achieving more than ever before and now believe they can shape the future for themselves. “The perfect girl has morphed into Supergirl,” Spencer says. They have to now be the best at everything, she says. “The best soccer player, the best student. And it all has to be done with a smile on their face. The pressure on them to do more, to have more, is exceedingly high.”
When Spencer reflects on the group she saw in its infancy, she says, “They were an incredibly forward-thinking group of women. They did not just say, ‘That’s not going to happen to my girl.’ The real strength is that they said, ‘What can we do?’”
Girls Empowerment Network
3000 S. Interstate 35, Suite 400
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