Girls, rising

IMG_0515On Thursday afternoons, Kelsey Martin ’12, MAT ’13 leads a women’s empowerment group in which she and 20 participants dissect the pitfalls and pressures of womanhood, muse on meaningful quotations, and expose their deepest feelings and fears.

On Friday mornings, the participants go back to being second and third graders and Martin goes back to being their teacher.

Martin, who’s in her third year of teaching at a public charter school in Houston, Texas, started Rise Like a Girl last year because she wanted to give students “the tools they need to lead powerful and successful lives.” Despite its members’ ages, the group tackles weighty issues: gender roles and equality, body image, insecurities, female empowerment, self-esteem, the importance of having a voice.

“I wanted this club to be more mature than what you would expect from 8-year-olds,” says Martin. Conversations can range from what the girls see on TV and online—“women’s as bodies rather than minds”—to standing up to boys on the playground who insist girls can’t play soccer. “Those things really do affect the girls,” says Martin.

It’s familiar ground for Martin, who says she felt unsure of herself growing up: “I always felt very less than. As girls we’re subconsciously told not to stand out, not to be heard as often.”

She found her voice at TCNJ while completing a double major in education and women’s and gender studies, and later a master’s in teaching. It was also during this time that she became passionate about empowering girls while they’re still young.

Many of Martin’s students come from low-income homes and male-dominated cultures in which the dads typically make the decisions and the moms defer. “There’s nothing wrong with that if everyone is happy,” says Martin. “But there is also another way, and that’s something I want my girls to know.”

She wants to spread that message to girls beyond her school, and is currently writing a 20-week curriculum that teachers and community leaders can use to launch their own versions of Rise Like a Girl.

Parents can get in on the effort too, says Martin, by giving their kids options. Don’t assume your daughter will hate football and love the color pink; give her space to explore and express herself. Then, says Martin, “Let her fly with that.”

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