By Daniel W. Hatcher, MPH, director of community partnerships, Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
Active kids learn better, but did you know that girls today are far less likely than boys to achieve the recommended amounts of physical activity? Healthier Generation’s #GirlsAre campaign is a nationwide effort to inspire a new generation of strong, active, and healthy girls.
There is a role for everyone in the campaign and we invite you to be a #GirlsAre champion. Whether being part of a team or feeling a sense of accomplishment and hearing encouraging words from an adult ally, all children should experience the social, emotional, and physical benefits of physical activity and sports.
To inspire you to champion equity in physical activity, especially as we head into summer, I reached out to five friends who represent important voices in community health. I asked each of them for advice on creating positive environments and programs for girls. I hope their perspectives give you encouragement this summer and throughout the year.
To set the stage, my first question was for Jessy Newman, senior researcher with the American Institutes for Research.
From wellness to social and emotional learning, why is it essential to create environments that positively impact girls?
Let’s be real: girls and women continue to face persistent barriers to education, opportunities in the workforce, and economic independence. What really strikes me is that societally influenced perceptions can limit girls’ feelings of self-worth, success in school, and access to and achievement in more male-dominated subjects and professions. Research shows that girls experience more external threats than males: more bullying and relational aggression, more pressures that result in a higher rate of intended suicide, and more violence. When you consider all of that – how much of a toll just being a female can take on our mental and physical health and well-being – the need to create safe and supportive spaces for girls becomes especially clear. Girls need environments where it is okay to be vulnerable enough to develop new skills (from sports to STEM) and forge strong relationships. When we create restorative environments supported by strong mentors and role models, characterized by a sense of belonging and underscored by strong adult-youth relationships, girls thrive.
Bringing research to life can seem daunting, so my second question was for Allison Colman, program manager with National Recreation and Park Association.
As you support thousands of community leaders across the country in committing to health, what advice do you have for encouraging positive female role modeling? What small steps would you recommend?
Girls often look to the women in their lives—their caregivers, teachers, coaches, peers or afterschool leaders—as their role models. They look for cues on how to act, how to lead, what they should value, and the future they should envision for themselves. When we lead with confidence, assertiveness, and follow our own voice, it sets a positive example for girls, other youth, and even our adult peers. Every child needs a role model; afterschool professionals are often thrust into that role. It’s a natural part of youth development, right? So, start with yourself: be confident, have pride in what you do and who you are, speak up and share your voice (you never know who is listening), take time to listen to others (and really listen when they share), have empathy, and lift up others that may not be able to do it themselves.
Thinking about tangible resources, my third question was for Erin Hogeboom, director of strategic partnerships with National Girls Collaborative Project.
How can we encourage positive female role models and lift up stories of female mentors?
Positive women mentors are incredibly important in the work that we do at the National Girls Collaborative Project: encouraging girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Just hear it from our National Champions Board member, Jennifer Behrens, whose career transition into cybersecurity “was not without its hurdles and obstacles… in an industry dominated by men, [her] guideposts became a collection of impressive, strong, dynamic women.” Perhaps one of the best ways to encourage role modeling is to offer women pathways and the support to do so. Becoming a FabFem is a great way for women to ease into becoming a role model by simply sharing her background or becoming a mentor and indicating the level of participation with which she is comfortable. Given that these women are donating their time, it is also important that mentors and role models are empowered with the tools to reach girls in a meaningful way. We have a variety of training resources located on our website that we encourage mentors and role models to check out prior to sharing their story to make sure it is as effective as possible!
It takes all of us working together and often there are structural issues, in addition to training, that need to be addressed to foster equity. My fourth question was for my teammate Amira Resnick, strategic partnership manager with Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
What’s the role of partnering with the business community for addressing gender equity and health? What have you seen work across the country and where you live?
I’ve been most inspired by some examples of innovative social enterprises in Los Angeles, including LA Kitchen and Homeboy Industries, which work with community members across gender, age, and other characteristics or barriers to deploy exciting solutions for community health and well-being. Both rely on numerous partnerships with community organizations and businesses to create new opportunities and have their own unique business models to make it happen. The opportunity for community organizations to collaborate with businesses to build equitable communities is great and relies on us to develop our understanding of business values and priorities to create a common language and identify shared goals.
So, how do we find those shared goals? Where do we start? As Allison shared, building bridges across sectors starts with each of us. My final questions were for Brittany Adelman, healthy initiatives manager with the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs.
As we celebrate #GirlsAre, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 10-year-old self?
If I could go back in time, I would tell my 10-year old self that “healthy” is not an external appearance. It is a result of finding balance between the foods that fuel your body, the exercise that energizes your brain, and the life that is created when the two interact in synch. I would also tell my 10-year-old self that contrary to popular belief, having muscles does not make you any less of a woman.
Who inspired you to become a champion for wellness and health equity?
When my dad was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes several years ago, my devastation turned into an even greater passion for health and wellness as I embarked upon a journey to help “heal him” through nutrition and physical activity. I started cooking for my family in high school as I began to disguise the tastes of broccoli and asparagus with an array of spices and flavors to create something palatable that even the pickiest of eaters (my dad) would enjoy. I would encourage him to go for walks outside and always tried to get the family involved in physical activity. Helping my dad find his health, in its imperfect form, allowed me to recognize that I was meant to spend the rest of my life helping others find theirs and I won’t stop until health is universal and equitable for all.
Consider asking yourself and maybe a friend the question I asked Brittany; what advice would you give your 10-year old self? Share your conversations on social media using #GirlsAre. How can each of us use our own experiences, both positive and negative, to create environments where all children can thrive physically and mentally? Who else in our communities can be part of that journey?
Thank you to Jessy, Allison, Erin, Amira, and Brittany for sharing their insights and for the work their organizations do year-round. I encourage readers to visit their websites to access even more resources to champion equity and community health.
To learn more about #GirlsAre, visit https://www.healthiergeneration.org/girlsare/.
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