By Sue Tiffin
Published Feb. 15 2018
Grade 5 students and close friends Maya Johnson Chloe Hartwig Kennedy Gill and Jazmin Smith were struggling.
The girls were experiencing conflict with each other in their friendships that they weren’t finding it easy to resolve. Instead they were feeling stressed and isolated from each other which began impacting their school studies alongside their social life.
An answer it seemed could be found online. Researching with their parents they found the FearlesslyGiRL anti-bullying organization designed to empower girls and break a complicated cycle of girl against girl conflict to bring them closer together.
Their principal at Archie Stouffer Elementary School Jane Austin was enthusiastic and on board with the leadership they were showing to find some resolution to a problem they and their peers were experiencing.
“Instead of giving in to feelings of being mad or angry or frustrated they decided to be the change for all of us” said Austin who said their courage in speaking up about their struggles helped lead to a solution.
And so on Feb. 8 55 girls from Grades 4 to 6 left their classrooms and joined together in the library in a “safe space” with 12 intermediate students Austin and FearlesslyGiRL founder Kate Whitfield.
Whitfield started the girl empowerment organization when she was still in high school herself. She told the group of girls that she had found that “GirlWorld was really crazy complicated” and was distraught enough that her parents encouraged her to speak to her friends.
“The thought of being that open and vulnerable with my friends really scared me” she told the group of students. “I thought they were perfect – they were beautiful faster than me better at math…but I worked up the courage to tell them how I was feeling opened up about my insecurities and the coolest thing happened – they all started agreeing.”
Whitfield told the girls they are exposed to an average of 10.4 hours of media a day – most of the group some as young as nine years old raised their hands when asked if they had a social media account. Whitfield’s discussion of “a mythical unicorn of a girl” had the girls agreeing and sharing what they had seen of girls using filters and posing in specific ways to present their best side online resulting in pressure to be or look a certain way.
“We are taught from such a young age to be perfect to smile to stand a certain way” said Whitfield. She described the FearlesslyGiRL summit as a day “to come together to support each other and redefine the rules of what we’ve been taught about what it means to be a girl. I don’t think those things serve us anymore.”
Groups of girls scattered around the library where after an icebreaker in which they learned more about each other they began opening up about their stresses. Peers in their group commiserated with their feelings some surprised to hear they weren’t alone in how they felt.
“Nobody has given us permission before to talk about our feelings our insecurities” said Whitfield. “When we speak our truth sometimes the value is just in speaking our truth it’s realizing our voice matters.”
Students spoke of feeling anxious every day that people at school would make fun of them about the potential for rumours to spread about workload and pressures from parents and peers to be a certain way.
“Sometimes your friends don’t like you for who you are” said one.
“All the things that happen in one day they all pile up and then you can’t catch up for the rest of the day” said another.
They talked about the need for the boys in their class to stop name calling and to better understand boundaries as well as to not reduce them to stereotypes. The girls also talked about being kinder to each other to understand each other more.
“This generation of girls we really need to blaze this trail and stand up for each other” said Whitfield. “We could really make some big changes.”
“I’m so sad that’s over” Grade 4 student Dana Kehler said to her friends at the end of the half-day program.
“It felt so good to open up to my amazing leaders” the nine-year-old told the Times. “Nothing’s going back now. I don’t think that’s going to change because the girls I was having problems with were in the program with me.”
“All of my fears about being a girl are gone.”