“Mom, you have to do something.”
That was how this journey started ten years ago. I was in my kitchen talking to my 12- year old son about some of the misadventures of his friends in middle school. He was sharing his thoughts on the young girls’ behaviors and was particularly concerned about their crash of confidence and their exploits into risky adventures. At the time I was working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) running leadership workshops for Supervisory Intelligence Analysts. After some research and thought, I reached out to our elementary school counselor and suggested we could take what I was doing with the Bureau and shape the lessons on communication, values, and motivation into workshops that could supply the girls with skills, tips, and tricks as they headed into their tween years. Since research clearly shows that girls struggle with their self-esteem after the age of nine, my goal was to get affirmation and skills to the girls to lift them and disrupt the messages that were causing them to lose confidence. As a career Army Officer and combat veteran with 21 years of active duty service I feel very connected to the quote by Tom Peters that, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”
The program started small. We gave our first group of 24 fourth and fifth grade girls four workshops to teach them how to make a good first impression and how to deal with bullying behaviors, and to explore concepts like empathy and values-based decision making. The program was welcomed by educators, parents, and the students alike and soon word of our work spread. Parents appreciated the reinforcement of positive leadership skills and the girls loved the time together building their strengths. Since our humble beginnings, we have added more workshops. Currently, our program works with fourth, fifth, and sixth grade girls offering a total of 15 workshops and two special event opportunities. Girl Smarts, as we came to call ourselves, has spread to 23 campuses, offers summers camps, and has connected with other youth programs to reach over 4,000 attendees since our initial workshops in 2009. We routinely work with 300-500 new students a year.
Girl Smarts is a combination of hands on activities coupled with classroom presentations. We work as an after-school program and, when possible, offer programs during school to support the girls. The workshop series works best when we are connected with a school sponsor from either the administration, counseling department, or teaching staff. We charge tuition for the series, but this program is not about making money; it is about making a difference. The beauty of Girl Smarts is our ability to replicate our results based on our set lesson plans and training program for our facilitators. We encourage our facilitators to incorporate their own experiences into the workshops however, the core messages, lessons, and skills are woven throughout the presentation. Our facilitators are as committed to “their girls” as I am. We create a relationship that allows for tiered mentoring at different ages. Middle school girls come to talk about the transition into the middle school; high school girls facilitate “Minute Mentoring” where the girls transition from one table to the next to talk about the reality of being a teen; and women leaders are a part of our leadership panel where we “Ask a Woman Who Knows”.
The success stories of the program are many and have solidified our confidence that we are in the right places doing the right things. Recently, ILA member Chrys Egan, a communications professor at Salisbury University in Maryland, posted on the International Leadership Association (ILA) message boards about her program for middle school girls. We connected to do a presentation this past June at the ILA Women and Leadership conference at 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley, California. As I participated in the sessions before ours I heard repeatedly about the need to present confidence and leadership skills early. That task is exactly what Girl Smarts is doing. Our program looks at the research and we turn it into practical exercises to benefit the girls. If you are interested in working with Girl Smarts and perhaps conducting workshops at your local elementary schools, feel free to reach out to me using the email below. The work is rewarding, energizing, exhausting, and emotional. With those challenges in mind, my team and I can and will continue our work to grow strong, confident women throughout Virginia and, with your help, around the world.
Dianna L. Flett
FB: Girl Smarts LLC