Talking about Girls’ Leadership with Lyn Mikel Brown

In her concession speech after the 2016 Presidential election, Hillary Clinton ended by speaking directly to young girls: “…to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”  The statement was touching but in another sense it was bitter pill for many Clinton supporters, who were recognizing anew that the world so often fails to deliver what girls and women “deserve.”  Thankfully, while we have to live in that world, the scholar and activist Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., has written a new toolkit for adults who want to support girls in fighting to create the world that they–and all of us–truly do deserve.  Ma’yan’s Associate Director, Beth Cooper Benjamin, spoke with Lyn by email about the book and how adults can show up for and with the girls in their lives.


  1. You’ve been studying and working with girls for decades now, but most of your writing has been for a more scholarly audience. What made you decide to write a book specifically about the practice—the “how”—of supporting girls?  And why now?

My goal has always been to engage in what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire calls informed action– translating theory and academic research into effective practice. I co-founded a grassroots nonprofit, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and an on-line girl-fueled activist organization, SPARK Movement, to do just that. So I’m a researcher who is also a feminist educator and activist—I need my work to make life better for the girls I listen to and work with.

I’ve been teaching many of these ideas for years. I decided to write them all down after a series of troubling conversations with women who saw Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, as a model for girls’ leadership programming. It seemed like the same old same old to me—another round of programs designed to fix or blame girls for their circumstances rather than encourage them to critically examine and challenge the oppressive environments that undermine them. Leaning in to flawed systems might very well land girls at a table with the likes of alleged sexual harasser, former Fox CEO Roger Ailes. I knew that the work of girl activists in transformative girl-fueled organizations, like SPARK, like Ma’yan, offered a very different way forward and I wanted to support it—and offer the chance for girls and women doing this work to articulate it.

  1. How do you hope that this book will be used?

I hope people running girl-serving organizations, schools, and mentoring programs will read the book and give it to their staff members and interns as a guide to working in genuine partnership with girls. I hope the book opens up conversations between girls and women about what it means to work together, across generations, to create the world we want.

  1. In Powered by Girl you write about the importance of intergenerational activist work—adults of different ages partnering with girls in collaborative and mutually-beneficial struggle. Forming those relationships sometimes feels easier between girls and women who are closer in age and share more cultural markers. I’ve noticed personally that when the age gap increases the same strategies for connection no longer work. As someone who has been working with girls for decades now, what are the most important things you’ve learned about how to connect with youth when you’re no longer positioned as a peer or older sister?

I’ve learned to ask girls questions and really listen to their responses. I don’t assume we use language in the same way or that we have a set of shared experiences. I’ve learned the hard way not to assume I’m the expert in the room. The larger the age gap between me and the girls I’m working with, the more likely I am to represent someone who has overridden their choices or betrayed them in some way. Loyalty is not something I can take for granted; it’s something I have to prove. “There are different kinds of fidelity,” Jeanette Winterson writes in her coming-of-age novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, “but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side, then being on somebody else’s.” I listen for opportunities to assure girls I hear them, that I take them seriously, that I mean what I say. I make sure to keep my promises. I step back to allow girls to step up and make their own decisions and their own mistakes. Unlike my undergraduate students who work with girls, I have to prove we have things in common, that I care about what they think and that I’m someone they can express strong feelings to without feeling judged. Connections take longer, but in my experience they are no less valuable or important to girls.

  1. I was reminded recently of Gloria Steinem’s line, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” In Ma’yan’s work on the RTI (Research Training Intensive), we talk a lot about the necessity of helping girls to confront the realities of sexism and other oppression, but the process of confronting that reality is painful in itself. For example, we’ve watched Killing Us Softly with RTI participants and seen how it sharpens their analysis of sexism.  But we also see how the impact of watching can be pernicious—much the way Jessica Valenti describes the cumulative effect on girls and women of being routinely sexualized.  Since your work with girls includes a lot of pop culture analysis and protest, how do you think about that tension?  How do you decide whether a product of sexist/racist/homophobic culture is important and valuable for girls to engage with vs. limiting the impact from repeated exposure to media messages?

Girls usually lead the way when it comes to deciding which products we talk about or engage with. I want to know what’s in their world—what’s confusing and troubling, as well as what they like and why.

I trust that the process of developing a critical vocabulary and critical consciousness about sexist/racist/homophobic culture lessens its hold on us and mitigates the negative impact. I trust that doing so in the company of other people who, themselves, are struggling to analyze and critique, gives us support and courage and opens up the possibility for new and different choices and responses. When we are challenging assumptions and stereotypes, we are undoing not adding to the accumulative effects, lessening not increasing the hold. In fact, I think unpacking and analyzing the negative stuff girls are exposed is the only way to undo its harmful impact.

  1. You note in Powered By Girl that engaging in activist work with girls requires, by definition, “an admission by women that we’ve botched some things and that they may be in a position to do better.” I find this so true and so painful.  In the RTI we teach my colleague, Pippi Kessler’s golden rule: “Never blame any woman for the choices she makes to survive under patriarchy,” because individual choices always have to be understood in their structural and cultural context.  In our educational and activist work with girls, how can we honor both these truths: that in our lives we make choices that can make things more difficult for the sisters who follow us; and that the options available to us are constrained by living under oppressive structures and expectations?

First of all, I love that golden rule!

I think both truths you present derive from our struggle with oppressive structures. The goal of the work we all do is to make the workings of power and privilege more transparent, so we can appreciate how they impact us and work to divide us. How we do this with girls is tricky, however. Adults too often think we can just explain things or simply warn girls of potential danger. We forget that we experience the world–and gauge danger—differently. We forget that we came to understand things through a series of lived experiences. We have to balance our desire to protect girls from hurt or unfairness with their need to figure things out and learn from personal experience. Our job is not to impart our hard-earned wisdom but to provide spaces and opportunities for girls to struggle and sort things through. I think of this work as scaffolding—we offer support when needed, but it’s temporary. We know what, how, and when to offer because we are in honest relationship.

  1. Ma’yan works primarily with youth who may experience oppression as girls and as Jews, but who also tend to come to us with significant racial and class privilege. Do you see particular challenges and/or opportunities in supporting the activism of girls who hold a lot of structural privilege in other domains?  Are there particular strategies you find effective (or that you try to avoid) in working with this population?

It’s the nature of privilege, of course, not to see all the ways the road is smoothed out for us simply because of who we are, all the advantages conferred, all the problems we don’t have. It’s a challenge to do this work with girls who hold a lot of structural privilege because exposing this reality can make them feel defensive or guilty. I like discussing the use of privilege in A Class Divided, a 1970 video of former 3rd grade teacher Jane Elliott’s brown eyed, blue eyed exercise, in part because the distance between my students’ lives and the children in the video—both in age and historical moment–makes the conversation easier, more open. Moving from there to an activity used by Peggy McIntosh, author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which people identify and discuss with one another all the ways they do or do not have privilege works well. This opens the door for a more complex discussion about how our identities are intersectional. I think whatever strategies we use, the goal is to move to a place where we can interrupt privilege in our daily lives and in our work.

Colby Committed Headshot from February, 2015

Colby Committed Headshot from February, 2015

Lyn Mikel Brown has been studying and working with girls for more than twenty-five years. A professor of education and human development at Colby College, she is the author of five previous books about gender and girlhood, and is the cofounder of three grassroots organizations.

Click here to purchase Lyn’s new book!

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