A Summer Camp Empowering Girls To Run The World

We were thrilled when Bustle named Girls Leadership one of 7 Summer Camps Empowering Girls That You Should Support (Or Attend). Our beloved ropes course even made the cover photo! And they got it mostly right:

On the surface, Girls Leadership looks like your average summer camp full of outdoor fun. But the popular camp digs deep into the minds of teenage girls by focusing on their confidence, communication, and relationship skills. Girls Leadership also focuses on conflict resolution workshops to show these teens what to do when confrontation arises. By the end of the camp, these girls are ready to take risks and stand up for themselves (and others).

Yup, that’s what our Summer Overnight Program is all about!

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There are also parent/daughter workshops that work with campers to strengthen their familial relationships.

Super close! Parent and Daughter workshops take place throughout the school year. Summers are all about camp.

Girls Leadership is offered in California, Colorado, New Jersey, and New York.

Got to give this one a Mostly True. Summer Overnight is in Massachusetts. In these states we offer Summer Day Camps for grades 4/5.

It felt so great to be featured alongside those empowering camps, but I wanted to tell the longer story about the summer camp formerly known as Girls Leadership Institute. So I interviewed our Cofounders, Rachel Simmons and Simone Marean.

First, a little #tbt:

DP: What inspired you to start a summer camp for girls?

RS: I fell into it, to be honest. I was doing research for Odd Girl Out, my first book, and looking for opportunities to spend time with girls. I was asked to work at a girls’ leadership summer camp outside Washington, DC, and I jumped at the chance. I had no idea at the time that I’d fall in love with living with girls over the summer. There’s nothing like the intensity and possibility of what girls and young women can do together — and I was blown away by how we all grew, summer after summer.

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SM: I was also teaching at two all-girls schools when I met Rachel– one private and one public. Sometimes it was hard to be creative in a school environment because of schedules, testing, sports, and parents. At camp anything is possible. I went to camp growing up too, so I had experienced the impact of an immersive residential experience myself.

DP: Do you think building everyday leadership skills is different for girls?

SM: I think that in general girls are under more pressure than guys to please other people, like parents, teachers, friends, romantic interests. There is a big expectation on girls even in pre-school to be part of a group, belong and fit in. Those cultural expectations, which are HIGHLY rewarded, can made it hard for many girls to learn to create change. If you are making other people happy then you aren’t asking them for what you need, or disagreeing with them, or letting them know when they’ve upset you. I think it can be hard for many girls, not all girls, to get practice at leadership when they are more rewarded for fitting in, going with the flow, and being liked. Too many girls are punished for speaking up recoil from even the idea of leadership.

RS: The research shows that girls experience a profound loss of self-esteem as they approach adolescence. They’re also more likely to turn inward, keeping their strongest thoughts and feelings to themselves. And as Simone has said, messages from our culture about what it means to be a “good girl” are largely to blame.

When we talk about leadership, we’re really talking about this: do you know what you think and feel? Can you say it, and take yourself seriously? Can you deal with constructive criticism and bounce back, and can you manage a conflict with grace and move on? These leadership skills are muscles, and they only grow when they’re flexed. When girls actively avoid, or aren’t given, opportunities to lead, those muscles atrophy. So we’re trying to give girls some of those chances they may have missed — to speak up, take risks, fail and be okay with it, deal with criticism, and experiment with ways of being and living and speaking that they may have missed because of these cultural pressures.

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DP: How/ Why did the camp evolve from being for high school girls and now is for middle school girls too?

SM: We were for high school girls only until 2003. I think two things made us turn to middle school: 1) Our participants had little sisters and they wanted in, and 2) the challenges that many of our high school girls faced started in middle school. If middle school is where so many girls struggle to hold onto their confidence and their voice, then why wait?

RS: I always say that if the zombies come, I’m putting in with middle school girls. They’re going to figure out how to solve that problem. So that’s basically why. I just really love them. Okay, what Simone said, too.

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DP: How is feminism taught/ presented/ experienced at GL’s Summer Program?

RS: Feminism is the belief that women are entitled to the same economic, political, social and civil rights as men. Beyond that, feminism asks us to consider the ways others — especially marginalized groups — are treated, and to raise our voices where theirs cannot be heard. We hope every parent wants that for their daughter, too.

SM: Well said!

DP: How are confidence, courage, and learning to fail incorporated into summer program activities, and how can they be practiced once a girl returns home?

RS: A long, long time ago I read an article about using theater with adolescent girls to empower them. I had zero experience with theater, so I called my oldest friend, who is a professional director, and asked her if she thought I could do it. We had breakfast, she said go for it, and the idea for Girls Leadership’s emphasis on theater was born. Today we use sophisticated educational theater techniques that help girls leave their comfort zones and take healthy risks. We also take girls to high and low ropes exercises, build in opportunities to give and get feedback from peers, and talk explicitly about best practices in failing well.

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DP: How has the Summer Program evolved over the years?

SM: We are always finding ways to add more choices, choices for sports, choices for arts, choices for evening activities, and choices during the weekends. The arts keep growing — first arts projects, and now we have our Arts Festival weekend in both sessions. The high school program is becomes more engaged around leadership in social justice. We are always evolving.

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DP: What would you never change about Summer Program?

RS: Beating your chest like a cave man and yelling FOOD GOOD before you eat. ie, the total silliness factor. We dork out like nobody’s business. One of my favorite quotes is,

“You’re only young once but you can be immature forever.”

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DP: What is your favorite Summer Program memory?

RS: Hard to pick one. One time we all went to an indoor recreation center when it was crazy hot out, and [previous Director of Summer Programs] Julia Loonin and I played 2 on 2 basketball against these 2 teenage boys who didn’t think girls could play — and we beat them. The girls went insane.

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SM: I can’t pick just one — Playing Poop Deck (to learn what this is you have to join a Summer Camp — Day Camp or Overnight) in the rain. It was so fun to be out in the rain with the girls and other staff playing hard.

I also loved the end of our first Arts Festival. For three days the girls practiced an art six hours a day with a professional artist. At the end the group that had been writing songs performed original solos. It was incredible to see both the courage in the girls who sang, with no prior training or classes, and the 85 sisters who supported them with incredible respect and thunderous applause.

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DP: What is your favorite thing to do when you visit Summer Program?

RS: Sit on the couches and the hallways and just hang out with girls. I love watching the friendships form. It’s the best part of what we do.

SM: I love to go to Morning Games in the beautiful dance studios. The games start off sleepy, but slowly get faster, louder, freer. I love when the games aren’t led by adults, but by the high school participants who have been returning for five or six years. You get to a moment when everyone in the room is free from the fear of of what anybody else thinks of them. That is the best. Where else do we feel that free?

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DP: How would you summarize Summer Program in one word?

RS: Exhilarating
SM: Freeing

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