The Girlhood Project

The Girlhood Project brings together middle school girls and Lesley student mentors to examine issues of identity, body image, and media culture.

In two large classrooms on the Lesley University campus, 20 middle school girls from the Port area of Cambridge scoop Jamaican chicken stew and rice pilaf onto paper plates, talking animatedly as hip hop music pulses in the background. They’re gathering for a weekly session of the Girlhood Project, led by Lesley undergraduate students.

The Girlhood Project brings together adolescent girls, many of whom come from low-income, single parent, and immigrant families, with Lesley students to evolve a conversation about identity, body image, media, and relationships. It’s a place where the girls can be completely themselves, without the psychological armor they may need to get through the school day, survive in their neighborhoods, and be strong for their families.

A place where girls’ voices are heard

On this late afternoon, one group settles in to watch music videos that depict women in sexually provocative poses. Afterward, prompted by questions from the Lesley students, the girls will dissect the videos, looking at the ways women are objectified and also at how some female performers flaunt their sexuality to sell music. Later, the girls will create their own (decidedly less racy) music video.

The other group embarks on a completely different activity. The girls are asked to respond to confrontational statements about race, such as “All white people are racist,” and decide whether or not they agree, and explain why. Hands go up; nearly everyone is eager to speak. Hallie Guare '17, one of the Lesley students, deftly directs traffic and makes sure no one is left out of the discussion. Each girl is acknowledged and each view is respected.

Moving between the two rooms, Professor Amy Rutstein-Riley observes from the sidelines, her face mirroring the girls’ expressions as they talk. She nods enthusiastically as the girls struggle with, and succeed in, articulating their thoughts about body image and race—issues that schools usually won’t touch, even though these issues impact girls’ school experiences and social lives. The Girlhood Project “isn’t explicitly about improving grades or helping girls assert themselves in relationships,” she says. “It’s about being heard.”

She started the Girlhood Project in 2008 as a service-learning component to the undergraduate sociology course, Women in Culture and Society. After recognizing that girlhood scholarship needed its own course, she developed Girlhood, Identity, and Girl Culture. Her students, who generally came from middle class backgrounds, had no real exposure to girl culture as it was lived in communities with a different racial and socioeconomic composition from their own. At the same time, Cambridge’s middle schools were full of girls growing up in underserved neighborhoods practically in Lesley’s backyard. The Girlhood Project, in collaboration with community partner Tutoring Plus of Cambridge, has given both groups the opportunity to learn from, and know, each other.

In the project, Lesley students develop and implement a 7-week program for the middle school girls that employs a feminist group-process model. This approach does away with the traditional academic hierarchy of teacher and student. As Professor Rutstein-Riley describes it, “We’re not here to fix or teach. We’re here to co-construct knowledge.” In practice, this means that the Lesley students ask lots of questions to draw out responses from the girls, but they leave them to reach their own conclusions. “It never works to tell people what to think,” she says.

Building comfort and trust

Watching these young women interact, it’s difficult to believe that they’ve only been together for five Tuesday evenings. “We’re like a family,” says Vilmari Gonzalez, a high school senior who has participated in all eight years of the Girlhood Project’s existence, first as a middle school student and then as a high school peer mentor. “You really get to know people because of what we talk about each week. You see girls come out of their shells.”

The girls have bonded not only with one another but also with the Lesley students. Kate Elmes ’13, who took the class as a college sophomore and went on to become a teaching assistant and then project manager, marvels at the level of comfort and trust that is built over the seven weeks. “I never expected to feel as close to the girls as I did. It was a powerful experience,” she says. Kate has carried her passion for community, along with her social activism, into her career. She currently works in fundraising for the Island Institute, a community development nonprofit in mid-coast Maine and is a 2014 graduate and board member of Emerge Maine, an organization that trains women to run for office. 

“I never expected to feel as close to the girls as I did. It was a powerful experience.”
Kate Elmes ’13

Back in the classroom, in the group discussing music videos, a middle school girl is talking about Miley Cyrus’s transition from her tame “Hannah Montana” character to tongue-flicking party-girl twerker. A Lesley student asks whether anyone has known a girl who changed like Miley. A girl shakes her head dismissively. “I wouldn’t have friends like that.” When asked about the twerking, she rolls her eyes and says, “Miley doesn’t know how to twerk. It’s about the butt. Hers isn’t big enough.” Laughter erupts. The girls conclude that the Miley in the video is just for show; that she’s trying too hard to be a bad girl. They don’t buy it.

Across the hall, the girls wrestle with the statement about racism. Several people describe how, as white people, they believe whites are products of a culture of institutionalized racism, which has been around since the nation’s founding. “We breathe it in, it’s all around us, like pollution,” a college student says. Heads nod. One of the students points out that everyone has moments when they make racist comments or assumptions, adding, “I want to live higher than that.”

It’s these kinds of discussions, and the insights they engender, that make the project so exciting for the girls and college students involved. In this space, their aspirations and expectations are given room to grow, with impressive results. All three of the high school senior peer mentors are college bound—the first in their families to attend. Their confidence is palpable. They agree that they now have the skills to lead girls’ groups of their own, and that they want to continue their involvement in girls’ issues
at college.

Inside the classroom once more, the music video filming has devolved into rowdy and ecstatic silliness. The girls parade around in capes and party hats or form a teetering human pyramid. Everyone is trying to be heard at once. For all the serious talk of body image and racism, they are, for now, enjoying just being girls.