This year The Girlhood Project ran its first weekend retreat, an entirely new experience for new and returning members alike. The initial intention behind adding the weekend to the class was that it would allow more weekdays to be devoted to the core of the project: the girls’ groups. But that turned out not to be its only benefit. The new environment gave us the opportunity to bond with each other in a new way. When I first took this course I got to know my peers quite well, during class, but mostly during the girls groups themselves. I, like many other participants, formed friendships that I will forever be grateful for. The addition of the weekend retreat to the Girlhood, Identity & Girl Culture class allowed the college students to get to know each other outside of a traditional academic setting before we began working with the middle schoolers, and I believe that having the chance to form these connections will dramatically increase the confidence with which we all enter into the girls’ groups themselves.
The weekend retreat began Friday evening. Guest speakers Diana Direiter and Cherita Cloy led a discussion on group process, which morphed after about an hour into a debate over the intersectional benefits of the recent women’s march. Rarely have I been lucky enough to enjoy the company of so many passionate, intelligent, and well spoken people at the same time. Before arriving on Friday I knew to expect to be blown away by my friends and colleagues, but I did not anticipate being so engaged that I wouldn’t once look at the clock and wonder when I was going to get to go home and sleep. Growing tired as the night went on did not make me restless, as it often does. After our talk as a group we divided into smaller circles, and for the first time the students in the class got a chance to start preparing for what was ahead of them.
Saturday morning we gathered again to discuss readings, and respectful and appropriate use of language, as well as to engage in some self and group exploration focused activities. Everything we did ended up leading into a discussion, which would inevitably inspire another discussion, and eventually get us entirely off-track. In a way it was a good thing that not everything went according to plan; it gave us a chance to see what thinking on your feet planning looked like. Accepting it when plans go off track and adapting are necessary skills to have when you’re working with middle school girls, and this weekend helped to prepare us for that.
Saturday afternoon was the first opportunity that newcomers to the project had to start discussing what kinds of things they wanted to do in girls’ groups. We dedicated time to building an arsenal of simple games and activities, and discussing the potential social merits of each. At the same time we began thinking about the college student / middle schooler dynamic, and how we would go about building trust, figuring out roles, and avoiding the establishment of any kind of hierarchy within our spaces. We thought about how we could bring the safe and positive atmosphere that we were building for each other in class into the spaces that we were going to co-create with the middle school students, while at the same time keeping in mind that the environments would have to be different in certain ways in order for the project to be successful. This led to a conversation about language, and how not all of our words and terms would make sense to use with girls who were younger than us. In past years terms like “self-care”, “safe space”, or “community norms” haven’t had the same meaning for middle schoolers as they’ve had for us, and using them hasn’t always been productive. The conversation about accessibility in language brought us back around to the earlier topic of establishing a group dynamic. We decided one thing that would contribute to a sense of equality in our space would be an equal exchange of information. If we’re going to teach middle school students our lingo, then we have to be open to learning theirs. At the same time if we expect them to share things with us we have to be willing to share things with them.
The focus of our gathering on Sunday was media literacy and body image. We engaged with these topics in a number of hands on and interactive ways, beginning with an attempt at deconstructing harmful media messaging. We analyzed and critiqued beauty standards, noticing especially how they tended to be very white, western, cis-het centric. Women of color who are represented in magazines tend to have their skin lightened. One mention of “African inspired” fashion turned out to mean wearing clothes with animal prints on them. We talked a lot about the moral responsibility of consumers, producers and sharers of media to be aware of the impact that it can have on the social and psychological development of those exposed to its messages. Media plays a role in how we all see the world. It is therefore incredibly important for us all to understand the media that we’re consuming, a process which includes knowing who produces it and what their intentions and beliefs may be, identifying its flaws, acknowledging who it represents, who it doesn’t represent, and who it represents poorly. Being an alert and involved consumer can unfortunately make media engagement less relaxing, and more cognitively taxing. Being an ethically conscious consumer is emotionally exhausting. But I believe that it’s possible to have a positive experience with an inherently, even deeply, flawed piece of media. The key is to absorb, analyze, and understand the potentially damaging messages it’s projecting, and then start consciously filtering them out.
We went a step beyond just trying to understand how to consume existing media more ethically. We began to discuss the importance of women, girls, and other marginalized people constructing or reconstructing their own media, as a means of taking control of their own narratives. This is a process which has become much easier in the age of social media and the internet. These tools give individuals without significant resources a platform to share their creations, making it easier for more people to become producers of media content. But the imbalance of voices being heard is far from gone, and digital formats are not the only ones that need to give more diverse perspectives. The process of creating things physically can be very cathartic. Sunday afternoon, with the aid of Lesley University’s incredible librarians, the Girlhood students began to learn about zines. Zines are obviously just one of many forms of print media, but they are one that has become something of a staple of the Girlhood Project experience, and that have some historical links to social progressivism. Creating one’s own physical product can be an incredibly empowering process. As a group we made a series of pages designed to counter the negative messaging we had looked at earlier in the day, and collected them into a pair of our own feminist zines. By doing this we were also able to observe first hand the merits of incorporating creative outlets into academic environments. The variety of activities that we worked on on Sunday made the day pass quickly. The transitions from sitting to standing, from small groups to big groups, from talking to listening, all served to keep the group alert and engaged.
Over the course of the weekend we began to better understand each others’ backgrounds of knowledge and experiences. I personally have never before had so many close instances of being grateful after hearing someone talk, of hearing one of my classmates say something and then realizing that I felt the same way or was experiencing the same thing and just needed someone else to express it before I could feel at peace with my own thoughts or feelings. I have also never felt such an intense desire to be close to the people around me as I did during this weekend. I believe that having done this will make the rest of this experience going forward even better.
At the end of the weekend brief closing comments and reflections were given by each of the participants. These are some of the sentiments they wanted to share:
“I felt safe doing things here that I don’t feel safe doing other places.”
“Learning about my classmates helps me learn about myself.”
“We had such a good group dynamic. I felt a strong sense of community.”
“The balance of small group work and big group work made me feel very comfortable.”
“One of the only groups that I genuinely like every member of.”
“Well planned, well organized, good variety of activities.”
“This is a highlight (maybe the highlight) of my college experience.”
“I’m often incredibly self conscious around anyone I don’t know, but I feel safe and accepted around the other people here.”
“I feel like I can work on myself while I’m here.”
“I’m so genuinely impressed by everyone here and how we all worked together.”
“I’m so grateful that this weekend was added to this course.”
“This weekend was the missing piece of this class.”
“Oh no! I’m getting emotional.”
“I feel like I don’t always “embrace myself” but I did here.”
“I just want to thank everybody else here.”
“I feel so much pride, and such a sense of accomplishment, and the main part of the class hasn’t even started yet.”
“Worth all the effort.”
“The kind of vulnerability, trust, openness here is so different from any other kind of class environment.”
“I feel empowered.”
“I want everyone here to take care of themselves.”