I was fortunate to grow up in a family where giving back to others was part of how we saw the world. My dad is an Episcopal priest and my mom has had the harder job of being the spouse of an Episcopal priest. Together, they were humanitarians and activists.
Mom volunteered with gravely ill children and dad volunteered as a teacher at a school for inner city kids. My brother, sister, and I knew from an early age that our parents had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement when they were younger. We watched them befriend and fight for people with AIDS when doing so was not popular at all. We saw them counsel people who needed help. We saw them open our home to their friends who needed a safe place to be. I’m grateful for that upbringing. And I’m also grateful that they showed us to lead this kind of life with a good sense of humor. That makes trying to do the right thing, no matter how unpopular, not hurt so much. That was how we saw the world we were growing into.
Smart Girls at the Party was an idea that came out of my childhood and more. Amy Poehler and I knew that we wanted to help girls going through the same years we’d had to go through, so we drew on our experiences from that time. Once we got going, I realized that I would need lots more than just my memories. Our own experiences would not be enough. That’s when I started doing as much research as I could to better inform myself. I learned all I could about how young girls develop emotionally, intellectually, and socially. I wanted to be able to give them solid information that would truly help. I wish I had known more of this stuff when I was young. Of course, that would have required me to cut down on Duran Duran time, and that was probably not going to happen.
I am keenly interested in the lives of young girls, but it is equally important to remember the obvious; young girls grow into women with the same tough questions. Do we come out of adolescence in tact, or do we drag some of it along with us? It is never too late to give ourselves the same resources and encouragement that we hope to offer to the girls going through this pivotal time now. There’s still a young girl in each of us.
After being involved in the lives of young girls, as a mentor for them at school, and in our work with Smart Girls at the Party, I can see my own life changing. I have a deeper sense of connectedness now. When you learn more about people it almost always gives you a broader sense of the world; makes it broader and more complex. It gives your world more imagination. And even more, I have found that relating to the life of a young girl somehow helps me know more deeply the 15-year-old girl I was and partly still am. It gives me perspectives on my own life, even if that wasn’t what I was seeking. Imagine that.
How can we give back in this particular context? One way is to do what we try to do on Smart Girls. We hold conversations instead of giving lectures. Nobody gets talked down to with us. The girls know that we genuinely respect them. More importantly, we don’t tell them that they have to be the very best at something. We are interested in them because of just who they are right now. An encouraging environment can lead to some pretty amazing things. The basic message is to just keep trying things on for size because experience itself leads to a richer life and a deeper sense of self.
We know we are swimming upstream with this. The loudest voices in the culture tell us mostly that we have to act and look certain ways to be happy. The Smart Girls environment attempts to guide viewers to exploration and discovery instead. We say: “Find something that makes you feel most yourself – then come tell us about it”.
Giving back begins with being your self. So go explore, play and discover. At Smart Girls, we “celebrate individuals who are changing the world by being themselves.” You really do change the world for the better just by being yourself. Treat yourself like a smart girl!
2012 Pennsylvania Conference for Women speaker Meredith Walker is producer and co-creator of “Smart Girls at the Party.”