Looking back on 2015

It’s time. We raise the volume of our little white stereo, blasting Katy Perry’s latest musical sensation, we straighten our matching blue shirts, and on “1, 2, 3…” we swing open the doors with exuberant, smiling faces.

“Hello, ladies! Come on in!”

Thirty middle-school girls find themselves ushered into our summer classroom -- a space filled with white easel pads, sharpies, colorful post-its, and ribbons. Some turn toward each other in whispers and nervous giggles. Others immediately tap our shoulders, asking where they should place their bag, water bottle, and sweater. A few linger behind, ending a seemingly difficult conversation with their mothers and stomp into the room begrudgingly. In the corner, we see one girl dressed in dark, baggy clothing, leaning against the wall with her eyes glued to her phone. One girl is chatting with someone about a third of her height, while another one braids her friend’s hair, batting fake eyelashes as she laughs. Welcome to middle school.

“Can we get a raise of hands? Who knows why they’re here today? What this workshop is all about?”

Sometimes, hands shoot into the air, and we look into a sea of enthusiasm and eager eyes. Other times, we see crossed arms and skeptical faces. Either way, we’re here on a mission -- we have two and a half hours to give these girls the confidence to become leaders, the inspiration to bring positive change to their community, and the tools to start bringing their mission statements to life, starting today.

Coaching leadership workshops for middle-school girls across the country was one of the most rewarding but challenging experiences we’ve ever had. We each brought diverse backgrounds and skillsets in the teaching profession, ranging from summer camp counseling, to working with low-income youth at third-world educational institutions, to researching human behavioral phenomena that apply to the middle-school age range. Even so, we quickly discovered on the road that there were still so many areas in which we could grow -- as teammates, as leaders and teachers, and as young women seeking to understand and empower the middle school girls that we all used to be at one point.

Fourteen weeks, over 1200 middle school girls, 32 states, and countless diverse communities later, we’re back in the Bay Area and excited to share with you 6 key insights that we’ve picked up along the way. Hopefully, some of these learning points will help you effectively connect with younger generations of women, too.

OUR TOP 6 INSIGHTS

1. Every girl takes turns being "the leader."

Many girls come from learning environments where the first hand raised to volunteer, is the hand chosen to read aloud to the rest of the class. In these cases, where the leader is self-selecting, everyone else must default to becoming the follower. Over time, there lies the risk that girls learn to identify themselves in all circumstances -- academic, social, athletic, etc. -- in a binary way, as either the “kind of person that leads” or the “kind of person that follows.” We can work to break this norm in ways that make each girls’ leadership mandatory. For example, an activity is never done until every girl has read aloud, stepped into the improv circle, or shared her mission statement. And no matter how loud or quiet each girl might seem, give all girls equal attention and energy. They all have things to add to the workshop -- some just might be naturally more open than others to share!

2. Sometimes, all you need to build a community is a creative team name.

At the beginning of every workshop, we split the girls into teams of 3-5 and then divided ourselves amongst them, so that we could each closely mentor one specific group. To break the ice, each team then came up with a silly team name. From the “Periwinkle Polka-dotted Tigers” to the “Bubbly Rainbow Panda-dogs,” each team name was designed by the entire team’s goofiness and creativity. The most important part of the process was not coming up with the name, however -- it was continuously referring to it throughout the workshop. “C’mon, panda-dogs! We got this!” “Tigers, let me hear you ‘rawwr’!” The more actively and directly we integrated their team names into the workshop experience, the more our teams bonded, laughed, and collaborated with each other.

3. everything the girls say is important.

Sometimes, girls just want to be heard. Whether they’re telling you about their favorite ice-cream shop down the street, why they’re Team Jacob instead of Team Edward for Twilight, or that one time they read a book all about dolphin habitats, the fact that they want you to know means that they’re looking for ways to connect. Just about any way you can help a middle-school girl feel her voice heard is a good one, and it will likely open even more doors for your friendship to grow.

4. girls look up to you to set the tone.

Is this funny? Serious? Sad? Important to remember? Based on how you both articulate yourself and react to what else is being said or done, you’ll be surprised by how naturally the girls will follow. Don’t forget that you are the emotional steering wheel for any given moment, activity, or conversation! 

Another good trick is to try to directly engage with at least one girl in the audience as often as possible - there are endless opportunities, even in these quick interactions, to help make them shine or positively reinforce their contributions. Being engaged also means equally sharing your energy and attention between girls who might bring a spectrum of enthusiasm to the workshop. For example, while it might initially feel easier to be excited about teaching a girl who is already extremely engaged, some of the most rewarding teaching moments derive from showing that same enthusiasm to girls that appear shier or more withdrawn from the group.

5. give girls a reason to show or tell you that they're good at something.

Beneath many girls’ insecurities (especially at the middle-school age) about their intelligence, popularity, or beauty, there lies the inherent need to be loved, valued, heard, and recognized. Giving girls opportunities to share their skills with you -- better yet, showing how much you admire them and encouraging them to compliment each other as well -- boosts their confidence in beautiful ways.

6. To connect with middle-school girls, first connect with your own middle-school self.

If you want young girls and students to feel comfortable being themselves around you, one of the best (and often times, most fun!) approaches can be unleashing your own goofiness on their level. For many of our workshops, we would kick things off by setting expectations and norms for our time together, where we would mention the "Cool Card."

"Everyone has one -- you guys do, your parents do, and we do, too -- and we know it especially comes out when we're meeting new people for the first time. But for this workshop today, we're all going to rip up our "Cool Cards" together."

Beyond being silly with the girls, it was helpful to bring up common examples, language / slang, and cultural references that would resonate with them. Finally, getting on the same page and connecting with girls even included sharing some of our own middle school experiences -- the good, the bad, and everything in between.

 

WHERE WE ARE NOW

It's been a few months since we returned to the Bay, and as a team, we've each found ourselves moving in exciting but different paths.

Natalya is living in San Francisco and working as a Business Analyst. Katie is finishing up her senior year in Product Design Engineering at Stanford. Rachel is living in Palo Alto and working at a global software enterprise company while launching a venture on eyewear design and manufacturing on the side. Jenna is in Seattle working in design education technology.

But our summer experience is living on for us, in more ways than one:

As a full team, we'll be presenting at the SXSWEdu Conference this upcoming March in Austin, Texas, in our workshop entitled, "Empowering Girls to Design a Better Future." We're also collaborating with community leaders to develop a scalable and accessible version of our workshop curriculum that can be shared nationwide (RV or no RV!) for years to come.

Thank you for all of your support and love over the past year, whether as a Kickstarter backer, community partner, corporate sponsor, design mentor, RV-decorator, middle school girl attendee, family host, or even just a friend sending prayers from afar that we'd travel safely along the way :) This list of 6 key insights barely scratches the surface of the incredible growth and learning we've experienced throughout our journey, and none of it would have ever been possible without all of you!

With love,

the Girls

Scared by Choice

Looking into the future is often times like peering into a well of darkness — an incomprehensible, intangible blur — until you notice a single, dimly lit path. You can’t see exactly where it leads, but you can tell it’s straight and safe. There are faint shadows of other people around, taking this path. They are standing, walking, seemingly doing well. Perhaps, you wonder, if you belong on this path too.

Growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve found myself confronting a series of social cues — both explicit and implicit — that show me what success in life is supposed to look like.

They show me Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley start-ups; they tell me internship, grad school, tech entrepreneurship. These voices are everywhere, shedding light on a future that’s hard to attain but secure if I have it — a future that’s clearer than most with outlining the steps one might take to get there. And because it’s the path I can most easily decipher, it invites me in.

Unlike opportunities I had found in the past, Girls Driving for a Difference (GDD) didn’t come out of a career fair, an online internship search, a “person who knows a person,” or a well-intentioned inMail message on LinkedIn; it came out of an inspired conversation.

Read more

An article by Katie Kirsch

Finding the Rhythm of our "Life-Space"

Wow, day 14?!

I’m sitting in the back of the RV with my head tipped towards the window, as we take a straight shot on Highway 9 past flat, endless fields of yellowed grass. We just wrapped up our last workshop in Washington and will soon be crossing the border through Idaho and into Montana, where we’ll be staying tonight before our next workshop tomorrow morning.

I’ve lived in California my entire life, but it’s amazing how being on the road this summer makes the entire country feel so intimately close, so accessible. We have everything we need for the next 12 weeks snugly fit inside a 26-foot-long mobile home, and even though we have our visits and workshops all planned out, it still feels like anything could happen.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve fallen into such a rhythm as a team. The night before every workshop, we’re like a well-oiled machine composed of little assembly lines for packing materials into envelopes and pressing stickers and stamps into notebooks. And while our hands are at work, our minds are ticking away on the curriculum — we’re rehearsing our designated leadership section for the workshop in our heads, and chatting about how the upcoming community will be unique from the last.

The hour before every workshop, we’re renovating the space. Whether we're inside a children’s discovery museum, at the headquarters of an early-stage start-up, or at a summer camp facility, we’re dedicated to making each room our own, just for these two hours. Chairs are moved, laminated packets and envelopes are distributed, easel pads are hung in key locations around the room, and the music begins to sound.

But this rhythm that we’ve found as a team falls far beyond the boundary of our work — it encapsulates our personal lives just as well. Our RV is just as much a vehicle for transportation as it is a workspace and a home, and entangling all these areas of our lives has been one of the greatest and most interesting creative challenges that we’ve faced so far as a team.

Before embarking on our road trip this summer, most of us had to interact as teammates first and friends second. We were united by common goals, dreams, and passions — for adventure, for travel, and of course, for using design to make as much impact as we could in the lives of young girls across the nation in 14 weeks. Our work was long and arduous, but completely self-started and motivated. Because of the nature of our focus, it was sometimes hard to find the time and space to invest in each other as friends, too.

Living together on the road means spending time together 24/7. Our RV is truly a “life-space” — it’s where we fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning, laugh, cry, drizzle extra honey on each others’ yogurt and fill up each other’s water bottles to the brim, prep workshop materials, share old family stories while sitting cross-legged on the RV floor, host “team meetings” where we say things like “fridge sticks” and check in on the toilet contaminant, and even sometimes work out. (You’d be surprised.) And immersed in this life-space, the lines between “teammate,” “coworker," “sister,” and “friend” have become increasingly blurred, in the best way possible. 

One of the key lessons I’ve learned so far is to always cultivate an honest environment. Each of us has our own unique and personal needs, both in the workplace and at home, and this summer, it’s been critical that we (1) recognize what those needs are, and (2) vocalize our own needs and respect those of others. Much easier said than done, but it’s a learning point that we share as a team.

I never expected to feel this way so quickly — like the past 2 weeks have felt like 2 years, and these three other incredible women that I’m driving with have become the kinds of people that I can’t imagine my life without.

I can already tell that this summer is going to be transformative in beautiful ways for our group… and it's just the beginning :)

Until next time,

Katie

Beginning Reflections on the Road

As we drive our rig through Oregon, I am finally starting to feel a greater sense of purpose as to what our cross-country trip signifies. For most people, they see see four peppy girls in a colorful RV, running leadership workshops with games, activities, and a kid-friendly designed curriculum. Sounds like a blast, and looks like a blast… because, well it is.

However, what people see on the outside is only a small part of what we are actually getting to experience and fulfill. Our workshop is designed to reach a variety of girls from all sorts of backgrounds. One of the first activities of the workshop includes a brainstorm relay where participants write down problems that they see in their hometown, and in the world. The more workshops we run, the more it has become obvious, and in most occasions vocalized by the kids themselves, that the problems being written down are things they have seen, or personally experienced, in a short lifetime of no more than 16 years. Everything from depression, child abuse, drug addiction, death of a loved one, chronic sickness…you name it.

Completing these workshops has been extremely inspirational for our team. The urgency and severity of the problems lead the girls to some of the most beautiful opportunities to be leaders of social change, and to believe in their capabilities as compassionate people. For some girls, it is the first time they felt they took a part in something of greater meaning, which in turn, helped them change their perspective on the future. Our workshops, so far, have been impactful on the girls we work with based on the feedback from organization leads, workshop mentors, and all of our participants. That being said, we still have a significant amount to learn from the middle schoolers we will meet over the next three months.

The beauty of it all is that we are helping create a network of girls that can rely on one another to believe in their missions, and connect with those that seek the same type of encouragement as they make the transition into young adulthood.

- Natalya

A dream come true: Week 1 on the road

 

As Natalya drives our rig out of beautiful Sierra Camp, this morning marks one week of working on the project full time post-graduation. And wow, has it been a week! During the school year, we always joked that our dream would be to have just a few days all together with nothing to focus on but GDD--no other classes to study for, no house events to plan, no group projects to work on or organizations to run, just one another, some amazing middle schoolers, and the open road. Imagine what we could make happen! we’d say wistfully. 

 

Well we finally got our wish, and I think it’s the hardest most of us have ever worked. From creating a new workshop structure to designing and organizing new materials, from vinyl wrapping and painting the RV exterior to decorating and packing the interior, from booking future workshops to running our first five in California (!!), it’s safe to say we accomplished almost as much in the last seven crazy days as we imagined. 

 

Much of what we’ve learned, however, we never could have guessed and can’t quite be summed up in a list. Our teachers have been determined twelve-year-olds, awesome female executives, fathers who graduated from Stanford 20 years ago, energetic camp counselors, and most of all, one another. 

 

Today's drive to Oregon is a long one, but I’m grateful for the moment (or 10 hours) to pause and reflect on those things they’ve taught me, and maybe start dreaming up some new wishes for the next thirteen weeks. This is it!

 

From the backseat,

Jenna 

 

Girls' Day 2015: Jenna's Top 5 Takeaways

Back in mid-February, I bounced with excitement when we were first invited to work with over 100 girls at Boys & Girls’ Club Girls’ Day in April. Then, as the date approached, I started getting a little nervous as we realized what that meant… Our team was accustomed to running two-hour workshops with 15-30 students between the four of us. This time, we would have just 90 minutes, and each of us would be facilitating our own room of about 45 people. My “Ahhh!” of happiness began to take a slightly more anxious tone.

So the GDD team turned to a few trusty design strategies to get prepared:

 

1. Prototype, test, learn, repeat.

We had so many ideas for how to adjust the program to make it work, but we had no idea how they would perform “in the wild” until we tried. After planning our first iteration, we looked to get as close to the final context as possible for testing. So, we ran a small 1.5 hour workshop at the Boys & Girls Club with some 9th graders. We knew what questions we wanted to answer, designed the prototypes as experiments, and paid attention to the answers we observed. Although great challenge solutions and mission statements emerged from the trial workshop, we noticed some huge opportunities for change. We also listened to the extremely helpful feedback from Renee, the Girls’ Day coordinator, and incorporated it into a second test, this time with a Citizen Schools program in San Jose. Even after this trial, we saw the need to go back to the drawing board and rethink several elements before the big day.

 

2. Simplify for quality.

Between the design challenge and the mission statement-writing, our original 2-hour workshop had a lot going on, and even those hours were a squeeze. In order to do justice to any part of the workshop in our constrained time frame, we had to focus in on what was really impactful, cutting everything else. Our final product focused only on applying design thinking to the mission statement construction process, rather than to a separate challenge. The most special parts of the design challenge workshop lived on, but with a much tighter focus.

 

3. Be open to big changes.

This is a hard one, and one I’m most proud of the team for embracing. Over the last 6 months, we had put many hours and ideas into imagining, implementing, and honing our original workshop-- now, we were faced with disassembling it to build something new. At first, we tried to fit the old workshop to new circumstances by making as few and as small changes as possible. The results might have been good enough, but we soon saw that only big changes would lead to something great.

 

4. Get organized.

Precision is not my strong point, but in this challenge, it was essential. With Rachel leading the organization charge, we scheduled out each minute, counted each Post-it, and sorted every material into brightly color-coded envelopes. By show time, the workshop ran (more or less) like a well-oiled machine, allowing each of us to facilitate our own room of girls.

 

5. Ask for help.

Even with all of this preparation, we still knew that the help of friends to facilitate the rooms alongside us would change the game. A huge shout out to Ariela Safira and Megan Kurohara for helping out! Thanks also to Renee Infelise for her continued feedback :)

On the Road: Pilot Trip Day 1!

The first day on the road. Wow, what an incredible experience—the great views while driving, the amazing kids in the workshop, the excitement of our project coming to life and ofcourse, the exponential amount of detailed information needed to drive and live in an RV. Fortunately we were not left to fend completely for ourselves, and had our fearless, spunky, 70 year-old, leader: Pam. Pam, undeniably, helped advise us on everything and anything RV related—which put us all at ease. (Plus she has incredible life stories that are just too good to pass up).  


We knew that the day was going to be jam packed since we were running a workshop at the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose. I was second to get behind the wheel and all I could think was…How in the world am I going to maneuver this behemoth of a vehicle? I buckled in to the driver’s seat right before we hit the highway, and as I started to drive realized… wow, driving the RV wasn’t much different than the soccer mom van I drove at home. Whew! From there on out, I drove onwards thinking about what we were going to name our new motor home. (I’m still taking suggestions!)

The workshop at the Children’s Museum was quite different from our other prototypes because one, it was held in an open door amphitheater, and two, it was an open workshop meaning that we did not know the background of the girls in attendance. As usual the workshop was a ton of fun, and we were consistently watching for opportunities and ways to improve for our next one on Monday.

When we got back into the RV to drive to our first campsite, all of us were pretty drained (note: DRINK WATER WHEN TEACHING IN THE SUN FOR 2 HOURS) and our chatting had noticeably decreased. I took the time to look out the window in silence and reflect. I noticed that I felt very similar to when I had arrived in Poland the summer after my freshman year to teach English in a foreign village. I realized that we had so much to learn this summer, especially since we were going to have to fend for ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for creating impact and change in the lives of the middle school girls we met—which might be more intimidating than exciting at first.

When we arrived at our campsite in Santa Cruz we learned how to plug-into our campsite, use the generator, turn on the hot water etc. The rest of the night was wonderful because we had a home cooked meal from the RV, and a wonderful debrief of our workshop from earlier in the day. We also made smores, talked as friends, and shared stories with one another. During that time we very quickly learned that I love cleaning in general, Rachel loves organization, Jenna is a pro at night driving, and Katie needs to be snacking at all times. Overall, my parting words from the day: I love these girls so incredibly much and I can’t wait to see what the next three days bring us. From RVentures, to jamming to music, to brainstorming more workshop ideas—bring it on Spring Break <3

- Natalya