Set Your Soul on Fire

Mother and daughter


On a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon this past fall, a sizable group of preteen and teenage girls and their moms gathered on the lawn beside Copley Library. Helping themselves to yoga mats, they launched into a series of stretches and poses led by a purposeful and poised high school sophomore, who, at age 15, is already a certified yoga instructor.

Her presence at an event aimed at inspiring girls to gain confidence and become leaders spoke for itself. She’s already a leader and wants other girls to know they can be, too. Grow Great Girls — the program that staged the workshop — was born at the School of Leadership and Education Sciences, the brainchild of Lorri Sulpizio, PhD, director of the Leadership Institute and founder and director of the Center for Women’s Leadership.

A longtime college and high school basketball coach, Sulpizio was already interested in personal development when her research led her to girls’ empowerment. “This piece around girls and women finding their voices and finding the courage to accomplish their goals, that just resonated,” she says. “Especially in a world that still has a lot of gender bias and continues to present a lot of obstacles for girls and women.”

mother and daughterSulpizio found an eager partner in Ashley Adams BA ’10 — now a leadership studies master’s student — who was looking for an internship project. A bubbly and energetic force of optimism, Adams grew up among brothers, and says she only realized in hindsight that she had suppressed her spirit because she was a girl.

”On some level, I felt I couldn’t be as loud, as boisterous as my brothers were,” Adams says. “I wondered what I could have done in the past 25 years, had I not been so bogged down by my own fears and anxiety.”

Together, she and Sulpizio developed a strategy and assembled a team of other students and outside consultants. Their first event — a daylong leadership experience in August — attracted an overflow crowd of mothers and daughters, despite having no marketing budget and no official publicity campaign. Its success convinced them they were onto something important.

“I think the way we teach our girls, and the way society molds them, does not foster the confidence to lead them to do whatever they want to do,” Adams says. “Leadership is something that comes from the inside. We want girls to learn how to empower themselves.”

The mother-daughter relationship was a good place to start, Adams says, because mothers act as natural role models and can be consistent sources of support. But only if the lines of communication are clear and free of conflict. That can be especially challenging as girls approach the teenage years.

Brooke Henderson, 14, was skeptical when her mother, Frances, urged her to attend the August conference with her. But by the end of the day, she was convinced. “It was good, really good,” she says with a wide smile. “I think it made me more open to talking to my mom about stuff. Before I was scared she wasn’t going to listen. Now I feel like she definitely understands more.”

Frances became emotional as she recalled one of the exercises, where the girls and their mothers each made a list of things they liked about the other. She was surprised to learn that Brooke admired qualities about her that she didn’t think she’d recognized. And she was further surprised that both their lists included many of the same words. “For example, she said I was kind,” Frances remembers. “I think she’s kind, but I didn’t know she saw me that way. I think she’s funny. She thought I was funny.”

Brooke also opened up about the social challenges she faces in ninth grade, where girls struggle to fit in among their female and male peers and are often made to feel like they’re not good enough. “If we’re not good enough to make a team, or we’re not pretty enough to have a boyfriend, or stuff like that. That’s the big thing right now,” she says, adding that the conference helped her share feelings with Frances she hadn’t felt like she could share before. “I think she might have learned that I’m not so comfortable with my body because I don’t like to talk about it,” she said. “She’s definitely more in tune with what I’m thinking.”

Now, when she’s having a bad day, Brooke says her mother is more likely to be forgiving and give her some space. And Brooke has learned techniques including affirmations that remind her she is good enough. That’s critical in a society where — as the past fall’s bruising election campaign made clear — girls and women are still constantly given the message that they are not.

The facts illuminate what some researchers call a stalled revolution. Women comprise more than one-half of the U.S. population, earning nearly 60 percent of all undergraduate and master’s degrees. They earn nearly one-half of all medical degrees and law degrees.

But while women account for nearly one-half the country’s labor force, their presence in leadership roles is scant. A mere five percent of CEOs at S&P 500 companies are women. The boards of those companies are only 20 percent female. At the nation’s law firms, only one in five women is a partner. In higher education, women hold only about one-third of full professorships, and only one in four college presidents is a woman. In legislatures across the country, women continue to be vastly outnumbered.

The wage gap persists as well. In a recent report, the World Economic Forum found that instead of narrowing, economic divergence actually widened over the past several decades. According to their recent Global Gender Gap report, women can now expect to wait another 170 years before they attain wage parity with men.

mother and daughter“If girls get a message that they aren’t good leaders or aren’t valued for their leadership, they are more likely to opt out,” says Lori Watson, PhD, chair of USD’s philosophy department and former director of the gender studies program. “Especially in the preteen group, where girls who assert themselves can be seen as bitchy or bossy. In that vulnerable age of wanting peer acceptance, girls may shy away from leadership to avoid gender stereotypes that don’t attach to boys in the same way.”

Grow Great Girls aims to address that societal message with an approach that gives girls the room to express themselves in a safe and accepting environment, while considering the idea of leadership in a unique way. “We don’t see leadership as something that you are,” Sulpizio says. “We see it as something that you do. Anybody can do it. We take away the role piece, so you can be a leader without being a manager or a CEO.”

At the October workshop, yoga was followed by a session about goals and aspirations. As the participants shared their ideas, a slideshow at the front of the room featured a series of inspirational quotes. “Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire” and “be who you are, not what the world wants you to be,” were among them.

In one group, Holly Evans and her daughter Emily, 13, shared goals and some giggles. “I’m going through a kind of career transition and I thought it would be neat to involve her as I start a new trajectory,” Holly says. The two had come from Riverside to attend the event, and both said they were happy they did.

“I figured out some goals for the future, like traveling the world and having horses,” Emily added. “And she showed me her goals. I feel closer to her. We can help each other achieve our goals and we can be more of a team.”

The program has shown so much promise that Sulpizio and Adams and their band of volunteers are taking it on the road, conducting workshops in schools involving girls and boys.

”I think this is a program that could really launch the name of the Leadership Institute and the Center for Women’s Leadership as well,” Adams predicts. “We had to cut off registration at our first event. That showed me there really is a need for this.”

The need may well be greater now, after an election in which the country’s first female major-party candidate lost to a man whose campaign was dogged by charges of sexism and xenophobia.

“The effects of the election on young girls and their future empowerment depends on how the current messages that demean women are mediated,” says Michelle Camacho, professor of sociology and special assistant to the provost. “The history of civil rights for women and marginalized groups is characterized by active resistance to social injustice. My hope is that we galvanize in young women our potential to mobilize against biases, racism and sexism.”

Against that backdrop, and with Grow Great Girls already well on its way, Lorri Sulpizio has made funding a priority. She’s confident she’ll find supporters who’ll want to help build a model that can be used nationwide. Her goals may sound lofty, but her message to young girls is beautifully simple.

“Get to know your story,” she urges. “Understand it. Then you can write your own ending.” — Karen Gross

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