Rosie's Girls: Changing the Story for Girls

Tiffany Bluemle
November 2014

My tenth-grade history student addressed me tentatively in response to a classroom question. "Ms. Bluemle, I may be totally wrong, but . . . " I could barely focus on the rest of her sentence, as I was fixated on its conciliatory beginning. Leslie had been the feistiest of sixth graders, challenging peers and teachers at every turn. She had not apologized for raising her hand. She had never before trailed off in a discussion. But where her voice had once commanded attention, in four years it had been reduced to a near whisper.

I found Leslie's shift, like that of many students at the all-girls school she attended in Manhattan, mystifying — until I stumbled upon a copy of Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, at the time a newly published and runaway best seller on girls' adolescent development (1995). My eyes fell upon a single sentence in the first chapter: "Young girls slowly bury their childhood, put away their independent and imperious selves, and submissively enter adult existence." I was hooked. A few months after the book's release, another teacher and I discovered that Pipher would be leading a summer colloquium; we signed up in a heartbeat, hungry for tools we could use to boost the confidence of the girls in our classrooms.

My colleague, Liz Shayne, arrived at the colloquium fresh from a week-long women's carpentry course in the Berkshires. At some point during the seminar, it dawned on us: Could the tools that we sought as teachers to help students maintain their confidence and sense of selves actually be chop saws and welding torches?

The Rosie's Girls program model was developed by Liz and Rebecca Esch and found a natural home at Vermont Works for Women (VWW), a nonprofit organization based in the Burlington, Vermont, area that helps women and girls recognize their potential through education and vocational training programs, with an eye toward excelling in work that leads to economic independence. In the summer of 2000, VWW welcomed 18 adolescent girls to its pilot session of Rosie's Girls, a three-week "trades exploration" program for middle school girls (entering sixth to eighth grades).

Named after Rosie the Riveter, the fictional icon used to recruit thousands of women for factory and shipyard jobs to support U.S. defense efforts during World War II, Rosie's Girls engages campers in three strands of activities that in combination arm girls with a strong and expanded sense of who they are and what they can do with both talent and ambition.

At the heart of all Rosie's Girls programs are the following components:

  • A commitment to working with middle school girls
  • Hands-on exposure to science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), and trades activities
  • Women who work in those fields as instructors (and role models)
  • Creative arts activities that encourage self-expression and foster community building
  • An emphasis on modeling and encouraging supportive relationships among girls and women
  • A critical look at the messages girls receive — in the media, at school, and at home — about what it means to be a girl and a woman.

The Power of Power Tools

Some of the power of the experience for Rosie's Girls campers stems from what Danish psychologist Erik Erikson called an "authentic challenge." Rosie's Girls campers are given real hand-tools and learn how to use real power tools to make real projects. Participants learn to use the tools safely and effectively to create something for themselves or for someone else, and to use their newfound skills to benefit the larger community. The specific projects generated — whether a toolbox to store their own tools or a picnic bench to be donated to a local childcare center — provide girls a chance not only to flex new muscles, but also to gain a sense of accomplishment and pride from doing something that might not be expected of them. These feelings of accomplishment are reinforced when families and friends see what the girls have created and provide them with positive feedback — their toolboxes, picture frames, bookshelves, and benches are tangible reminders of what they have achieved with their own hands.

While carpentry serves as the program centerpiece, Rosie's Girls includes exposure to the tools and skills used in a variety of fields, among them welding, electrical wiring, robotics, coding, fire-fighting, forensics, aviation, neuroscience, renewable energy, and automotive repair. The purpose of structuring a camp around such activities is twofold: learning to handle unfamiliar, even dangerous, tools safely and competently builds confidence; and meeting women who use them as professionals expands a girl's understanding of her personal interests, as well as the wide swath of future work possibilities.

Rosie's Girls doesn't aim to produce the next generation of electricians or engineers, but to impart the sense that they can be those things — and more. Sometimes, however, hands-on exposure to a field can ignite a surprising and enduring passion. Three years ago, Ella Workman, an 11-yearold Rosie's Girls camper from Williston, Vermont, bounded out of the cockpit of a small Cessna that had pulled to a final stop on the tarmac at Burlington International Airport.

"This is beyond insane," she exclaimed to those of us watching. "I don't even know a word for the feeling I had when I was up there." That one flight, seated beside a veteran female pilot who briefly allowed her to take control of the steering wheel, sparked an interest in flying. At 15, she is taking flight lessons working toward her goal of obtaining a pilot's license and intends to continue her training so that she can be a commercial pilot, a job in which women hold just 1 percent of available jobs.

Ella's interest in aviation was prompted by a hands-on experience under the direction of a female professional — a chance and unusual opportunity. Too unusual because what draws most of us to a vocation is exposure to its tools and language and those who love the work. This is especially true for girls, whose role models in many fields — among them, the skilled trades, engineering, automotive technology, aviation, and computer science — are nearly invisible.

Unpacking What It Means to Be a Girl

Woven throughout the program are a number of activities that encourage campers to think critically about the norms and messages that may shape or constrain the choices they make about selecting courses in school, about whether to apply to college, and about future career paths. Girls are also helped to unpack the messages that shape the way they feel about themselves, their peers, and other social relationships. Program activities and games offer a variety of fun opportunities for participants to explore the ways in which our societal norms may reinforce stereotypes or limit choices.

For example, participants explore the ways the words we use can create or reinforce stereotypes (such as the implications of choosing the word "firefighter" instead of "f ireman"); how the messages and images in advertising affect body image, define femininity and female success; and to consider the more subtle messages they may receive from peers, parents, or teachers that (often unintentionally) dampen curiosity or discourage growth. Participants are encouraged and guided to think critically about things they may not have explored, such as a family member's concern that an academic course might be too tough or a sport too dangerous, or a reflexive invitation to a son, but not a daughter, to fix a leaky faucet or change a flat tire.

A recent article in The New York Times (Krueger, 2014) profiled several summer programs, including Rosie's Girls, which ask campers to abstain from commenting on outward appearance in either positive or negative terms. The "no body talk" challenge is an exercise that many campers find initially frustrating. While it's clear why we would want to discourage negative comments about one's own or another's hair or clothing, girls find it harder to grasp the rationale for avoiding positive feedback. Why, we are asked, can we not tell a girl we like her shirt or haircut? The purpose becomes clearer as the days pass and campers become aware of how many of their interactions with girls begin and end with comments about appearance. The exercise brings new awareness to the ways in which all of us, but especially young women, reinforce beauty as a woman's defining value.

The "no body talk" exercise also helps to reframe a girl's sense of what's important in herself and others — determination, pluck, leadership, truth-telling, or compassion, versus physical traits over which girls have little control. "A lot of girls are focused on their appearance . . . ," reflected a recent camper, "so when you take that out right away and you make sure you follow that rule, you create a place where you don't have to worry about it, and everyone can feel comfortable being themselves and not being bullied."

Emphasizing Connection and Community

To encourage campers to stretch beyond what might feel comfortable, Rosie's Girls staff must create an environment that is not just safe physical ly, but emotionally. The phenomenon of peer aggression among girls in school and camp settings is well-documented and its impact significant. These subtle and not-so-subtle efforts by girls to undermine other relationships erode confidence and diminish aspiration.

Rosie's Girls builds and maintains a girl-centered space where teamwork and mutual support permeate, and instances of peer aggression are named and dealt with as teachable moments when they arise. Many campers tell us that Rosie's Girls is the only place they've enjoyed positive relationships with other girls. "Most of my friends are guys," we're often told. "There's less drama."

Rosie's Girls stretches girls not just through trades, arts, and physical activities, but through the challenge of forming a cohesive group, modeling supportive behavior, resolving conflict, and exercising leadership. Like many summer camps, Rosie's Girls employs a number of strategies to build community and provide opportunities for campers to experience and model positive relationships w ith other girls. Projects emphasize teamwork and collaborative decision-making.

Campers develop and sign a "team pact," committing themselves to behaviors that group members believe are important to ensuring emotional and physical safety and everyone's full and meaningful participation and giving staff a set of norms to refer to throughout the session. Rosie's Girls embraces "challenge by choice," a central tenet of adventure education that offers individuals some autonomy in the degree to which they participate in various activities.

Finally, the camp attempts to encourage relationships among all campers and discourage cliques by mixing up groups each day and including group activities aimed at building these relationships. (Refer to the sidebar for a list of additional strategies we use to encourage supportive relationships among campers.)

The combination of these activities leads many girls to tell us they "wish school were more like Rosie's Girls." When asked what they mean, campers are clear: In the words of one recent participant, "Rosie's Girls is the one place I can safely be my totally weird self."

Replication

Fifteen summers since its founding, Rosie's Girls has engaged more than 2,500 girls in 20 locations throughout the U.S., including California, Ohio, South Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. While we didn't anticipate spreading the program beyond Vermont (indeed, we were thrilled to have survived the first summer with all 240 campers' digits intact!), an article featured in Fine Homebuilding caught the attention of Renee Cowhig, then manager for the City of Santa Monica's division of maintenance management. A carpenter in the 70s, Cowhig and Human Services Manager Julie Rusk were intrigued by the program's goals and the potential to empower girls and expose them to good city jobs. By locating the camp "clubhouse" and central activities in the middle of the city's maintenance yards, the program also offered a chance to warm the primarily male municipal workers to emerging efforts to hire women for maintenance positions (and to encourage their daughters to do so as well). Santa Monica's interest pushed the program staff in Vermont to move quickly to develop a written curriculum and recommendations for the successful replication based only on the experience of a single pilot session serving 18 girls.

While the program's essential components are the same across sites, each has a distinct personality that is shaped by core community assets: its businesses, artists, physical environment, and traditions. Rosie's Girls in Barre, Vermont, includes activities related to marble quarrying and carving, a key regional industry. As featured in a recent NBC Today Show report narrated by correspondent Maria Shriver (July 21, 2014), Santa Monica campers climb city telephone poles and maintenance ladders, fix potholes, and drive heavy equipment. In Richmond, California, Rosie's Girls is headquartered at the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park and offers opportunities for girls to meet real "Rosies" who worked the Bay Area shipyards during WWII.

Kelly Kupcak, a colleague in Ohio who ran Rosie's Girls for years, overheard a young woman on the subway talking excitedly about a summer experience that she said changed the way she felt as a girl and about her prospects as a young woman. At some point, it became clear that the young woman was talking about Rosie's Girls. Reflecting on the conversation later, Kelly perhaps best summed up what makes the program such a powerful experience for girls. "Those of us who have had the opportunity to work with the Rosie's Girls program know in our hearts that the experience is not just about learning how to use a hammer, or be part of a team, or simply have something to do for a few weeks during summer vacation. Nor is it really about recruiting girls into nontraditional employment pathways . . . it's about opening the door for girls to see themselves as all that they are and are capable of being. It's about introducing them to opportunities and challenges and self-awareness. It's about saying to them, 'You are strong. You are capable.'"

In the end, believing that is what makes all the difference.

Selected Strategies for Fostering Supportive Relationships among Girls

  • RECOGNIZE the dynamics of peer aggression
  • ESTABLISH clear group guidelines/norms; CREATE group agreements
  • FOSTER a sense of ownership of the environment and space ("Let's decide in advance what we do and don't do here")
  • ROLE MODEL the behaviors you want to see ("walk the talk")
  • ROLE MODEL positive relationships between adults
  • BE COURAGEOUS and SECURE in addressing peer aggression (i.e. don't be afraid of the "mean girls" . . . girls say that mean girls even scare the teachers)
  • IDENTIFY (with students) what positive, supportive friendships look and feel like
  • ASSIGN girls leadership responsibilities to create the space we are looking for
  • ROTATE roles and assignments so every student knows what is and will be expected
  • FOSTER empathy within the group (age-appropriate activities about what has felt good and what hasn't — for example, "Think about a time when your feelings were honored and supported; think about a time when they weren't.")
  • ENCOURAGE changing pairs and groups rather than allowing cliques to always stay together
  • LEAD activities that encourage students to get to know each other beyond the surface
  • PRACTICE no body talk
  • ENCOURAGE bystander intervention and TEACH students how to intervene on each other's behalf
  • TEACH students how to apologize (see Amy Poehler video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydVzkFzgCdM )
  • TEACH the difference between INTENT and IMPACT

 

Let's Change the Story for Girls and Young Women

Rosie's Girls addresses needs that are reflected not just in the experience of middle school girls, but in those of older adolescents and young women. In 2013, Vermont Works for Women (VWW) published an in-depth report on what young Vermont women say about how well-equipped they feel for the challenges of school, work, career, and economic independence as adults. ENOUGH SAID — Young Women Talk about School, Work, and Becoming Adults: Why We Should Listen and What We Can Do is the result of in-depth interviews, surveys, and conversations with more than 210 young women and girls, ages 15–25, from 28 Vermont communities, and how the concerns they raised are reflected in national research.

Young women told us:

  1. They lacked knowledge about personal finance. They did not know enough to make decisions about student loans or careers. They couldn't estimate what it would cost to live on their own, what various jobs pay, or how to fill out a tax form or open a checking account.
  2. They mentioned social aggression among girls. It served to shake both confidence and aspiration. They also mentioned the ways in which adults ignored, were unaware of, or fueled the dynamic in personal relations and popular culture.
  3. They lacked exposure to careers that might be of interest. They didn't know about careers that might lead to financial independence. "How can I know I want to be an automotive technician," we were asked, "if I have never held a socket wrench?"

Concern about the report's conclusions prompted the formation of a statewide Task Force on Young Women and the Vermont Economy, which presented recommendations to Governor Peter Shumlin and the legislature in December 2013, attracting wide media coverage. (Hallenbeck, 2013)

By exposing girls to a broad range of nontraditional careers and female role models, and by helping them connect to their peers as allies, and not as social competitors, Rosie's Girls offers a powerful means of addressing — upstream — needs that ultimately erode the strength of our communities.

To download a copy of the full report, visit Vermont Works for Women's website: www.vtworksforwomen.org/enoughsaid.

 

References
Hallenbeck, T. (2013, December 3). Panel pitches plans to 'change the story' for women. Burlington Free Press. Retrieved from www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20131203/NEWS03/312030032

Krueger, A. (2014, June 18). 'No body talk' summer camps. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/fashion/no-body-talk-summer-camps.html?_r=0

Pipher, M. (1995). Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 21.

Vermont Works for Women (2013). Enough said — young women talk about school, work, and becoming adults: Why we should listen and what we can do. Retrieved from https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/13333457/Enough%20Said%20-%20Full%20...

Tiffany Bluemle is executive director of Vermont Works for Women. If interested in learning more about how you can help change the story for girls and young women, contact her at tbluemle@vtworksforwomen.org.

Photos courtesy of Karen Pike Photography and Rosie’s Girls of Vermont Works for Women, Winooski, Vermont.

Originally published in the 2014 November/December Camping Magazine.