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Why Grow? The reasons behind our club for girls

In 2018 we decided to try something different. For 36 years TIC has basically operated using the same model- half a day of technology instruction, half a day of athletics. TIC was created by a brilliant woman who went on to run the camp for 30 years before retiring. Dr. Karen J. Rosenbaum had an educator’s background when she started TIC Summer Camp in 1982, and the foundation she laid centered the child’s learning experience in a supportive, open, and encouraging environment.

It’s a great model because it allows us to tailor the TIC experience to individuals and gives us the flexibility to try different things in order to meet each camper’s needs to the best of our ability. Walking around one of our sites, though, you might notice that our campers are mostly boys.

For some businesses, this might not seem like something that needs to be thought about at all- your clientele are your clientele. And we are thankful for the many loyal families that return to us year after year who have helped shape the culture and atmosphere of excitement that makes TIC such a special place. When your business is in the youth development sector, however, it’s an ethical responsibility to look at the message that every choice we make sends our campers. Being at a technology and sports camp and seeing mostly boys participating perpetuates the stereotype that STEM and athletics are better suited for boys. We have never believed that to be true, and we want our camper and staff population to reflect that.

Over the years we have tried numerous tactics to increase our enrollment of campers who identify as girls. Targeted brochures and marketing, videos of interviews with campers and staff who identify as girls who have loved TIC, saving spots for girls later into the enrollment season, and fundraising scholarship funds specifically for girls, among other strategies. Certainly none of these things have hurt, and we will continue our outreach to girls moving forward, but in 2018 we decided to take it a step further.

After some research, we identified a few factors that were likely contributing to why our outreach was not as successful as we would’ve liked. First, we’re fighting many layers of engrained sexism that leads general society (either consciously or unconsciously) to believe that STEM and sports are not spaces for girls. It’s not new, and although many strides have been taken in the right direction, we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equity and improving spheres that have traditionally either been, or been perceived as, male-dominated. We’ve heard from many parents that they tried to get their daughter interested in our camp, but “she didn’t even want to try it.” Girls are not born with an inherent disinterest in STEM or athletics- they learn it. Then that idea is validated over and over again by a lack of visible role models, other adults and kids enforcing those stereotypes through harmful comments, a lack of encouragement, or the absence of a space where they feel supported in their pursuit of those interests.

Another factor is more business-based. Overwhelmingly, the best marketing we have is word-of-mouth. Over 60% of our enrollments say they chose TIC because it was highly recommended by a trusted friend, family member, or other person in their community. Because most of our campers identify as boys, much of our word-of-mouth advertising is happening from one family with sons to other families with sons. We are extremely proud and grateful for the referrals we receive, but this made us begin to consider how we could encourage more word of mouth marketing specifically for families with daughters talking to other families with daughters.

From these two main points, the idea for “Grow” came to be. Grow is a club for campers and staff who identify as girls or identify as non-binary that meets twice a week at lunch during camp. During Grow Club meetings, campers and staff participate in workshops that aim to help them unlearn limiting ideas about themselves, validate their experiences and opinions, and create a strong, supportive community specifically for them within our larger TIC family. The workshop topics have included subjects like body positivity, the science behind gender (the issues with a binary system), the importance of role models, gaslighting, intersectionality, systemic sexism and how it manifests in society, disproving stereotypes using statistics, women’s contributions that were erased from history, the effects of how women are portrayed in the media, and legitimate feminism vs. marketing feminism.

One criticism a few folks had was that the topics were too serious and the campers were too young to talk about them. Yes, we did cover some of these topics in about 20 minutes. Yes, some of the club participants were as young as 7 years old, and yes, the 7 year-olds knew exactly what we were talking about when it came to things like gaslighting and systemic sexism- because they were already experiencing it. I had three separate age-based groups come up with examples of systemic sexism and the youngest group had the most, by far. All of them were things they had already personally experienced, my favorite of which was “fairy tales.” (They then went on to tell me about how they felt like in fairy tales the girl is always the one who has to be saved and that is unfair because girls should be able to save boys, too.) (They’re right!)

That has been a major takeaway from Grow- that girls as young as 7 can understand a concept as complicated as systemic sexism because it’s not new to them, they just haven’t been given the language to identify it and talk about it yet. This further solidified the importance of this club to us. Why wait until they are young adults and have internalized this harmful messaging for years and years when we can confront these issues with our underrepresented genders head-on and give them the language and tools to combat these stereotypes? On more than one occasion, a junior camper has come up to me a day or two (or even just a few hours) after a workshop where we talked about female athletes and women’s sports and told me how she advocated for herself to play the position she wanted to play or the strategy she wanted to implement with confidence, just like whichever excellent female athlete role model we’d talked about that workshop. Many girls are feeling marginalized when it comes to sports and they don’t necessarily know that they don’t deserve to feel that way or know how many other amazing women have worked past that and accomplished amazing athletic feats (because they didn’t receive coverage.) (Shocking statistic: only 4% of sports coverage goes to women’s sports.) These conversations need to be had with girls of all ages pertaining to any activity, interest, job, or trait that is typically perceived as being “for boys.”

Another thing that happened when we started Grow is that some boys (although it was few) did not understand why there was a club for girls and not a club for boys. Some parents also shared that sentiment, saying that if we want the girls to feel included, we shouldn’t be separating them out with a special club. I’ll be honest, as a Camp Director it is very difficult to give an elevator pitch about why we need Grow, especially to a room of about 200 campers and staff who are waiting for morning announcements to be over so they can go to their activities. That is something we are still working on: a short explanation (this article is not an example of that!) I will say that having this club was a well-researched endeavor, not a spontaneous marketing ploy to jump on the girl-power bandwagon. Numerous studies have shown that having a dedicated space for underrepresented groups in businesses and organizations leads to a healthier environment and to greater job satisfaction for those who are less represented. People who identify as a part of that group tend to feel like they are valued more, listened to more, and like the organization is more invested in their success. Studies have also found that organizations and businesses that cut those programs faced noticeable drop offs in terms of morale and employee retention, particularly for people who identify as being part of an underrepresented group.

This is probably the biggest thing I want parents and guardians to understand about Grow: it’s not about separating the girls so that we can sit in a room and tell them they can be whatever they want to be and write things like #neverthelessshepersisted on whatever wearable surfaces we can find. (Pause: I will admit that last summer we recycled old TIC shirts with a powerful lyric by Lizzo that read, ‘’if you feel like a girl, then you real like a girl,” but that was linked to an important message about including our non-binary, transgender, intersex, questioning, or other female-identifying friends in any space or movement aimed at gender equity.) (Plus, the T shirts create visibility for the club and serve as a tangible reminder that they were a part of something special and that they have a community that will listen to them and support them.) (Unpause.) Grow is about validating the experiences they are already having and giving them concrete reasons and skills to help them internalize all the positive things about themselves and their capabilities rather than the negative messaging they are constantly receiving about how they should be and what they’re able to do. Grow isn’t a “girl power” club- they’ve already got the power. It’s about changing the perceptions surrounding that power unapologetically and going through life without the weight of other people’s expectations for how you should look, talk, act, and what you should like, wear, or aspire to based on your assigned sex at birth or how/if you express your gender.

We have two weeks with your kids. Grow is only four 20-minute sessions during those two weeks. We obviously are not going to fix all the gender equity issues or internalized stereotypes in that time, but it is my hope that we can spark some passion and some confidence. I hope that the campers who participate in Grow leave with at least one fact about a role model or women’s history, or maybe a new friend that supports them, or even a discovery about themselves that they didn’t have before. And I hope when they leave, they want to bring their friends to Grow at TIC, too. A place where they can not only experience this growth-centered program, but also be a part of a camp where they get to create a unique technology project, play a bunch of different sports, and meet great role models who genuinely care about them. I want them to leave TIC and feel like it’s a place they want to share with others because they garnered such a wonderful feeling on belonging and because it’s a place unlike any other they’ve experienced.

Then, as our camper gender ratio becomes more even, our boys will be surrounded by girls succeeding in STEM and Athletics, and their perceptions about women’s capabilities will begin to change. Eventually it won’t be because the girls at TIC are “different” or because we have this club. The success of our campers who don’t identify as male will cease to be a big deal at all because it’s just a bunch of campers all being talented and creative and active, just like we expect all of them to be, without exception. It will be the new foundation upon which we operate. And then when our campers aren’t at TIC, they will hopefully continue to have those same expectations of everyone, regardless of how they identify.

In it’s two years of existence, Grow has also already evolved. The workshops change each year so the subjects are topical and using the latest appropriate terminology. While “Grow” was originally an acronym for “Girls Rock Our World,” we’ve since ditched the acronym aspect in order to make the club name more inclusive and welcoming rather than implying that the group is only for girls who identify as cisgender. Grow will continue to change to include a wider variety of perspectives, address the most pressing topics at the time, and best serve the campers who choose to participate. It is also very important that Grow does not include campers that identify as male. I realize that may sound harsh, (and as a woman, I know what it feels like to be legitimately excluded from a space) but a space for an underrepresented group is inherently not a safe space if the dominant group is present. If there were no issues between the dominant group and the underrepresented group and the dominant group fully understood how the underrepresented group was experiencing the world differently and was actively destructing the systems involved, then a club like this wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and for those of you thinking that there should be educational opportunities for the dominant group to become more aware, I couldn’t agree more- that’s just not what this specific post is about. Most of the Grow club members that I’ve spoken with have said they would not speak as freely or feel as comfortable in the club with members of the dominant group present. Social science studies back those feelings up.

The places where our youth experience personal growth need to be incubators for a better society, because these kids are the ones who are going to live it. We’re not going to fix gender equity issues with summer camp, but we are going to work hard to fix summer camp’s gender equity issues, and the kids who come to our camps and experience that are going to help create a better, more equitable future.

 

If you would like to know more about Grow (including information about our after-school program and workshops available during the off-season) or if you want more information about TIC and if it’s the right camp for your family, please contact Leslie Keller at [email protected]