Val working on a school project, age 10
– This post was submitted by Val Swan
I was once, not too long ago, a little girl with big dreams. I wanted to be the first female president, then first female professional baseball player. Before long I wanted to live in a van down by the river as a motivational speaker, a la Chris Farley’s character on Saturday Night Live. :) I was a young, entrepreneurial Alex P. Keaton, standing behind my bookcase in our family room during birthday parties and holiday gatherings selling my painted rocks, homemade potholders, and other wares to my Grandmother (bless her heart!) and any other poor soul who walked by. I loved my nerdy life, intellectually curious about everything, a voracious reader who won a readathon one year and received a personal congratulatory letter from the NY State Governor for reading in the bookstore window for over 12 hours straight (I’m not at all bitter that the following year my best friend won the same contest and a trip to Disney World!).
Val (on left) and her friend at Girl Scout camp
I attempted to concoct the cure for cancer out of corn starch and food coloring in tree stump holes in my backyard to help save my dying Uncle John, and started writing one of my great American novels at age 8. I loved the dorky clothes I wore, crazy and colorful and matchy. I loved school and learning, finding 4-leaf clovers, climbing trees, and going to camp. I was a happy, thriving young girl. Around age 11, things changed. It didn’t help that I got diagnosed with an incurable chronic illness (Crohn’s Disease) at that time too- I can still feel the pit in my stomach riding the school bus home after my best friends “dumped” me via a note. Dejected and spirit dampened, I started pushing down my talents, not doing as excellently at school because I worried about what the boy behind me thought, and essentially “sold out” to become popular. I hid my true self to fit in. Despite the fact that I was afforded every opportunity with an incredible family and education, I still faltered, and it has taken a long time for me to reclaim my confidence in that awesome and unique young woman.
Psychologist JoAnn Deak, PhD and author of the books How Girls Thrive and Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, calls this phenomenon the “3o-year power outage,” where young women go from confident and strong to dimming their lights that may not emerge again for decades. Girls feel the biggest pull to conform during adolescence, referred to as camouflaging, a term Dr. Deak coined to describe the practice of tweaking how one looks and acts to fit in with peers.¹
The Young Women’s Leadership Institute held at the Center for Creative Leadership
I share with you some of my personal journey because it illustrates the important work we are doing now for young women at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), work that I am passionate about because of my story and YOUR story, knowing we need to do much more to support our girls who are going through some of the same struggles or worse that I did. You or a woman close to you has a story like this, vividly recalled, many carried deep into adulthood- Rachel Simmons’s work Odd Girl Speaks Out documents this. We talk about bringing our whole selves to the work we do here, and through this program I have tapped into work and themes that are personally important for me to reinforce so I can be a role model for other young women, one that I wish I had had growing up.
The authors, Sarah and Val, with their new paper
We are so proud to release this new paper zooming in on our work with Girl Scouts in North Carolina these past few years. In it we outline the importance of young women’s leadership in supporting girls and strengthening our communities and world. Studies have shown that girls experience a dramatic drop in confidence at the onset of adolescence. CCL has demonstrated powerful results with our research-driven early leadership development work for young women. In 2014 and 2015, CCL collaborated with local Girl Scouts Carolinas Peaks to Piedmont council to develop customized programming for 100 middle and high school-aged young women called the Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI). The programs are focused on our four themes of authenticity, self-clarity, connection, and agency, which help girls to understand themselves and others, learn how to handle difficult situations, and build courage and confidence in themselves as leaders. We hear directly from the girls on the impact of this work and make a strong case for robust growth and support of this initiative and others like it.
Thanks for your support of this work and the young women in your life!
Click here to read the full white paper.