I Am an Idea Person by Jess Larson

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One of many great finds from our Spring Cleaning Day

Spring Cleaning is inevitable, but Girls in the Game’s spring cleaning this year took on a much greater purpose as we are getting ready for our move to Douglas Park. After 13 years we are leaving our beloved home at Union Park, which means digging through A LOT of boxes. We’ve spent the last couple of Fridays slogging through old paperwork that needs to be shredded, digging through bins of VHS tapes and uncovering other treasures from the pre-digital age. My favorite find of the cleaning days is a stack of girls’ drawings from an After School program in 2010.

The girls completed two different body-image exercises with their coaches. One was entitled “This Is Who I Am,” where they drew a picture of themselves and described their personalities. The second, called “Self-Portrait”, instructed the girls to fill out two halves of a circle with words that described first “How I see me…” and then “How others see me…”

Looking through the first exercise, what struck me most was our girls’ confidence in themselves and their abilities.

One girl described herself as “outgoing, smart, intelligent, creative, fun, sometimes sensitive, stylish, shy, colorful in different ways, really good singer & dancer, like baseball the most”

Another declared, “I am an idea person. I’m a gossip queen. I’m good at sports”

A third said, “Smart, likes to laugh, sweet, funny, respectful, trustful, nice, kind, likes softball, cares”

Then, I came to the second exercise, where the girls had to fill out how they saw themselves and then how they thought others saw them. This is just a small sample of the results:

How I see myself… How others see me…
Pretty, black, nice, smart, long hair, very fast Ugly, mean, slow, don’t like my long hair, can’t run
Fun, funny, blue, calm, lazy, energetic, crazy, active Lazy, mean, ugly, weak-minded, non-friendly
Silly, funny, smart, intelligent, short, bright, active Mean, ugly, funny, crazy, fun, artist, happy, sometimes mad and sad
Friendly, nice, awesome, cool, smart, cute, respectful Crazy, mean, funny, cuckoo, uncool

The first column read similar to the first exercise; girls were confident in themselves, their abilities and what they had to offer the world. But when it came to the second column, it was hard to find any of the sheets without the word “ugly”. For the vast majority of the papers, the second column was filled with negative words and stereotypes about girls, with a few positive words here and there.

When you look at the second column, it’s obvious that the girls are receiving a different message about the value of girls from the world at large than what they learn at Girls in the Game. Whether it’s their peers, the media as a whole, adults in their lives or their community, the idea that girls are somehow worth less is pretty blatant.

So why was I so excited to find these papers and drawings? Because there is hope that the first column can and will overcome that second column. There is hope within the statements “I am awesome” and “I am bright”. There is clear divide between what our girls think of themselves, and how they think the world sees them. Yet that did not stop them from filling in that first column with those powerful words about themselves, and more importantly, they didn’t go back and cross those powerful words out after filling in the second column. Through this exercise our girls are showing self-worth and an awareness of their own value.

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Organizations like Girls in the Game will continue to advocate on behalf of girls through programming, social media, awareness and living out our own mission and values, but the most powerful thing we can do for the girls is to give them the tools they need to advocate for themselves. Through exercises like the ones above, we can engage girls in thoughtful discussions about body-image and the media that they consume. Sports are one of the best avenues for girls to  develop a healthy body image and their own physical power, which is yet another “tool” in their self-advocacy toolbox.

As adults we can help them start to parse out their own understanding of their value versus what they hear from the world at large. On our end, we adults have a lot of work to do as we battle against that second column full of negative and appearance-focused ill-informed messages. We can (and should) take steps to change those messages every opportunity we have. I, for one, feel inspired by the girls’ ability to put pen to paper and accurately describe themselves through their own eyes, and I feel even more inspired to do my part alongside Girls in the Game to help them to never stop believing in column one.

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If Wishes Were Wishes by Meghan Morgan

5708dd9438d6d.imageThe phone rang this morning and I saw Eileen Fisher on the caller ID. I assumed it was Kim Austad, the manager of the Highland Park Eileen Fisher store and one of my favorite people. I had been thinking about Kim recently, and had it on my list to give her a call to catch up.

It wasn’t Kim. Instead, it was somebody else from Eileen Fisher to tell me that Kim had passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, over the weekend.

I first met Kim seven years ago. Girls in the Game had partnered with Eileen Fisher stores in the past, and Kim was new to the Highland Park store so we met to talk about ways we could partner. We hit it off immediately. Anybody who knew Kim knows she was full of life. Kim was funny. She told great stories. She loved to connect with new people, and then connect those people with each other. Girls in the Game was fortunate enough to be the first charitable partner of the Highland Park store. For years afterwards, Kim would always introduce me to people as “her first.”

At Girls in the Game we talk a lot about leadership, and what makes a good leader. Our teens will tell you that a leader is somebody who sets a good example, somebody you can trust, and somebody who inspires you to be your best. Kim was that kind of leader. Girls in the Game may have been Kim’s “first” but we certainly weren’t her last. Kim worked hard to seek out ways to make a difference in her community and she was fortunate enough to work for a company that supported those efforts. But more than just finding new partners, Kim liked to bring those partners together, recognizing that people and organizations are stronger together than we are on our own.

As Girls in the Game works to finalize our new strategic plan for the next three years, those same ideas and principles will guide our efforts. We want to expand our partnerships and deepen our impact on girls and the communities where we work. Unfortunately we’ll be moving toward our future goals without Kim on our team, but the example she set will remain.

One of Kim’s favorite expressions was “If wishes were wishes” and Kim would often propose an idea with that opening when she brought some of us together to make something happen. So if wishes were wishes, Kim would still be bringing us together – for laughs, for stories, for friendship and for ideas. But in her honor, we’ll continue to collaborate and work together to do more, and to turn those wishes into reality.

Rest in peace, friend. You’ll forever be a girl in the game.

“The Other” Basketball Star by Meagan Murphy

Today we’re sharing a personal blog post from our Camps and Clinics Coordinator Meagan Murphy, aka “Coach Murph” about her experiences fighting for gender equality as an athlete. Meagan’s story is but one experience that motivates us to do what we do at Girls in the Game.

Though I’ve heard some stories similar to my own from fellow athletes, this is a reflection of my personal experiences. I do not speak for all athletes, nor do I take for granted the access I’ve had to play basketball and compete as an athlete throughout my life.

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Coach Murph and Coach Sheldon at a workshop.

I’ve played basketball my whole life. The first time I realized I was “the other” on the basketball court was when I was 6 years old, 1st grade. Let me explain: the first time I played basketball it was in a co-ed recreational league. Even at a very young age, I walked away drawing two conclusions that would ultimately follow me into the next 15+ years of my life: I love basketball, and the boys do not include me. “They don’t pass me the ball!” I cried as my dad drove me home. He sympathized with me, telling me they were ball hogs. I also remember him acknowledging the fact that I was a girl, and that unfortunately, that probably influenced their decision. I was frustrated and hollered at my dad something to the effect of “What’s the point of even playing?!” I showed up at the next practice all the same, laced up and ready to go.

The sports world is divided into a very distinct binary understanding of gender—women and men. From the moment I started playing sports, I was introduced to this binary, as well as the “othering” that takes place alongside it. “The other” is an opposite, when one category is prioritized over the other, making one the default or the norm, and “the other” the less preferable or less accepted by society. When I say the phrase, “basketball star,” which gender do you think of? Some might immediately picture a man—Lebron James, Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, etc. Or at least I know I do, because that’s the way I’ve been socialized to understand athleticism.

When it comes down to it, if you are not a man in the sports world, it comes with disadvantages. Athletic opportunities are more readily available for boys compared to girls. Sports competitions are attended more when it’s men compared to women. And men make significantly more money playing professional sports, and the list goes on. Not to mention that when looking at athletic associations, in most cases there is a modifier to establish that the program is for women, when no adjectives are used for men’s programs. Here are several examples, because why not prove my point: NBA/WNBA, PGA/LPGA, ATP/WTA, and again, the list goes on. Why provide a modifier for women’s athletic programs? Because it’s not the norm, the anticipated, the accepted; it’s “the other.”

I remember when I decided I wanted to play in the WNBA, “HA! That league is a joke!” is what I used to hear all the time. Eventually I started believing it myself. There were so many microaggressions I heard growing up that they encouraged me to believe that girls could never be as good as boys in basketball (or any sport really)—comments about the WNBA, how I was smaller and weaker, that women’s basketball would only ever be worthy of ESPN2, that girls were not meant to play sports. All of these stayed with me, all of these bothered me, but I kept playing. In fact, these comments that I totaled up in my mind as the opposition became motivation for me to be “as good as the guys” when it came to sports.

meagan bballI established myself as a “tom-boy” early on, or at least that’s how I thought of myself back then, and managed to find as many opportunities as I could to play with boys. But by the time I made it to the high school level, I started to realize the way society had made me think of my own gender as the weaker, less impressive gender when it came to athletics. But how wrong I was! I started meeting some of the best athletes I had ever met. I started to realize women’s athletics were made up of basketball stars, soccer stars, track stars, and the like. I started taking pride in the fact that I was a girl, and I was proud of how both my fellow athletes and I competed. But even as I started to love the athlete I was becoming—a strong, successful athlete, I still felt the pull to prove myself and to others that I could be as good as a man. I just wanted to be accepted and respected as the athlete I always felt I was.

Let’s flash forward, because sadly, things haven’t changed. I recently moved and was on the hunt to find a place to play basketball, as I had just finished my collegiate basketball career and was missing the rush of going up and down the court. I noticed a group that would play at the same time every day, but I continued to make excuses for myself as to why I shouldn’t play with them. The biggest one was that I would be the only woman. Eventually I mustered up the courage to step out onto the court and start shooting around; a man came up to me and invited me to play with them. I was ecstatic! I was being welcomed onto the playing field I’ve called home practically my whole life. Or at least I thought I was being welcomed. I soon realized that being the only woman among 15 other men came with a lot of frustrations and undeniable truths about the way women athletes are still viewed today, as “the other.”

I’m the last person to be chosen for a team. No one wants to guard me because they do not want to risk getting beat by a girl (or “hurting” me). And even 15 years later, it is still a struggle to convince them to pass me the ball. But the worst part has definitely been hearing comments about my appearance such as, “Don’t lift too much, you’ll bulk up and look like a man.” I specifically remember a time when I was playing really well. “You’re playing better than some of these guys,” is what they usually say, reminding me that my talent is but an exception for women. But this time, I heard something else, “You’re cute when you call for the ball,” he said. I stared at him wondering how I could be playing so well and instead of commenting on my talent, he decides to ignore the three 3s I just drained and comments on my appearance. I told myself that was the last straw. I was not only failing to prove my ability to these men, but I was also being objectified.

At first I decided to stop going, stop playing. I took some time off. I took this time to reflect on my career, and I recalled the first time I laced up my shoes. I was reminded why I’ve kept playing this whole time. I remembered who I’m playing for. I’m playing for the little girl who wants the boys to pass her the ball. I’m playing for the girl who is afraid to step out on the court because she’s been told it’s a “boy” thing, or that she isn’t good enough to play with boys. I’m playing for the girls who are better than the boys, but have to fight the media to notice anything but her outer beauty. I’m playing for the girl who doubts her own talent simply because of her gender identity. I’m playing for the games aired on ESPN2 (or not at all) instead of ESPN.

Meagan BasketballI’m proud to be an athlete who identifies as a woman, but when my gender is used to downgrade or minimize my performance as an athlete, that’s when I see it as problematic. When gender becomes a determining factor of my place on the court, when it requires me to be “the other,” the less desired, the less talented athlete, that’s when I’m reminded that I play for the girls, the women, and those whose gender is used as a tool to limit their ability to reach their full athletic potential. So until we are recognized as something other than a sub-genre of the athletic world, I’ll continue to play in those uncomfortable places, the places that try to convince me that I’m weaker, or just eye candy, and better off somewhere else. I’ll play to remind those who wish to excel at a sport have the ability to be a star, no matter what people have to say about it. So until we can change the stigma behind what it means to be an athlete—a woman athlete—I will continue to be the “other” on the basketball court. And quite honestly, I was better and more determined than any of the boys I played with when I first picked up the ball, and somehow, I knew that I just had to keep trying. So I’ll continue to play. I’ll continue to stand in solidarity. And I’ll continue to use my voice to speak up until no athlete is discounted based on their gender.

Thanks for sharing, Meagan! You can find Meagan’s original post on her blog.

Wrong Way by Mary Banker

Road map.jpgHave you ever gone the wrong way? I have. I have walked, driven, biked and taken the ‘L” in the wrong direction; I have also been in a car driving the wrong way down a one way. Or there was one time I missed my exit and only noticed when I couldn’t go any further east without driving into the lake. I drove an hour out of the way in the wrong direction that day; nailed it. These are all funny stories now but at the time I was incredibly frustrated. Google Maps has helped most of us find our way at some point, but what happens when you’re using the wrong map, when you have a map of Boston when you really needed a map for Chicago? No matter how hard you try you’ll still find yourself lost and frustrated, swimming upstream against the current only to find yourself further away from your desired destination.

I have an extensive background working with youth, and I have loved every second of it. I’ve worked with kids from all different socio-economic backgrounds, all different races, genders and ages. As a camp director I always floated so that I could help in the more challenging groups or with individual kids who needed some extra guidance and attention. I remember working with one child vividly. He was disrupting his group all day long, and no one could get him to participate without being a distraction to the other kids. The first day I spent almost all of my time with him; he needed that much personal attention, and for the most part he stayed on task. However, I always lost him during transition times, not physically but mentally, he was gone. I really struggled to get him to listen and stick with me; most of my normal tricks didn’t work, and I recognized I had to try something new. The map I had used for all the other kids was not working with him. So I started to learn his patterns, his needs, and what made him smile, laugh and stay involved; this was when I started to see his terrain and how to navigate it with him so we could successfully end up at the same place as the other kids in the group, engaged and having fun.

How often do we show up to a situation, a meeting, a lunch, or for us here, to work with the girls, clutching a pre-designed route we want to take? Can we even help it? It is human nature; we have our own experiences we bring to the table, and there is a lot of value in that. But we also have to learn to change course from time to time. If we don’t, we will miss a lot of beautiful scenery along the way. I have always wondered why people are so afraid to talk about their mistakes. Is it ego? Vulnerability? The fear of failure? There is great strength in recognizing and admitting the need for a paradigm shift, a new perspective or a new road map so to speak.

coach11At Girls in the Game, like many other organizations, we occasionally find ourselves scratching our heads and holding that figurative map of Boston while we stand in Chicago. Our junior high program is a great example of this. When our number of attendees declined in our junior high After School programs, our program director could have easily blamed our coaches or coordinators or the schools themselves. She could have pushed our staff to try harder, do more and be more enthusiastic, but no matter how much energy we might put into what currently existed we were still driving the wrong way down a one way street. We had great attendance for elementary and high school girls, but something wasn’t quite clicking in our middle school programming. So Beth utilized internal and external resources by organizing a focus group of full time staff, coaches, Girls in the Game alumni and current teen squad members, to view the issue from a different angle. And we all learned the problem was that we needed to meet the girls right where they were, not where we wanted them to be. It was time to pick up the map the girls were holding that offered us insight into their lives and their needs, similar to the boy I worked with at camp years ago. It didn’t matter what I thought he needed, it mattered what he actually needed.

When I worked at camp I had all kinds of tools to use, from all the trainings, books, videos, classes I had ever attended, read or watched but none of those things mattered if I didn’t meet this boy right where he was at that very moment. I had to listen, to watch and learn about him, and then the tools came into play. After camp was over I met this boy’s individual classroom aide. She knew his history and shared some of it with me; it was then that I learned this little boy was born addicted to crack because of his mother’s addiction. He had a history of attention disorders, behavioral issues and sometimes slightly violent responses. Wow. I was taken back. The boy that I had the opportunity to spend so much time with had so many blocks stacked in front of him before he even took his first breath of air. All of it made sense, the logic rushed in, the transition times, the running off, the short attention spans, his pseudo violent responses at times and all the extra guidance he needed. He had his own map and I can say now that it took me through some rocky terrain but the destination was a trusting and respectful relationship with a bright, loving, active and creative boy. I would have missed all of that had I barreled down the path the rest of the group was on with him.

I have been with Girls in the Game for almost a year and I am proud to say we make mistakes, we try new things, we recognize what isn’t working, we give a new idea a fair shake and then we make changes, we change direction when needed, we learn a new route and we keep moving forward. That’s why we are rolling out a new junior high program consisting of increased leadership roles for the girls, working toward one common goal as a team and more focus will be placed on future career paths and opportunities. I don’t know a single person in this life that hasn’t been lost at one time or another. We all have. My hope for you is that you find yourself in a place where you are able to re-access, change direction and continue moving forward. If you do I promise that you will find your way.IMG_3276