If you’ve ever been to Mississippi in the summer, you know it is no place for the faint of heart, and you might wonder what brings me back year after year. It’s exactly that — heart — in the form of bright, fierce young women and the community we’ve built together through Girls Write the World, a girls-only literacy and youth development nonprofit.
The program was born out of my Teach for America experience. When I left Holy Cross and arrived at Delta State University following my graduation in summer 2012, I was eagerly joining hundreds of other soon-to-be teachers at Teach for America’s summer training institute in Cleveland, Mississippi. I had no idea that even the rigor of Holy Cross would not have prepared me for the challenges I faced as a first-year teacher in a community completely unfamiliar to me.
As I struggled through my first two years of teaching seventh grade English in Greenville, Mississippi, my emotions ran the gamut from despair to elation, from hopeless to optimistic. I lost and regained faith in my teaching abilities and fell in love with the community and my students. Along the way, I couldn’t help but notice my students’ lack of resources — not just books and school supplies — but spaces to grapple with sexism, racism and the challenges of girlhood; creative outlets; inspirational and informative literature; leadership opportunities; sex and health education; and college preparatory information.
At the end of my Teach for America commitment, I knew there was more work to do in Greenville. Girls Write the World was a way to address many of the concerns I was unable to tackle as a teacher and create a new, alternative space for my female students. In summer 2015, full of renewed energy, my three co-founders and I (all former English teachers) launched our inaugural summer program.
My memories from that first summer come in bursts. Sleeping in a house with no air conditioning because a gracious friend offered it for free. Hand-painting invitations to our first poetry showcase because we didn’t have access to a color printer. Driving all around town each morning and afternoon to pick up and drop off campers because we were afraid if we didn’t, they might not come.
All of those memories don’t begin to capture the overwhelming feelings of awe and gratitude when I look back at that first bumpy summer. Gratitude for the parents who trusted us, the campers who jumped in with both feet and community members who provided a free space for our campers to gather. Awe that our three essential rules — be kind, supportive and brave — and a lot of love created an incredible community that is continuing to grow.
We’ve come a long way in terms of organization and capital since that first summer, but our goals have not changed. First and foremost, we aim to create a safe space for our eighth-through 12th-grade female campers to create, explore and grow, a place where they are supported and celebrated. We do this through morning poetry workshops, where we read, discuss and analyze poetry written by women of color and write and share our own poetry. Second, we aim to provide specific, tangible resources to help our campers navigate their high school years. We do this through a variety of afternoon workshops. In the past, we’ve covered topics such as healthy relationships, mental health, sex ed, college 101, financial literacy and self-defense. We end the week with a college field trip and poetry showcase, in which campers perform their original work for family, friends and community members.
As the program continues to grow, we have turned our sights on more leadership and ownership opportunities for our campers. This past summer, we introduced two new elements: a G-Lead role, which creates a pathway for students to develop from camper to counselor, and a community day, which provides an opportunity for campers to act as counselors for a day and guide their family, friends and community members through a part of Girls Write the World’s curriculum.
At the end of each summer, I am again overwhelmed by those same feelings of gratitude and awe. One hundred percent of our campers reported that they would recommend camp to a friend, that it helped them open up and express themselves in new ways and improved their self-esteem. In a world in which women, particularly women of color, are consistently receiving the message that their lives and stories have less worth than others, I am proud to be part of an organization that works to celebrate, affirm and project young female voices.
At Girls Write the World’s summer program, young women of color in grades eight through 12 discover how to express their experience through their own original works, such as the piece below.
Being me is unique
Not letting the
society define me
myself to that
So called perfect
Being me is unique
Embracing my size
I’m not that coke
bottle ideal shape
Being me is unique
Being a little cocky
And being the top
of my class
As society hates
Smarter than the
men in my class
Being brave and
I can step outside
Showing that I’m
Being me is unique
Written by Madison Walsh ’12 for the Winter 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
About Holy Cross Magazine
Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.
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