It’s a Tuesday morning and State Rep. Katie Edwards sits in a circle with 20 middle school girls revealing her angst when she was their age.
“I would worry whether my socks were cool enough or my hair was too frizzy,” she tells the girls.
“Were you worried about not fitting in?” asks Indian Ridge Middle School guidance counselor Rose-Edith Morgan.
“Of course,” Edwards confesses. “Now, I like being unique and having my own sense of what makes me comfortable.”
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As the conversation continues the girls, their guest and their guidance counselor talk about topics ranging from body image to friend drama to sexting to peer pressure and rumors.
With cyber-bullying and teen suicide in the news, Morgan has made it her mission to encourage middle school students at the West Broward school to share feelings, address issues and become future leaders. She created the Miss Empowerment concept last school year with 10 sixth-grade girls and expanded it this year to a second group of 10 seventh-grade girls. The program gives the girls a place to share their experiences with peers in a confidential setting while Morgan dispenses wisdom and nuggets of comfort.
“My goal is to help them navigate a complicated stage in their lives and become empowered in how they handle situations,” Morgan said. “The issues I deal with as a guidance counsel became my curriculum.”
Across the globe, educators and non-profit leaders are urging adolescent girls to be confident, self-aware and look toward accomplished female role models for inspiration. Organizations and websites such as Fearlessly Girl and Girls Inc. have launched empowerment campaigns to educate girls on how to become strong women. And, brands like Dove with its Self Esteem Project and Always with its “Like a Girl” ad campaign are sparking conversation and action.
On this day, in a public middle school in Davie, Morgan makes several comparisons between the experiences Edwards, 33, encountered as a student in her Broward middle school and those the girls at Indian Ridge are dealing with, encouraging them to be bold. “Here is a strong female leader who was just where you are,” she tells the girls.
When the conversation turns to bullying, Edwards and Morgan encourage the girls to discuss why tweens post mean things online or spread rumors on social media sites.
“They are jealous of the other person,” says seventh grader Carly Hogan. Jaida Eubanks, a sixth grader, thinks there is another reason: “People can put things on the Internet without anyone knowing who they are.”
The girls’ explanations are followed by each giving then put forth ideas for how to have more confidence. Michelle Zapata explains she gets self conscious about her frizzy hair. She has been putting gel in it or using a headband and worrying less about what others think. Vanessa Espinal tries to develop a pattern at home, doing her classwork first, and feeling good about understanding the lessons, rather than spending hours online on social media sites.
A week later and the girls have assembled again. This time, the conversation centers on pursuing your passion and overcoming obstacles. The guest is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who at age 26 became the youngest female legislator in the state's history. The girls are eager to question Schultz, now a U.S. representative and one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, They ask how she gained confidence to run for office, whether she gets nervous speaking in front of Congress and how she handles her job and her family.
Summer Slater, a sixth grader, wants to know if Wasserman Schultz was ever teased in middle school.
Wasserman Shultz responds candidly, recalling an embarrassing grade school nickname and explaining how getting past the putdowns later gave her the confidence when people tried to dissuade her from running for office. “You have to find strength in yourself and pursue things you care about.”
Sixth grader Bronte Bredemeyer wants to know if she gets upset when people write negative things about her online.
“I just don’t look at them,” Wasserman Schultz replies. “If you believe in what you are doing, you have to thicken your skin.”
Morgan says she already sees a positive change in the girls’ academic motivation, self-esteem, confidence and problem-solving skills.
Indian Ridge Principal Frank Zagari said he believes the Miss Empowerment program is unique to his school — in its structure, curriculum and caliber of guest speakers who have taken an interest in influencing middle school girls. And he said it is a format other schools may wish to replicate: “This program provides an opportunity for our girls to gain insight on ways to address the critical social issues they may encounter.”