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Women Who Lead: Emily Isaacs, Women’s Wilderness

Our growing community is full of women who are devoted to helping more young women learn, grow, and discover themselves through outdoor adventure. We caught up with Emily, Executive Director of local partner Women’s Wilderness in Boulder, CO, to learn more about how she became a Woman Who Leads.

Tell us about your role at Women’s Wilderness –  what’s a typical day as Executive Director?

Oh wow, typical is different every day! I meet with our team – our Outreach Director, our Program Director, and our Admissions Coordinator, and we collaborate on current projects. I go out to lunch with our supporters and talk to them about the awesome work we are doing. I write grants. I communicate with the Board of Directors. Overall, I act as a coordinating force making sure we are all working towards the same objective: getting more girls and women outdoors in a healthy, supportive community!

How did you get involved in women’s outdoor education?

I began working in outdoor education after college, when I wanted to have a life adventure and remembered that my own outdoor ed trips as a student really were the times I felt like my happiest, brightest self. I worked for NOLS, Outward Bound, and several wilderness therapy programs – spending over 10 years sleeping on the ground year-round. When I moved to Boulder for graduate school in Counseling Psychology, I missed that outdoor work and connected with Women’s Wilderness as an instructor. Given that I went to girls’ school from K-8, it just felt instinctively “right.” It spoke to those early empowering experiences on outdoor ed trips in middle school – backpacking with all girls in the winter in Yosemite!

Did you grow up in an outdoors-oriented family? What was your breakthrough outdoor experience – and where was it?

I grew up in San Francisco and I had the great fortune to grow up camping places like Yosemite and Big Sur. Truth is, as an 8-year-old, I don’t remember El Cap – I remember the tadpoles in the Merced! There’s the magic for any 8 year old – it does not take a mountain! So there are a lot of ways to define “breakthrough outdoor experience.” One would be the day-in, day-out experiences in city parks, finding puddles to jump in and trees to climb. The wilderness of an empty lot can hold a lot of potential! The other would be my first lead-climbing experience when I was 23. I led 3 pitches in Yosemite, a 5.6 called “The Grack.” Trad climbing can seem SO intimidating and technical from the outside. I was determined to learn to do it, to feel I could make my own judgement calls up high on the rock, but it took years to find the right mentors and to really learn to believe in myself. When I finally led that climb, I felt like a whole world had suddenly opened up to me.

“Something different just happens in all women and all-girls programs. There is space and with space comes opportunity. All the role models are women. The girls see competent, caring women taking on challenges. And on a deep, perhaps even non-verbal way, they begin to picture themselves in those roles, too.”

Many folks ask us “why girls-only?” In your view, what are the unique benefits of girls-only programs?

The first program we ran under my direction was a day-long women’s canoe program, and I went out as a participant. The group included women from their 20’s to 60’s. At the end, many of the women shared: “I would have never steered that canoe if my husband had been here! But he wasn’t, so I did, and it was great! I didn’t know I could do that!” Something different just happens in all women and all-girls programs. There is space and with space comes opportunity. All the role models are women. The girls see competent, caring women taking on challenges. And on a deep, perhaps even non-verbal way, they begin to picture themselves in those roles, too. Every time someone steps up to a challenge, it’s a girl. And the instructors get that – they provide the space and the teaching that really nurtures girls taking on leadership roles and opportunities they might not otherwise step into.

Part of the mandate of The Cairn Project is to help expand access to programs like yours in underserved communities. In your experience, what are the biggest obstacles to increasing young women’s participation in outdoor programs?

Wow, access is a huge topic we try to address. Transportation, gear, the idea that “only white people go outdoors” or “only white people climb,” language barriers, and trust are all obstacles we actively work with. Currently we are working to bring more women of color into instructor roles at Women’s Wilderness.

Despite the roles of “leader” and “participant,” learning usually goes both ways. What is something you’ve learned from one of the girls in your program in the last few months?

Girls are actively grappling with issues around social justice in a way that is far more sophisticated than I realize (or may have understood when I was a teen). We just met with the Girls’ Advisory Board, eight girls who are in high school and have all attended our summer courses. I was blown away by their insight and questions. They are talking about how to address sexist and homophobic language at school, they are talking about how to define “woman” for themselves in a way that does not conform to negative stereotypes. These girls are sharp. Do not underestimate them!

Emily with her daughter.

What’s your favorite way to adventure?

Going outside with my 16 month old daughter. She recently learned the word “hawk” while hiking – we saw 2 different hawks one day that I pointed out. Then in the parking lot, I was leaning down to get her out of her carrier. She said, “Hawk!” and I looked up. Sure enough, there was a hawk in the sky. I could have cried with amazement and love. I would have not seen that hawk if she had not pointed it out!

We’ve all had those rough days outside that we look back on fondly. Tell us about a challenging moment in the outdoors, and what you gained from it.

One of my best girlfriends and I made an attempt on a big wall – Moonlight Buttress in Zion – whew, already almost 10 years ago. We spent the night sleeping on a portaledge several hundred feet up – imagine camping on a 4 foot by 8 foot platform hanging from the rock. It felt so joyful, like playing house in the sky, watching the headlamps of other climbers in the dark across the valley flicker. There’s something special about being in a team with another woman. We’re just really relying on each other, trusting ourselves, trusting each other. It is deeply powerful and hard to describe beyond that. We ended up not completing the wall – but the entire adventure was OURS, even the involved process of retreat. No one else did it for us.

Outdoor education extends far beyond simply learning how to set up a tent, tie a figure eight knot, or maneuver a bike around obstacles. What are some of the benefits that you see in the young women you work with?

Finding their voice. When girls get together out in the woods for a week, far far away from cell phones and cliques and all the drama of school and family – they find out who they are, away from all those things. They get loud. They get silly. They find out they like themselves, and that other people like them. I hear it again and again from them. It’s huge, and it does not go away once they have tasted that sense of freedom.