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 GirlVentures in San Francisco, to learn more about how she became a Woman Who Leads.
Tell us about your role at GirlVentures — what’s a typical day as Executive Director?
Being the Executive Director of a small non-profit organization means that every day includes a bit of almost everything – program development, HR, fundraising, Board relations, and more. The most joyful parts of my job are the opportunities to facilitate staff development and spend time with our participants and alumni, witnessing their “aha moments” of personal growth, whether they happen in the office or the backcountry.
“…we are engaging with intention and urgency on issues of inclusion, access, and representation in the outdoors.”
GirlVentures is at an exciting point of evolution as we close out our 20th year in operation and look towards the future. As a staff, we are engaging with intention and urgency on issues of inclusion, access, and representation in the outdoors. While we celebrate GirlVentures’ history of innovation and impact, we’re also focused on improving the inclusivity of our programs and challenging ourselves to walk the talk when it comes to providing access to the outdoors for all girls.
How did you get involved in women’s outdoor education?
I had the luck of growing up in Oregon before Oregon was cool, and the privilege of being born into a family that encouraged and facilitated my love of the outdoors from a very young age. I lived in a rural area near Portland and spent weekends and summers outside – exploring, backpacking, skiing, or camping with friends.
My parents also ignited my passion for girls and women’s empowerment by treating me as a capable and valuable human being, regardless of my gender. It didn’t take me long to realize that my experience was the exception, rather than the rule. After college, I ended up working with women on tea estates in Darjeeling, India as an intern for Mercy Corps, and over the next 14 years, my career took me to Guatemala, Nigeria, Malawi, and many places in between.
Living in an apartment in a major urban area, and spending a lot of my time on airplanes, I felt increasingly disconnected from nature and the outdoors. The recognition that globally, climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately impact girls lent more urgency to my quest to engage more intentionally on these issues. I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring global lessons home to my local community in support of inclusive outdoor education at GirlVentures.
Did you grow up in an outdoors-oriented family? What was your breakthrough outdoor experience – and where was it?
One of my most distinct early memories is backpacking in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness in central Oregon with my family. On the last day of our trip, we climbed up a shale field to the bottom of a glacier, and drank directly from a stream of glacial melt coming out below the ice and saturating a field of wildflowers. Many of my outdoor adventures since then have been spent chasing the perfection of that childhood moment. It shouldn’t be a privilege to experience this kind of transformative beauty and find your place in nature, but it is.
Many folks ask us “why girls-only?” In your view, what are the unique benefits of girls-only programs?
Girls’ confidence peaks at the age of nine and then plummets in adolescence, while boys’ confidence remains stable as they transition to adulthood. Underlying patriarchal values discourage girls from speaking up and encourage them to base their self-worth on male approval. During adolescence, girls also face sharply increased risks of sexual harassment and assault, and are often blamed for these traumatic experiences by both peers and adults.
“We urgently need more women leading positive change in this country and around the world, and girl-focused empowerment programs are one of the most effective ways for us to achieve this goal.”
In the face of this stark reality, it’s imperative that we provide safe spaces for girls to build their confidence, develop their voice, and explore their own unique leadership style. We urgently need more women leading positive change in this country and around the world, and girl-focused empowerment programs are one of the most effective ways for us to achieve this goal. GirlVentures’ outdoor programs provide safe spaces for dialogue on issues relating to gender, encourage girls to challenge themselves and build confidence, and help them hear and articulate their own inner truth.
When we talk about girls-only programs, it’s also essential to question the gender binary, and to look at gender from an intersectional lens. Non-white girls and trans girls face higher rates of poverty and violence, and much less access to the outdoors, than their cis white counterparts. Engaging in complex conversations around programs targeting girls encourages us to serve youth who need the most support, with more effective initiatives. The meaning and substance of “girls-only” is changing, and that’s going to lead to better outcomes for all of us.
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?
We often talk about the barriers to access associated with poverty – the prohibitive costs of training, gear, and transportation to wilderness areas, for instance. Those are certainly obstacles in and of themselves. However, it’s essential to situate them within a broader conversation around systemic barriers that have allowed the wilderness to persist as a bastion of white male privilege. Girls from underserved communities, and particularly girls of color, don’t see themselves reflected when they read stories about outdoor adventure, scroll through wilderness photos on Instagram, or browse outdoor retailer catalogues.
The underlying causes of lack of access are complicated, and at GirlVentures we seek to respond to that complexity by ensuring that inclusion is both one of our foundational values, and is reflected in the details of our program design and delivery. GirlVentures intentionally brings together girls from diverse communities for 7-14 day wilderness expeditions, encouraging deep reflection on identity, leadership, and inclusion. The strategies that allow us to do that successfully range from conducting bilingual and culturally-competent outreach with families, to bridging the divide between social justice and environmental justice in our curriculum, to amplifying the voices of diverse outdoors people on our social media.
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?
Whenever I spend time with our participants, I’m reminded that girls are already leaders, if we make space for them to lead. A couple of months ago, one of our alumna, who is 12 years old, agreed to speak at our annual gala. She and I spent several weeks working on what she wanted to say and practicing her remarks together. When she arrived at the venue on the evening of the event, the reality of speaking into a microphone in front of a crowd of hundreds of adults hit her suddenly, and she burst into tears. We took a walk, practiced deep breathing, and cracked a few jokes, and she told me she was ready. And when she spoke in front of the gala crowd, she looked everyone in the eye and told her story in a strong, clear voice. She’s the kind of leader I aspire to be.
What’s your favorite way to adventure?
I love spontaneous adventure and the chance to experience things from a new perspective, whether that’s a last-minute weekend trip to swim in the Yuba River or my ongoing quest to find the best vegetarian tacos in the Bay Area. No matter the expedition, good music, good food, and proximity to water are essential.
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.
In 2008, I moved to Guatemala for work, while seriously ill with neurological Lyme Disease, an illness that causes severe fatigue and poor endurance among many other symptoms. A couple of months later, I decided to climb the 12,400 foot tall volcano outside the town where I lived. About an hour into the hike, I started to struggle. Halfway up the mountain, I was overwhelmed by dizziness and nausea and had to sit down on a log. As I struggled to catch my breath, several families with small children, most wearing sandals or simple tennis shoes, raced past me up the steep trail. Their casual approach to what felt to me like a monumental challenge was both humbling and energizing. I ate a protein bar and got to my feet. Three hours later, I was standing on top of the volcano, watching the morning sun ascend over a chain of mountains stretching from El Salvador to Mexico. The heightened sense of accomplishment I felt after nearly giving up, of reaching at least one summit during a time of deep personal adversity, has stayed with me as a reminder that I’m capable of more than I believe possible.
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?
Spending time outside in nature is a profound gift in and of itself. On top of that, girls in our programs experience a myriad of short- and long-term benefits from going on course with GirlVentures. The opportunity to disconnect from screens and the hectic pace of life and to build authentic human connection has a lasting impact on the girls in our programs.
Beyond that, our instructors and curriculum support girls’ growth into confident and empathetic leaders. Ninety percent of our participants report they are more confident to try something that people think girls can’t or shouldn’t do, 92% are more likely to be physically active in the future, 90% are more likely to be an ally to someone different than them, 90% are more committed to care for the natural environment, and 91% now believe they can be leaders. Outdoor education is a fantastic investment in both the future of the human community and in environmental sustainability.