SXSW EDU x SchoolCEO: Uniting girls to change the world

The UN Foundation's Girl Up is bringing girls from around the globe together to learn leadership and STEM. We talk with Director of Programming and Impact, Bailey Leuschen.

If you visit GirlUp.org, you’re immediately greeted with this statement in big, bold letters: “There is no country in the world where women are equal.” This initiative of the United Nations Foundation is working to change that. Girl Up’s Clubs and WiSci (Women in Science) Girls STEAM camps are empowering a new generation of girls to take their futures into their own hands by learning leadership skills like advocacy, organizing, fundraising, and communication.

As Director of Programming and Impact, Bailey Leuschen has seen thousands of young women become change makers through Girl Up’s Clubs, camps, and connections. Over the course of just ten years, the program’s work has impacted more than 65,000 students in 120 countries—including all U.S. states and territories.

“I’ve been with the team for three years,” Leuschen tells us. Professionally, she’s worked in the space of gender and women’s equality in the D.C. area for the past decade—working with international nonprofits focused on social justice, civil society, and human rights. Leuschen grew up in Florida, attended the University of Richmond, and later earned her master’s from the London School of Economics in their gender department. “My role now is really to accelerate social change worldwide by investing in girls,” she says.

Girl Up started in 2010 as an initiative to help UN agencies focused on adolescent girls. Through its programming, it’s now bringing opportunities to girls around the world—and we mean all of them. “Although 99% of our programs are open to any youth of any gender identity, our mission is to really empower girls around the world to know their leadership potential and that they are global change makers,” Leuschen says.

The organization’s largest program provides free resources and connections for school clubs, which are started by students on their own campuses. “It is an absolutely free extracurricular resource to any girl, anywhere, who has access to the internet,” Leuschen explains. “We’ve now had over 3,500 groups of youth go online and register to start their own Girl Up Clubs.”

Since a primary focus of Girl Up is to guide and empower young women to be leaders, initially establishing a club is part of the learning process. “When a girl does that, she’s already asserting her curiosity and leadership by saying, I want to start something at my school or in my community,” Leuschen says. “When she joins the Girl Up community, she has access to hundreds of resources at her fingertips, for her specific interests.” Girl Up offers a wide variety of programming to these clubs, all of which are crucial to the development of leadership and advocacy skills.

“That includes our storytelling curriculum,” Leuschen says. “Girls learn how to use the power of their own voices and stories to impact change.” Girl Up also provides resources to help Club members advocate for the causes they care about, both locally and nationally. “Our girls have submitted hundreds of thousands of advocacy actions, from calling officials to writing letters to passing laws,” she tells us. “At this point, we’ve actually had three bills turned into laws that focused on girls’ rights—thanks in large part to the action of our girls.”

Girl Up also started the Sports For A Purpose program, which aims to tackle gender inequities in sports. The program not only focuses on the leadership skills sports can teach on and off the field, but also seeks to inspire and empower girls to break down sports gender barriers in sports in their own communities and around the world.

Another Girl Up endeavor is STEM for Social Good. “The whole purpose is to inspire girls to know there’s a place for them in STEM and that there are other women—incredible role models—to look up to,” Leuschen says. “They need to see it to be it, so we try to foster opportunities online and in person for girls to engage with mentors and their peers to overcome the various levels of obstacles they may face.”

Leuschen says a common obstacle many girls face is the idea that STEM is not for them. “We make all of our events and programming very enticing to high school girls and college women,” she says. “But there’s also a community of other girls who want to connect from around the world. We also introduce them to hands-on activities and mentors. It’s kind of choose-your-own-adventure, if you will. In the Girl Scouts, there’s a badge you work toward getting and there’s an adult advisor in every meeting. Girl Up is much more girl-led. The girls are running the meetings and choosing what to do.”  

WiSci STEAM Camps

Girl Up’s WiSci (Women in Science) STEAM summer camps allow for the most face-time with students from all around the world. “It’s very near and dear to my heart,” Leuschen tells us. These two-week, completely free, residential summer camps each bring together 100 girls from a minimum of four different countries. “They’re rising 10th, 11th, or 12th graders,” Leuschen adds, “meaning that by the time they finish the camp, every girl has at least one full year of high school remaining—so that she can integrate everything she’s learned onto her respective campus.”

Leuschen says it’s hard to describe the camps, but that they blend elements of traditional summer camp—like singing, making friends, and having new adventures away from your family—with leadership, advocacy, and STEAM skills. “The whole idea for WiSci camps was born out of a conversation between the Department of State and heads of industry,” she explains. “The conversation was, We know that the STEM, ICT, and Tech sectors are growing exponentially, and the demand for skilled employees is very high. When you look at that data by gender in any country in the world, there are fewer women than men. We hope that the mentorship piece of our camps, in addition to learning the hard skills—and how to be confident, how to be a leader—can address that.”  

So, the primary objective of the camps is to tackle gender equality head-on. “It’s about closing the gender gap, and interrogating it,” Leuschen says. “Asking ourselves, Why are there so few women and girls in STEM? What are the obstacles we face? How do we improve it? And how do we become brave and confident leaders to enact those changes?”

WiSci camps build that confidence through once-in-a-lifetime learning experiences. Girl Up partners with some pretty big-name private sector companies to give campers engaging and hands-on learning in STEAM subjects. “We’ve partnered with the Intel Foundation, Google, NASA, and Microsoft,” Leuschen says. “And we’re partnering for the first time this year with the CATERPILLAR Foundation—these partners are teaching girls things like drone technology, AI, robotic automation, coding to build apps, and even the geospatial mapping NASA uses to connect outer space to Earth.”

So, essentially, the camps serve a two-fold purpose: both to empower and educate young girls to be advocates and leaders in their schools and communities, and to offer them hands-on learning in STEAM. “They’re learning those hard skills from our partners and learning leadership and gender equality from us,” Leuschen says. “The whole camp culminates with a final project that blends those two.” Intercultural and international groups of 10 girls each conduct these final presentations. “They’ve got their pitch decks, they’ve learned how to public speak,” she tells us. “Then they come together using the UN’s Sustainable Development goals to say, Which of these do we care about, and how can we apply what we’ve learned at camp to address these issues—not only in our countries but in my group mates’ countries as well?

In many ways, the camps have value far beyond what you’d expect for both the campers and their countries. “We’re really looking at the incredible resources that American businesses and American professionals have to share with the world and looking at places in the world where opportunities for women and girls are lower,” Leuschen says. “It really is an incredible partnership between the private sector and the public sector where the Department of State is able to add diplomacy to all of this. So not only do you have girls from around the world getting access that they wouldn’t have had anywhere else, but you’re also getting the chance to showcase talent and businesses and really have that corporate responsibility piece in all of this, which is so cool.”

The camps, hosted by different U.S. embassies, started with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. But, as word keeps getting out, more embassies want to be involved and host their own WiSci camps. “We’ve been able to expand in the last two years to the Republic of Georgia, Estonia, and to Kosovo,” Leuschen says. “In Kosovo, we were the first STEAM summer camp in the history of that country.”

Whereas in the United States, a typical girl has access to many such programs, in some parts of the world, WiSci camps are the only opportunities like this. “All the girls get 100% scholarship and are selected from those who’ve demonstrated interest, but also from girls who demonstrate not having the financial means,” Leuschen explains. “It’s really incredible to see girls across the world, from very humble means, coming together for this awesome experience.”

Impact and Possibility

In 2018, the Department of State contracted a three-year impact study on Girl Up’s WiSci Camps—and the results showed a lasting and far-reaching impact. “In the survey of the first three camps in sub-Saharan Africa, they found that of the former campers pursuing a secondary degree, 78% of them were in STEM fields,” Leuschen explains. “Not only that, but they’re in touch with one another after camp, and they’re informing their own communities of what they’ve learned.”

Countless WiSci campers around the globe are also introduced to Girl Up’s club curriculum during their time at camp. “Many of them go back to their communities and start Girl Up clubs, and then they’re connected with tens of thousands of youth just like them all around the world—girls who care about STEM fields, who want to make a difference in their communities,” she says.

Girl Up also hosts an annual Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., where they bring together hundreds of girls from different countries. “Last year we had 450 high schoolers, and they heard from influential speakers—women in all fields and walks of life,” Leuschen tells us. “We always set aside scholarships for WiSci alumni to come to D.C. for that.” That’s an important element of Girl Up’s platform—once a girl is in their network, she has continuous access to resources she can take back to her school and community. “Not only is the impact for them internal, but they take it home with them,” Leuschen adds.

As far as what the future holds for the program, Leuschen says the focus is on even wider impact. “I think the next frontier for Girl Up is to provide a suite of resources for how to engage boys in clubs as well,” she explains. Although many clubs have male members, Leuschen says it’s important to encourage and find ways to teach more boys to be better allies. “So we see this blended movement where the boys are right there with the girls saying, We need gender equality for us, too. We need to be able to express our emotions and have a version of masculinity that’s not so toxic to us,” Leuschen says.

“These are young people changing our world as young people,” she says. “So I think one of the best things administrators can do is provide a safe space for their students to come together and talk about these issues and get supported to be change makers, globally and locally. Also, they spread the word about these opportunities and engage with our STEM for Social Good programming. It’s all free and it’s really going to benefit their students, their schools, their communities. Ultimately, it’s going to benefit our world.”

Leuschen also sees that impact in the stories she hears about Girl Up members and campers around the world—proof that empowering girls is changing their lives. “One of the campers at our first camp was given a full ride to MIT as the only Rwandan student there. Our lovely camper Leslie, from Peru, ended up going on to pursue her bachelor’s at Stanford,” Leuschen says. “But equally as important is learning about the girl who was the first in her family—and in her village—to finish high school. Because of WiSci camp, she believed in her value and importance and really saw herself. That’s the type of change that we see.”

Photo courtesy of GirlUp.org

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