‘Smart, Strong and Bold’: Girl Power Program Aims To Inspire Students

By Lisa Kaczke
Duluth News Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl:dr) The Duluth YWCA’s Girl Power Program is a great example for schools everywhere. Girl Power has been serving girls in Duluth since 1997. The program uses a Girls Inc. curriculum with the motto of “helping girls be smart, strong and bold,” As a program of the YWCA, the mission of empowering women and girls and eliminating racism is “deeply rooted” in Girl Power’s purpose.


When it comes to children’s books, some North Star Academy girls say there aren’t enough books with female protagonists — and that girl characters typically fall into stereotypes such as a boy’s annoying little sister.

“I don’t see very many of them,” said Emily Ek, a fourth-grader at the Duluth charter school, adding that it makes her feel that “people don’t think much of girls.”

But a group of girls is working to fix that omission.

A dozen girls in the Duluth YWCA’s Girl Power program at the school spent time last week decorating signs to post around their school advertising their drive to collect books that feature strong, independent women and girls of color that can go in the school’s library and classrooms.

Books for the drive can be dropped off at North Star Academy and the Building for Women in downtown Duluth. The North Star Girl Power group hopes to collect 150 books.

The book drive is a community action project for the North Star branch of Girl Power, a free program in six Duluth schools serving about 250 girls in the city each year.

There’s a need for a program like Girl Power in the Duluth area, said Alice Jacobson, director of external programming at the YWCA in Duluth.

“A majority of our kids are living at or below the poverty level and at many sites, there aren’t options for them to have structured and enriching programs for free,” she said.

Girl Power has been serving girls in Duluth since 1997. The program uses a Girls Inc. curriculum with the motto of “helping girls be smart, strong and bold,” Jacobson said. As a program of the YWCA, the mission of empowering women and girls and eliminating racism is “deeply rooted” in Girl Power’s purpose, she said.

There’s a noticeable change over the course of a school year in the girls who participate in Girl Power, Jacobson said.

“You really see the difference in confidence and ability to advocate for themselves from the girls from the beginning of the year to the end of the year,” she said. “It’s absolutely amazing to see friendships be built and see girls who are very shy at the beginning and maybe not willing to speak up be able to stand up for themselves and be able to share their opinions and be stronger in their leadership skills.”

Activities are focused on leadership and teamwork development, in addition to self-esteem building, nature exploration, healthy risk-taking, economic literacy and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

The afterschool program is offered for girls in varying grade levels at Lester Park, Myers-Wilkins, Piedmont and Laura MacArthur elementary schools, Lincoln Park Middle School and North Star Academy. Most of the programs are offered after school, except for a lunchtime program at Laura MacArthur. A drop-in program was added this year at the Steve O’Neil Apartments because of some barriers, such as transportation, that had prohibited some girls from being able to participate at their schools. A drop-in program also is offered at the Valley Youth Center.

The program also hosts a summer camp open to all girls ages 8 to 14 in the Twin Ports with a sliding-scale cost based on family income; scholarships are available.

Inspiring stories
On a recent Thursday, the girls heard that day’s “herstory” after going around the room to say where they would travel if they could go anywhere in the world.

Some of the girls chimed in “Oscar!” as Girl Power leader Kate Mensing began describing the herstory of Lupita Nyong’o, the actress who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “12 Years a Slave.”

The herstory is a favorite part of the meetings, and the girls especially liked hearing about the life of Ruby Bridges because she was only slightly younger than them when she helped integrate the New Orleans schools in 1960.

“I like what she did to change people’s lives,” said third-grader Ava Hand-Johnson.

The stories are inspiring to hear each week, third-grader Kailee Banda said. She recommended that girls join Girl Power if they need to be inspired and empowered.

“I’ve learned it doesn’t really matter who we are or what we do as long as you’re a human being and be yourself,” she said. “It means just be who I am and don’t try to be like anyone else.”

The girls also complete activities together. Third-grader Jaidyn Tondryk said she liked when they planted seeds because they were able to explore nature, while making bubble gum was a favorite activity for fourth-grader Ava Norlander.

Local volunteers called “wo-mentors” visit with the girls to help out with the activities and provide academic support while serving as positive role models. “Women of the Week” also visit the program, representing business leaders, community leaders and women who work in non-traditional careers to show girls there are a wide variety of options to pursue.

Fourth-grader Ruby Swanson said she’s learned something new every time since the first day of joining the program, while creating friendships and doing fun activities. The best part is meeting new friends and seeing girls she knows who respect each other in the hallway at school, she said.

“Now I have more courage in myself, like a lot more. Sometimes I was scared of a bunch of stuff and now I think, ‘I can do this’ because I remember what (Girl Power leaders) said,” she said. “Every Tuesday and Thursday, I can’t wait. It’s so much fun.”

Making a difference
The girls heard last week that they’d collected 12 books so far — with pledges from used book stores to provide more — toward their goal, and the suggestion was made that they should draw a thermometer on a large piece of paper that they can color in as they near the goal of 150 books. Mensing responded that tracking their progress on paper was a good way to visualize a goal.

The book drive shows what people can do to make a positive impact, third-grader Addison Beck said.

“It makes me feel really proud and it makes me feel like I’m doing a really big difference in the world,” she said.

Fourth-grader Pearl Swanson explained that they got the idea from a herstory they heard about Marley Dias, an 11-year-old New Jersey girl collecting 1,000 books that have black girls as the main character.

Pearl added that her mom usually gives her library books with female protagonists, and she said reading the books make her feel happy. She received one book from her mom titled “Use Your Girl Power,” she said; it contains encouraging words.
“I always read it before a big test and it makes me feel good,” she said.

For more information about the Girl Power program, visit

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