INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN |PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of THE GIRL EFFECT
“The world could use a good kick in the pants. Agree?” If this statement sounds familiar, then you’re probably one of the millions of people to have been touched by The Girl Effect, which asserts that investing in adolescent girls dramatically impacts an entire village and can bolster long-term development. The Girl Effect, a movement initiated by the Nike Foundation and other organizations, centralizes material (videos, reports…) and partners up with international organizations and global programs to raise awareness about the crucial importance of girls and the champions that support them. No one knows about this topic better than Nike Foundation’s Creative Director, Emily Brew, who led the development of The Girl Effect and understands the importance of powerful communication tools when it comes to reaching out about the importance of fighting poverty. After traveling for two weeks in sub-Saharan Africa, Emily chatted with us about her remarkable mission and work.
Finally, since Daily BR!NK is all about stories, we will be sharing with you the lives of four extraordinary girls from different backgrounds and geographical places within impoverished areas for the remainder of the week.
What exactly is The Girl Effect?
The idea behind The Girl Effect is that girls are the greatest untapped resource for change in the world, particularly in poverty. It’s common sense that women are the ones raising families and guiding the next generation; it’s been proven that when women and girls earn income, they will reinvest 90% of that income into their families, whereas that number is only 30% or 40% for men. What hasn’t been understood is that before a woman is a woman, she is a girl. The period of time during adolescence will determine whether she becomes a woman which passes on positive change or gets thrown into an early marriage, drops out of school, gets pregnant, HIV positive, and falls off the path of productive adulthood. This has been the foundation premise for seven years: we entered with the idea that girls are a powerful source of change not just for their family, but to a much larger extent.
And I’m guessing that while The Girl Effect focuses solely on females, males are an essential component of the movement as well…
The idea is that when you invest in a girl, everybody gains benefits when she has income and benefits. The same isn’t true for boys. That said, boys play a crucial role in whether girls get the support that they need. I mean, we’re thinking “ripple effect” for everybody.
The foundation has existed for now nearly seven years, but it was only a few years ago that you came out with The Girl Effect video that went absolutely viral, subsequently raising a lot of awareness for your movement. How did that come about?
Three years ago, we decided that we needed a very sharp and simple way for people to understand what can be seen as a complex topic. Something that might be intuitive for us, but not for everyone: the importance of investing in girls. The video really did hit the nail on the head. The challenge here was to simplify a complex issue but not to dumb it down. Coming from a communications background, we knew that we had to focus on a sharp point, or else no one would enter a dialog with us.
The video mentions that when a girl lives in poverty at age twelve, her chances of succeeding in life are ridiculously slim. I’m curious, where were you when you were twelve?
Love that question! When I was twelve, I was in California growing up in the Bay Area and I was a dreamy little kid who was the youngest of four daughters. I used to spend my days making up stories, drawing pictures, and running in the grass.
When did you become conscious that poverty was an issue?
I actually remember it specifically… When I was in my early twenties, I travelled to rural Nepal for a bit and saw much younger girls than me carrying babies around. I wasn’t aware of international affairs, and certainly not aware of how poverty was driven, but I do remember seeing very young girls surrounded by impoverished conditions and thinking, “They are stuck! They will never be able to fulfill their whole potential if their whole life is about looking after everybody else.” And it’s true: they end up being water and fire carriers, family supporters, being what infrastructure doesn’t provide… all of that is carried by teenage girls to the cost of society. After this, I went back to the part of me that likes to write stories and draw pictures. I ended up in the nineties working in branding and marketing at Nike and was part of the first digital effort, which was a lot of fun.
Since The Girl Effect was initiated by The Nike Foundation, how did you personally end up being involved?
When the foundation chose to focus on adolescent girls, they were speaking to folks who had awareness of the fight against poverty but who also had brand marketing experience. The question was: “How can communications be a powerful addition to this movement?” And that’s when I stepped in.
You recently came back from sub-Saharan Africa, allowing us to have all the amazingly precious material for this week…
We visited different programs that the Nike Foundation supports in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, and met with quite a few girls between the ages of ten and nineteen, four of which your readers will be discovering. If you think about The Girl Effect, all of what we do is about raising awareness half-way around the world about the power that girls have; the work that we are doing on the ground gets us much closer and allows us to actually interact with adolescent females. We started in Nairobi’s (Kenya) slum areas and this program called “Fortress of Hope,” which is a space just for girls: a hang-out. A place for them to connect with each other, understand what is happening to their bodies, be safe… The slums we were in are an incredibly dangerous place not even recognized by the government, with a very great deal of crime. A girl walking down the street a night puts herself in enormous risk, and a girl alone at home does too. The rate of HIV in the slum is even more astonishing than one in four. “Fortress of Hope” is a safe emotional, mental, and intellectual place you can go.
Can you expand on the importance of safe places in development issues? I’m guessing that it has more to do than just keeping girls physically safe.
Oh, absolutely. In terms of development, we call that social capital: what capital does an individual need to develop? A network of friends in the most basic one to grow, where girls are able to talk about their stories and gain the confidence to speak to each other about what is happening to their bodies. They can gain tips on how to combat sexual violence and lift themselves out of isolation. The notion of girls going on to lead other girls after they’ve been helped is something very powerful. Here’s a great example: a safe-space was created in the middle of Nairobi nine years ago and the first group of girls involved went through a training about how to protect themselves, which afterwards led to their decision that more girls should have that. They took it upon themselves to go out in the community, find another safe space (used schools, shops…) and started their own programs. The original fifty girls started fifty more spaces and each of these have three more girls — that has continued over the past nine years. When you think of what’s required to do something like that, it’s pretty darn simple. Sharing knowledge is the most powerful tool there is.
One of the biggest challenges in the development world is just the gigantic abundance of organizations striving toward the same end-goal. Do you think there should be sort of an umbrella organization? And since The Girl Effect is a movement driven by key partners such as the United Nations Foundation, is that what you are striving for?
I don’t know if being an umbrella for all these organizations is a realistic goal, but what we found is that there were indeed a lot of groups doing a lot of disconnected work around girls. Coming from Nike, we probably could bring something to the table that those great, experienced NGOs and businesses didn’t focus on: the ability to tell stories and to give platforms for actions. When we created The Girl Effect, it was about creating tools that the whole movement could use; really, there was no other agenda beyond raising awareness. Our website includes presentations, videos, reports… It was quite interesting actually, because even though we truly created all of the material for any girl champion, people still felt like they needed to ask us for permission to use them.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to the success of The Girl Effect?
We love that Daily BR!NK is pulling together creators and collaborators, people who want to do more than the easy thing. For your readers who are interested in joining The Girl Effect movement, we have a great amount of material available on girleffect.org. We also profoundly believe that movements today aren’t built by one all-powerful leader inspiring the masses and leading the field. Individual people need to get excited about a message and do something their own way, whether that is starting their own The Girl Effect fundraiser and holding a race in a corn field in Iowa… Yep, that happened!
Someone just organized a race as a fundraiser! [laughs] We even have a girl organizing flash mobs in Malaysia. We feel like our job is about fostering and giving people the tools they’re inspired by to drive awareness forward in a way that is most compelling to them. How can people sitting in San Francisco or Chicago make a difference to a Florence or a Dorothé (girls that will be featured on Daily BR!NK throughout the week)? We don’t underestimate the power of spreading the word and the eventual possibility it has to generate actions in Washington. Finally, enlist men as girl advocates — in fact, some of the best champions for girls are men and boys: at the community-level, they may be the gatekeepers; at the macro-level, they can influence how the world perceives and invests in girls’ potential.