First thing’s first: if any of you haven’t yet seen this fantastic video, I highly recommend watching to acquaint yourself with the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect.
There are a lot of reasons why I love the Nike Girl Effect campaign. Not only does it make oft-neglected girls’ issues emotionally resonant and accessible to a wide audience; it’s also doing a lot to ameliorate those issues in an unconventional, very modern way.
Nike Inc. is a huge company, in possession of an internationally recognized logo and a broad platform from which to disseminate information. But unlike many other giant corporations, Nike is using their brand recognition and soapbox not simply to generate more profits for themselves, but to give back to the world. And not only is Nike giving back – it’s also focusing on the long-marginalized issue of women’s rights and equality. There is no bigger, better recognized champion for adolescent girls in the developing world right now than Nike, a huge boon for the many overworked, underfunded NGOs and aid workers hoping to help level the playing field for girls and women worldwide. It will come as a surprise to many that the biggest source of untapped potential for social change is not powerful policymakers or male community leaders, but young women.
When girls are educated and supported, they make better life choices, get better jobs, raise healthier families, and set their children up for success. There are over 600 million girls living in the developing world today1, 600 million ways to affect change, solve problems, and raise quality of life for everyone in their communities (not just the women.)
The problem is figuring out how to instigate these changes worldwide. Each new community presents its own unique cultural, historical, and societal challenges. Instead of coming up with a one-size-fits-all solution (like pouring a bunch of money into each region and hoping for the best,) Nike has developed a more effective approach: They focus on specific areas where girls are in dire need of a leg up, and provide that context-specific assistance via local aid organizations, community partners, and Nike Foundation employees stationed overseas.
This is where Global Citizen Year comes in. Annie Plotkin, Galen Burns-Fulkerson and I applied to be Global Citizen Year’s “Girl Champions,” representing the Girl Effect in Brazil, Ecuador, and Senegal by initiating girl empowerment-centered projects. The common theme of our endeavors helped bridge the thousands of miles between us, and we stayed connected throughout the year. Monthly Skype calls with our Global Citizen Year/Girl Effect team leader Shannah Metz and some of the Nike Foundation staff (as well as planning our awesome international gift exchange at re-entry) allowed us Girl Champs to stay focused and motivate each other. All of our Capstone projects were related to our Girl Effect mission, from Annie’s work at a women’s crisis center to Galen’s leadership at an all-girls high school, to my family planning and reproductive health class for local teens. I loved having a clearly-defined cause around which to concentrate my energies in-country – I think having a rallying point helped me accomplish more than I would have without a focal point – especially because the Girl Effect’s mission is one that resonates with me on such a personal level.
Being a Girl Champ also afforded us a truly amazing opportunity: on June 6th, nearly two months after we left Re-entry Training, Annie, Galen, and I reunited in Portland, Oregon to meet with the staff of the Girl Effect at Nike headquarters.
We were asked to do two things: first, to strategize with the Nike Foundation team about ways to publicize the Girl Effect, get people involved, and improve the partnership between Nike and Global Citizen Year. Second, to give short speeches to some of the Nike staff about the girls we met in our communities who changed our lives and our perspectives.
After a fun meet-and-greet breakfast, Galen, Annie and I meet with the communications team to share our observations on what works and what doesn’t, as well as suggestions to generate awareness and participation. The Girl Effect staff is genuinely interested in what we had to say, and we have a really exciting conversation. It’s a singular experience – how many times do teen girls have their voices truly heard by a power player like the Nike Foundation?
Next come our speeches – the most nerve-wracking part of the day by far. We’ve been silently rehearsing our remarks over and over again since the night before; now, after a few out-loud practice sessions with Abby Falik, Founder & CEO of Global Citizen Year, we each prepare to take the podium (emblazoned with a Nike swoosh, natch) to share our stories with the gathered Nike Foundation and Nike Inc. employees. Galen speaks about young girls forced into the sex trade to feed themselves, and contrasts their dilemma with the life of her host sister, about to attend college in Pennsylvania after years of hard work and perseverance. Annie shares her experiences in a community where teenage pregnancy is the norm, and women (like her host sister) rarely escape the dragging consequences of premature motherhood. Finally, I speak about my two host sisters: the elder, who at nineteen has been trapped by an abusive husband and unwanted pregnancy, and the younger, who at eighteen months still has an unwritten future and the potential to deviate from example set by her sibling. It turns out all our nerves were for nothing – we receive a warm welcome from our audience, and the speeches go off without a hitch.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the day came after we spoke, when room was opened up for questions. Every person in the audience was eager to learn more, and it astonished me that this group of Americans, who had walked into the room with no connection to our experiences in Ecuador, Brazil, and Senegal, approached us afterward to express their interest in our bridge years and their support for Global Citizen Year’s mission. These genuine expressions of concern and curiosity were good reminders that everyone, regardless of situation, has the capacity to relate to each another. The human experience is fundamentally the same, and when the superficialities of our lives are stripped away, one can see just how easily they could have ended up in another’s shoes. On the surface, girls in the developing world and business people from Portland don’t have much in common; but look a little closer, and the simple fact that we are human connects us all.
We round out our day with a tour of the beautiful Nike campus and a trip to the employee store, where we stock up on as much high-tech athletic gear as we can carry (something about being at Nike makes you want to exercise – maybe the giant pictures of champion athletes glaring down omnisciently at every turn, or the endless flow of people to-and-from the sleek employee fitness center.) Arms full of running gear and Girl Effect posters destined for our dorm room walls, we catch the train back to Portland.
Speeding away from Nike HQ, I’m filled not with sadness that the day is over, but rather a burgeoning excitement that I get to play a part in realizing the Nike Foundation’s vision. Our little field trip may have been fleeting, but the real purpose behind our visit – our status as Girl Champs- encompasses far more than just a trip to Portland. I realize that I’m excited because I’m participating in something I believe in, a movement that’s gaining momentum each day as word is spread. I know this cause is something I’ll fight for the rest of my life, in college, in the professional world, and in the choices I make each day. But for now, I’ll hand the reigns to next year’s Global Citizen Year Girl Champs, who, while unlocking a lifetime of potential, will also be unleashing the Girl Effect.