Panelists Elaine Brown, mayor of Neptune Beach; Nicole Thomas, president of Baptist Medical Center South; and Imani Hope, director of strategic investments at Jacksonville Public Education Fund.
On Tuesday, Girl Scouts of Gateway Council hosted a panel discussion and community conversation on “The State of Girls: Emerging Truths and Troubling Trends,” a report from the Girl Scout Research Institute.
The report is a collection of data exploring the overall well-being of girls in the United States. Compiled and released by Girl Scouts of the USA’s Girl Scout Research Institute, this third edition of “The State of Girls” found that, regardless of an increase in high school graduation rates, economic conditions affecting girls in the United States have not fully recovered from the Great Recession. These conditions are leading to increased emotional and physical distress among girls, with obesity, marijuana use, and low self-esteem on the rise.
Our panel featured women leaders from the Jacksonville community: Mayor Elaine Brown of Neptune Beach, Nicole Thomas of Baptist Health and Imani Hope of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. They weighed in on the report’s findings and led the conversation around what we can do as a community to improve the outlook for girls.
They addressed questions about girls’ physical and emotional health, education, changing demographics and economics. Each panelist offered her unique perspective on the issues, but all agreed there are a few anyone can do to make the world a better place for girls: mentor, share and listen.
Elaine Brown shared a story of a high school-age girl whom she met with several years ago. The girl conducted a brief interview with Brown, asking general questions about her political and professional background. They went their separate ways after the meeting, and several years later Brown received a letter from the girl, who said the meeting with Brown changed her life. Brown said the letter explained how inspired the girl was by Brown’s go-getter attitude and that meeting provided the encouragement for the girl to pursue her dreams and establish a strong career.
Girls need “exposure to successful women and to people who care about their community,” Brown said. “(We need to) share that you can be whatever you want to be.”
“Mentorship can look a lot of different ways,” said Imani Hope. “The biggest attribute is consistency and being a presence in someone’s life on a regular basis.”
The panelists also stressed that it’s important to focus our efforts on girls who don’t look like us. We as a community need to reach outside our comfort zones and outside the groups with which we normally interact and connect with girls and their families.
The demographics of the United States — and Florida particularly — are changing significantly. A third of girls in Florida live in first- or second-generation immigrant families, and we’ve learned that immigrant families make decisions differently than non-immigrants and that minority families operate differently from white families.
“In addition to education and engagement (for immigrant families and minorities), there also has to be learning on the side of providers and people who aren’t in those communities,” Hope said. “Look at teachers who teach students in populations they aren’t familiar with: They’re not just teaching (English Language Learners), but they’re also learning about their community and their culture.”
In order to learn about and understand other communities and cultures, we have to really listen to the girls and to their families and take into consideration what they’re telling us. All three panelists urged adults especially to listen to girls and to make ourselves emotionally available to them, not only to learn more about them but also to let them know we’re their allies and advocates.
Girls today are facing higher instances of emotional, behavioral or developmental issues, and even though reports of bullying at school have decreased, there’s a rise in cyberbullying. Nearly one quarter of high school girls reported that they have seriously considered suicide, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported an increase in suicide deaths among teens and young adults in recent years.
“We have to start listening to young people. We have to start listening to girls and what they’re telling us,” Hope said. She pointed out that girls today are experiencing things that their parents never even considered, even younger parents.
A key part of helping girls be more open about their struggles is being more open about our own struggles as adult women, as well. This removes some of the stigma around issues like mental illness, eating disorders, poor body image and low self-esteem.
Panelist Nicole Thomas reminded everyone that there are resources available in the community, including Mental Health First Aid, which helps us learn to recognize troubling signs and symptoms in our peers and in children.
Panelists and the audience agreed that in general, women need to be less hard on ourselves and we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Not only does this benefit each of us personally, but also it sets the example for girls that it’s OK to struggle and it’s OK to seek help when you need it.
While we need to take it easy on ourselves sometimes, we also need to be more willing to “toot our own horn,” as one audience member put it. She pointed out that when we can lift ourselves up, we also lift up other women and girls. Mary Anne Jacobs, CEO of GSGC, said women and girls have to “be bold! We have to be the ones to raise our hands and be courageous, and we have to teach our girls to raise their hands and to take the lead.”
Through programs like Girl Scouts, girls benefit from single-gender learning environments, where they can gain the confidence to step up and speak out. They also have access to unique STEM programs and other learning opportunities that help them gain skills and knowledge to create a more level playing field with men and boys.
Girls deserve access to all possible educational and enrichment opportunities to help them thrive, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, immigration status or age.
As a community, we have to push for more of these opportunities for all girls, especially in schools serving areas with low SES or a large minority population.
As a community, we have to speak up on behalf of girls and let them know we want to make sure they have the best opportunities to succeed.
As a community, we have to have more conversations like this one to spark the change needed to improve girls’ well-being both in Florida and across the country.
Join Girl Scouts in making these changes and start a conversation in your community today.