Lessons From Strong Girls School

How to run a gender-based library program that addresses inequality and self-esteem

June 27, 2017

Nancy Evans, young adult librarian at Levittown (N.Y.) Public Library

“Is there anyone here who thinks a gender-based program is risky and they’d have to sell it?” That’s what Nancy Evans, young adult librarian at Levittown (N.Y.) Public Library, asked attendees at her presentation, “Strong Girls School: Creating and Running a Program Addressing Gender Bias,” at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on June 26.

Evans leads an annual program series for girls that addresses inequality and self-esteem issues in her conservative Long Island community. She provided some compelling—and chilling—statistics as to why programs like hers are so badly needed.

“By the time a college-educated woman turns 59, she will have lost almost $800,000 throughout her life,” Evans said, referring to the pay gap, “and everything becomes incrementally worse for women of color and non-straight women.”

“Rape is the most underreported crime for a lot of reasons,” she continued. “One in five women will be raped in her lifetime—a stat that hasn’t changed in 20 years.”

Not to mention: “Girls get assaulted with ads,” Evans observed. “If you pick up a boys’ magazine, it’s about all the exciting opportunities that are open to them,” whereas women’s magazines tend to harp on arbitrary beauty standards.

When Evans started Strong Girls School in 2014 for young women in grades 6–12, she was “responding to an interest and a need.” But she also admits she was scared to launch such an important, emotionally charged series. She was afraid people wouldn’t attend, or that there would be psychological issues outside her expertise.

Then she asked herself, “How can you model being strong for girls when you’re being so wishy-washy yourself?” and decided to dive in. “I don’t think there’s anything about it that’s earth-shattering,” Evans said. But the girls who have turned her “program series” into a bonafide club resembling therapy sessions might be inclined to disagree.

The setup of Strong Girls School

Evans kickstarts the program every fall and runs the series as six or more weekly sessions. Each session draws about six to 14 attendees, lasts about two hours, and through a combination of worksheets, videos, and discussion, covers a different topic that applies and appeals to young women. Gender bias, self-esteem, bullying, authentic self, rape culture, healthy relationships, cliques and drama, and social media have been covered by her curriculum.

“Staying safe” is also a theme, and while Evans declares that the onus should very obviously be on rapists not to rape, she also thinks that until society changes, girls should be cognizant of their personal safety, which includes knowing how to identify emotional and physical violence in their relationships.

The girls are receptive to the format and, Evans noted, “the attendance surprisingly doesn’t drop off.” Deep friendships form through the program. “They usually end up exchanging their phone numbers, and they’re in this massive group chat I don’t get involved in,” said Evans with a laugh.

The program also incorporates crafts (such as vision boards and bucket lists), activities (such as book discussions), and movies and other media (such as Mean Girls or Emma Watson’s“He For She” speech). Evans finds that girls may be more apt to open up about tough issues when they are keeping their hands busy.

In many ways, the program series accomplishes something the local school system cannot. “The school doesn’t deal well with bullying,” said Evans. “They have programs in place, but the bullies know how to work around these programs.” In that way, her Monday night program is a safe space for those girls looking for information and understanding.

Tips for developing a program

For libraries looking to form their own version of the Strong Girls School, Evans suggests online resources such as the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, Girls Guide to End Bullying, and LoveIsRespect.org.

Her own group wants to expand its offerings to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community and partner with more local organizations. She also thinks a male-led boys group would address a whole other set of unique issues, but the library has yet to find someone to lead that “authentic” experience.

Evans can relate to librarians who may be reluctant to take on such a program. But for those stakeholders who caution that because librarians aren’t therapists or social workers they may not be qualified to undertake such a project, Evans has the perfect response.

“I’m not a scientist, but I’ve offered STEM programs. I’m not an artist, but I’ve offered arts programs,” she said. “You’re connecting people to information and each other, and that’s what we do.”