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Q&A: Organizer Discusses 'Take Our Daughters to Work' Campaign

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On April 28, the Ms. Foundation is hoping that thousands of girls across the nation will not go to school.

Instead, the New York-based foundation is encouraging them to spend the day learning about the world of careers at the workplaces of parents or other adults through its "Take Our Daughters to Work'' campaign. The program is co-chaired by the singer Jessye Norman, the writer Gloria Steinem, and Joyce Dinkins, the wife of Mayor David Dinkins of New York City.

Idelisse MalavÀe, the vice president of the Ms. Foundation, spoke with Staff Writer Meg Sommerfeld about the project.

Q.
How did the program get started?

A.
The program initiated in the National Girls Initiative, [which was] launched in 1991 ... to interrupt what we were learning had become the normal track of girls' development--that as girls approached adolescence they suffered some kind of significant loss.

For white girls, that loss was usually a loss of voice and self-confidence or self-esteem ... [and in] their comfort in their own bodies. For African-American girls, [it] was more associated with their connections with outside institutions, the most important being school. ...

For Latina girls, it was a combination of both. They suffered significant drops in self-esteem, and they had very high dropout rates, so they really ended up with the worst of both worlds.

Carol Gilligan, the Harvard researcher, talks about it as "hitting the wall of Western culture.'' Instead of being feisty and mouthing off, they will learn to be nice, they learn to be the perfect girl who never hurts anybody's feelings, who never gets angry, who's always very solicitous, always very thoughtful.

With this quietness, this niceness, this kind of demure quality, girls continue to become more and more invisible in our society. Our purpose was to make girls visible, valued, and heard.

Q.
What are your general goals?

A.
This is a public-education campaign. We don't expect that spending one day with a mother or father or family friend or some organized activity by a school is going to change a girl's life. But we do hope that it may have some small impact ... and that it may help to raise aspirations.

Q.
How old are the participants?

A.
The age range is 9 through 15. ... We're focusing on preadolescence and early adolescence because of its crucial nature in girls' development.

Nine-year-old girls are among the most sophisticated observers of human behavior you ever want to meet. They're enormously perceptive about relationships.They'll talk about the importance of getting angry and saying what you mean, and working through [conflicts].

As we grow older, we lose that. To too large an extent, you find that the problems that take root in adolescence are the problems that women face in life: depression, higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts, eating disorders--90 percent of anorexics are young girls. I mean, you name a bad thing, and it's very much associated.

Violence escalates as girls enter pre-adolescence, at 9 or 10. When they are starting to look more like women, they are more subject to physical and sexual violence. This is the stuff of adult women's lives, and this is when it begins.

Q.
What will happen on April 28 itself?

A.
As much as possible, [girls] will be assigned to "shadow'' different workers for the day. Part of what the curriculum does is assist girls in learning interviewing skills, how to ask questions.

There are going to be group activities where they'll have an opportunity to get a sense of how all these pieces fit together to produce whatever the company produces or the service that they provide.

We are encouraging [workplaces] to have whoever their chief operating officer is spend a good amount of time talking with the girls in a group meeting and be available to hear what girls have to say.

Q.
Have any educators raised concerns that you might be sending out a negative message by encouraging girls to skip school for a day?

A.
One of the things here in New York that there's been a real emphasis from the board of education on is that education doesn't take place just in the school classroom and the importance of exposure to the work world is enormously important and enormously educational.

Q.
What long-term impact will this have?

A.
The long-term impact I think it will have is increased awareness of what happens to girls [during adolescence] and to begin focusing on contradicting that and interrupting that cycle.

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