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Empowering girls to be themselves

Mikayla Cooper and Brielle Dobes are bringing Kate Whitfield, founder of Fearlessly Girl, to EDSS next week for an inspirational Girls Night for all girls from Grades 8 to 12. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]

Anyone who’s been through high school knows it can be tough. Between managing your course load, extra-curricular activities, and a part-time job, who has the time or energy to deal with drama?

Brielle Dobes and Mikayla Cooper hope by bringing in Kate Whitfield, the founder of Fearlessly Kind and Fearlessly Girl, girls at Elmira District Secondary School can begin to break down those walls they put up.

Mikayla Cooper and Brielle Dobes are bringing Kate Whitfield, founder of Fearlessly Girl, to EDSS next week for an inspirational Girls Night for all girls from Grades 8 to 12.[Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
Mikayla Cooper and Brielle Dobes are bringing Kate Whitfield, founder of Fearlessly Girl, to EDSS next week for an inspirational Girls Night for all girls from Grades 8 to 12. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
They attended the Ontario Student Leadership Conference earlier this year through their leadership class, where Whitfield was a speaker. They left feeling excited and empowered, and wanting other girls to feel the same way.

“We just knew that we wanted to bring that to Elmira, so whether that was us doing something or her coming, we just knew we wanted that,” Dobes said.

Cooper says Whitfield gives big-sisterly advice and connects well to her audience, whether it’s a small group, or an auditorium of 500. At the EDSS event, Whitfield will give a motivational keynote presentation on self-esteem and unrealistic pressures. Then they’ll be divided into groups of 10 by peer leaders, some Leaders in Training and other leadership class students, for activities aimed at breaking barriers and developing stronger friendships.

“Because we come from a small town with a very traditional background girls are often taught that they need to be seen, not heard, taking up less space,” Cooper said. “That was one of the most important things that I took away from Kate. The first thing she said was sit like a girl, now sit like a guy. Guys would sprawl out and take up space and that’s the dominance thing. As girls, you don’t want to be taught to just take up space and be quiet. You need to have a voice heard.”

Dobes said Whitfield will talk about how girls can build a community for themselves through conversation. At the leadership conference she said they spent the whole time talking about their problems, realizing along the way many of them feel the same way.

“It’s all these people from different demographics and you think you’d be so different, but when you break down barriers you’ve all got the same problems, you just don’t realize it,” Dobes said. “That really takes away a lot of the cliquey stuff that happens in high school.”

Whitfield started speaking at a girls empowerment company when she was still in high school after being bullied. She’s spoken to tens of thousands of students across North America, spreading her message of empowerment and community.

It’s been a few months in the making, but they say they’ve finally cleared all the administrative hurdles.

“Leadership has allowed us to expand in more ways, being able to bring this up, meeting with the principal and the vice-principal, that was scary and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Dobes said. “So leadership is a way for us to grow in confidence and experience. Because of leadership we’re able to do this.”

Cooper says they’ve got a great support system behind them to bring this to EDSS. They’ve settled most of the logistics, including having staff on hand because some of it could potentially be triggering. Now they’re working on promoting the event to get girls interested in coming and not feeling like they’ll be weird for doing so.

“They’re all worried they’ll be awkward,” Cooper said. “Sure it’ll be awkward for the first five minutes, but we promise as soon as you sit down and you start hearing her talk, it’s not going to be awkward. It’s going to be great experience.”

They both agree living in a small town and a small-ish high school can lead to cliques and competition between girls to be the best. They hope this event will help ease the harshness a lot of teenage girls have toward each other, which separates them.

“It’s the whole strengthening feeling afterward that came from it,” Dobes said. “It’s an amazing feeling and hopefully that will come to this school. And that mixing with academics, confidence and academics is an amazing mixture. Hopefully not only will girls here just be more connected, they’ll be able to be more confident in their setting.”

They’ve invited Grade 8 girls from all the feeder schools who’ll be attending EDSS in the fall to come out to the event as well. Their goal is to establish the school as a safe place from the beginning to ease the transition. All of the Grade 8 girls at Floradale Public School are already planning to come with their guidance counselor. Park Manor Public School will likely also send 20 or 30 Grade 8 girls. Their goal is 100 to 150 participants.

“Girls especially in this area are really mean to each other,” Cooper said. “When we say they’re mean, they’re not bad people. But I feel like it’s a lot of competition because we’re a small school and everybody knows each other, and especially with social media, stuff can catch like wildfire.”

Dobes adds it’s important to know the intention of the night is not to hate on boys. And they’re also aware teenage boys have their own unique issues. Cooper says they’d fully support the boys if they decided to do a similar night.

“We are girls and Kate’s a girl and we cater to girls especially,” Cooper said. “We know about girl problems because we’ve been there and we think we can help these girls.”

Dobes says they feel there’s a strong male dominance at the school, partly because of Elmira’s size and where they’ve come from. She says this adds a layer of separation.

“Guys have caused a lot of disconnect,” Dobes said. “And this is another thing, we don’t blame them but if we can take them away from the equation it’s crazy how fast walls fall down when you don’t have that there.”

They note the event is all about appreciating being a girl and not fighting over who’s the most popular or who’s the prettiest because those things don’t matter.

“In leadership we’re in charge of running events and initiative is a huge thing we learned about,” Cooper said. “So we decided we were going to take the initiative and start this event because it’s something we’re passionate about and we think we can make a difference.”

The free event runs April 16 from 6-9 p.m. and is open for all girls from Grade 8 to Grade 12.

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