Many students at Penn believe in fostering social change, especially right here in Philadelphia. Kate Zipin is one woman who also wants to make a difference in society, one summer at a time. Upon relocating to Philadelphia, the former teacher founded Own Your Awesomeness – a camp meant to empower girls. I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Zipin and ask her about the need for empowering girls in society and discuss how her camp is impacting the girls she works with.
Q: Hi Ms. Zipin. Can you please introduce yourself and say, in your own words: What is Own Your Awesomeness [OYA]?
A: My name is Kate Zipin and I am the founder and director of Own Your Awesomeness, a Philly nonprofit that empowers high school girls. Our programs focus on skill-building workshops, like how to change a tire and developing financial literacy, and conversations about being a teenage girl today, like body image, women in the media, and health. We pull it all together in a one-week program in the summer where girls connect with female mentors and build a community as they explore new passions, tap into their strengths, and own their awesomeness.
I wanted to start an organization that focuses on women’s empowerment because there are so many ways, internally and externally, that women are told they are not enough. I am a former high school science teacher and I love working with kids. I found that I had incredibly meaningful conversations with students about our American culture, particularly related to gender and race, as well as digesting current events. Independent of teaching, I’ve always been eager to learn new skills and strive to be a handy-person around the house. I wanted to pull those pieces together: gaining physical, mental, and emotional tools to help girls better understand and thrive in the world today. All of us are awesome, and for some of us, we need encouragement to really see it and own it.
Q: Please tell us about the challenges girls and women face when it comes to feeling empowered in society both in the US and around the world.
A: Young women today are assaulted, physically and mentally. Certainly there are safety concerns that should not be there, like “will I be raped?” Addressing these issues is multi-faceted: there is a primary approach of considering physical safety and warning signs; there is a deeper, secondary approach of considering misogyny and the roots of why other people think they are entitled to women’s bodies. Talking about both is crucial, and talking about both with everyone, not just women, is crucial.
Mentally, it’s different. Women and girls are subject to demands of unattainable perfection of their body shape, their sex life, their job, their motherhood. How can one be sexy but not too sexy? How can one be driven but not too driven? The external expectations, starting from society and the media, trickling down to interpersonal relationships, and finally to internal self-talk, take a toll on how tall a woman stands. Young girls are not immune to the messages we send them. The aggregate effect is that most girls do not have the self-confidence that they could have, and I want to change that, a few girls at a time.
Q: How does OYA fit into creating a solution for the challenges girls and women face in society?
A: Own Your Awesomeness addresses a few pieces of our societal needs. Everyone needs to learn some basic skills, but more often girls are skipped over for a few of them. Learning what’s under the hood of a car may be simple, but it’s also scary if you’ve never done it, because it doesn’t feel like a girl’s domain. When it doesn’t feel like your space, then you don’t want to ask questions and prove you weren’t supposed to be there in the first place– so instead, we make it our space. We bring in women to talk about cars, power tools, and finance, and make it a space where questions and discoveries are encouraged. Next time, a girl feels more like this is her space, and she can participate and build on what is now her foundation.
We also address issues that affect teenage girls right now: sexual health, abuse and consent, mental health, self love. When you can unpack the misogyny that you’ve been fed, you see your symptoms more clearly and can work on healing and moving forward. When you know what’s going on, you’re now in control.
Q: Your website says your vision is “for each girl to develop a deeper sense of herself, her strengths and her leadership abilities while building a network of women who support and believe in her.” What approach does OYA use to encourage girls to believe in themselves like you state in your vision?
A: Our approach is to create a welcoming environment where the expectation (and the fun!) is trying new things. We have such a variety of activities that not even the staff are familiar with everything before we launch. That means that everyone experiences some level of vulnerability, when you know you don’t know what you’re doing. When we build a space where being vulnerable and going with it is encouraged, we build a space where girls can stretch and see that the initial discomfort is not paralyzing. Instead, it’s an invitation! It’s a success when girls become less guided by fear, and more guided by being present, engaged, and empowered.
Q: Can you tell us about the growth you have seen in the girls who have participated in OYA?
A: Our one-week program highlights a range of experiences. Monday, most girls are fairly quiet. Tuesday, they’re learning names, branching out. Wednesday, we break through the invisible wall, and girls are ready for the world, and for themselves. Thursday and Friday are days full of new voices, sharing experiences that may never have been shared before.
During a discussion about self love last summer, girls read anonymous insults people had said about them, or they had said about themselves. Then, they would raise their hands if something similar had been said to them, by others or by themselves. And then, girls would share and reflect. The reverence for others’ experiences was almost palpable and the space felt both painful and full of care. After seeing others raise their hands, one girl remarked that since this statement was not true of the other girls in the room, it may not be true of herself, either. She had seized her own liberation, buoyed by the support of others.
A senior girl who participated last summer expressed: “Own Your Awesomeness was such a great experience. I’ve learned new skills and lessons I will take with me for the rest of my life. I also learned to express, love, and appreciate myself.”
Q: If you could teach every young woman in the world one thing, what would you like to teach them?
A: Everyone could do with more self love. But in terms of a skill, I would go with understanding credit cards. A woman who understands her personal finances is independent, no matter what.
Q: The camp takes place in Center City but some of your participants live in the greater Philadelphia area – in fact, you welcome girls from the suburbs as well. Tell us about why you felt the camp should take place in Center City as opposed to a more rural area.
A: When deciding on a location, I knew I wanted a space that was in Center City so girls, no matter where they were coming from, could get here by themselves if that was important. Last year, we had girls from the city and suburbs participate, and it was great to get a mix of girls. In addition to geography, we had a diversity of races and socio-economic classes, a variety of interests and ages, and different exposures to feminism.
One of the girls last year was in 9th grade and had never taken the train by herself. On Monday, her dad rode the train with her from the far suburbs, and picked her up on the train. On Tuesday, we picked her up from the station and dropped her off at the train. On Wednesday, we walked her to the station, and she said she’d find her train. On Thursday, she did it all by herself. The small act of taking the train is actually an incredible demonstration of agency and independence. If you can determine where you are going, then you are in charge of your journey!
Q: Would you mind sharing if you had any experiences of people expressing their disapproval of OYA? How did you respond?
A: None! Woo!
Q: What would you say are the next steps for OYA?
A: Our next steps are focusing on this summer’s programs: recruiting both girls and volunteers for the three week-long programs this July. After that, we’ll dedicate some time to planning sustainable growth. We’re excited about partnering with schools and community organizations to offer in-depth workshops that mirror an aspect of the summer program. And we’re eager to continue building a network of people and organizations in Philadelphia that empower girls and women!
Q: Is there anything you would love to see addressed in society that OYA does not address right now?
A: I felt called to make this program for girls only, but there’s a need to do this kind of programming for all kids, and certainly for boys. The skills are the simple part, but the rich stuff is in unpacking our expectations of what it means to be a man. Parallel to our expectations of girls and women, expectations of boys and men are incredibly limiting and detrimental. How can a man reach his full potential if he’s not allowed to say or do or wear certain things, and so shuts off parts of himself? When the idea of being perceived like a woman is so shameful that he rejects all qualities associated with being feminine? Feminism is not just for women, although it may be that the most obvious effects will be empowering women. Men are also empowered when we strip away our expectations and limitations of gender. It frees all of us from the fear of stepping out of bounds. I find that conversations about fear, at the deepest level, reveal the work we need to do as a society.
Q: Finally, other than OYA, do you know of other great resources everyone should explore?
For more information about Own Your Awesomeness, please visit http://www.ownyourawesomeness.org/