Q&A With “Powered By Girl” author Lyn Mikel Brown

powered-by-girl“Powered By Girl” is part critical commentary on a “lean in”, “TEDified” view of girl power and versions of the “exceptional girl” breaking down barriers on her own when in actuality they have benefited from a support system of adults behind them. PBG is also part playbook for working with girls to be activists of their own social movements. Brown writes, “We have to challenge that assumption that women and girls cannot work together – that women are too old and out of touch; that girls are too young and misinformed.”

The book is out today! Order from Amazon here or find your local indie bookstore here.

Q&A with “Powered By Girl” author and girl expert Lyn Mikel Brown.

  1. The Introduction to the book literally had me clapping as I read; you had me by page 5. Your observations and commitment to authentic empowerment of girls is so inspiring. You open the book by deconstructing the phenomenon of the “media generated kick-ass wonder girl” and call out the concepts of “Girl Power commerce” and “leaning in”. How can we encourage other women to think critically about these things, especially when mainstream feminism feels like it has become a shopping spree of “fempowerment” marketing, excusing sexualization as personal agency, and hyperfocus on “exceptional individual” perfectionism? The Disney Princesses and Barbie have both jumped on the girl power train, and while sparkle dinosaur t-shirts for girls at giant retailers pass for apparel equality I cannot stop thinking about what a crazy trip this is becoming.

Yes, such a crazy trip!

It sounds so simple, but I think we have to encourage women to really listen to girls. I anchor myself there. They are endlessly interesting, complex, funny, bursting with new ideas and fresh perspectives. Simply being with them, paying attention to their questions, what puzzles them, what they love and care about is a daily reminder that consumer culture misses the important stuff. I think our job is opening up possibilities, and since media is everywhere we pretty much have to use it to our own ends. We can help her identify stereotypes and point out when the world is limiting in some way or when it starts to foreclose on what she loves to do or wants to be. If we question, she will learn to question. This ability to step back and question puts a little thinking and breathing space between her and all those pressures bombarding her to look and be a certain way. In that bit of space she can reflect on what it feels like and think about what she wants to say and do about it.


  1. I highlighted so many passages in the book about adults letting go of their ego, truly tuning in and listening to girls’ voices, honoring girls’ expertise on their own experiences, forming genuine relationships built on respect and trust, etc. Why do adults find it difficult to take girls seriously, is it internalized sexism? What are some rookie mistakes adults can expect to make when they are guiding and working with girls?

I think we want to protect girls from all the sexist stuff coming at them and all the potential harm out there, some of which we’ve experienced. We assume we know better than she does what’s coming down the pike. And maybe because things seem so precarious, we think we have to be constantly vigilant and have it all together. For whatever reason, we forget to ask them what they think. This creates a barrier to genuine relationships with girls—genuine relationships involve two people. Girl activists say they love working with women who learn from them and treat them as if they have something important to offer. They describe relationships that are more horizontal, where women and girls together discover new ideas and create new possibilities. When we share with her the things we don’t know for certain, we let her into a way of being in the world that’s more generous. If we can make space for vulnerability and mistakes, ours included, she can take risks, knowing she has a safe place to land when things don’t go well. So I guess the rooky mistake is thinking we’re always in charge and that we always know more than she does about her own life. It’s an enormous relief for girls to have someone who’s honest about the complexity of things and who admits what she doesn’t know.


  1. I found the chapter about girls knowing women’s history in order to better understand the need for change to be so important. When I work with girls I’ll often ask them to name the female Supreme Court Justices, or three female Senators or scientists. The giant majority can’t do it, and that hurts my heart. Then I ask who the five Kardashian/Jenner sisters are and the room goes off like fireworks. This is when my brain starts to hurt, and I wonder how do parents reboot media messages about “important women” who do very little of importance? How do parents lead their daughters towards women actually doing important work? I think everyone knows who Malala is, but beyond that one amazing girl how do we find out about other current activists are and what work they are doing?

Pop idols are always going to be important. Knowing certain things about popular culture is a kind of currency among girls. That’s always been the case. The good news is that girls and women activists are all over the media too, whether it’s Iesha Evans who faced down Baton Rouge police in full riot gear at a Black Lives Matter protest or the U.S. women who dominated the Olympics while refusing to be contained by on-going sexist and racist commentary. For a while it seemed like there was a news story every week about girls protesting unfair school dress codes. Teen Magazines are pretty consistently pushing stories about girl-fueled activism. Teen Vogue’s latest girl activist list, “Introducing 21 under 21,” includes 11-year-old Marley Dias who started #1000BlackGirlBooks and 18-year-old Avery McCall, who read Half the Sky at 12 and now works with the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign.

The problem is a media that sensationalizes young activists as special super girls for a few days, then drops their story. It’s really up to us to seek out and contextualize these brave girls, to talk about how activism is a collective response to injustice, and that unfairness will continue unless we all do our part. I’m not suggesting we give Teen Vogue to our pre-teen daughters, but that we seek out stories in magazines and online, do some background work on a few young activists, including the people and organizations that support them (no one does lasting social change work alone), and introduce them in your own way to her. For a start, check out these seven inspiring children’s books, and you might also want to support this amazing kickstarter campaign promising 100 Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.


  1. The book mentions that girls are more likely than boys to be politically conscious and become involved in activism. What have you found to be a typical age when girls have this awakening? Do you think this motivation for the girls comes from an early recognition of a power and equality gap, or are there other factors that play into their drive to create change?

Every girl has the potential to be an agent for social change, simply because, as bell hooks reminds us, children are naturally curious. I think of girls as naturalists in the social world–always observing, always asking questions. The very first “that’s not fair!” she utters is a clue she’s attuned to power differences and ready to create change. Too often the response from adults is, “Yes, life is unfair.” But that won’t do if we want girls to grow up as full participants in civic and political life. Nancy Gruver of New Moon Magazine describes “That’s not fair” as girls’ natural feminism. If we want that seed to germinate, if we want to plant the notion that she is in the world to change the world, we’ll respond instead with “Let’s do something about it.”


  1. The book does a good job of identifying challenges girls of color face when they hear the call to activism, and how adults can react appropriately to those challenges and help girls work around or through them. So the United States isn’t doing so well dealing with our racism at the moment, and a lot of people are still uncomfortable or unsure of how to talk about race and racism. Can you to speak to how adults can respect a girl’s world view and experiences without making her race the most salient quality about her? How do we strike the right balance?

It’s very hard, and very important to try. As white women working with girls of color, we don’t want to be part of the problem but we don’t always know how to be part of the solution. The truth is, for girls of color in this country race typically is their most salient quality—it impacts how others see and treat them; it can make them hyper-visible or invisible, depending on the context. We can’t really pretend this isn’t true. It’s also important that we see and support girls of color fully and not buy into unconscious stereotypes. So this is about building up our awareness, our cultural competency, on our own time. We can’t expect girls of color to educate us and we risk unwittingly perpetuating the problem by ignoring it or fumbling around. I think we should 1) Do our own work. Read, seek out anti-racist trainings and workshops; do what it takes to ensure we can do right by all the girls in our care. 2) Partner with women of color in our work.


  1. The heart and soul of this book is the idea of intergenerational activism – pooling together youthful insight, knowledge and energy with more seasoned expertise, organizational skills, larger and more powerful networks in order to create meaningful change. I love this idea, but I’m acutely aware how often Millennials and Generation Z (iGen) are mocked and stereotyped by our society. What are some best practices you’ve seen young activists use to earn respect and be heard? Are there things parents can do to help cultivate these skills?

I write a lot about loyalty—about being on girls’ sides. To me, this means standing with girls when they face such responses. Supporting their right to speak, even when we disagree with them. I struggled a lot with how my feminist idols and friends talked about young women Bernie supporters. When I watched them protesting at the DNC, the word “silenced” scribbled on tape across their mouths, standing firm, I thought to myself, “I Iove these brave young women. I am in awe.” I mean, is this not what we want? Girls and young women who think for themselves, who dare to be an interruption?  

For me, the best practice is ensuring she has company. I’ve co-founded three girl-serving organizations and I joke that I started them for my daughter. And I think there’s some truth in that. She grew up with girls and women of every age talking with her about things that matter, inviting her to debate and argue and act on her convictions. These were people who would be there if the trolls surfaced. If there are not such organizations in your backyard, they are online and they have people you can talk with, resources and curricula you can use. Gather moms and daughters you know together and reach out to Moms As Mentors or New Moon Girls or check out SPARKits from SPARK Movement, fun ideas for media activism from About-Face, and curricula from Hardy Girls. Voice, courage, risk-taking are cultivated in relationship. If we are all there for one another’s girls, ours will be just fine.


{ MAINE LOCALS: For those readers located in Maine, Lyn Mikel Brown will be visiting the Waterville Public Library on Tuesday 9/13 from 5p-7p to discuss her book. This program is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be provided. Co-presented by the Waterville Public Library and Children’s Book Cellar.}


Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book in order to read and review.

13246296_10153429033517131_2474661485922461678_oMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009.

You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies).