Beyond the Buzzword: When Aiming for Inclusivity, Diversity Is Not Enough

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Authored by Co-Executive Directors Melissa Kilby and Anna Blue.

At Girl Up, we’re dedicated to giving girls the tools and resources to make the world a better place for every girl, everywhere. That means making sure that every girl, everywhere sees a place for herself in the version of the world we’re working to create. We’re most powerful when we band together, regardless of where we’ve come from, what we do, who we worship, what we look like, or who we love. If girls believe that advancing gender equality is in the best interest of us all – like we do – they should see themselves represented in Girl Up’s movement. We know diversity is important, but we’ve learned from our girl leaders that it’s just the start. The strength of our movement isn’t just in highlighting different colors and faces, it’s about sharing different voices and perspectives too.

For us, inclusivity starts with recognizing that all Girl Up girls aren’t the same. It’s understanding that girls come to Girl Up from a variety of places and backgrounds, and are attracted to our mission for different reasons. Girl Up Clubs around the world often can look very different from Clubs in the U.S. and these Clubs can vary greatly even within a country or community.

We’ve found that reaching girls in our increasingly connected world is the easy part; making sure girls, all girls, feel their voices and points of view are represented in our movement can be harder. That’s what it means to be inclusive.

Each and every girl has something unique to offer that makes our movement stronger. And if any girl doesn’t see herself as part of this movement, we’ve failed. It’s not enough to simply include different people if you’re not listening to, learning from, and honoring their opinions and breadth of experiences. As we help our girls actualize their leadership potential, in the process, they challenge us to expand our notion of what it means to be a girl, how girls are represented, the concept of empowerment, how we define gender, what equality really means, and other intersectional issues that matter to them most.

We’re lucky to have an audience of Gen Z girls who tell it like it is. In a recent survey of our girls around the world, almost half said that they surround themselves with friends who hold different opinions, and because we work with and alongside the most inclusive generation in history, we’re able to consider all of their perspectives alongside our own. Globally, we constantly seek the help and insights of our board of Teen Advisors who provide guidance on what it means to be a teenage girl in the world today, along with our Regional Representatives that are closest to Girl Up girls on the ground in regions around the world. They help us better understand traditions, perspectives, opportunities, and barriers that are specific to different cultures and regions. This feedback loop helps us understand the limitations of our own experiences and makes us better and more well-rounded. The girls are our greatest resource, and we really do listen to them.

Girl Up is a collective movement that’s evolving every day – we haven’t always gotten diversity and inclusivity right, but we’re growing, listening and learning every day.

Some lessons we’ve learned the hard way. Among them, that it’s possible to be well-meaning and still fall short. At our most recent Leadership Summit – our marquee event each year – we had an idea to feature the image of a girl from what we thought was an underrepresented demographic. It’s easy to take for granted that your good intention and starting point is everyone else’s. We hoped that by featuring an image of a young Muslim girl on our program and t-shirt, we’d bring closer one of the groups that felt the furthest away. Our intentions didn’t land right with everyone, and we received backlash from some of the girls attending our Summit. We looked at the image of the hijab and saw progress; the girls saw her light eye and skin color and didn’t feel like it represented them, others weren’t ready to see Girl Up represented by one type of girl. We learned that singling out one girl can’t be representative of an entire group, no matter what she looks like. Despite our good intentions, it was a miss.

We will keep actively working to be more inclusive with more and ongoing surveys to our girls, by seeking feedback from as many voices as we can – from girls in middle-America to girls in the biggest cities; from girls in Mexico to girls in Namibia – and having even more conversations where we talk with girls and not at them. Instead of assuming, we know to keep asking. The girls let us know what doesn’t fit and we adapt, instead of the other way around.

The biggest lesson, above all, is that inclusivity is never done. It’s not a box to check. It happens little by little, every day, in the choices we make, and the choices we hope girls make and model in their Clubs. We’re getting better at it, and it’s always going to be something we work toward. We’re excited to continue the journey and to continue to learn from the girl leaders of Girl Up.

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