The Legacy of GirlZone

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 ’      .
Dragged to a GirlZone skateboarding workshop by her
mother, Chloe had no real intention of learning to skate. A
half hour later, though, she was swooshing down the
ramps, seated, on her borrowed board. By the end of the
workshop, she was asking her mother to buy her a board
for her birthday.
As a GirlZone volunteer, I saw that sort of transformation
happen over and over. Girls came to these workshops
disinclined to step onto a skateboard, to breakdance, to
speak on the radio—to do anything that might make them
look foolish, or awkward, or just not good at something,
no matter how much they wanted to try it. And universally
they left feeling confident, capable, and involved.
That was no accident, and that was not simply a result
of saying “let’s meet at the skate park/dance studio/radio
station.” GirlZone workshops were very thoughtfully
planned to best engage girls in active participation—something
a lot of girls don’t encounter in their schools, or even
their homes.
Research has shown that girls drop out of their own
lives around adolescence, and the fact is that we let them
do it. We teach them to play soccer in P.E., but we don’t
force them to actually make an effort to contact the ball.
We give them bikes, but don’t give them a bike repair
toolkit. We give them computers, and load them down
with word games and Cosmo makeover software. Girls are
disjointed and unhappy, and instead of putting them on
the spot and forcing their participation, we let them disappear.
If I sound histrionic, picture the basketball courts at
Hessel Park, or Phillips Rec Center, or any neighborhood
schoolyard. No locks, no entrance fees, no limitations to
access—and almost uniformly, no girls. Imagine being that
trio of beginning girls who want to play basketball; imagine
asking the group of guys who play every day if you can
use the court for an hour. The issue for girls in this town—
and any town—isn’t just the right to use; it’s the culture
that says Sure, you can be here, as long as you stay out of
the way.
GirlZone was specifically designed to combat this culture
that lets girls be passive participants in their own lives.
Developed eight years ago as part of Aimee Rickman’s
graduate work in educational psychology, GirlZone ran
monthly workshops for girls ages 7 to 16, covering everything
from auto repair to knitting. But far more important
than just providing access to oil pans and knitting needles,
GirlZone was meticulously and thoughtfully designed to
encourage and enable—and even enforce—girls’ engagement.
In everything from the language we used to the
spaces in which we held our workshops, GirlZone was a
planned environment built to affirm girls’ own preinstalled
We required workshop facilitators to go through training,
covering everything from ways to break up cliques to
how to speak to girls to show you appreciate their input.
We discussed the best ways to address the sliding fee scale
so that no girl had to feel guilty or embarrassed, and so
that no girl was ever turned away for lack of funds. We
stressed the importance of trying new things ourselves, of
keeping in mind how it feels to be vulnerable and clumsy
when you want to be cool and competent.We talked about
why it’s important that parents not be allowed to watch the
workshops, why we avoid saying “you guys,” and why we
never allow anyone to say “girls rule, boys drool.”
To me, those seemed like great ideas; maybe that’s
because I saw them at work. I know some of our policies
were difficult for others to swallow. We made no effort to
hide the fact that we were a feminist organization, which
was sometimes misconstrued in ways that had nothing to
do with equality. We were unapologetically girl-based,
non-sectarian, and open to all sorts of people.
GirlZone prided itself on being based in this community.
We held meetings and workshops in local businesses, we
tapped local talent to teach workshops, we worked with
local girls. Eventually, we hoped, the community would
take some of that back and provide girls opportunities
without GirlZone steering things along.
GirlZone was also entirely volunteer-run. Even at its
busiest moments, GirlZone was run by Aimee and a small
phalanx of unpaid women and men volunteering their free
time, after work and around classes. And more than that,
GirlZone was basically unfunded. The only major local
funding organization, the United Way, turned us down.
The small grants we did get were designated for programs
only, rather than for staff or space.
And that, partly, is why GirlZone had to close. After
eight years, GirlZone was still an unpaid full-time job for
Aimee Rickman.After eight years, GirlZone was an organization
that everyone was glad to have around, but that not
many were willing to support with money, or space, or
equipment. Our attempts to collaborate with various local
city and nonprofit youth organizations had consistently
fallen through or been rebuffed. We were forever fending
off criticism for not taking on more, or not being diverse
enough, or not focused enough, and, constantly, for not
being “…and BoyZone.”
Most heartbreakingly, though, by keeping GirlZone
open, we were showing girls that their interests weren’t
worth a paid staff, unlike, say, greyhounds’ or lizards’. And
we were showing this town that it didn’t have to pick up
the slack, that we’d be happy to beg and borrow and pay
out of pocket with our time and our money to serve their
Two years ago, the Champaign Park District opened a
dazzling new skate park. It’s bright and smooth and free.
And it’s very much dominated by boys, to the point that a
boy, maybe ten years old, asked Aimee and me—both in
our late twenties—to take our skateboards and get out of
the way so he could have the area.And we did it.We resented
it, we dissected it, we thought up what we should have
said, and we’re still not sure why we gave up the space, but
we did it, because that’s the way things are. The skate park
is a beautiful gift to the young people of C-U, but just
because the gate is open doesn’t make it, in any practical
sense, accessible to everyone. But we paid for that park, just
like we pay for the basketball courts and the ball diamonds
and the swimming pools, and it’s our duty to say we want
the parks and the youth groups to make sure that everybody
really does get a chance to play.
If it’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s
gone, maybe GirlZone’s shuttering will inspire more people
to look at the playgrounds, the skate parks, the open
mics, the battles of the bands, and say “where are the girls?”
I hope so.Wow, do I hope so. But even more, I hope that
next time you look at the skate park, you’ll see Chloe out
there with the board that she eventually did get for her
birthday, showing her girlfriends how well she can ollie. Go
to it, people. GirlZone’s gone; now you go make this whole
dang town the zone for girls.

After four years as a volunteer with
GirlZone, Rebecca Crist can change the
oil in her car, create a zine in under two
hours, defend herself, light a grill without
lighter fluid, tap dance, write a
grant application, tune a guitar, edit
digital video, talk to strangers, and usually
find a way to address a group of
people without resorting to “you guys.”
She cannot ollie on a skateboard. Yet.

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