Girl Empowerer Tatiana Fraser

Helping girls realize their full potential is something Tatiana Fraser, author of Girl Positive: Supporting Girls to Shape a New World, has been doing most of her adult life. In 1995, she created Girls Action Foundation, a national organization that believes in the power of girls as agents of social change. Its programs support girls in learning to take agency over their own lives and enact change in their communities. Fraser’s work empowering girls has impacted the lives of girls Canada-wide, including those in remote and Northern communities.

Raising strong, empowered girls is a challenge — no joke. But in this time of sexting, selfie culture, and #metoo it’s more important than ever. Fraser’s vital work provides concrete ways we can help our children navigate the challenges of adolescence. And she’s doing so herself, as mom to her 14 year old son and 10 year daughter. We spoke with Fraser about her work empowering girls and raising strong kids of her own.

Why did you start doing what you do?

Well, my story is — I was kind of struggling in my early 20s. I had dropped out of university and was dealing with some heavy stuff. I ended up going into women’s studies at Ottawa University quite by accident. I was actually working in a pub, and one of the professors had just come out with this groundbreaking study on violence against women, and I was interested in doing work on women’s health. He said, “Why don’t you go back to school and go into women’s studies?”

It was really life altering for me when I went into that program, because all the issues I was dealing with, and people I knew — my mom, my peers — all of a sudden became politicized, through understanding a social and political frame rather than just seeing it as something wrong with these people, or with me. Which is what happens, often. We, as women, internalize these issues and carry them in silence, thinking there’s something wrong with us.

So it was a big turning point for me, and I connected with peers in that program and we were just floored by the fact that girls — young women, don’t have access to this thinking. And we thought there could be a lot of value in creating a space for girls to understand their realities in these contexts and give them tools, skills, and knowledge in a way that they can then take action in their lives. And that was the catalyst for me.

I started a power camp for girls at Ottawa University, and it just took off. We had great feedback, we just couldn’t keep up with the demand, and then communities across the country were interested in starting the program. I had a vision that we can take this nationally, I wanted to share it with everyone so everyone could start it up, and we ended up building a national network. Girls Action Foundation was born and through that organization we funded over 150 start up programs for girls and young women. We also developed a national leadership training program that funded innovation at the local level across the country.

And now you’ve written a book to help girls and those who support them?

Yes. I really wanted to write a book because all through the years I was working I saw that stories in the popular discourse about young girls and women were not aligned with girls’ experiences and realities. I worked with a co-author, Caia Hagel, and we traveled across North America interviewing girls between nine and 29. We covered issues from media, internet, and sexuality, to poverty, racism, and violence — sexual and relational. We explored girls as leaders and change makers. We highlighted the ways girls are influencing culture and influencing change.

In the book we hear girls’ stories and understand their realities, and then there’s context and analysis around that. And we have a toolkit. It’s loaded with easy, friendly tips and resources for parents and educators. As parents we need to make the connections between what our girls and boys are living with, and the cultural elements influencing them. We need to build their critical thinking skills, build media literacy, and have conversations about what they’re observing and how it’s impacting them. Schools are not necessarily giving them the critical thinking skills that are necessary to support young people to navigate all the stuff they’re bombarded with.

How does the #metoo movement push things forward for girls?

What we found in the book is girls face sexual harassment on a daily basis and it’s so normalized for them that they don’t even have the language to name it, let alone the tools or resources for anything else. So it’s amazing we have all this social media conversation around #metoo, and it’s fantastic that this is coming to the forefront, but we can’t forget about youth — young boys and girls.

They need to be able to name what’s happening to them. To know that, for girls, that they’ve got rights and when stuff happens — like unwanted sexual attention, or harassment, or any kind of sexualized violence — that it’s wrong. To be able to name it, and to be able know where they can go to address it. It’s also critical for us to be having these conversations with boys, they need to understand concepts around consent, around healthy relationships, and around gender stereotypes and their own masculinities.

We also need to look at what kind of cultural norms they’re dealing with around what it means to be a boy. I think it begins with concepts around gender norms and masculinity, so even at young ages of five, six, and seven we can teach critical thinking around gender stereotypes.

We need to start teaching consent with young children. I started having conversations around consent and bodies when my kids were around four. They have a right to their own choices for their body. If they don’t want to hug, if they don’t want to kiss they are allowed to say no. Or even letting them know what’s appropriate or inappropriate in terms of touching. That is really important early on, and translates as kids grow up.

How do you handle these subjects with your teenage son?

I have talks with him about rape culture. He’s literate, he talks, he understands what rape culture is. He understands what consent is. I do the basic sex ed 101 with him around understanding what consent is — he’s starting to grow up and get to an age where he’s going to be experimenting. I talked with him about alcohol and consent, so he knows now about if he’s hanging out with people that are drinking that he has to be aware of what’s right and what’s wrong.

I also talk to him about porn literacy, because that’s a huge sex educator right now and filled with misinformation for young people. Porn literacy is kind of like going, “Okay if you see this you need to know these are actors, that they are making money, that this is not representing what sex is necessarily all about.” Kids are watching pornography, there’s no question, and we don’t need to necessarily panic about it, but kids need to be tooled up to understand it and what’s going on, that’s for sure. We tackle this in the book too. We give tips and resources for younger and older kids.

You tackle some pretty intense topics in the book, but I feel like as parents we can’t avoid these in the current climate.

Yep. It’s not like it was when we were young, so being aware as a parent is really important, and also connecting with your kids about these things is very important. I think part of it is recognizing girls are sexual beings and that sexting is like flirting in lots of ways, it’s just a different medium. And so we don’t want to go into a panic and shut things down and shame girls for their expressions, but they need to understand the risks — and their rights. For example, if you take a sexy selfie and you send it to someone, and it gets forwarded — that is considered child pornography. It’s actually criminal. And so we need to be having discussions about this. And boys need to be taught that consent is really important when it comes to images and sharing.

Has parenthood changed how you view your work?

I was doing this work long before my daughter came along, but it’s really wonderful to get to raise a daughter and arm her with all these good tools and thinking. It is great to see this younger generation have such great opportunities. They’re freer to be themselves, to try on different identities, to play, to feel they are empowered — to be themselves and do great things.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

Definitely the work/life balance thing has been a challenge. There was a point when I was leading Girls Action Foundation that I was pretty close to burning out and realized I didn’t want that to be the story of my life. Since then, I’ve been working really hard to find a balance that feels right in my soul, in my spirit, in my heart. There’s so much pressure to succeed, and to be an amazing parent, and to have a great social life. I had to fight that instinct to feel guilty, or feel a failure, because I can’t do it all. Part of that is really challenging society’s expectations of success and performance.

I have definitely struggled with feeling like I’m not succeeding, so I work really hard to be conscious and challenge the voices that expect me to be performing perfectly on all fronts. Like for example my social life. In the last couple years I’ve said okay the kids are more of a priority because I stepped away from Girls Action so I could write and be more flexible, and I’ve really been much more present for my kids. And my work has been much more fluid and organic, but my social life just went to hell, because I just couldn’t — I needed to focus on other things. So I’ve kind of gone into this bubble for the last couple years and I realized it’s okay. I had to say it’s alright, I can’t do it all and perform brunches and cocktails on weekends with my friends.

What other moms do you admire?

My mom, because she was always a fighter and she taught me about social justice from the early days of my existence. She’s always stood up for doing the right thing, even at huge cost to herself. Mothering isn’t an easy job and it’s quite dismissed and judged in so many ways. So much of what we’re doing is redefining that, I hope. Redefining it, bringing value to it, and owning it.

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