Episode 022: Girl Rising, Educating Girls & Climate Change with Christina Lowery
Christina Lowery is the CEO of Girl Rising: a nonprofit that’s shifting the way the world values and invests in girls. Decades of research show that girls’ access to education and opportunity is the single most effective factor in transforming global issues like poverty, gender equality and climate change. Through storytelling campaigns, youth mentorship and advocacy work, GR is closing the gendered opportunity gap and building girls’ capacity to change the world.
In this episode, Christina dives into the power of storytelling for social change, why investing in girls’ education benefits us all, and how Girl Rising is fostering girls’ education and empowerment in twelve countries around the globe.
“This powerful story about what happens when you educate girls, [we believe that] if we could turn that into an engaging, creative, dynamic, emotional story for all kinds of viewers – from parents to presidents, boys and girls – that we could get people to care about this issue, and ultimately get them to take action.”
- How Christina turned her passion for documentary storytelling into a groundbreaking platform that advocates for girls’ empowerment
- Why closing the gendered education gap creates a ripple effect that pays dividends for generations
- The relationship between women’s empowerment, girls’ education and climate change
- How Girl Rising is harnessing the power of storytelling to change the world
- Girl Rising’s ongoing efforts to challenge harmful gender norms, foster self-confidence and build storytelling skills in youth
Christina Lowery is the CEO of Girl Rising (GR), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to change the way the world values girls and invests in their potential. Driven by decades of research demonstrating that girls' access to education and opportunity is the single most effective factor in transforming pressing global issues as varied as health, poverty, gender equality, and climate change, GR creates original media and campaigns about the universal benefits of educating girls. Working with local partners, GR also creates curricula and culturally-relevant tools for on-the-ground programs and educational initiatives.
GR proudly collaborates with many organizations, companies, influencers, teachers, students and grass-roots activists under the banner of girl’s equality. GR tells stories about girls who face daunting barriers to their independence and stand up to them with determination and courage. GR strategically deploys these stories to fuel and strengthen social movements – informing and inspiring people to take action for girls and gender equality. Additionally, GR works with local partners, adapting these stories into culturally relevant educational tools and curricula to build confidence and agency in girls and to change attitudes and social norms within their communities. Girl Rising is currently working in India, Pakistan, Thailand, Guatemala, Kenya and the United States.
In her current role as CEO, she leverages her decade-plus worth of experience in documentary film to lead Girl Rising in using storytelling as an engine of social awareness and change. In 2009, she helped found Girl Rising and, eight years later she led its transition from a film production company to a non-profit. Christina is now responsible for the strategy and execution of Girl Rising’s expanding work around the globe including the production of new films and other media, implementation of GR’s on the ground programs and ongoing engagement with public and private sector partners, foundations, media partners, educators, and grassroots supporters. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brown University and a Masters in Community Planning from the University of Texas, Austin. She lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley with her husband and three children.
Jessica Williams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I'm your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.
Today's episode is with Christina Lowery. Christina is the CEO of Girl Rising, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to change the way the world values girls and invest in their potential. Driven by decades of research demonstrating that girls access to education and opportunity is the single most effective factor in transforming pressing global issues as varied as health, poverty, gender equality and climate change. Girl Rising creates original media and campaigns about the universal benefits of educating girls. In her current role as CEO, Christina leverages her decade plus experience in documentary film to lead Girl Rising in using storytelling as an engine of social awareness and change. Christina holds a Bachelor's Degree in Comparative Literature from Brown University, and a Master's in Community Planning from the University of Texas in Austin. She lives in New York City in the United States.
I just loved having this conversation with Christina. I remember when Girl Rising came out the the film, and I was in grad school at the time. I watched it in a special screening in Portland, Oregon, where I live. And this is just such a special interview for me because that film had a major impact on my life. So I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. Thanks and let's go on to the show. So welcome, Christina to the Days for Girls Podcast! I am so excited to have you on the show today. How are you?
Christina Lowery 2:05
I'm great. Thank you. It's so nice to be here.
Jessica Williams 2:08
Well, it's lovely to have you here. Girl Rising is such an incredible organization. And I cannot wait to talk about all the amazing stuff they are working on. So let's get started. You started your career out as a documentary filmmaker, and now you are the founder and CEO of of Girl Rising. So what what happened that led you to actually found this organization, and to move into this social impact, social good space?
Christina Lowery 2:36
Well, I'll first say that I feel like I started my career not as a documentary filmmaker, but I started my working life as a pretty lost soul. Not knowing what the heck I wanted to do or kind of thinking I wanted to do everything. And as a result was kind of paralyzed and couldn't quite figure out how to start. And so I had quite a circuitous journey even to becoming a documentary filmmaker, and was known as the person who would take any job because I had so many short term jobs. And they involved everything from working for a German car company on on these press junkets on auto releases when new cars would come out, to typing up a filmmaker's script, to being a translator on the Texas Mexico border for for an author who is researching women's issues along the border. When I found documentary filmmaking, it was like a light bulb went off – I had no idea that people even were filmmakers, made documentaries for for a living. I didn't know that was a career choice. And when I found it, I just absolutely fell in love with the process of knowing nothing about a topic, getting the chance to dive deep into research, talk to experts, and figure out how to tell a story. And then put that together in some way to put it in the world. And it really made me deeply, deeply believe in the power of storytelling, and particularly the power of real people's lives and telling the story of real people's lives.
So about 12 years ago – to now circle back to your specific question – about 12 years ago, I was working after many years of being a freelance documentary film producer. I was working to help manage a documentary film production company in New York City. And we were approached, my colleagues and I, by a funder who wanted us to look into the topic of how to end global poverty for a film. Right, that's a really tiny little topic. To end global poverty. And we did. And it meant that we talked to people across the development spectrum, from clean water to HIV/AIDS, to maternal and child health, to education to agriculture, you name it. And what every single person told us was somewhere in the list of top five things that needed to happen to improve outcomes in that sector. Somewhere on that list was, well, really, you have to get girls in school and keep them there. And we were really blown away. And when we actually finally looked at the data, and the evidence coming out of the girls education space, we were doubly blown away. And that was what led us to make the film Girl Rising, which came out in 2013. And we really believed that…this powerful story about what happens when you educate girls, if we could turn that into an engaging, creative, dynamic, emotional story for all kinds of viewers, from parents to presidents, boys and girls, that we could get people to care about this issue, and ultimately get them to take action. And so that's how Girl Rising was born. We never intended to be a nonprofit at the beginning. But the work snowballed over the years in the best way possible. And we reorganized ourselves from a film production company into a nonprofit. And that's where we are today.
Jessica Williams 6:42
I love it. I remember when I first learned that when you educate a girl, so much more happens as a result of that piece, right? That simple thing of just educating a girl has this massive ripple effect. And I remember thinking how powerful that was. So tell me about that experience of learning about that. And the impact that had on you.
Christina Lowery 7:07
You know, as I said, my colleagues and I were were researching – not a film about girls, we were researching a film about how to end poverty. And because we sort of found this mountain of evidence about what you just said, the ripple effects, the myriad positive ripple effects, that emanate out from a girl throughout her life and across generations. We were really blown away. And for me, I had done work earlier in my life, on women's economic empowerment. And so part of that information I was familiar with, I think the thing that stood out to us so much, was not so much the evidence of those positive ripple effects – it made a lot of sense. But the fact that so little investment was, or is, made in girls education. Even though there is this mountain of evidence about all the positive things that happen. I think at the time, we found a statistic that less than two cents on every dollar spent by the US government in international development was directed towards girls' education, programming, or girls' well being. And it struck us that that was an opportunity for us to tell this story, and to try to shift the needle. Because clearly, educating girls improves health and family prosperity, and increases peace and security, and now there's a growing body of evidence about the connections between educating girls and addressing climate change. And it showed up to be the most powerful solution and investment to end poverty. Well, then it needs more investment, more money needs to be directed to girls education. So for us, it was both this “wow, amazing!” this evidence clearly, you know, people have been working on this for decades, that's why there's a body of evidence that's so strong. And yet kind of an an outrage at the fact that there's so little money and resources directed to it, when it's such a clear cut solution to so many of the vexing problems in the world.
Jessica Williams 9:57
Yeah. I think I saw an interview with the author of the book, Drawdown. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but the subtitle is: “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming,.” And that was published in 2017. And I was like, so excited to hear – I mean, it's a man who wrote this book – I was so excited to hear that educating girls and empowering girls with the resources they need to contribute to society is a real practical solution to climate change.
Christina Lowery 10:37
Yeah, it's so interesting. The first time that I kind of stumbled across this link, I was also reading an interview about Project Drawdown. And this was a few years ago now. And I remember, similar to what you're saying, being really struck by the fact that the combination of educating girls and giving girls and women access to family planning that together, that was one of the most important things that we can do to address climate change and its effects. And ever since then, we at Girl Rising have been thinking about, what is the story to tell there? How can we help people understand this connection? And how can we draw more attention, once again, to the importance in in educating girls. And as we've now dug into the research more, you know, we see some more of the nuances of of that connection. And there are two sides that I think are really important for people to understand. One of them is that girls and women around the world are the most negatively impacted by climate change. And they are the ones who are on the front lines of a changing environment in so many places in the world. You know, women are, in many places, the kind of stewards of the land and are in charge of food for a family. And so the idea that changing weather patterns and changing soil and, and food security is shifting and changing. And therefore girls and women, both have great need to understand adaptive strategies, but great power to actually change the way they are farming or harvesting, or understanding the weather patterns that are shifting, for the very basics of raising food for their family.
Jessica Williams 13:21
I think that's really interesting. And I definitely want to unpack that a bit. Because I think that another implication of educating girls and climate change and the effects that that can have, right, is that they are in a way… I hate to make such a gross, like, general statement, but the research shows that when you give a girl or a woman education and resources, she also invests that in her community and kind of lifts everyone up around her. Is that the data that you're seeing as well?
Christina Lowery 13:56
Yeah, absolutely. And I do think it's worth unpacking. I mean, it's very interesting, there's really interesting data out there about women in leadership positions, and in positions of power as presidents on down, and women being much more likely to enact climate legislation than than their male counterparts. And so that's one piece, right, that we need to make sure that girls are educated and supported in order to be able to be in leadership positions. And yes, you're right, the data shows that girls, when educated and and equipped with skills and resources, are much more likely to address needs in their community. You know, I think it's important to kind of ground ourselves in the high level facts which are still right now. Today, there are over are 130 million girls that are not in school. That number has increased during the COVID pandemic and some 20 million girls are expected to actually never return to school. So on top of that 130 million, another 20 million expected to not return to school. And yet one of the biggest changes that's happening in the world we know is a changing climate. And to think about, so what does it mean? How does educating girls mean better climate outcomes?
Well, a few other things that I would point to that we're seeing in the growing body of evidence, is that educating girls builds skills that prepare them for extreme weather and natural disasters. Educating girls provides knowledge and expertise that helps them increase food and water security, connected to what I was just talking about. It actually increases whole communities resilience to changing conditions. And back to your last question, it builds leadership skills, which are known and seen in the data to result in better environmental outcomes. So there's so much there, and there's so much to unpack, and we echo rising, are really leaning into how do we tell the stories of the young women now who are in fact, in their communities, addressing changing climate or changing food sources or changing other other kind of environmental impacts? And are in fact leaders in their community? And that the reason they are able to do that is because they've been equipped with education.
Jessica Williams 17:06
So can you talk about some of the initiatives that Girl Rising has implemented to educate girls?
Christina Lowery 17:13
Yeah, so we are now working in 12 countries around the world. We work with over 130 local partners that work with adolescent boys and girls. And that's really important, actually, to highlight that our work is not just about and not just for girls. It's also for boys. And the primary way we work with our partners is we have a curriculum. And that is based on the stories from the original Girl Rising film and some new ones that we've created. And the curriculum is, we have a 12 session curriculum and a 24 session curriculum. And the curriculum is really meant to help young people develop and build their voice, their sense of who they are, support them in thinking about their futures in kind of identifying and building their support system that will help them reach their goals. And then really importantly, to help to help them explore gender and gender norms. In so many places, discriminatory gender norms are the norm. Right? It's very… what one is expected to be and do as a girl is very specific. What one is expected to be and do as a boy is very specific. And for young people, as well as teachers, because mostly we are training teachers to deliver this curriculum. Teachers also tell us in our teacher training, that this is the first time that they have spoken publicly or talked about or thought about themselves, how gender norms have impacted their lives and their life choices. So that's one of the very concrete ways we we work with adolescent girls, is really through very close partnerships with local organizations. And delivering this curriculum that we've created and adapted for all these places.
We're also really interested in, we're building out part of that curriculum right now to help young people tell their own story, also as a way of kind of increasing their self confidence in their voice. For each of us to be able to tell our own story is a very powerful. It's a very powerful thing. Another thing that we're just that we've just launched is a Fellows Program. Last summer, in the summer of 2020, we had a young leaders task force in which we invited 28 young people from all around the world to work with us over the summer into the fall. And they helped us do all kinds of things, including running a citizen Storytelling Challenge, in which we had some 1500 submissions of stories from 95 countries. And we've learned so much from working with this young leaders taskforce, that we decided this year to focus it a bit more specifically on our girls education and climate Initiative. So we have 10 incredible young people between the ages of 17 and 22, working with us for six months, and we are supporting them in building storytelling skills, as they are seeking to tell the story of their work. Each of them is working on really interesting environmental issues, many of them are working on kind of the hidden costs to girls of climate change. And as part of that, we identify mentors, outside of Girl Rising, but in organizations that we think will be helpful to them in advancing their goals. And we are supporting each of them to produce some kind of story. It can be in a graphic novel, or a photo essay, or a film. And helping to put that into the world. So those are just a few examples.
Jessica Williams 22:09
I love it. You know, I remember when Girl Rising came out in 2013, I went to a special screening and I was just so moved by such incredible stories and amazing filmmaking and I remember them clearly to this day. And I think story can be such a powerful tool to affect change. Can you talk a little bit about how your belief in that and and how Girl Rising uses the power of story to achieve its mission?
Christina Lowery 22:42
Yeah, absolutely. Um, you know, as I said earlier, my stumbling across documentary filmmaking in my 20s really opened my eyes to the to the power of stories. I believe that stories can take us places and help us walk around in other people's shoes, understand other people's lives in ways that no amount of kind of explanation and data can. They can help move us emotionally. You know, if you think of any movement or political upheaval or any major thing like that in the world, throughout history, what is the central piece of getting a group of people to all be pointed in the same direction? It's a story. It's something we all believe in together. And so we continue to believe that stories can help people, it can help humanize the data that that we see. And actually can be the thing that moves us in our hearts and our minds, shifts the way we think, shifts the way we act about about any given topic. And I think that for us, in telling the story of girls, particularly adolescent girls, I think too often adolescent girls are invisible. They are not little girls anymore, they're not yet full grown women, and they are not seen in their full humanity and in their full complexity. And yet it is a time, as we know, that there is so much at risk. So much is decided in adolescence for girls. And that's different than for boys. Of course, adolescence is a critical time for everybody in human development. But the fact that in adolescence you know, girls can become pregnant. In so many places, they're married at that age, and can really begin a life path that that leads them in one direction or another. And then it's hard to circle back. All of those things lead us to continue to believe that telling the stories of adolescent girls in their fullness and to really reveal their innate power. You know, when we first set about to make Girl Rising, one of the things that that director Richard Robbins said at the beginning was, you know, we do not want to tell a story of victimhood. We do not want to portray girls as victims, we want to show girls as the powerful agents of change that they are. And we continue to want to do that at Girl Rising.
Jessica Williams 26:25
Incredible, I just love it. For people who want to connect with you and Girl Rising and get involved, what what can they do? Where can they go? And what are some of the ways that that you invite them into your work?
Christina Lowery 26:38
Well, we love people to get involved. Our website, girlrising.org has a place of how to get involved. One of the things that I think is incumbent upon all of us is to is to learn about these issues, whether it be through Girl Rising or or or another source. It's so critical to understand the issues that are facing girls – the issues around gender equality and inequality around the world. And one easy way and kind of fun way to do that is to watch the original Girl Rising film. We have lots of people who organize screening parties with their friends and their peers or their colleagues, and use it as a chance to learn and then as a group, have a discussion about, what do these issues look like where I live? How can I be involved? How can I make a difference? What pieces of this really speak to me, in terms of what I want to be part of, what part of the change I want to play? So first, I would say go to our website, follow us on Instagram and Twitter and all of those places, sign up for our newsletter. We have lots of events throughout the year. And while there's been so much challenge around lockdowns and COVID, I think one of the silver linings is the kinds of events that are available digitally now, virtually to people no matter where you live. So we invite people to join us for for any and all of our virtual events. And to get involved.
Jessica Williams 28:30
Amazing. Well I want to personally thank you for being a big source of inspiration for me, because when I was in graduate school, I was getting my Master's in Communications. And I was so passionate about women's empowerment and learning about the international development sector as it relates to you know, educating girls. And I saw the movie and it's like I said, almost 10 years later it's it's stuck with me since then. And so yeah, truly thank you to you and Girl Rising for being an inspiration to me personally, and to being an ally in our work.
Christina Lowery 29:06
Well, thank you and I will say you know, you'll be happy to know as an as an early supporter and viewer of that film it is we are still using that film all over the world. Just last year, we translated it and dubbed it into two Mayan languages for our work in rural Guatemala, for screenings with parents and community members who don't speak Spanish and so it's now in K'iche'. And it is interesting to see how evergreen the stories are from that film. I should also say two other quick things. One, we do have a host of educational resources on our site. We have a very flexible curriculum that teachers use to teach every subject from physics to economics to English to social studies. So if you're an educator or parent or a student, please go to our website and look at those. And I'll also say that, especially since you saw the film when it first came out, we are in touch with most of the girls who were featured in the film, we have continued to support their educational journeys as well as that of their siblings. And many of them are doing incredibly well and really are shining examples of what happens when a young woman is provided with an education and some support. She will do amazing things. So it's also been wonderful to stay close to all of the young women who were featured in in that original film.
Jessica Williams 31:00
I'm so happy to hear that. Christina, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been a real pleasure.
Christina Lowery 31:06
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Jessica Williams 31:09
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