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On a recent Saturday, a group of about 30 girls—artists, writers, poets, creators, and deep-thinkers—meets in a quiet corner of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum’s Kogod Courtyard. They’re sharing—anonymously—some of their deepest secrets and vulnerabilities, and many of them are meeting each other for the first time. A movement of sisterhood is brewing.
They have come to share their art and stories as part of Girl Power Meetups, an organization created by and for young women in the D.C. and Baltimore areas. Before the session begins, several girls sit chatting in a loose circle. They’re soon instructed to sit next to someone they’ve never met. Everybody dutifully gets up and shuffles positions, followed by introductions around the circle. Instead of merely giving their name and location, each girl is asked to share something that she likes about herself.
Participants are asked to bring art they are working on, and several girls share their projects. One girl has zines about the history of Planned Parenthood, and another has a zine with collections of art and stories by friends. Another has to be coaxed into sharing the painting she has tucked away in her bag, a figure with a dandelion blossom for a head. As projects are shared, one girl draws each participant in her sketchbook and takes notes while another knits a gigantic scarf.
Soon, each person is asked to write down something that she’d like people to know about herself, but wouldn’t necessarily volunteer unprompted. Slips of papers are placed in a box, then passed around the circle to be read aloud, preserving each girl’s anonymity. Among the responses: “I don’t know where I’m going in life;” “I identify as genderqueer;” “I still think about hurting myself.” If anyone is moved to respond with advice or commiseration, they do so.
The free-wheeling discussion that follows bounces around in topic, from body image issues to dealing with mental illness to experiences with sexual assault. It’s an intense and raw conversation, with lots of emotions bubbling to the surface. Several girls are moved to tears—sad, happy, and angry tears. But the tears are always met with empathy and reassurance.
The force behind this labor of love is Samera Paz, a 22-year-old photojournalism student at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. A D.C. native, Paz frequently returns on the weekend to visit family and run the meet ups. “I found myself not having a space where I could connect with other girls my age that wasn’t a party or an art show or an event,” Paz says. “And I realized, why don’t girls have a space?”
At the very first meetup in fall of 2015, it became clear to Paz that there was a demand for a safe space for young women to discuss their art—over 70 people showed up. “I thought maybe five people were going to show up,” Paz recalls. “My friends looked at me like, ‘this is going to be something.’”
Since then, many of the members say they have been deeply affected by Girl Power Meetups, both in their artistic practices and in their personal lives. “I feel really, really safe here, and it’s been one of the tenets of the group to be accepting, be non-judgemental, and be a place of support,” says Kealea Foy, a frequent participant. “ With my family I didn’t have a way to talk about these things.”
Ava Zechiel, one of the zine makers who hasn’t missed a meetup since her first, says she “didn’t know what a zine was before I got here, so [the group] is really important to my work.” She adds, “A lot of young women are being shut down from their voice, a lot of people are denying young people, period, of a voice and a space, and this is a fill in for that space.”
Describing how Girl Power Meetups came to fruition, Paz explains, “As an artist, especially a woman of color artist, people aren’t going to put me in galleries or museums just because. I realized everything I want in life, I have to be the one to create it and do it.” She hopes that she can inspire other women to be similarly in charge of their own destinies.
“I really want it to impact people’s lives and teach the girls that this is something they can do on their own,” Paz says. “You can create your own platforms, you don’t have to wait around for someone to do things for you.”
This kind of encouragement is how Girl Power Meetups expanded into a multi-city movement. Tray Duplessis attended one of the earliest Girl Power Meetups while visiting from Baltimore and left wanting more. “I asked Samera, ‘Do you have this in Baltimore?’” she recalls. “And she said ‘No, do you want to do it?’”
Paz put Duplessis in touch with her friend Kira Sneed, who also lives in Baltimore, and Duplessis and Sneed helped launch the Baltimore chapter, which often meets in members’ homes instead of public spaces. And Duplessis and Sneed are working on Girl Power Meetups “chats”—smaller group sessions with a more focused topic like writing workshops or community building through art.
But in both the D.C. and Baltimore meetups, the candid conversations and presentation of artwork are the centerpieces of the gatherings. The events range from pure fun, like clothing swaps and yoga classes, to career development—and even a visit to the White House to meet with women working in prominent positions. Regardless of where the meetups are held, Paz says, “We rely on public spaces to host our meetups, but what makes [this] us is… all of [our] experiences, all of [our] troubles.”
Though much of Girl Power Meetups involves self-reflection and introspection, the group is looking to become more outward-facing and activist-centered. In a world in which girls are regularly taught to downplay their feelings for fear of being seen as too emotional or irrational, having the freedom to express their thoughts completely and honestly can be a radical act.
Duplessis sees this emotional vulnerability as the natural next step in effecting change. “It’s very important in discovering yourself, and being an activist, taking time for yourself to be in a group where you can express your emotions,” she says. “That’s what we are here for, to empower you.”
Girl Power Meetups ambassador Olivia Trice, a 17-year-old who attends the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, wants to turn that self-empowerment into action. “I think it’s really important that we also make statements with what we’re doing,” she says. “We’ve done a little bit of activism, like attending the Women’s March. I definitely want to do some home grown activism from Girl Power Meetups.”
Tasia Joseph, a senior at Towson University, came to a recent meetup because she’s studying to become an art teacher and hopes to someday open her own art therapy practice. “I wanted to get involved with this because I hope I can bring some of this energy to my classes that I teach,” she says.
The girls that attend the meetups are knowledgeable, self-assured, and ready for action, but this should come as no surprise at a time when Teen Vogue is a leading voice of political resistance. This is a generation of women who are well-versed in the language of activism and being allies to all communities. “It’s important to know that it’s for anyone who identifies as female, for people who feel like they may need that space,” Sneed explains.
“People sometimes think girls don’t need [a space], or that boys need it more, or the LGBTQ community needs it more, but girls are still a very marginal community that’s often neglected,” Trice adds. “Everywhere there needs to be a place for just girls.”
To that end, the Girl Power Meetups leadership hope that the movement can continue to grow. They have a sizeable following on social media platforms, including fans from outside the United States, though Paz points out that, while social media plays a crucial role for Girl Power Meetups, the most important aspect is what happens in the meetings.
“That’s what we’re all about, in real life spaces, connecting to people face-to-face,” she says. “The dream is to have Girl Power Meetups all over the world. It takes time and we’re just being patient with it, but it’s going to happen.”