Preparing Future Leaders 

by Jessica Genova

In the immediate aftermath of one of the most draining and contentious presidential election seasons in recent memory, it was a relief to be engaged in a seemingly lighthearted activity: decoding emoji sentences with a bunch of middle school girls. Granted, I have a limited emoji vocabulary—it consists mostly of smiley faces, hearts, and the thumbs-up sign—but I was confident that for the next hour and a half I would have a respite from the highly charged world of American politics.

That’s not to say that translating these colorful characters is child’s play. Indeed, among this group of 14 girls, all of whom participate in LiveGirl’s leadership and mentoring program at the Carver Center in Norwalk, determining the precise meaning of even a relatively simple emoji sentence was a complicated exercise. And that was precisely the point.

For one middle school girl, a string of symbols consisting of an okay sign, a night scene with city buildings, and a boy and a girl holding hands meant “good night.” For another, it translated to: “It’s nighttime and someone asked her out on a date, and she said it’s okay.”

Very different interpretations of the sentence!” exclaimed team leader Sara Nelson, who uses exercises like this one to help the girls learn how to navigate thorny emotional and social issues, including the challenges of communicating in the digital age. The week before, the group explored how to deal with conflicts in relationships.

LiveGirlTalk mentor Sara Nelson with members of her group at the Carver Center.

LiveGirlTalk mentor Sara Nelson with members of her group at the Carver Center.

Founded by New Canaan resident Sheri West, who saw a need for mentoring empowerment to boost self-esteem in middle school girls, the two-year-old non-profit has reached 200 girls throughout Fairfield County. West, who has a 13-year-old daughter, saw how vulnerable middle school girls are today as they face adolescent pressures amplified by social media. In addition to the after-school mentoring groups, which are held in Norwalk, Bridgeport, New Canaan, and Stamford, LiveGirl hosts a monthly leadership series and a one-week summer camp. The focus has been on developing both a positive online and offline community of support.

“We employ a variety of hands-on leadership activities, athletics, and performing arts to facilitate bonding and empowerment in a diverse, team-based environment,” West explained. Through LiveGirl social media, the girls connect through Instagram and resources including the Feeling Strong-Inside & Out video series and Letters to My Middle School Self blog. “We provide the girls a broader connection to community through diverse friendships and role models.” 

For many participants, including 12-year-old Mateja Moyer from Bridgeport, LiveGirl also offers a safe space where they can share their thoughts and feelings and let their guards down. “You can just be yourself, and you get to share your opinions without people making fun of you,” she said.

The girls have a weekly journal assignment where they are asked to reflect on a recent discussion topic or share anything that’s on their minds. The need for these regular check-ins can’t be overstated. A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only “4% of Connecticut teen girls report talking about issues with a teacher, adult, or school counselor when feeling sad or anxious.”

Ameera Ahad, a 13-year-old from Bridgeport, credits LiveGirl for developing her confidence and encouraging her to take on new challenges like lacrosse and public speaking. She said, “When I played lacrosse, I felt like giving up at first because it was too hard for me to catch and throw, but I kept on playing. LiveGirl has taught me to make good choices, to be more open-minded, and to be resilient.”

At LiveGirl’s Explore Fair, Ameera said she learned about different careers and the hard work that it takes to make it to the top of any profession. “LiveGirl taught me that it’s going to take a while to be fully successful and that it’s not an easy process,” she said.

When Ameera was younger she dreamed of one day becoming president. Now, she’s set on becoming a doctor. “As I got older I realized that politics seemed a lot harder—and there’s a lot of drama,” she said.

It’s hard to argue with that, but somehow I think that Ameera and her LiveGirl peers are up to the challenge.

Jessica Genova is a writer and editor specializing in education, food, travel, culture, and parenting. She has contributed to numerous publications, including Marie Claire, Metropolitan Home, and Philadelphia Magazine.