Somewhere deep in the California wilderness, a group of teenage girls wearing matching hiking boots are lugging massive backpacks through the woods. This diverse group of young women will spend two weeks camping, bonding and climbing mountains while developing conflict resolution and leadership skills. Together, they make up just one small group of the 150 girls served annually by the San Francisco-based non-profit GirlVentures.
Founded in 1997, GirlVentures aims to provide adolescent girls with outdoor adventures and social-emotional learning at a time in their lives when, statistically, their confidence plummets. According to GirlVentures’ Executive Director Emily Teitsworth, a girl’s confidence peaks between ages six and nine and then begins to decline. A boy’s confidence, however, continues to grow.
The intention of GirlVentures is to reverse that trend by getting girls and gender-expansive youth, many of whom wouldn’t normally have the opportunity, into the outdoors and participating in confidence-building activities.
“A big piece of the work we’re focusing on now is really inclusion and diversity in the outdoors because it’s a place that’s very white-male-dominated,” Teitsworth says. “The typical image that you think of or that you see often in backpacking magazines …is sort of a white man standing on a peak, and we want to change that. We want to help girls and young people from all different communities see themselves in the outdoors and see people who look like them and are from their communities doing these kind of outdoor adventure sports — and feel like that’s their place, too.”
The GirlVentures team is packed into a maze of offices on the top floor of the San Francisco Women’s Building, a mural-covered, women-owned community center that offers nonprofits like GirlVentures affordable space. A red and pink neon light in the shape of a vagina hangs on the atrium wall outside the GirlVentures door, while inside, racks hold hiking boots, backpacks, climbing helmets and plastic tubs of non-perishable food. Staffers’ bicycles rest against overflowing desks. Teitsworth, in between apologizing for the mess, was busy preparing to meet GirlVentures’ oldest group of teenage girls mid-camp in the Sierra.
Summer is the busiest time of year for GirlVentures. It’s when the bulk of the organization’s sixth- through 12th-graders take part in one- or two-week sessions in the wilderness. Families pay on a sliding scale based on what they feel they can afford, and each participant is provided with transportation, gear and food. Seventy-seven percent of the participants receive either a full or partial scholarship to GirlVentures’ programs. During the school year, girls can take part in indoor climbing adventures in San Francisco and Oakland. The nonprofit hopes to expand to Richmond, the Central Valley and beyond to bring in girls from a variety of backgrounds.
“What we hear over and over from our alums is that a big piece of going on course with us, and something that’s really transformational, is actually building these meaningful, deep relationships with people from really different walks of life and different backgrounds,” Teitsworth says. “I think that’s something that translates to building better leaders. They are able to work with people who are different from them. We teach conflict resolution skills on course and help them work through their differences and actually find those commonalities, and I think that’s something that’s more and more in need in society.”
Remaining connected with GirlVentures alumni is a vital part of the non-profit’s programming. About 40 percent of participants return after their first GirlVentures experiences, and those who age out of the program can become part of the GirlVentures junior advisory board.
“As a group each year they decide on an issue that they want to work on and learn more about,” Teitsworth says. “This last year they worked on food justice, so it’s a way for them to say like ‘OK, we’ve been inspired to protect the natural world and realize the value of that by going out on course and build our leadership, now how do we apply that in this urban environment that we’re living in and how do we connect what we’re learning outdoors to our daily lives?’”
This week, Teitsworth’s focus is on joining her girls somewhere near Mount Whitney. The group is located far away from the wildfires ravaging the Yosemite area, but it’s an issue that’s definitely on Teitsworth’s mind. She’s itching to leave the office and get back outside, returning to the side of a mountain with a group of future leaders.
“I think we really use the outdoors as a catalyst to develop leadership, and it’s just such a natural fit to push yourself to finish an eight-mile hike or to scale a rock wall for the first time. All of those things bring up all of these issues and personal challenges around confidence and belief in yourself and working together,” Teitsworth says. “It’s a way to learn by doing.”