By April Negrette

25 October 2016 - 08:14

'It is important is to emphasise what is unique about each girl.' Image (c) Mat Wright
'It is important is to emphasise what is unique about each girl.' Image ©

Mat Wright

How can you help girls become more confident? We asked April Negrette, a member of the British Council's Active Citizens programme.

1. Teach them something meaningful

I build leadership and personal skills with girls from kindergarten to high school. Most are between the ages of eight and 11. Our group is based on the US Girl Scouts model, but we focus on the girls' Western Shoshone culture. We get together every Wednesday to practise speaking Shoshone and learn about traditional foods and practices. We also ask community elders to pass knowledge on from previous generations.

My community has long-standing political and multi-generational conflict. Our language is dying, our traditions are being lost with every elder that passes away. The history of our people, and why we live on a reservation, isn’t covered in classes at school. I tell the girls, 'you know what, the fact that we’re sitting here and I have to talk to you in English and not Shoshone, that should tell you something about what has happened to us.' It's urgent that our girls connect with their culture before it disappears.

2. Earn their trust

Be honest with them. Whenever I am talking to the girls, I use personal stories to illustrate a point. With the older girls, I sometimes use an example of one of my own bad relationships or decisions. These girls are wondering about the choices facing them in life. They want to hear about what I have been through. When I confide in them about times in my life when I have been unsure, it builds their trust in our relationship.

3. Listen to them

Pay attention to what they are saying, and take their opinions seriously. Girls (and boys) will surprise you if you take the time to actually listen to them. They often see things very differently than adults do.

One useful technique is to try asking a follow-up question related to what they've told you. You may find the conversation goes to a different place from where it started. I've noticed that sometimes when we are talking, the girls will start by saying what they think I want to hear. If I didn't bother to keep listening and asking questions, they wouldn't get to the thing that is really on their mind.

4. Model consistency

As a mentor, I have to be a constant, available presence in the girls' lives. By being conistent, showing up every week, and listening, I show them that I am not going to abandon them. This is crucial to getting the girls to make the leap from being interested in an activity, to being active participants and creating things on their own. Having consistency helps them shut out the other noise in their lives and take action.

Many of my girls have been raised by their grandparents; they love their parents and want them to be part of their lives, but if the relationship hasn't been developed over a lifetime, it can be hard. I am in a special spot, because I am not the enforcer in these girls' lives, and I don't have to be the bad guy. When you have a window of opportunity like that, you have to make it count.

5. Don't pit them against each other

It is important to emphasise what is unique about each girl, rather than encouraging them to compete. I used to teach a weekly English speech class for a group of girls in a neighbouring community. The rules were that you could volunteer to speak first, but then you were not allowed to speak again until everyone else had an opportunity. Each girl was allotted an equal amount of time to talk, and they each spoke about a different topic, so their presentations could not be directly comparable. While one was speaking, I would hear one say, 'wow, I wouldn't have thought of that'.

This structure created opportunities for them to support one another, rather than pitting them against each other. By treating everyone the same, whether they were shy or outgoing, I was able to create a fair environment.

5. Encourage perseverance

One day we were working with Shoshone vocabulary flashcards, and one of the girls stormed away from her partner. When I asked what was wrong, she told me through her tears that she couldn't remember all the words, that it was too hard and she couldn't do it. I explained to her that I knew it was difficult, but if we kept practising, it would get easier. She said, 'I don't want our language to die'. I explained that that would happen faster if we didn’t deal with the hard stuff now; and that I was struggling to learn it too, just as she was. Sticking with a difficult task gives a real sense of accomplishment, and that builds confidence.

April Negrette is a member of the South Fork Band of the Western Shoshone Tribes of Nevada, and founder of Newe Numeechees, a group of girls working to preserve the Western Shoshone culture and language.

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