Hear their voices: Messages of hope from the Girl Rising Storytelling Challenge

Inspirational stories from hundreds of grassroots organizations around the globe show why education is the key to elevating girls.

By Heidi Mitchell — October 15, 2020

Nothing illustrates a community’s real-life issues like an engaging story. Which is why, since 2009, the non-profit Girl Rising has encouraged young women around the world to share the personal stories that inspired them to launch local initiatives that range from bringing quality schools to Nigeria to combating adolescent pregnancy in Costa Rica. 

Education is key to ending systemic inequalities, says Girl Rising Co-Founder Christina Lowery, and it’s also the most efficient way to help girls and women reach their full potential. Girl Rising is laser-focused on amplifying their voices “to ensure that girls around the world are educated and empowered.”

In partnership with HP, Girl Rising has just wrapped the second year of its global My Story Storytelling Challenge, which drew some 1,500 participants from 90 countries. Participants’ stories, some of which touched on difficult themes of racial injustice, sexual abuse, and child marriage, could not be more urgent. Finalists will receive a $500 prize from HP to help them continue their important work. 

Some emphasize simple dignity, like lovingly ironing out handmade masks before delivering 200 of them each day for free in Kisumu, Kenya. Others focus on teaching practical skills, such as coding in Bangkok or Pune, or playing male-dominated soccer in Madagascar. “There is something that is so brave and powerful about every single one of these stories,” says HP’s Chief Brand and Communications Officer Karen Kahn, who served as a judge in this year’s competition. “The greatest power of this kind of program is creating space for diversity of voices.”

There were nearly twice as many entrants this year as when the competition first launched in 2018. Some of the applicants are boys, who understand that allyship from those with privilege is essential to elevating their sisters. All share the common theme of giving girls and women space to be more than society expects of them, and a willingness to speak out about their hopes and dreams, against all odds. 

Phonsina Archane in Herpowerment with Girl Rising and HP Storytelling Challenge

Girl Rising

Phonsina Archane helps get basic necessities to Kenyan girls in slums through her inspiring work at Herpowerment.

The judges, an esteemed global group of policy makers and activists, announced 15 finalists at the Girl Rising International Day of the Girl Summit earlier this month. The judge’s panel included Yasmine Sherif, director of Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the first global fund dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises which was established during the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, who said the stories reflected “the reason we need to ensure education and opportunity for every girl, everywhere.” A human rights lawyer and author, Sherif said the participants “make the perfect case for why we need to listen to them more.”

Judge Nabila Aguele, special adviser to the Hon. Minister of Finance, Budget & National Planning of Nigeria, who works to ensure that data-driven policy is implemented to revitalize the country’s economy in a socially inclusive way, said she was struck by the number of submissions that demonstrated action in response to the global pandemic, which has further exposed the urgent need for advocacy and action. “My hope is that the exposure provided through the My Story challenge will lead to more support and opportunities for these organizations and will inspire others as well.”

Some entrants who personally touched her include Phonsina Archane’s volunteer work with Herpowerment restoring dignity to girls in the Kenyan slums through distributing sanitary supplies; Oritsejafor Christabel’s work on gender equality and menstrual hygiene in Nigeria through The Transformational Girl Project; and Abel Mwesigwa’s story about his experience as a Boy Champion for Gender Equality with the Girl Up Initiative Uganda. Ms. Aguele also connected to the Brown Ballerinas for Change from Virginia and their belief in the power of dance as protest in the fight for racial equality.

One of the dancers, Kennedy George, says she didn’t plan to start a protest-dance troop. She was invited by fellow classmates from the Central Virginia Dance Academy for a photo-op in Richmond the day after Gov. Northam announced the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. “My mom has always taken pictures of me dancing, especially when we travel, because it’s such a huge part of who I am and how I connect to things,” the 14-year-old ballerina says. “I never knew that the photo would send such a powerful message.” The photo went viral and the four friends — Ava Holloway, 14; Shania Gordon, 15; Sophia Chambliss, 17; and George — decided to form Brown Ballerinas for Change and perform at events like the 5,000 Man March. “When people started telling us that they were inspired and empowered by us, we knew that we could use our voices and gifts (dance) to make social change,” says George. 

Project Kara in Girl Rising's Storytelling Challenge

Girl Rising

Kaavya Mundkur and Arushi Menon work on spreading mental health awareness with Project Kara throughout India.

Another judge, Trisha Shetty, a social activist based in India who started an organization called SheSays — which trains youth to be agents of social change and to demand equality for all — was moved by the stories of so many assertive and bold young women and girls, especially during this dark time as we collectively experience a global pandemic. “They come from an intrinsic place of truth,” she says. “And when we say stories have the power to move mountains and change social structures, it’s because its people are sharing their truth.”

Two of her fellow citizens, Kaavya Mundkur, 17, and Arushi Menon, 16, launched Project Kara to address the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues, especially during the pandemic. Since April, they have launched a website, essay platform on Instagram, and a podcast. They employ 25 high-school-age writers to help girls facing mental health issues tell their story. “In India less than 1 percent of the youth in need of mental health assistance and aid actually receive it,” says Menon. “With the growing number of teenagers and young adults experiencing issues related to mental health in general, as well in this year with the quarantine, we felt that something needed to be done.”  

Kahn at HP, for her part, believes that funding these groups, and others, in a way that can help to end systemic racism, lack of education, and inequality is putting action behind words. But the words have to come from real life stories. “Our belief has always been you have to do what’s right for the communities that you serve,” she explains. “We have 55,000 employees that are activated on many of these issues and topics, because this is deeply central to who the company has always been.”


Related: Why data can never replace the art of human storytelling.