Megan Williams, a polished and self-possessed 27-year-old, has an answer to many parents' worries these days about raising strong, confident daughters.
As the thoughtful and action-oriented executive director of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Williams is helping girls survive the maelstrom of today's media-saturated world. Hardy Girls, a nonprofit in Waterville, mentors girls, giving them tools to grow up healthy so they can create healthier societies as adults. "There is a lot of untapped potential out there, and it's in girls," Williams says. "No question girls are the future."
Hardy Girls was incorporated as a nonprofit nine years ago by three local women, Karen Heck, Lynn Cole and Colby education professor Lyn Mikel Brown. Initially, the nonprofit offered only an annual "Girls Unlimited!" conference in Maine and a small specialized library in downtown Waterville. After years of being part time, the organization took a big turn when Williams was hired as a full-time director in 2005.
Williams, who is from Falmouth, graduated in 2004 with a degree in women's studies and sociology from Colby College. Equipped with a desire to put academic theories to work, Williams has nurtured the nonprofit from its strong but small roots into a flourishing organization with nationally recognized programs and three full-time and one part-time staff members. The nonprofit, which runs on about $300,000 a year, is now generating close to half its revenue by selling its curricula and organizing national workshops.
This outreach produces income, but it also creates momentum. "I want to — and this is what we're working on — network with other girls' programs, researchers and activists to create a better world for girls," Williams says.
What is attracting people to Hardy Girls is the organization's unique mentoring model. Rather than focusing on the pitfalls that can limit a girl — body image struggles, eating disorders, dysfunctional peer relationships — Hardy Girls teaches girls to look at their world with the discerning eye of a sociologist.
"We look at systems, not symptoms," Williams says. "Girls are part of a culture that needs them to conform to a very narrow ideal, and if they don't, they get the message they're not good enough."
Most kids are deluged with media, much of it loaded with strong gender messages for girls. That was the motivation behind Hardy Girls Healthy Women's national petition drive to stop the glamorization of Dora the Explorer, the popular Public Broadcasting System character. Many television shows glamorize thin beauty ideals or girl-to-girl hostility, such as "Desperate Housewives" or "Gossip Girl," says Williams. Being able to assess and filter those messages can make girls less vulnerable to them.
"What Hardy Girls does is focus on critical thinking," Williams explains. "When you start working with girls to deconstruct messages about whatever, whether it's careers or body image, you see that moment when they say, 'I get it! Now I understand why I feel this way and now I feel I can do something about it because I can name it.'"
Following Williams' own penchant for action, Hardy Girls also encourages girls to become activists. In its Girls Coalition Groups, Hardy Girls brings in college-aged women to meet weekly with small groups of middle school students. Together they analyze cultural issues and then they "mobilize." Girls have written letters to corporations with negative ads or created sexual harassment policies for their schools.
Williams, too, set up a Girls Advisory Board for high school girls, which helps Hardy Girls stay current and gives older girls a chance for leadership training. The girls have organized the nonprofit's annual girls conference and also tackled issues like getting Kmart to stop selling a T-shirt making light of violence against women.
And this inspires her. "As long as you can keep seeing the changes, that's enough to motivate me to keep doing this," she says.