“Now looking back, how do you see the benefit of including the voices of girls in our research?”
I began my experience volunteering with the Delores Barr Weaver Policy center as an intern with the Girl Matters: It’s Elementary Program. As an intern, I met with six girls who attended George Washington Carver weekly. We worked on skill building lessons covering various topics including relationships, safety, emotions, and identity.
Before I began working with the girls at GWC, I was filled with pre-conceived ideas of what the girls’ lives would be like. I had certain assumptions of what their home lives looked like, what challenges they faced, and how they related to the world. I expected the girls who were involved in GMIE to be struggling in school because they lacked support and encouragement at home. I expected them to be closed off and therefore difficult to engage with. I expected them to have issues with fighting and/or being disrespectful to authority figures.
Upon meeting the girls I began to realize that my expectations were based less in reality and more in ignorance. Of the six girls I met with, multiple of them were star scholars and had parents who helped them with their homework every day when they got home. As we spent more time with each other throughout the semester they became increasingly open to sharing their experiences and emotions. And while some of the girls had a history of fighting, it was not a primary aspect of their behavior, but an indication of deeper problems.
Although I considered myself to be open minded, I had let zip codes inform my expectations. Despite my intentions, I dragged my biases with me to GWC. However, by talking to the girls, I realized that the realities of their everyday lives were, in some ways, similar to what I expected, in other ways, very different from what I had imagined, and in many ways, the same as any other elementary aged girl who could benefit from having someone to talk to.
By including the voices of girls, the research at the Policy Center is better able to reflect reality. Biases and stereotypes are inevitable as they reflect our tendency to organize large amounts of information about the world. They can affect our perceptions and interpretations of facts. While numbers may stay the same, the interpretation of the data might be different depending on the context. By including the voice of girls, we can interpret and understand data in the context of the realities of their lived experiences. The research, thus, has the benefit of being understood through the lens of the subjects rather than that of the researcher.
While working on the impact bibliography, I realized that the research produced by the Policy Center is widely viewed and cited by other organizations, academics, and curious readers. Through research findings, the Policy Center has the opportunity to inform readers about the experiences and traumas behind the ‘bad’ behaviors some girls display and the responsibility to deconstruct pre- conceived biases regarding these girls. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with the girls’ directly – an experience that greatly shaped my understanding of the Policy Center and its work. By including the voices of the girls, the readers will be able to develop a deeper understanding of the context of the findings, thus giving the research greater impact.
Including the perspective of the girls participating in GMIE in the research also allows the research to reveal more than hard data ever could. While poor grades and low attendance rates can illustrate that there is a problem, they cannot explain why there is a problem. For research to effectively inform program development so that programs have maximum impact, it must get to the root of the issues, which is accomplished only by understanding the girl behind the data. This allows the programs to be more responsive to the needs of the girls. Furthermore, understanding that research informs program development, you cannot effectively deliver programs designed to encourage girls to find their voices while simultaneously silencing the same voices at the development stages.
Girl responsive research benefits the research, the public, the programs and the girls. Additionally, it benefits the researcher. While volunteering with the research team, I input a multitude of PATs and Assessments into JJIS and SPSS databases. While data entry could become tedious, I was energized by the words of the girls: hearing who their role models are, what they like most about being in the programs, what activities they do with their families. Hearing what, in their own words, the girls learned while in the program reinforced its importance and reminded me why I wanted to volunteer with the Policy Center. I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to work on both sides of the spectrum, research and program implementation, and develop an understanding of how important it is for girls to be listened to and included.