Nancy Kennedy Launches Girls Toward Self-Discovery and Leadership
She’s seen it again and again: confident, outspoken little girls transformed into hesitant, self-critical young women. This transformation frustrates Nancy Kennedy, director of girls programs at Chewonki, to her core, and she’s determined to disrupt this pattern and create pathways that girls can follow to become strong, engaged adults.
“It doesn’t take much to launch girls,” says Kennedy. “They need someone to say, ‘I see you and I hear you and I believe in you’…If you pay attention to them, they bloom.” She stops and corrects herself. “No, it’s not that! They catapult forward.”
Kennedy has often been that catapult, through her work as a consultant and mentor at the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute, a non-political, non-profit organization devoted to raising Maine girls’ aspirations and leadership abilities, The institute honors and answers to its namesake, who overcame being orphaned at 9 and a widowed at 26 to serve 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, 18 years as a U.S. Senator, and 8 years as Maine’s first lady (during the governorship of husband, John McKernan). Snowe, known for her even-handed ability to craft balanced political solutions and now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, established the institute in 2015.
Teachers and guidance counselors refer “girls with potential,” Kennedy explains, to the program, which requires a three-year commitment beginning in sophomore year of high school. The sophomore curriculum focuses on “Values: What do I stand for?” Juniors explore “Voice: How do I get heard?” And seniors concentrate on “Vision: Where do I want to go?” Girls follow online lessons between monthly mentorship meetings and gatherings with a network of successful women, occasionally including Snowe herself.
Kennedy helped design the curriculum and welcome the first cohort of about 50 high school sophomores. She dove right into talking with them about values. “If you talk about their values, you talk about their spirits,” she says. “I did exercises with the girls, helping them try to identify, ‘What is it that I believe? What is important to me? How can I express that?’”
“I want to say to each girl, ‘You have a unique set of skills you were born with,” Kennedy reflects. “Our job is to bring those out by asking good questions and really listening to your responses.’ It’s like shaking a sieve gently to find the gold in the gravel.”
The original participants, all from schools in Androscoggin County, are now in their last year of the program, which now includes 36 schools and about 300 girls. “By the time they are seniors, these girls are taking responsibility for their lives and for being part of positive solutions to issues in other people’s lives,” Kennedy says. “We need them to be a force for good in the world.” Girls come from every county in Maine. Kennedy mentors five Belfast Area High School juniors.
Kennedy says, “It’s been a privilege not only be a part of making the program and building a curriculum that actually is changing lives in a really positive way, but also to be a witness watching where the girls and the program are going. It gives me hope.”
Kennedy radiates humor and enthusiasm but she says she endured some wrenching challenges in adolescence. Perhaps, she says, that gives her special insight into the strength it takes for a girl to figure out exactly who she is and find her voice.
It’s not just girls in crisis, however, but all girls who can benefit from focused mentoring like the kind the institute provides. “Most of the mentors say, ‘I just wonder, if I had had this available, how would my own life be different now?’” she says.
Kennedy sees strong parallels between leading Chewonki’s girls programs and mentoring girls through the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute. “The work I’m doing there is similar to what I’m doing here,” she says. “A Chewonki wilderness experience–be it 10-day camp or a 3-week trip–is wonderful and valuable in itself, and it’s also a vehicle to seek answers to big questions of authenticity: Who am I ? What do I care about? How will I share that? How will my strengths help make a better world?”
Featured Girls Program:
All-Girls Central Quebec Canoe Trip
|Dates||June 26 – July 18; July 22 – Aug. 13|
The Mistassibi and Aushuapmushuan rivers flow south through the boreal forest of central Quebec and into Lac Saint-Jean, located a day’s drive north of Quebec City. The black spruce forest through which these beautiful rivers flow is the southern boundary of a remote, unspoiled wilderness that stretches far north to the subarctic and the shores of Ungava Bay.
Both rivers offers a steady mix of almost contiguous class I and II whitewater, with class III rapids mixed in and an occasional class IV rapid. Some of the larger rapids provide opportunities for the group to learn the advanced expeditionary skill of lining canoes, and we will portage the Class 4 drops.
Chewonki’s history on the rivers of Quebec dates from the mid 1970s. The Chewonki participants who traveled them share a deep kinship, and the stories from those trips are part of our lore.
We are excited to offer this unique opportunity to experience a magnificent, little-traveled region of remote interconnected waterways and forests. A wonderful experience all on its own, this trip is also the perfect progression to prepare adventuresome young women for Chewonki’s most challenging canoe expedition: the George River in northern Quebec.