By BRIDGET SCOTT
Annalee Beaulieu wants to be a politician. It’s not something one often hears these days.
“Your career should be something that you’re really passionate about. I’ve always been passionate about making things better for the country and our state and our people,” she says.
Beaulieu, 17, has her path to political office all mapped out, starting hopefully with studying political science, international relations and economics at Georgetown. But she hasn’t always been this sure. She’s had some help getting here.
“Vermont Works for Women has really helped me to discover that you can do whatever you want to do, and it doesn’t have to be typical or normal,” she says.
Helping girls reach this conclusion is one the main goals of Vermont Works for Women, an organization aimed at supporting women of all ages seeking work and careers that both speak to their passions and pay the bills.
Beaulieu is one of eight young women on VWW’s Youth Advisory Council. They are gathered in matching T-shirts on a Saturday morning at the Green Mountain Club’s headquarters in Waterbury Center to roll up their sleeves and do a little community service. All of these girls, aged 14 to 17, have been involved for years with VWW’s girls’ programs.
Some of them started out with Rosie’s Girls, a week-long summer day camp for middle school girls, focused on trades exploration. “We’re doing carpentry, welding, fire-fighting, car repair, bike repair, stonewall building, arts and crafts,” says Kelly Walsh, director of girls’ programs.
Others came up through Dirt Divas. As the name implies, this experience is more adventure-based — specifically mountain biking — but still keeps at its heart the question of what it means to be a girl and a woman in today’s society.
Brooke Wells, 16, of Morrisville sums up what she got from her experience as a Dirt Diva: “It’s just a bunch of girls getting together, riding their bikes, doing fun activities, just getting exercise.”
“Both programs have a component of media literacy and what we call ‘girls’ world,’ helping girls interpret the messages they’re getting about what it means to be a girl and a woman,” Walsh says.
Having graduated from these programs, these eight young women were invited to apply for the Youth Advisory Council.
“The Council is now working in an advisory capacity for the organization, so they’re keeping us really young and fresh and making sure we’re relevant with the programs we’re offering,” explains Walsh.
In return, VWW offers these young women leadership development opportunities and a way to stay connected with the organization that has come to mean so much to them.
“We have monthly meetings, and we get to have really in-depth conversations. People come and talk to us. And we do community service,” says Amanda Preston, 17, of Johnson.
Today the Council will be helping Kathryn Wrigley, the field supervisor for the Green Mountain Club, tear up several tent platforms around headquarters that are in need of some tender loving care.
The Youth Advisory Council also played a key role in the design and rollout of VWW’s recent survey, titled “Enough Said.” The survey, initially intended to help guide VWW’s internal programming, unearthed some home truths about the ways in which girls and young women are prepared for independent life.
Spoiler alert: Not so well.
In nine listening sessions held around the state and through surveys distributed at VWW’s annual Women Can Do leadership conference, the organization heard again and again that girls and young women in Vermont feel ill-prepared to meet the adult responsibilities waiting for them just around the bend.
Even something as simple as financial literacy has slipped through the cracks, perhaps because it is so simple. “Most of the girls with whom we talked had absolutely no idea how much money it was going to take to support themselves. That’s either because their parents didn’t have (that information) or the adults assumed that they knew, and the girls didn’t want to admit that they didn’t know,” explains Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of VWW.
Few schools in Vermont include financial literacy as part of a mandatory curriculum, an oversight Bluemle hopes to see corrected in the future.
The report also notes that girls and young women don’t have enough access to mentors and allies, though 60 percent of those surveyed sited a sound support network as the key to fulfilling their goals and dreams.
Respondents noted again and again that their relationships with other girls of their own age are often aggressive and competitive, and that they wished that female peers would be more supportive of one another.
“That does not have to be,” insists Bluemle. “I think if girls can help lead the charge if they can take matters into their own hands and say, ‘we don’t want to be doing this to one another,’ we have a real shot at changing that dynamic.”
Not that girls have to shoulder the whole load. “Adults do have to be better equipped to deal with it, so that we don’t just look the other way,” she adds.
VWW titled their project “Enough Said” because the findings weren’t anything new, and there’s been enough talk about the problems of girls and women. In response to these findings, VWW has convened a task force whose goal is to clearly identify a course of action to address these concerns. The Task Force on Young Women and the Economy meets for the first time in late May and will present its findings to the public in December.
In the meantime, work at VWW continues. Not just with young girls, but with women as well. In many ways the programming is not so different. Initiatives like Fresh Food and Step Up introduce women to new career possibilities in trades that might not, in a different time and place, have seemed obvious for women: the transportation industry, green building, law enforcement or telecommunications. Clinics in biking and skiing offer the opportunity to build confidence and focus.
Many of the women who seek and find help at VWW are, or have recently been, incarcerated. These women, who badly need not only a fresh start, but also a support network and concrete work opportunities, find the help they need with mentors, transitional work and employment support.
While VWW is committed to helping women transition from incarceration, it’s a far better scenario to equip them with the tools and confidence to keep them out of trouble in the first place. As Walsh says, “If we’re not helping girls and young women be really prepared to enter adulthood and to find good jobs that they love and that are fulfilling, we’re also not helping Vermont’s economy.”
Bluemle echoes that sentiment. “If the percentage of women in civil engineering is actually going down, if the percentage of women in IT careers is actually going down, and those are careers in which there’s going to be tremendous growth and upon which the economy depends, we’re in trouble. It’s now an economic issue.”
But it’s also a very personal issue for the girls of the Youth Advisory Council, many of whom now speak — with the same enthusiasm Beaulieu shows for politics — about their own career aspirations.
Mary Chambers, 16, of Burlington wants to be a pathologist. “I didn’t really know about that until high school because schools don’t give us a chance to look at different careers. So I’m glad (Vermont Works for Women) is giving girls a chance to explore careers,” she says.
“I want to be an outdoor educator and do environmental science,” says Preston. “I started off being taught all my leadership skills here and it’s really followed me everywhere in my life … it’s very beneficial to what I do every day.”
And then there are those, like Rosy Kirk, 16, of Waterville who don’t really know what they want to do yet. “But it’s definitely built up my confidence, so now Iknow I can have a chance, have opportunities.”