Tatiana Fraser is creating change by transforming the way citizen organizations work with girls and young women to be more effective and impactful. Tatiana empowers young women to face the challenges in their lives by building on their strengths, giving them the tools, space, and encouragement they need to contribute their knowledge and skills to their communities. Through her national network, she is reaching girls in remote, urban and Northern communities, and increasing social actions led by them.
The New Idea
Tatiana is actualizing the potential of isolated girls to be leaders in their communities by fostering their self-esteem, encouraging them to have healthy relationships, while also giving them a safe space to discuss the challenges they face and collaborate on change initiatives. She is creating a movement of community leaders by training girls, and girls’ organizations to facilitate change, connecting them through a national network and linking them to role models. Tatiana’s specific programming for girls (ages 11 to 13 and 14 to 17), young women (16 to 25), and girl-centered organizations supports these groups in understanding and building girls’ confidence and empowering them with the tools to not only speak out for themselves, but for others facing societal challenges. Tatiana is preventing violence, promoting mental and physical health, healthy sexuality, media literacy, and community engagement, all while building girls’ leadership capacity.
Tatiana has built a national network made up of local girls’ organizations, individual women across generations, trainers, educators, and corporate partners. These groups work across cultures, sectors, and geographies. Through her national network, Tatiana is changing patterns of girls’ isolation and breaking down systemic barriers. She is bringing girls, young women, and their adult allies together across great distances, generations and sectors, and empowering them to be leaders. By nurturing these relationships through leadership programs, national retreats, and regional gatherings, Tatiana is equipping young women with necessary critical thinking tools and a collaborative environment to practice these skills. Through her partnerships with leading corporations, Tatiana is generating seed funding and a pool of mentors to support local girl-led action initiatives.
The girls and young women who participate in Tatiana’s programs become role models and agents for change in their own communities. Today, Tatiana’s network reaches more than 60,000 girls annually.
Societal pressures can cause girls to stifle their talents, can seriously undermine their self-esteem and create barriers to their success. Efforts to address girls’ issues in Canada often fall short, as few institutions recognize the need for gender-specific approaches to young people’s mental health, violence prevention, and leadership development. Initiatives addressed at marginalized youth usually are intended to reach boys and young men, because of public concern about gangs, drug abuse and violence, and because girls’ challenges are less visible. For initiatives aimed at girls in particular, key shortcomings are the common emphasis on self-esteem, as well as media representations of girls and body image. These send the message that the key to a girl’s well-being is her individual attitude. This emphasis on self-esteem overlooks the realities of many girls, particularly girls of color, and Aboriginal and low-income girls because it fails to address the harsh realities of their everyday lives, which contribute to the challenges they face. In addition, youth engagement approaches often fail to foster intergenerational links.
Young women in Canada face pressures—new and old—that limit their potential. Especially in underprivileged communities, the real-life challenges of girls have not yet been curbed. 54 percent of girls under 16 experience unwanted sexual attention. In Canada, half the population of young women or girls will be victims of some form of physical violence before they reach 16 years of age. Furthermore, according to the National Council of Women of Canada, girls from marginalized groups tend to experience violence at heightened levels; these are girls and young women from First Nations, refugees and immigrants, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that with the onset of puberty, girls are typically three times as likely as boys to suffer from depression due to low self-esteem, negative body image, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and stress.
In addition, popular culture in North America idealizes youth. Women across generations are disconnected and attempts to bring them together, even within the women’s movement, are often not successful. Therefore, many girls and women’s organizations work in isolation from each other. There is a growing need for young women to appreciate, and have the space to learn from, older women who have led change. Tatiana is connecting girls and young women to mentors and role models building momentum toward a strong, sustainable social movement.
Through popular education methods and a systems change theory, Tatiana is equipping girls and young women with critical thinking and communications skills, encouraging their abilities and fostering their confidence to be leaders in their communities. She does so by training and connecting more than 230 girls’ organizations across the country and by running local girls’ programs. Tatiana’s training approach ensures all girls have a chance to tell their stories and share their talents. Local Girls Action programs (ages 11 to 17) includes: Girls’ Club, an after school violence prevention and empowerment program that engages community members to mentor girls using theater, self-defense, media arts, yoga, and other activities. Tatiana’s other local program, Make Some Noise!, assists girls to tackle challenges in their communities by producing and sharing their multimedia creations with the community as well as with girls across Canada.
Utilizing the national network of participants, Tatiana fosters girls’ development through face-to-face and online training. She has launched ten regional forums for girl-serving organizations, delivered in Atlantic and Northern Canada, Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario. Tatiana also creates opportunities for women to meet and learn from one another through national gatherings. She has held twenty national training programs to build the skills of grassroots organizations and young female leaders. Throughout the year, Girls Action members also connect through the organization’s collaborative online platform. Tatiana’s collaborative approach nourishes girls’ organizations and strengthens individual girls’ initiatives.
Tatiana has built partnerships with corporations whose executives are interested in giving their passion, skills, mentorship, and funds to Girls Action members who have started their own initiatives. Through such partnerships, Tatiana provides seed funding for young women who have created their own social ventures in their communities.
To date, Girls Action has given tools, peer support and mentorship to girls and young women to implement over 135 local actions across the country on key community issues. Tatiana’s team has mentored and trained over 100 independent start-up initiatives that benefit girls and young women. Tatiana’s organization trains twenty organizations and funds twenty to forty-five local actions annually. Over the last three years, her organization has funded over thirty start-up girls’ programs that function as “learning labs.” These are a key way for Girls Action to learn from the innovative practices generated by grassroots organizations. Also part of Tatiana’s dissemination strategy is a trainer’s toolkit that she gives to local girls’ organizations. Tatiana and Girls Action have published over twenty original publications on successful practices and tools for young women changemakers and girls’ empowerment programs. Tatiana’s organization has an alumni network of 120 young women (aged 16 to 25) who participated in her leadership programs and are addressing social, environmental, and economic challenges in their communities. 85 percent of participants gain skills in leadership (age-appropriate skills related to project organizing, communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and how to access community resources and mentors).
Tatiana will grow her organization in the next three years by strengthening her national movement. She will do this by expanding the Girls Action network to include new partners who share the vision of girls’ and young women’s potential to affect social change.
Tatiana’s passion for social change stems from her own upbringing. She truly believes in the potential of marginalized youth to make change in society because of what she has seen and accomplished herself. As the eldest of six children with a single mother, Tatiana’s adolescence and young adult life was fraught with challenges that became internalized, resulting in a struggle to find her path. Her mother’s commitment to social justice fueled Tatiana’s own desire for social change. However, growing up with a working-class background, Tatiana received clear messages about her place in society: She should not set her sights too high.
After dropping out of university while working on her undergraduate degree, she had a chance conversation with a professor while serving him at an Ottawa pub. “Go into Women’s Studies,” he suggested, and three weeks later she was back at school. In this course of study, she now had a framework to articulate her experience and the experiences of other women from a sociopolitical perspective. Tatiana learned to see social systems rather than internalize society’s ideas about who she was supposed to be as a young woman from an economically marginalized background. This experience was transformative and empowered her to make new choices and inspire change. She was determined to make the knowledge and critical thinking skills she had learned accessible to all girls at an early age.
In 1995, Tatiana created Girls Action Foundation to create opportunities for girls to take action in their communities, while they navigated a high-pressured adolescence; giving them the resources and support they need to realize their full potential. This is the vision that continues to drive Tatiana’s work today.