Empowering Girls Conference

DA Ryan with US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Lt. Pauline Carter-Wells of the Cambridge Police Department, with students from Somerville

The Spitz Take: Delivering the messages girls need to hear
http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/article/20140207/NEWS/140207267/1994/NEWS

By Julia Spitz ¦ MetroWest Daily News

The messages were ones the 400 girls have undoubtedly heard before.

Play it safe with social media. Don't put up with physical abuse. Math and science aren't just for boys. Good choices lead to good results.

Still, they're words that bear repeating, and how the words were delivered this week underscored another message: Girls in middle and high schools across Middlesex County matter.

They matter enough to be invited to attend the conference. They matter enough to have busy people take the time to talk with them. They matter enough to be entrusted to spread the word to classmates who weren't there.

"I like to plant seeds,'' said Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who sponsored Tuesday's Empowering Girls Conference along with Middlesex Partnerships for Youth. "We hope the girls and their chaperones take the messages back to their schools.''

A contingent from Hopkinton Middle School plans to do just that, said Sophie Schneider and Reganne Murphy, Hopkinton eighth-graders who are working on a peer program for sixth-graders.

"Our hope is there will be a support system for all girls'' at the middle school, said Assistant Principal Maryellen Grady, who attended the conference at Nashoba Valley Tech with 40 of her students.

"When you hear (advice) from adults, sometimes it's like they're preaching to you,'' said Schneider. "Peers are empowering,'' and hearing from high school students in the "Define Yourself'' presentation in Hopkinton last year motivated her to help create something similar for younger students.

Still, the "Clear Minds, Good Choices and Positive Results'' panel of adults made an impression on her, said Murphy, Schneider's classmate.

Cambridge Judge Roanne Sragow; Marie Burke, the state's Drug Court coordinator for district courts; state Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral; and Cambridge Police Lt. Pauline Carter-Wells helped reinforce the message that women can make their mark in careers once considered male-only.

They also drove home the message of not letting peer pressure drag you down.

"You know who you are. You shouldn't let anyone question who you are,'' said Cabral, drawing applause from the packed auditorium.

"Every girl and every woman has a little voice ... that tells you you shouldn't do this,'' said Cabral. "Listen to what your own mind is telling you.''

But everyone makes mistakes, Burke told the group, recounting her view in ninth grade that "school got in the way of all the fun I was having,'' so she took the least challenging academic course-load she could find. She regretted the decision and got back into college prep classes the next year, she said.

"You can do that with all bad choices, and we all make them,'' said Burke.

Recognizing who, and what, can help you move forward is important, Ryan said in her keynote speech. In life's journey, "bad choices can use up a whole lot of your time.''

While teens are bombarded with questionable messages from social media, TV, radio and peers, "I'm just trying to balance the messages they hear,'' Ryan said.

The day was one of messages, as speakers focused on topics from "A STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Revolution'' to "Achieving a Healthy Teen Dating Relationship'' and "Navigating the Cyber World.''

"It doesn't matter what kind of background you come from, you can still have all these problems,'' was among the messages reinforced by speakers, said Keefe Tech sophomore Erin Dowdy from Framingham.

But if some of the messages seem like they shouldn't need repeating, a look at news headlines reminds us they can't be repeated often enough.

As middle-schoolers in Westborough find their "sexting'' pictures have been allegedly sold by a high school freshman, and a teen in Fall River is accused of setting up a Facebook page of inappropriate photos, and as we continue to mourn the loss of bright young women like Lauren Astley of Wayland, whose ex-boyfriend was convicted of her murder, the need to repeat the messages is clear.

The hope is the 400 girls chosen to participate in the conference can repeat the messages in ways their peers will hear.

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