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November 12, 2015

Prof’s Peace Corps project of 1990s reflected in current research interests

Sara Goodkind

Sara Goodkind

An idea formulated by School of Social Work faculty member Sara Goodkind during her mid-1990s stint in the Peace Corps now has spread around the world to more than 60 countries.

When Goodkind was a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania, teaching English to middle- and high-school students, she noticed a dearth of women politicians and other types of leaders, and of opportunities for girls to receive encouragement toward such careers. It was just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet Union’s influence on many Eastern European states, so the U.S. Democracy Commission was offering grants to Peace Corps members who wanted to formulate new programs.

Goodkind and two other Peace Corps colleagues proposed Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), which the organization now labels its “most widespread gender empowerment initiative.”

Opening in Romania in August 1995, the first eight-day Camp GLOW attracted 82 girls, 6th through 12th grades. There were traditional camp activities, from self-defense training to tie-dyeing and hikes, plus campfires at night. But to boost the girls’ self-esteem and leadership skills, the camp also brought them together to talk about decision making and smart planning, about who they were and what they wanted to be.

The camp was focused on “thinking about the roles of women in society and the expectations for women,” Goodkind recalls. “I do think it opened a lot of the girls’ minds to broader possibilities they hadn’t thought of before.”

Camp GLOW participants also found themselves talking with kids from elsewhere in the country, whom they might not have met otherwise. Among the group were many Hungarians, a large but isolated ethnic group in Romania at the time. Meeting each other at the camp, Goodkind says, helped to counter the assumptions both groups had about one another.

“We saw some immediate results and some long-term results,” she says. One former camper, with whom she reconnected recently on a visit to Romania, is an English teacher today and plans to do a Camp GLOW of her own. Another was for many years a Romanian TV host and now is an actor.

“She’s not a political leader but she’s certainly a leader in lots of other ways,” Goodkind says. “She’s spoken to me about how influential Camp GLOW was on her.”

After the original Camp GLOW concluded, Goodkind and colleagues wrote up their experiences: “We had made for ourselves some handbooks with our activities and plans and a version for the girls.” The Peace Corps took those materials and adapted them for a camp in Poland soon afterwards.

Goodkind has since spoken to several Peace Corps groups about her experience.

“It’s done differently in every location,” she notes, and has been part of an ever-broadening gender equity initiative for the Peace Corps, addressing health and other societal issues specific to each location. Hillary Clinton visited a Camp GLOW in Malawi when she was secretary of state.

In Armenia, for instance, camp participants stay in touch via newsletter, are recruited as junior counselors and are eligible for grants to hone their project management and leadership skills. In Belize, participants are taught how to translate their experiences into Club GLOWs in their local communities. The Ukrainian version of Camp GLOW covers human rights, gender equality and environmental protection.


At a recent Camp GLOW session, girls learn about malaria.

At a recent Camp GLOW session, girls learn about malaria.

Goodkind says her research and scholarship today have been shaped by her experiences in the Peace Corps, and particularly by Camp GLOW. Much of her work examines assumptions about gender, race or ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability and age that shape the design and implementation of programs for young people.

“In developing Camp GLOW, we drew on literature and programmatic materials designed for American girls,” she recalls. “We utilized resources intended to help girls overcome gender stereotypes. However, in reflecting on this early experience in gender-specific programming, which is one of the main areas on which my research now focuses, I realized that some of the materials we used made assumptions about girls that could have potentially excluded some girls from seeing their experiences reflected. I also recognized a lack of attention to the relevance of race, ethnicity and culture.” Happily, she adds, the Peace Corps always encourages volunteers to adapt materials to their specific cultural context.

Through the years, Goodkind has traveled to Peace Corps events, including a session at its headquarters last year, to speak about the first Camp GLOW. The twin Camp GLOW missions of promoting the idea of leadership and bringing that message back to participants’ peers “have remained the same,” says the Peace Corps’ Meghan Donahue. She is the organization’s gender equality and women’s empowerment coordinator and education specialist, as well as the Africa region adviser on gender in Accra, Ghana. She graduated from Pitt in the 1970s, then volunteered for the Peace Corps before joining its staff in 2010.

The possibility of serving one’s country through political or other leadership “is not thought about in much of the world,” she says, especially among young girls. “You go from being taken care of to taking care of one thing,” whether it’s work or a family.

Donahue says the Peace Corps is just about to embark on a systematic assessment of Camp GLOW’s impact, which has never been done. The organization wants to trace not only how many girls have become government ministers, academic deans or CEOs, but how many took their camp experiences back to their schools to conduct programs for their classmates right after camp.

“From the camp Sara started to the latest camp in Ghana, the volunteers will do a needs assessment with their community,” Donahue explains. “You have to talk to a parent to allow the daughter to go to camp. It’s not in the thinking that you would send your daughter to camp. That takes a lot of negotiation on the part of the volunteers” and contributions of space from the community.

Camp GLOW has even inspired the Peace Corps’ Camp BRO (Boys Respecting Others), which concentrates on gender issues and leadership training as well, sometimes in the same camp space with the girls.

“Boys also have a need for leadership,” Donahue says, “and ways to address positive masculinity instead of machismo.”

Donahue reads from a counselor’s assessment of this year’s camp in Ghana: “The camp included a wide variety of activities and sessions ranging from malaria [education], to public speaking, to sexual and reproductive health, to career panels and dance competitions. One evening the girls even learned how to create reusable menstrual pads,” the lack of which is sometimes the cause of girls missing school each month.

“… I was able to play a part, no matter how small, in encouraging these young women to take on leadership roles in a society that often discourages them from doing so,” the counselor wrote.

“Not only that, but also encouraging the bright young men at the camp to respect these young women and recognize that girls are just as capable as they are in setting and accomplishing goals.”

If Goodkind were to visit a camp now, Donahue says, “Sara would be very proud.”

—Marty Levine       

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 6

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