The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, honors the estimated 18 million women who joined defense and support industries during World War II. What many people don’t know, however, is that park employees carry the mission of female empowerment forward into the 21st century through an innovative summer program for middle-school girls.
The “Rosie’s Girls” day camp runs for several weeks and serves about two dozen girls through an interesting partnership of local organizations. The girls attend a variety of workshops planned by the West Contra Costa YMCA of the East Bay and funded by the Rosie the Riveter Trust. The workshops vary from year to year, but participants might learn anything from welding to carpentry to horticulture to fire safety, and the program often teaches non-traditional skills or explores male-dominated trades. As part of the camp, the Park Service organizes several outings to local parks and historic sites. The Park Service also curates lunchtime talks by “she-roes,” female role models in a range of different professions. At the end of the program, the girls spend several days at Yosemite National Park, made possible through scholarships from NatureBridge. All the activities are free to the girls who participate.
“We’re trying to expose them to a wide range of careers and expand their idea of the kinds of jobs women can do, and also to give them skills and help build their confidence by trying new experiences,” explains Lucien Sonder, outreach specialist and VIP manager for the Park Service, who began organizing park field trips and scheduling “she-roes” for the program in 2011.
The girls start by visiting the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, and then explore other national parks in the Bay Area. Last year, the girls visited the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and sailed on a historic sailboat. The girls have also visited the Presidio of San Francisco, meeting some of the women who work as Park Police and getting to brush and feed some of their horses. The day trips help prepare the girls for the longer trip to Yosemite, which marks the first time some of the girls have been in the woods or away from their homes overnight.
“I feel like Yosemite was the biggest growth activity and breakthrough activity, especially because it was hard,” recalls Sonder. She recounts how some of the girls worked through their challenges on the trip last summer. One girl in particular had acted sullen, refusing to engage with the others in a problem-solving activity. The group was given a challenge to cross a line in the sand, but only one girl was allowed to touch the ground at a time. The withdrawn girl had looked on from the sidelines. “I realized she was not participating, but watching the rest of the group and figuring out how to do it,” remembers Sonder. “She basically came in and intervened and came up with a solution.” This reaction of reluctance followed by insight and a sense of accomplishment is not uncommon, in Sonder’s experience. “I feel like all of the girls came back with a sense of, ‘Wow, I did something I never did before, and even though it was hard, it was worth it,’ ” she says.
Sonder has also helped to find more role models the girls could relate to. “It was my idea to bring in some ‘she-roes’ that were slightly younger,” she says. Though the program has always been fortunate in finding diverse professional women to speak to the girls, including the city’s mayor, Sonder explains that, “for them to be able to meet slightly younger people who are out in the working world, it might help them … make the mental leap of going from, OK, here I am, thirteen … How do I get to be mayor?”
As a result, Sonder found a chemist in her early 20s who talked with the girls about being one of the only women at her job and one of the youngest people in her department. Sonder also connected with a vibrant young spoken-word artist, Jasmine “Jazz” Hudson, who hosted a workshop on the power of words. The girls were so excited by the talk that Hudson is now hosting other workshops as part of local after-school programs.
One of Sonder’s goals this year is to try to make activities more participatory. Last year, some of the girls expressed an interest in meeting a chef, so Sonder is exploring the possibility of touring a local bakery in Richmond, watching a demonstration, and letting the girls taste the final product. “Something a little more fun and interactive,” Sonder notes.
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By and large, girls value the experience they get through Rosie’s Girls. “This is the first time I have been away from my mom for this long, but I enjoyed the Yosemite trip,” said one. “All of the ‘she-ro’ girls, well, women, were very intelligent,” said another, who added: “They all gave us a word, and the word was ‘NEVER GIVE UP!’ ”
The program in Richmond is one of several around the country licensed by Vermont Works for Women. You can learn more about the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, as well as the national organization that has inspired Rosie’s Girls programs in California, Ohio, South Carolina, and Vermont.
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Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.
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