Natalia Thompson is one of the brightest crayons in the box. At age 16, she has already interned at a magazine and for a political campaign, published stories and articles in several periodicals, and competed in triathalons.
Her most outstanding accomplishment, however, is a program she dreamed up to bring color into other girls' worlds. The project she named Madison SOS (Speak Out, Sister!) encourages grassroots activism among teen girls in her community of Madison, Wisconsin.
Thompson founded Madison SOS in April 2007 as her Girl Scout Gold Award project, the requirement for the highest honor in Girl Scouting. After participating in organizations like the Girl Scouts she noticed a serious lack of focus on high school women. Through the local chapters of feminist and social justice groups, including a school club to fight sexual violence, Thompson became acutely aware that the needs of her female peers were not being met. She decided to take the initiative to fill the gap between under-confident young women and their enormous potential to advance their lives as well as the life of their community.
Thompson cites three reasons for starting Madison SOS: the low self-esteem crisis that plagues adolescent girls, the absence of local networking opportunities for girls from different backgrounds, and ignorance of political outlets.
"I saw that my community did not have many ways for teen girls to get involved as activists or leaders in their community. High school teen girls seem to have a high rate of political apathy, but I think that's because they don't know how to get involved," Thompson said.
The plan that Thompson envisioned was a network of local organizations collaborating in a forum about leadership for young women that would eventually result in a report on the status of Madison's female teen population. She developed a curriculum of workshops to bring girls together to explore grassroots leadership, learn about women's history, and discuss their place in Madison and the world. The workshops began last fall, as Thompson was preparing to attend Mount Holyoke's Take The Lead, a four-day, hands-on program that teaches young women how to turn their ideas into action and gives them the opportunity to meet other forward-looking high school women and supportive mentors. The early stages of the project proved to be tougher than she had expected.
"When I got to Mount Holyoke I actually was debating whether it was worth it. We hadn't had a good turnout in the first few workshops I had held. I felt like the project simply wasn't going anywhere. Without all the ideas, encouragement, troubleshooting, and just energy from Take The Lead, I might have given up on the project."
Thankfully, Madison SOS is still going strong.
"Pretty much every detail of the program was incredible. I got the most out of the personal connections with like-minded young women. I loved that part of it."
Thompson is still in touch with the members of her core team from Take The Lead and her mentor, Giselle Pasamonte '08. With their help, stage one of the Madison SOS pilot program reached its inspiring conclusion--a community forum celebrating local female leaders in politics and the arts. The evening was called "Voices of Courage," and it received media attention on local television and radio, in blogs, and in Madison Magazine.
"Community response has been fantastic," said Thompson, whose fledgling organization has already received sizable grants and hired several interns and part-time staff to launch stage two: the first status report about community issues seen through the eyes of teenage girls. To that end, she is holding several "listening sessions" at neighborhood centers and high schools and has organized focus groups for issues like school safety and problems facing women from immigrant families. Ultimately, Thompson and her leadership team will select the six top areas of concern for female teens and publish their report on Women's Equality Day in August.
Will her Girl Scout project be over when she receives her Gold Award next month? "No," said Thompson. Having broken the regional record for most hours logged on a Gold Award service project, she is excited but not content to bring her initiative to an end. At its earliest conception she wanted to create an "organic community leadership project," something that would take root and, with a little care, grow on its own. Madison SOS now has plans for annual workshops, an online forum for teens to share stories and discuss community issues, and chapters in local schools.
"We're already seeing girls connected with community resources, engaging in work on the issues that most matter to them--for example, working with the ACLU, or holding a benefit for the group Save Darfur. These are small but important steps," Thompson emphasizes--brightly, of course.