MOMS-BAL-YOGA-BOYSTOO-TB

Annie Warshaw, CEO and co-founder of Mission Propelle, leads a discussion with 2nd through 5th grade girls from Hamilton Elementary School in Chicago on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Warshaw described it as "a forum where girls can weigh in on how they view the future of feminism, where they feel boys should and should not be involved in conversations, and if we should be including boys in girls only spaces." About 100 girls attended the session while boys had similar discussion in other areas of the schools. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Stacey Wescott

Five years ago, former second-grade teachers Annie Warshaw and Jill Carey launched a girl-power group that combines yoga, storytelling and snacks — the perfect trifecta.

“We teach how to advocate for yourself in a respectful way,” Warshaw told me at the time. “We talk about what power the girls have in different situations, and we drive home that it doesn’t matter if you’re 7 or 8 or 6, you’re a person, and you deserve to be heard.”

The girls, in kindergarten through fifth-grade, warm up with yoga poses before discussing a superpower of the day — empathy, courage, advocacy, acceptance, gumption. They read a story and play a yoga-based game to illustrate the superpower in action. They do some more yoga poses and shout mantras: I am strong! I am smart! I take up space! I am important! They snack.

The group started out as Smarty Pants Yoga, then morphed into Mission Propelle, a shift intended to emphasize the empowering parts of the program, more than the yoga parts. More than 80 schools around Chicago and the suburbs offer the classes.

Now the founders are considering another shift, this one much larger in scope.

They might invite boys to join.

It’s an ongoing conversation reflective of those happening in small and large organizations around the country since October, when Harvey Weinstein’s serial predation was revealed and the floodgates were nudged open — and then altogether breached — by survivors breaking their silence about sexual harassment and assault.

How do we get in front of this? How do we protect girls and women from predators? How do we raise boys to do better?

“We’ve been having a lot of conversations about masculinity and how we move forward in this #MeToo movement,” Warshaw told me. “How do we involve men, and where do we put the ownership in making change?”

“When girls are empowered, it’s a win for everyone,” Carey added. “Sometimes, when boys see girl-power spaces, they think it’s a girl thing, solving girl problems. They don’t see themselves as part of a portrait where girls and boys are shoulder-to-shoulder equals. … This might be an opportunity to say, ‘Boys, you can be a partner in solving this problem.’”

But Warshaw and Carey have spent the past five years growing and talking, laughing and crying, side-by-side with their young charges. They’re loath to make a wholesale change to the program without some input from the very girls they’re empowering.

So they’re holding assemblies. The first one took place Jan. 26 at Hamilton Elementary School in Lakeview. State Rep. Juliana Stratton, running for lieutenant governor of Illinois, stopped by to warm up the crowd of 125 girls, before Warshaw and Carey launched into yoga, storytelling and questions.

What do you need to hear from a boy to know that he supports you?

What is the difference between a hero and a friend?

Do you think having boys in your girl-power space would keep you from being yourself?

Boys, meanwhile, stayed in their classrooms, where teachers led them in similar discussions about the pros and cons of gendered spaces — teams, clubs, schools.

The girls discussed the questions in circles of eight, each group led by an adult moderator. Warshaw walked around with a microphone and asked for volunteers to share their thoughts.

Girl space

Annie Warshaw leads a discussion with girls from Hamilton Elementary School in Chicago on Jan. 26, 2018. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

“If someone knocks you down, a boy can help you up,” a girl named Isla offered in response to, “What do you need to hear from a boy to know that he supports you?”

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“Sometimes it can just be, ‘Hi,’” a girl named Claire added. “Because sometimes a boy avoids you if he doesn’t support you.”

As the assembly approached the hour mark, the girls’ answers grew less question-specific and more philosophical.

“I think boys and girls should join together to make a difference,” one girl declared into the mic. (She didn’t give her name.) “Like Martin Luther King Jr. said, boys and girls should join hands and make a circle of love for everyone.”

“I think that no one should be separated because of their gender,” a girl named Maeve said. “Even in the smallest things like volleyball and baseball or the big things like being the president or working at a candy shop.”

At the end of the assembly, Warshaw called a delegate from each group to the front of the gymnasium to drop a paper vote into a “yes” (include boys) or “no” (keep it girls-only) jar. (“Just like Seneca Falls,” Warshaw told the girls with a grin.)

Carey and Warshaw tallied the votes later and will consider them alongside feedback from other gatherings. It seemed, based on the Hamilton girls’ discussions, that votes would lean heavily toward inviting boys.

But it’s not a decision they want to rush. And if they do enact the change, they may roll it out on a school-by-school basis or grade-by-grade, rather than changing the entire program. Older girls, in particular, Warshaw said, have expressed fear that it would be hard to be themselves and do yoga in front of boys, particularly once crushes have entered the picture.

Above all, the founders want to make sure their program is doing the most good. It’s an impulse for which I’m deeply grateful and one I hope to see other groups — at home, at work, at school — make room for, as well.

“I’m an idealist,” Carey told me after the assembly. “I’d like to see us move toward a coed class. I’d love to be the change.

“Everyone’s like, ‘What’s after #MeToo? What’s after #TimesUp?’” she continued. “Let’s talk about what’s before it, and that’s the children.”

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