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Where girls become 'Mighty'

Mighty Writers' "Girl Power" workshop is smashing stereotypes for Philly girls.
Student Shaniah Roberts and a volunteer teacher of the Girl Power workshop listen as the group shares their favorite female role models. (Kaitlyn Moore)

You run like a girl. You hit like a girl. You fight like a girl.

These are all Stone Age stereotypes that a group of young girls is fighting to change in their Girl Power writing series. Mighty Writers, a nonprofit in South Philly, teaches Philadelphia kids from ages 7 to 17 to think, write and stay off the streets so they can achieve success at school, at work and in life.

And not surprisingly, their latest creation is the most popular class in the organization's eight-year history.

“I was bullied, and I didn’t know myself and I didn’t think I was supposed to be here in life, so when I heard other girls were going through the same thing — like girls are weaker than boys — it drew my attention. There is actually girl power, we just don’t feel it,” said Nyelah Johnson, 14, of West Philadelphia, a student at Cockrell Christian School. “We did several classes including poetry slam and creative writing. I felt like instead of writing everything in a journal, why not write it down and share it with everyone?”

"Girl power" means different things to each of the roughly 20 students per class.

“To me, 'girl power' is a strong girl that breaks several stereotypes that we go through like ‘oh, girls are weak’ and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “Coming together to support each other, especially this generation, we don’t support each other like we’re supposed to.”

Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood and Maxine Hong Kingston are some of the subjects of the after-school writing class for the girls. Discussing Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, was also a lesson in how writing can be a tool for empowerment.

“She [Malala Yousafzai] shows that everything is possible," Johnson said. "If we express ourselves in writing, we can get somewhere in life and be just as equal as men."

Every year, over 2,000 students — 90 percent of whom are on free or reduced school lunches — participate in Mighty Writers' free after-school programs. Then-President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities named Mighty Writers "one of the 50 top nonprofits" in the nation in 2014.

Presley Damarise Barner, 11, who is from West Upper Darby and goes to Highland Park Elementary, literally had just started writing when her mother noticed her new hobby and wanted to help it grow immediately.

“She said, 'I want to get you into something,' and signed me up. I would write here and there, and I started to like it a lot,” said Barner. “I feel like writing is good for me. I could write stuff down and, like five years from now, I can look back at it and think, ‘Wow, was that really going through my head at that age?’”

At the young age of 11, Barner has already experienced body shaming.

“People would say, 'I’m too big to do this and do that.' It doesn’t matter what size you are. You can be anything you want to be,” Barner said. “You can really hurt someone by doing that. The worst scenario is someone killing themselves, and that’s not cool.”

Barner hopes girls can stick together and not care about what people think.

“You can never get another you. Don’t follow, be a leader. Be yourself, and don’t care about what people say,” she said.

Her advice to make it happen?

“Just go to MightyWriters.com and sign up.”

Upcoming classes at Mighty Writers, 1501 Christian St.

Girl Power! (My Fem Memoir)
July 10-13

Summer Girl Power!
July 31-Aug. 4

Power to the People!
Aug. 7-11