Maven to Know: Elyssa Campodonico-Barr

The President and CEO of Girls Inc. shares her advice for her 15-year-old-self, what’s next for her organization, and how to support young women in Indy.
Elyssa Campodonico-Barr Maven to Know INDY MAVEN

Elyssa Campodonico-Barr, CEO, Girls, Inc. of Greater Indianapolis

Greta Thunberg. Malala Yousafzai. Jazz Jennings. Amariyanna “Little Miss Flint” Copeny. Whether the cause is global warming, education equality, transgender activism, or a public water crisis, girls and young women are boldly leading the conversations—and the change.

As president and CEO of Girls Inc., Elyssa Campodonico-Barr witnesses daily the extraordinary leadership and everyday heroism of local girls and young women. When the organization was founded 50 years ago, in 1969, only 11 women served in the U.S. Congress. Today, there are 127. But even though women have made notable progress, girls in 2019 still face “very real challenges”—including the fact that 25 percent of them will experience some form of sexual assault before they turn 18, Campodonico-Barr says.

This week’s Maven to Know tells us about the soon-to-launch #GirlsToo campaign to promote sex and consent education, the advice she’d give her 15-year-old self, and a simple way we can help support girls and young women in Indy.

What’s a challenge that girls face today, that their peers also faced 50 years ago when Girls Inc. was founded?

Girls in 2019 continue to battle mental health challenges. We are just talking about mental health more today, which is a step in the right direction. Girls are much more at risk to suffer from anxiety and depression than boys. By mid-adolescence, girls are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder as boys.

It’s critical that we notice, name, and correct the indirect and direct standards we are creating for girls. We aren’t setting our girls up for success if they can’t bring their entire selves to situations and feel comfortable in their own skin and identities. 

What’s a challenge that is new—or on the horizon?

Every year, we at Girls Inc. see an evolution regarding a new (media) platform to provide content, and more often than not, to cyber-bully. These venues and platforms will continue to play a part in the mental health and confidence of girls. Instead of using these platforms to tear one another down, at Girls Inc. we build a sisterhood of support and use these tools for positivity and acceptance.

So many girls are showing us that you’re never too young to make an impact. Can you tell us about a girl in Indy who is doing something important and how we can support her?

I have the privilege of getting to know many girls in our programs, and it’s the day-to-day heroics that make them so special: Waking up mom at 4 a.m. to make sure she gets to work, being an upstander when a friend gets bullied at school, creating boundaries around her body, being on track to be the first high school graduate in her family—so many everyday stories leave me in awe.

But one girl stands out in particular: Ronasiah is only 18 and boldly making her mark on the beauty industry. She has her own business, Imperfectly Polished, with the mission of helping girls and young women discover who they were created to be.

“Notice the language and actions we are using around girls and boys. What history are we telling of this country and our heroes? What is the first thing you say to a girl when you see her? Is it how pretty she is?”
If you could pitch one story to local media about what young girls are experiencing in Indiana right now, what would it be?

To raise awareness about the sexual harassment and assault our girls are facing at a very young age. I used to be a Title IX attorney at Indiana University, and I spent a lot of time investigating allegations of sexual assault and harassment on campus. It became very clear that consent as a concept is not something we prioritize with our youth before they enter college.

This has become even more clear in my role at Girls Inc. I did not anticipate how frequently that I and my team would report allegations of sexual harassment and assault from young girls. One in four girls in the U.S. will experience some form of sexual assault before she turns 18. Seven out of 10 girls will be sexually harassed in high school. This is abhorrent. We are failing our girls and our boys by not supporting sex education and consent education at an early age.

Unfortunately, too many folks shy away from this topic because it can be framed as politically charged or taboo. I understand this is also cultural. I am Panamanian American, and we did not talk about bodies, sex, or consent. I was handed a book. Our youth deserve to understand the scientific facts around their bodies, they deserve a safe space to ask important questions about their health, and they deserve to pursue an education and live their lives free from the threat of sexual harassment and assault.

There’s a lot of information out there about how to support and encourage girls. What are the subtle ways we might be undermining them?

I truly believe most folks want to support girls in a way that is empowering. It’s the unconscious, societal biases that are part of our everyday vocabulary, that show up more often than you would think. Notice the language and actions we are using around girls and boys. What history are we telling of this country and our heroes? What is the first thing you say to a girl when you see her? Is it how pretty she is?

More often than not, we are modeling behavior. If we are constantly talking about what diet we are on, how gorgeous X is, how terrible this presidential candidate looks—rather than highlighting substance—we are not doing them justice. Girls are looking to us to be their champions, their role models. We need to show up well for them.

Best advice you’d give your 15-year-old self?

Oof. They really all surround the theme of self-worth. Believe in your instincts. Don’t lose your hustle, your sense of grit. Keep pushing beyond your comfort zone. Be kind to you—love yourself. Keep dreaming. In short, I needed Girls Inc. when I was 15.

What’s the number one way we can support Girls Inc.?

Help us invest in girls at a level that is meaningful to you. We are 99 percent philanthropically funded, and that means the community helps us build the next diverse pipeline of leaders. It costs about $200 per girl for us to deliver our confidence-building programs in schools and roughly $1,000 per girl to deliver our intensive leadership programs. Help sponsor a girl today at—she needs you.

Follow Elyssa Campodonico-Barr @elyssagirlsincindy.

The adolescent version of Amanda Kingsbury was not given a book about sex education, but her mother—a nurse—did draw her an anatomy lesson of sorts. 

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