April 25, 2019
Inspiring women scientists and honoring Girls Inc.

Inspiring dozens of girls to explore environmental science, Dr. Mary Ellen Lennon used an Indiana Humanities Quantum Leap Grant at Girls Inc. to create an innovative program that gave her young charges hands-on experience in a muddy Johnson County nature preserve. The program also taught them about women naturalists throughout history who defied gender expectations. For her visionary approach, Lennon this month was awarded the “Strong Smart and Bold Woman of the Year” award by Girls Inc. of Johnson County. Here’s her rousing acceptance speech.

I am so grateful to be here tonight, at an event that celebrates the valuable place that Girls Inc. has in our community. I appreciate this honor with all my heart. I am receiving this honor because of a wonderful program that I was able to share with the girls this past year, a program made possible by an extraordinary group of girls full of curiosity, courage and creativity.

I’d like to take a moment or two to share this project with you because I think it illustrates the innovation and commitment of Girls Inc. to inspiring the girls to take their place in their world as learners and leaders. Also, it is a happy story of what is possible when talented, creative professionals in Indiana share their time, expertise and most importantly their passions with the girls of our community. It is a story of what is possible when we as a community use our talents and resources to show the girls that we take their lives and their potential extremely seriously.

We are all neighbors of Girls Inc. of Johnson County. But I live really close, a few blocks from the big old house filled with the girls’ voices and laughter. I pass it almost daily with my boys. (Noah is jealous of all the fun the girls have while playing in the backyard!) So when Indiana Humanities, a generous, wonderful nonprofit group, advertised its Quantum Leap Grant for projects creatively exploring the intersection of STEM and the humanities, I immediately thought of Girls Inc.

Sonya Ware-Meguiar (Girls Inc. CEO) and Cristal Nevins (Girls Inc. program coordinator), the heart and hands of Girls Inc., supported and made possible my efforts. Generously funded by Indiana Humanities, our project was called “Wondrous World: Introducing Nature-Study and the History of Female Naturalists and Conservationists to Girls.” Over a semester, we held nine workshops, connecting the girls to biology, history, political science and literature professors who introduced them to the global history of pioneering female naturalists, both past and present.

The grant funded many wonderful things this year, but I want to focus on its two main intersecting parts. First, in the after-school classroom, guided by a historian and a political scientist, the girls studied the neglected history of female environmental scientists, learning stories of women exploring the natural world.  They did this often in defiance of the gender expectations of their time that said, for example, a woman couldn’t be an expert on bugs. Second (and this was truly exciting), they had the opportunity to do field research in the woods with a biologist in the Blossom Hollow Nature Preserve in Trafalgar, Indiana.

So imagine: Yellow buses perched on the edge of the nature preserve. Armed with waterproof notebooks and rain ponchos, groups of girls, divided by age, followed Dr. Alice Heikens into the woods to find out what they could about the natural world. On these curiosity-fueled afternoons, the girls got their feet really muddy, their powers of observation sharpened and their imaginations sparked as they looked for turtles in the water, measured tree trunks and discussed the scientific method as they paused to bend over bloodroot and mayapples. They recorded in their journals what they saw and how the woods made them feel.

The girls loved looking for turtles, but what I loved was the fact that a working female biologist shared her passion, years of dedicated study and outstanding intellectual gifts with the girls of Johnson County. Alice sharing her time and talent with the girls showed them how essential they are to the important conversation about the future of our world. Alice took them, their questions and their potential very seriously. That is what Girls Inc. does every day: offering role models and exposing girls to new ideas and experiences to inspire their imaginations.

And the conversation about the art and science of nature study continued. Back at Girls Inc., Dr. Holly Gastineau-Grimes, a political scientist, and I, a historian, presented additional workshops. The girls were introduced to a lineage of female naturalists and scientists who walked into the woods before them. They studied women throughout history who challenged their communities’ formal discrimination of women, who demonstrated, despite prejudice, the importance of their voices, their scientific knowledge and their imaginations. For example, they met Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist and author, who testified before Congress in the 1960s on the lethal effects of certain pesticides on the environment. And they met Wangari Maathai, who suffered imprisonment and beatings in Kenya in her efforts to lead a movement of women to plant 50 million trees.

One final example to celebrate this incredible project. Picture this: In a workshop, we talked about a girl who was born 300 years ago in Germany who spent a lot of time sitting in the woods observing bugs. Three hundred years ago was a time when girls couldn’t go to university, when girls couldn’t grow up to be scientists. This was also a time when most people thought that caterpillars and butterflies were unrelated, that butterflies were witches in disguise and they just spontaneously appeared in the air!

The girls liked this story—the German girl, named Maria Sibylla Merian, drew bugs and flowers, collected caterpillars in jars and documented their metamorphosis into butterflies. Disallowed a degree, she grew up to be a brilliant entomologist, though still largely unknown today. As a group, we contemplated the power of a girl with a pencil trusting her own eyes over the dominant beliefs of her community. The girls remembered their time in the woods with Dr. Heikens and realized they, too, could be scientists.

We reflected on what we learned from these case studies of historical women. The girls noticed how women’s voices and brains have often been ignored or discounted because they were women. The girls took out their notebooks and journaled: Had they ever experienced discrimination? Stories were shared—from a first grader whose brother told her what games girls should play to a preteen describing her mother’s effort to go back to school despite male family members who openly told her she wasn’t smart enough to graduate. In groups, kindergarten on up, we studied women who asked questions, sought knowledge about the world and used their voices despite opposition. We identified the qualities they believe all women need as they pursue their dreams: courage, resilience and faith in their own intellect. You see where I am going; this is what Girls Inc. of Johnson County does in inspiring girls to be strong, smart and bold.

We know history too often writes over the contributions of women. That women—even those of us with PhDs after our names—too often experience discrimination and a society that wants us to feel less worthy, less welcome, less valued. Girls Inc. works to allow girls to develop their full potential as leaders in their communities, to empower them to succeed. In this case, thanks to Indiana Humanities and to Sonya and Cristal and to all the staff at Girls Inc., we were able to expose the girls to worlds of new ideas teaming with bugs, rocks, books and poetry. Hopefully, we will find a way to continue this project, setting the girls off on a muddy path of many more adventures in the woods!

Dr. Mary Ellen Lennon holds a PhD in history from Harvard University. She teaches United States history, including the subfields of global women’s history, African American history and oral history. She is the recipient of prestigious academic awards, including a Fulbright to the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and the Bowdoin Prize at Harvard University. She is the author of “A Question of Relevancy: New York Museums and the Black Arts Movement, 1968–1971” in New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement.

Posted In: Quantum Leap, Grants