How Funny Girls Become Leading Women through Improv Programs

Funny Girls, a program created by the Harnisch Foundation, teaches girls five key skills of leadership in subtle yet profound ways. (Photo credit: Brittany Buongiorno)

“Funny Girls is a philanthropic investment in building the pipeline for female leadership,” says Jenny Raymond, of the Harnisch Foundation’s (HF) program employing improv techniques to build girls’ leadership skills.

Raymond, who is HF Executive Director, and Carla Blumenthal, Funny Girls Program Manager, spoke to me by phone from the HF offices in New York.

It’s an auspicious time for a program devoted to building the next generation of female leaders as 2018 saw a historic number of diverse women elected to political office. “That didn’t happen overnight. It was brewing for a long time,” says Raymond, who sees Funny Girls as a tool to build on these gains.

Programs fostering self-esteem and leadership skills in girls are not uncommon. What is unusual is the use of improv as the tool to achieve these ends. Funny Girls is not trying to develop comedians or actors: the participants are diverse groups of eight to thirteen-year old girls enrolled in after-school programs with a social justice focus. The improv methods are used to cultivate core leadership skills, particularly in low-income populations typically lacking opportunities for such development. “It’s about getting girls to recognize that they have a voice and deserve a seat at the table,” says Raymond.

The HF was founded in 1998 and its mission is to create a “fair, equitable and inclusive world.” It’s angle: empowering girls and women, particularly through storytelling, which can include everything from supporting women-centered film-making, TED Fellows and journalism, to leadership summits, coaching and social justice initiatives.

Funny Girls was developed in 2015 and its name (“it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s about girls,” says Raymond) came from a brain-storming session between Raymond and HF Founder and President Ruth Ann Harnisch. The Foundation looked at Stanford and M.I.T. executive training programs to see what particular challenges women were facing, and how they were being addressed. Women and girls face hurdles including boldness being reduced to “bossiness,” and their authorship of ideas being challenged. Working with experts in leadership curriculum development, Harnisch and Raymond chose specific leadership skills that overlapped with the main tenets of improv comedy, and built a curriculum for girls based on leadership, improv and creative movement.

While leadership can be one of those “I know it when I see it” attributes, the five key concepts of self-awareness (understanding one’s own perceptions of self, and how one might be perceived by others), learning agility (responding quickly and sharing one’s own insights), collaboration (prioritizing a goal and working together to meet it), empathy (recognizing others’ emotions), and resiliency (employing multiple strategies and learning from mistakes) are as good a place to start as any.

“These five skills have been a fantastic marriage with improv,” says Raymond. Funny Girls partnered with NYC’s Magnet Theater and the Pilobolus dance company to develop the curriculum. Pilobolus emphasizes collaboration in movement, a perfect fit with Funny Girls says Raymond. The attraction to Magnet was simple, “We observed all of the local improv companies and liked them the best.” The “story aspect” is key, Raymond says, “Magnet is very focused on developing a character; that is the tenor we wanted to represent in our curriculum.”

Funny Girls seeks to instill a “growth mindset” in girls to they can discover their own definition of leadership. (photo credit: Babita Patel)

The eleven-session Funny Girls program is now up and running and has six partners, all of them after-school programs with a social justice focus. “We train the instructors, who are drawn from the organizations we work with,” says Blumenthal. Each instructor receives 17 hours of training in combining leadership skills with improv. “We don’t do it for them,” says Blumenthal, “the instructors go back to their organization and run the program.”

Blumenthal says one program goal is to instill a “growth mindset” in the girls, and to have them explore their own definition of leadership. This is vital as different individuals, and cultures, have varying conceptions of what constitutes leadership. One improv concept that is valuable in this area is “yes, and …,” in which a participant accepts what someone else has said, and then expands on it. This encourages creativity, collaboration and open-mindedness.

With its emphasis on leadership development, Funny Girls works with the New York City school systems to provide its program. (Photo credit: Brittany Buongiorno)

Blumenthal also describes an improv game targeting resiliency in which one girl is a dolphin trainer, and another girl a dolphin. The trainer thinks of a gesture to teach the dolphin and tries to impart that lesson without using words. The dolphin-girl must figure out the gesture and perform it. The exercise can be both hilarious and frustrating, and take five minutes or more to complete. “By the end they embody resiliency – the girls had to try a lot of strategies to get where they needed,” says Blumenthal.

Funny Girls’ participants predominantly hail from communities of color in New York City (and one program in Richmond, Virginia). “The instructor brings their organization’s identity to the program,” says Raymond, and adds, “the instructor may know youth development, and certainly knows her own community, but likely not improv.” Funny Girls has proved to be a good fit with New York City after-school programs, as the city’s Department of Education mandates that programs receiving city funding incorporate leadership training in their curriculum.

The Funny Girls program was piloted in 2016 in three NYC schools, and currently has six partners:

The Arab American Family Support Center in downtown Brooklyn; Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education in the Bronx; Girls for a Change, supporting girls of color in Richmond, Virginia; Global Kids, providing a global perspective within a human rights framework for under-served NYC youth; The Red Hook Initiative, supporting youth development and empowerment for low-income youth in Red Hook, Brooklyn; and SAYA (South Asian Youth Action), providing academic, personal and professional development for youth in New York City.

The program concludes with a showcase that demonstrates games tied to leadership skills. “The girls make presentations in which they explain leadership skills and how they embody them in action,” says Blumenthal.

“Funny Girls is part of the continuum of work the Foundation has done from the beginning,” says Raymond. The Foundation has worked with thousands of women since its inception in 1998, and its leadership initiatives have included VoteRunLead and The OpEd Project, among other programs designed to “get women’s voices out into the world.” These efforts have been successful; still, “Countless women have told me,” says Raymond, “‘I wish there had been an opportunity when I was younger to develop leadership skills.’”

“We see a thirty percent drop in self-confidence among girls between ages eight to fourteen,” says Raymond. She notes that by the time they become teenagers, many girls stop raising their hand in class because they fear social repercussions for doing so; boys typically are not burdened by this fear.

“It is such a fragile time in the development of self,” Raymond notes, citing statistics from the Girl Scout Research Institute indicating that four-fifths of girls don’t believe they have the skills to be a leader. That’s the bad news. The good news: nine tenths of girls believe that leadership skills can be taught. “We are trying to shift girls’ perceptions of themselves as leaders so that they can use that mindset to engage civically, in the work place and in the home,” says Raymond. “We are arming our girls with self-confidence, whatever direction they ultimately head in.”

The recent elections saw a wave of women running for, and being elected to, political office. Naturally, not all girls are interested in the political sphere, nor is Funny Girls trying to push them in that direction. Leadership skills are transferable across a range of professions and interpersonal situations. “The girls are talking about leadership and breaking it down to see what skills women leaders have, whether they are Hilary Clinton or Beyoncé,” says Program Manager Carla Blumenthal.

Funny Girls is a new program and is limited in scale, with only a half-dozen participating organizations at present, all of which receive a grant to run the program, and some supplemental funds for the organization itself. Raymond notes that HF chooses its Funny Girls partners carefully, “Not all organizations need us, or are a good fit,” she says. There must be buy-in from the organization, and the program needs to fill an unmet need.

Funny Girls is off to a strong start and has a format that could be widely replicated. “I’d love to take this to hundreds of organizations,” says Raymond, “but I can’t give that level of support at this point.” HF is a private foundation, and Raymond notes, “We are in the enviable position of concentrating on programming, not fundraising.” The downside is that program budgets are limited.

What will be interesting to see in years to come is how “graduates” fare. The premise, and the promise, is intriguing, but will Funny Girls really build leadership skills? Raymond acknowledges the institutional and cultural barriers women face in exercising leadership, but maintains that one of the best ways to develop women as leaders is by starting when they are still girls, and using unique programming to develop core skills which can be built on throughout a lifetime.

Related:

How Funny Girls is Growing Improv-Driven Leadership for Tweens

Feminist Philanthropy Newsflash: #FunnyGirls Featured on NBC Tonight at 6:30

Editor’s Note: The Harnisch Foundation is a lead sponsor of Philanthropy Women, providing support for our work to expand feminist philanthropy journalism. 

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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