JANUARY 9, 2018

Episode 6 – Fostering Girl’s Empowerment

Meredith Walker from Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

This week, we sit down Meredith Walker, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls is a digital media library helping girls around the world find and form their identity. Growing up, both Meredith and Amy found a lack of resources for young adolescent women to turn to in their most trying and transformative moments. They aren’t afraid to change the rules and believe that “you change the world by being yourself.”

Lisa Graham (00:00):
Welcome to this week’s episode of the Change the Rules podcast. I’m Lisa Graham, co-founder of Notley. And we’re going to be talking about girls’ empowerment with my fellow co-founder Dan Graham and our guest Meredith Walker, Co-founder and Executive Director of Amy Poehler’s smart girls. So welcome Meredith. Thanks for coming today.

Meredith Walker (00:15):
Hi, I’m so happy to be here.

Lisa Graham (00:16):
Great. So what I wanted to start out with is- I wanted you to tell us what Smart Girls is. I know you guys have a lot of name recognition and a lot of social media presence. I’d love to hear directly from you what Smart Girls is, and also what your background is and how you have weaved that into your role at Smart Girls.

Meredith Walker (00:35):
Well, Smart Girls is a digital media platform. Really it’s a digital media company right now, and it became that. It started out just as a web series, built around the idea of trying to help girls find their own voice and their own identity. And when we started Facebook was just barely a thing that anybody did. And so we really were just kind of a channel on YouTube. We were making these videos and then as social media evolved, that’s where we went and we found it was a place to build community. So it’s almost like a cyber clubhouse at this point where it’s just where you can, you can come there to see yourself represented or to see new ideas or to hear what other people, your age think or what people a little older than you think, or a little younger. And so it’s mainly, kind of, a library of curiosity.

Dan Graham (01:22):
Was there like a gap that you saw out there? Like what, what sort of inspired you to go this route?

Meredith Walker (01:27):
I love that. That is a great question because we did. Amy Poehler and I are best friends and we saw a gap there. We knew that when we were growing up. Adolescence is such a tough time. We know more and more about it, especially now, like in the last five years, we’ve learned more about the adolescent brain than any time before that. And to be supported during that time is difficult because you have to try and understand what the person in adolescence it’s feeling. It’s very intense, even though it seems irrational. And so how to, how to let them be heard, but also calm them down and all that kind of stuff. There’s- there aren’t a lot of resources for going through that tough time of relational aggression and trying to fit in. And that’s where we start to shape shift to feel more normal. You know, we’ll start kind of denying the parts of ourselves that maybe likes to dig up worms. And we’ll say, we’d rather, you know, go shopping when maybe we wouldn’t-

Dan Graham (02:18):
I don’t see a lot of grown women digging up worms.

Meredith Walker (02:21):
Well, they- there are some; I’m sure are anthropological kind of, you know-

Dan Graham (02:27):
That’s true.

Meredith Walker (02:27):
But you do, that’s when you, that’s when you start to shift yourself and stop being yourself to fit in. And we thought, “What helped us?” And what had helped us at that time was when people a little bit older than we were paid attention to us, and just like being with us, it could be the babysitter or someone from church or a neighbor. But each of us had a kind of older person who would just ask us about ourselves and what was going on and, “Get in the car. We’re going up to the record store.” Record- that’s a thing that existed.

Dan Graham (02:59):
What is that? Is that like a Spotify account?

Lisa Graham (03:02):
It’s from the archives…

Dan Graham (03:04):
Yeah. So what is your origin story? How did you get involved? What’s your superhero story?

Meredith Walker (03:09):
My superhero story… I started out working for a woman named Linda Ellerbee. She’s a legendary journalist and writer… And a journalist in the true sense of the word, you know, like held to a very high standard. Back when they got news anchors from actual newsrooms and newspapers, you know, it, wasn’t more …

Dan Graham (03:32):
Fake news.

Meredith Walker (03:34):
Exactly- fake news! And I worked for her for a show called Nick News. And that was kind of a 60 minutes magazine style show, but for younger people. And so it was- it was a crash course in journalism and, and also like advocacy, because we were helping to tell stories from people on the margins or people who just didn’t know how to get their stories told. And so it was from there- that’s when all of this was really born because it was traveling around and talking to young people and just seeing how many people don’t talk to them in a way that actually helps them thrive. You know, it’s either kind of a, “That’s awesome,” to anything they do, or you know, just not really hearing what they’re saying. And that’s where we learned. You just talk to each other the same way we all talk to each other and a real conversation happens and everybody feels better for being heard. And so after that, I ended up working at Saturday Night Live for awhile. That’s where I met Amy. We became best friends. And it was after that, that we thought, why don’t we do something with- We both know how to do some of this stuff, why don’t we do it for a cause that we think is important, which is the development, like the emotional intelligence and development of young women.

Dan Graham (04:51):
What were you doing at Saturday Night Live?

Meredith Walker (04:52):
I was the head of the talent department there. And that essentially means that I booked the bands and the hosts, and then kind of dealt with them as their personal producer during the week. Cause it’s pretty intense, and it’s like coming into a new school your senior year or the very last week or something like that. Cause everyone else spends so much time together and here comes the host like, “Hey, I’m here.” So they needed an ally. That was me.

Lisa Graham (05:18):
That was you! So you mentioned something when you talked about, you know, young girls need somebody to hear them and a lot of your content is addressed to young women. Do you also do work addressing, like working with adults saying this is how to communicate, because I think a lot of that too comes from, like you said, parents who just don’t know, and they’re like, I’m just going to tell them that they’re the best thing in the world, and that’s going to make them feel good about themselves as, or I’m going to let them figure it out and just give them the space and not deal with it. Do you guys do work like that as well?

Meredith Walker (05:49):
Well, I think what we end up doing is we understand that our audience is- it’s probably from eight years old to 108 years old. A lot of people come there for the same reason to hear these stories and to see other perspectives and to learn about different things. And so a lot of times we’ll find that there are a lot of fathers and mothers and even grandfathers and grandmothers or godparents, aunts and uncles who come there to get to see examples. They use it as a resource of ways to interact, but we don’t really do it on purpose. It just happens. It’s a really happy by-product.

Lisa Graham (06:24):
Yeah. When, when you and I have spoken about Smart Girls before a lot of the conversation was around authenticity and it comes up a lot. And so when you guys were starting Smart Girls, was this a value that you guys decided to build the organization around or did that come up more organically as you really began the work and realized that this could be a- or is it a core tenant of what you guys do?

Meredith Walker (06:44):
Well, we, we came up with a motto early on, “You change the world by being yourself.” So this has always been very important to us because we recognize times in our lives when we might’ve settled for less or done something that didn’t feel like it had the most integrity, because we weren’t really doing what we thought was best for ourselves. We were trying to say the right thing, you know, or fit in, in the right moment or please somebody. And we know that this is part of adolescence; It really is when you start to feel like fitting in is more important than being who you really are and it’s intense pressure and there’s no judgment; there’s no shame in it. It’s just part of the world. And so we knew early on that, trying to help girls keep in touch with their self identity was really important. And so the word authenticity comes up around that. We don’t really, we don’t, we don’t use that word as much cause we just say, “Be yourself.” And what does that mean? Cause that’s the other thing people tell you all the time, all of these things that end up sounding pretty cliche, right? Like follow your passion. Okay. What is it? I have no idea what my passion is or am I different because I don’t have one, you know, or be yourself like, okay, does that mean…What does that mean, you know!? And it’s we find it so much more helpful to kind of talk about real ways of doing those things. Like how do you stay yourself? In what moment do you do that? Or how do you discover yourself? And as you’re discovering yourself, you discover the things you care about that might end up becoming a passion. So it’s more about those kinds of practical steps than these kind of like needle point pillow moments, you know?

Dan Graham (08:23):
Yeah. I love that. And our six year old is already kind of bringing up scenarios that she goes through on a day to day basis about… She’s already thinking about how she’s perceived by the people around her and is caring about what the, you know, the self looks like from other people’s perspectives. And it’s just kind of a natural, it must be the kind of thing that, that happens. I’m curious when you talk about, or think about authenticity and these programs and communications, how do you measure success? Like how do you kind of decide or think about whether the, the programming that you have is having the impact that you want? Like what do you look to, to decide or to, to figure out if you should change things or adjust the messaging or the approach that you’re taking?

Meredith Walker (09:09):
Well, as far as kind of changing or adjusting, we have the very robust and rowdy community and they are quick to let us know if we’re not representing a certain voice enough, or if we’ve said something in a way that isn’t the best way we could have said it. And so we take that to heart, we really listened to them and and we just try to, to see for ourselves how we can do better. A lot of times though, we have different ways. Like the people in my office would probably use analytics to tell you, “This works. Let’s keep doing it.” For me, I do a lot more of the public speaking and kind of I’m the ambassador in the world. So for me having one person say, now I’m proud to feel weird. Like feeling weird is a good thing and I don’t have to conform and fit in. And I don’t feel alone in that anymore. Or, you know, I had an older woman tell me once after hearing you talk about all this stuff, I started going to Barton Springs every day, and I had never been swimming in my life. And now I do it every day. And just that’s to me, that’s where I’m like, “Success. We did it! Close up shop!” We’ve, you know, we’ve helped at least one person-

Dan Graham (10:17):
One lady swimming- we are done!

Meredith Walker (10:18):
We’re done. We have touched one life-

Lisa Graham (10:20):
Can we check the swimming woman off the list of things…

Dan Graham (10:26):
The analytics piece is interesting because how do they kind of look at this and say, you know, as a result of this particular line of programming, we- women are now 10% more authentic than they were before. You know, like, what’s the, what are they even looking at?

Meredith Walker (10:36):
I think they’re just looking at engagement, you know, and that kind of stuff more than anything, because we know how are you holding someone’s intention? What messages is important enough for them to stick around for the whole part of it? So I think that that’s it- the kind of the numbers in some way, but for me, I go more by the messages we receive about having made a difference to the way someone thinks about themselves. Yeah.

Lisa Graham (10:58):
Yeah. It is interesting. So where my mind usually goes to is we do have three young children who are all girls. And so my mind does go to these are great lessons, even as a parent or as an adult. I think we’re, I mean, as people we’re constantly evolving and so you need to learn how to figure out who you are, because you’re not going to stay the same person forever. Life happens constantly. So I really liked the idea of being able to have that base. And if you can learn it as young as possible, whether it’s-

Meredith Walker (11:22):

Lisa Graham (11:22):
You know, in your teens or your twenties or your thirties, then it’s going to kind of carry you through. Have you found, I know you’ve done a lot of traveling as well around the world, kind of carrying this message. Have you found a lot of these messages are received similarly in other places that you visited or is this kind of an, an American thing?

Meredith Walker (11:44):
That’s an interesting question. You know, cause online the feedback we will get is international and lots of different countries and people liking and agreeing and things like that. But I did- I did feel a real difference when I was giving a workshop in a camp for refugees in Jordan and the, some of the cultural differences are vast. And so some of the- I’m sure some of the colloquialisms and just ways I was saying things, were.

Dan Graham (12:17):
You insulted many people-

Meredith Walker (12:18):
I just insulted everybody. No, I mean, it just wasn’t landing. And you know, just as a person feeding off the energy of the room, I, I kept thinking, what am I doing wrong? Like, how do I do this? And so it does occur, but then, but really, you know, no matter how I say something and then kind of adjust and work around it, it does translate no matter what, because we all have more in common than not. We all have this shared humanity, this common humanity. Their dads can embarrass them, you know, at their birthday party or they get their feelings hurt just the same, you know, or they feel left out or feel included. It’s the same way everybody else does. So ultimately it works out.

Dan Graham (12:59):
All right. So, you know, I, I’m kind of curious on a personal level, you know, I’m sure you get asked all the time to support a litany of different organizations, different causes. I’m sure Amy does, as well. You know, the fact that you guys have picked this particular cause I think is, is, there’s probably, it’s probably pretty telling of your passion areas and, and a lot of times, you know, there’s a personal story behind what people choose to, you know, devote their time to, and you’ve taken just such a huge plunge and commitment in this area. Is there a story or a couple of stories that have really driven your passion in this cause?

Meredith Walker (13:39):
Yes. Well, first of all, having experienced it. I was one of those girls who the girls ganged up on me at school and it made a big difference on everything about what I thought about myself and stuff like that. And I’m sure on some days I was probably part of a group that was mean to somebody else. And so having experienced it and knowing how hard it was and how hard it was to find anybody who understood what it was like to go through that, that has always pushed me along somehow. So when Amy and I were talking about how many women especially have this in common, this time of life in common, the challenges might look a little different, but it’s still a challenging time. That’s when I noticed I was buying books and I was highlighting stuff and taking notes and not doing other stuff so I could finish reading more books about it and reading studies and looking at the research. And to me, that’s when you pay attention, right? It’s like what, what’s the thing that you’re curious about that keeps you going back for more; that’s a clue to something you care about. And that’s what we tell our community. And it’s because it’s, I mean, that’s what happens to us. It’s true. And that, so that’s really what I really paid attention to the fact that there’s just so many challenges around this because of communication. And then what we tell ourselves instead of, you know, we’re just, we don’t have the tools usually at that time to say, Oh, some other people aren’t understanding the intensity of this, but I’m perfectly normal. And this is a normal stage of, at the evolution of the human being. Great. Let’s get something to eat. That’s not how it goes. Instead, you’re like, “Oh, I’m weird. Everything sucks. What’s happening?” You know-

Lisa Graham (15:13):
“Why am I digging up worms?”

Meredith Walker (15:17):
“Why am I digging up worms?! Why do I like worms? What’s wrong with me?” And so `that’s what did, and, and that, and that’s to this day, I mean, even this morning, I woke up early and I was reading some more stuff about emotional intelligence and young women and things they’re learning that can actually make a difference. And, you know, when I looked up 45 minutes have gone by. And so I think that that is- that’s just where my interest is.

Dan Graham (15:41):
What was the actual, the decision point where you, you know, you have this kind of high profile job at Saturday night live, you’re interacting on a daily basis with celebrities. A lot of people would call that kind of a dream job, dream opportunity and you decide, you know what, I’m going to move to Texas. I’m going to run this non profitesque type organization and pursue something that, that, that I care about from, you know, a deep down passion perspective. I mean, what, what was that moment like? Or was it a moment and maybe it was more of a, kind of a series of decisions?

Meredith Walker (16:17):
Well, it was a series of certain things that were in my control and certain things that were not in my control. And you know, what people like to talk about the learning from failure, actually, this, this came about from, I had a relationship that did not work out and it’s not, you know, a tragedy or anything like that. The only thing- the saddest part is the-

Dan Graham (16:37):
Tragedy for him.

Meredith Walker (16:37):
Yeah, no kidding. Are you listening? The only- the hardest part was wanting to stay in a relationship where I wasn’t that psyched. I wasn’t having the best time, but I, there was a part of me that stayed a little longer than I should have, because it feels- sometimes it feels better. It feels more normal in society to be a part of in a relationship than it- than to be single. And, and I remember thinking-

Dan Graham (17:03):
That’s why Lisa and I are together.

Meredith Walker (17:05):
That’s the only reason. Right?

Lisa Graham (17:06):

Meredith Walker (17:06):
I mean-

Lisa Graham (17:08):
It feels really, like, normal.

Meredith Walker (17:08):
We could tell, we can totally tell there’s no chemistry. [laughter] So actually what happened was when we split up, that’s when I moved to Austin, like sight unseen, it was a weird, looking back, it’s probably like a great movie scene.

Dan Graham (17:22):
Yeah. You just like spun the globe.

Lisa Graham (17:24):
Did you get out of your taxi and look at all the construction going on.

Dan Graham (17:25):
All the cranes.

Meredith Walker (17:25):
[Inaudible] it’s more like I’m driving a old used car with no air conditioning across Texas.

Dan Graham (17:34):
And this is the last place before you hit Mexico.

Meredith Walker (17:38):
Pretty much.

Dan Graham (17:38):
So might as well stop here.

Meredith Walker (17:39):
Exactly. And I remember just thinking what happens now? Oh my gosh. On top of that, this was in 2006. When I got here, I set up meetings with just anybody that had anything to do with production or TV or anything. And everyone was like, “That’s so great. We’re so glad to meet you. I mean, we’re staffed up, you know, there’s not…” This was 2006, like I said, so it wasn’t booming. And so I really could not find a production job. So I was like, I was taking on freelance work, any chance I could get. And I was also, like, house sitting, dog sitting, working in catering kitchens. I like to point this out because from head of Saturday Night Live’s talent department to like making 400, you know, croissants for a, for an event, you know, that’s not, that was not failure though. That was just like a pause in life. And because I did not have anything that kept me up at night, my- responsibility wise, I wasn’t trying- I wasn’t like how’s that movie going to do? Is it enough to try and get that person to host a show? And instead I could really just be here, be in the moment, figure out some stuff about myself, how I got here, what do I really want? And it was during that time we came up with Smart Girls.

Dan Graham (18:57):
But it really wasn’t that you had family or friends or anything here. It was, you were sort of just journeying and this is where you landed.

Meredith Walker (19:03):
Well, I had grown up in Houston and so I was familiar with Austin and I knew there were people on the fringe that lived here.

Dan Graham (19:12):
What does that mean? People on the fringe?

Meredith Walker (19:14):
On the fringe of my life-

Lisa Graham (19:14):
I was like [inaudible]…

Meredith Walker (19:19):
[Joking] You know I knew some pimps… And I was so psyched to, you know- No, I had some acquaintances here and so I knew I would always have a place to stay and stuff like that. But, and I, and I actually, when I worked at Nick News, I had shot so many stories in Austin. And I remember thinking, I wish I could live there someday. And so I think part of that is what got me across, across the whole state.

Lisa Graham (19:45):

Meredith Walker (19:46):
Driving from LA.

Lisa Graham (19:47):
So you can make croissants for 400 people?
Meredith Walker (19:51):
For 400 people! Crudite, you know, whatever. But really, when I give talks to young women, I tell that story a lot because I don’t think there’s any shame at all in the fact that our lives go up and down, that’s going to happen. I mean, to certain degrees, it might be different, you know, for other people, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t tell your whole story. Like one dip, doesn’t tell your whole story, just like one big, high mark doesn’t tell your whole story. And it’s, how do you hold onto yourself during both those times? And from those times, later, you know, you, you need to get through it and you need to be kind to yourself. But when, once you do, if you pay attention, you know, more about yourself and then you can move forward in a way that’s even more filled with integrity, because you’re, you’re gonna move in a direction that matches your values.

Lisa Graham (20:37):
Right. So what, in that line of, you know, you kind of said, that’s not a failure. And we love to ask people who are on here, who run organizations, what has been your biggest f**k up over the last week-

Meredith Walker (20:48):
Over the last week?!

Lisa Graham (20:50):

Lisa Graham (20:52):
I, at least once a week, do a reply all that’s really meant for just one person. And luckily I’ve learned through the years, never to put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want read out loud just in case, but it’s still, you know, it’ll still mess with the, every communication I have around at the rest of the time. I did that once. I bought an email. I had an email mistake when I was at Saturday Night Live. I got Lorne Michaels’ email letters mixed up a little bit. And whoever the recipient was of my mistake, thought it was funny to interact with me. And I kept getting these confusing emails back about like, who I should be booking instead of the people I was booking. And I was like, we can’t like, is that person still even alive? You know, what’s going on here?

Dan Graham (21:39):
Like who registered LaurenNeMichaels@snl.com?!

Meredith Walker (21:40):
Exactly! So dumb!

Lisa Graham (21:44):
And Sammy Davis Jr. Is not-

Meredith Walker (21:46):
Yeah- I don’t think he’s available because he’s in heaven. And, but that was when the feeling of anxiety, I already have anxiety just day to day, low grade or whatever. But when you, when you realized that kind of mistake, it’s my heart, God. I mean, I, I really did. I felt like a child. I felt like, you know, who can’t articulate their emotions and you’re just like, I’m so upset. And- anyway, so email, email mess ups, or-

Lisa Graham (22:19):
I’ve definitely done that where I would have meant to BCC like a hundred people and I CC’d a hundred and they’re like, please don’t make my email public…

Meredith Walker (22:25):
Everyone knows it now.

Lisa Graham (22:26):
See, I actually knew that I just, you know, now I like quadruple checked-

Dan Graham (22:30):
And what’s funny is I’m the one that then registered all hundred of those people for 15 magazine subscriptions.

Lisa Graham (22:36):
I’m sure it was awesome.

Dan Graham (22:36):
Well, it’s really funny. It’s like a, those, those small kinds of like policy things that people like, you know, like, so like Pence was getting made fun of for saying that he never had coffee with women unless his wife was there and everyone was kind of like, “Oh, that’s ridiculous.” And now it looks like he’s the smartest politician that’s out there. [Laughter]

Meredith Walker (22:56):

Lisa Graham (22:58):
I think the other thing too, like you mentioned, I, those moments where I feel like a child again, and I’m embarrassed by myself are always, like, I remember when I was starting a nonprofit and I had to make all these sales calls and I hate doing sales. And I remember I called and I- sure, I sounded really pitchy. Like, “Hi, I’m calling from so-and-so…” And they were like a former client. And then they hung up on me and I was at home in my home office and I just started blushing. I was like- I’m by myself. Nobody’s ever going to know that.

Meredith Walker (23:29):
I know you still have the feeling.

Lisa Graham (23:30):
Totally embarrassing. So Meredith, thank you so much for joining us. This has been really fun. You can check out Smart Girls community online at AmysSmartGirls.com and speaking of Smart Girls and empowered women, the Notley podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio and the talented Shayna Brown and Shayna has a pretty cool story that we’ve linked to in our notes section. So please check it out chezboomaudio.com, that’s C H E Z boom, audio.com and to learn more about Notley and our social innovation projects visit notleyventures.com.

Dan Graham (24:01):