Christina Lowery. The Girl Rising Movement is one of the most important movements in the world today. It stands for girl education and empowerment. Find out how Christina helped to ignite a global movement together with Holly Gordon, Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, Frieda Pinto, Selena Gomez, Anne Hathaway and many others. This movement is about educating girls and in the process reducing overpopulation, disease, terrorism, environmental impact and many other of the world’s greatest challenges. It all starts with a girl.For more ideas on Uprising and movements, cultural movements and movement marketing, follow Uprising!!! on Facebook. We’ll continue to publish brand-new columns on a regular basis. Hey, do us a favor and please give Uprising!!! a review on iTunes. Scott Goodson is the author of best-selling book ‘Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements,’ available on Amazon.com. Scott has helped create and build some of the world’s most iconic brands. He is founder of StrawberryFrog the world’s first movement marketing agency.
Uprising Interview transcript
Christina: This movement is unstoppable; it’s happening around the world. There is a recognition of the power of—and the need to—educate girls in all of the things that it touches.
Scott: Christina Lowery, welcome to the Uprising Podcast.
Christina: Thank you so much, it’s delightful to be here.
Scott: We’re very excited to have you on and talk about the Girl Rising Movement, which is a global movement, standing for girls’ education and empowerment. I’m very fascinated today, just to understand a few things about your movement and I’m sure our audience would love to know and I think the first question is I have is: what is Girl Rising fighting for?
Christina: We are fighting to fundamentally change the way that girls are valued around the world. In so many places, the value girls have is that of mothers in waiting, future sex partners, domestic workers… and we want people to see and value girls for more than that—for their minds and for their incredible potential as human beings—because we know that if girls are truly valued for those things, then investments will be made in them. Investments will be made in preparing them for the future. Policies will shift to better support girls in all aspects of their well-being: health, education, family planning, life skills, you name it. So we believe that changing he way girls are valued will change the way societies treat their girls. And then the second thing that flows from that, of course, is that we are fighting for every girl around the world to have the chance to be educated and live a life of her choosing.
Scott: So the first time I came into contact with this movement was a gentleman who was under secretary general of the United Nations made a speech in New York a few years ago, when he talked about girl education and he said that it represents the most important thing that we as a society need to focus on because if you educate, you reduce overpopulation, terrorism, disease—I mean there’s a whole host of things you can really make an impact on, which is a real eye-opener to me.
Christina: Scott, that was the real eye-opener for us, too, and why we ever set out to create the original film—Girl Rising—and to build a campaign around it that was really designed to spark and help fuel a movement. It was because the research is so compelling about what happens when you educate girls. Educating girls is this incredibly powerful and positive driver of change. And isn’t that the single best investment to alleviate poverty? Educated girls marry later, have fewer and healthier children… For every year of secondary school, they can earn twenty percent more, thereby being able to contribute to their family’s well–being better. They’re more likely to participate in decision making, there’s a market reduction in extremism and increased peace and security. And of course, educated girls go on to be educated mothers, and the research also shows that educated mothers are much more likely to make sure their children are then educated, both boys and girls. And thus you have this virtuous cycle of increased health, prosperity, education stability, peace, you name it—it is quite astounding. We had that same jaw-dropping moment, which is what made us create this whole project to begin with.
Scott: Well the New York Times called you guys one of the hottest causes in recent years and when I started looking into the Girl Rising model, I found it fascinating. Can you talk just a little bit about what your model is?
Christina: Those of us that created Girl Rising came from a background of journalism and filmmaking, primarily, and we knew the power of film, to change the way people think and change the way people act. So we decided to create a project in which we would use high-quality, compelling film and partnerships to scale the distribution of that film, and we’ve honed our model over the last couple of years—and as we have begun working in various countries around the world—to have three main pillars. The heart and soul is high-quality storytelling, which is primarily in the form of film, but we’ve expanded and used radio in some places also, and we use film across these three different pillars. One is mass media—I’ll give you an example of what we’re doing in India: we took the original Girl Rising film that tells nine stories of nine girls from nine different countries, which was originally made in English. Each of those chapters was written by an acclaimed female writer from that country, and then was voiced by a global superstar. We were lucky enough to get on board Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Liam Neeson, and they’re the voice of that original English-language Girl Rising. And when we went to India, for example, we remade that original film in Hindi, with ten Bollywood stars and we put it on the of the television channels that has the biggest reach across India—they reach over four million households—and the goal of that mass media component of what we do was to really raise the level of public dialogue about this issue, to introduce an idea and in some places, kind of a new social norm, and get it talked about. So to have some of the biggest and most beloved stars in the country talking on video, in public service announcements, Tweeting, on their social media pages, to their vast number of followers, talking about this issue, have it on television, have press and PR and social media around it—that component of our work was really more of a sort of umbrella media coverage. It’s an expanded advertising campaign in some ways, if you would, to get people talking about the positive benefits of educating girls. And then a second component, critically—for us—working through partners and turning these media tools into useful, on-the-ground tools for the likes of schools, teachers, non-profits… We worked in India with Save The Children, who built an entire community program in forty villages around these Hindi-language materials we created. So in sort of one instance, we have broad public being exposed to these messages through traditional and new, evolving digital media, and then for certain target audiences, were able to—through our partners—expose them and engage them in the topic over a sustained period of time, in a deeper way. And as sort of a related piece to both of those, we have in all of the places we’re working, we create the possibility for people to have screenings—whoever might want to: companies, schools, non-profits, just individuals in their homes—be able to gather their communities together and have a screening, have something to convene around, to watch, that’s compelling and moving and emotional, and then to give them ways to take action. And then the very last piece of our model is influencer engagement, and that looks different country by country, where we’re working. The three main countries we’re working right now are India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the US. But that influencer engagement has ranged from beloved celebrities that people look up to and that have a massive reach themselves, when they send out a Tweet, to sports stars that people look up to, government officials, corporate leaders, people of influence in a society. So it’s sort of all of those pieces together that are really building and sparking and fueling this movement.
Scott: It’s fascinating and extraordinary, the success you’ve had. I know most recently you’d had the First Lady, Michelle Obama, launch the highly visible—sixty-two million girls—campaign. You had other celebrities: Frieda Pinto, who is an Indian actress, Meryl Streep. I mean, a lot of people listening obviously look at that and say that is an incredible success, which it is. How do you begin to get such well-known people—authorizes, influencers, and celebrities—to join a cause in your movement?
Christina: You know, it’s a good question. At the very beginning, when we first set out to make this project, I can’t tell you how many people sort of laughed us out of the room. “You want to do what? You want to make a film? Like a feature film that people are going to want to go see in a movie theater about girls’ education? And what, you think you’re going to get people like Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway and Alicia Keys to be involved? You must be crazy!”
Scott: That’s amazing.
Christina: As we made this project, we felt very strongly about each piece of it and we knew we weren’t going to cut corners in making the film, and I think that the quality of the project and the film that we wound up with and critically, the buy-in and connections we had to some of the best-in-class organizations that are working in girls’ education was critical to our success. Often, I think, especially in film, at least, there’s so many worthy, important films made all the time, and as filmmakers, we knew the life cycle of documentary film all too well to know that if we just went with the kind of traditional, “Alright, we’re going to put our heads down, make this film that we really believe in, try to get people on board to help distribute it and get somebody to put it in an art-house run for however many weeks and cross our fingers that people would go see it…” We decided early on, from the very time that we were doing pre-production for the film and planning our very first trips to these nine countries that we went to, we were also talking at length to non-profits, who are experts in girls’ education, who have been working on this for decades. You know, girls’ education has become a very sort of hot topic in the last five years. There are many people who have devoted their lives to this, of course, who know deeply what it’s like on the ground, and decided from the very beginning that we want to be of service to the movement and of service to those organizations that are working every day with girls all around the world, and so they helped us in being able to access and meet different girls all around the world, but we really—in the end—wanted to also be able to have this project serve them. So I think being careful about that strategy and also being super dedicated to making the highest-quality product, the highest-quality film we could, ended up opening the doors that we needed to open, and then it becomes kind of a snowball. Once you have one incredible public influencer, it’s easier to get to the next, so we kind of grew from there.
Scott: And so who is the first person who embraced you?
Christina: The first person—and when we were trying to select the voices for the film, we said we had to get the best first. Because that’s the only way we’re going to get anybody else. Meryl Streep agreed to voice the Ethiopia chapter, and out of that, we then asked everyone else slowly, over time, but we were vey clear that we had t go with what we thought was the best, first, to help us open doors from then on. And I’ll say we also—some of it has just been incredible connections and also amazing strokes of luck. When we went into India, one of our original and wonderful ambassadors and champions is Frieda Pinto. Frieda, who voiced a piece of the original film, was able to help us get a meeting with the Prime Minister. So we met with Prime Minister Modi, and that of course unlocked certain doors for us in India that have been incredible. We have a major partnership with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which we have made a set of public service announcements and the Indian government has invested their own resources to put those across thousands of movie theaters and television channels, so when people went to see Star Wars in their local theater, they watched this public service announcement of these ten Bollywood stars talking about the benefits of educating girls. So you really have to sort of follow that each influencer can really open up a whole bunch of different doors and it’s really been a very organic—luckily—process for us.
Scott: That’s fascinating. So in the age of Trump—I mean obviously things have changed… or maybe they haven’t. On the one hand, you have a new mindset leading the United States. At the same time, you have three very powerful women dominating European politics. You have the prime minister of England, who is a woman; you have the prime minister of Germany, who’s a woman; you have one of the challengers for the French presidency is a woman. So it’s an interesting time to be a woman in the world today. At the same time, there’s challenges in the United States with how women have been described, obviously in the media, by certain individuals—I won’t get into that… But in that world, do you find that you’ve had to change your message a bit, or—how have you dealt with the changing tides in the United States?
Christina: It’s an interesting question. On a very practical front, something that is true in this administration is that the investment in development programs is drastically reduced, right? The funding for USAID and the State Department—both of which have had robust programs in education, gender, all kinds of different programs that benefit girls—has been drastically reduced. And as a practical matter, we had one of those grants that we were very hopeful would be extended over the next two years, but have just very recently learned that it’s not going to be extended because of the budget cuts.
Scott: That’s extraordinary. It must make you incredibly angry and furious, that in 2017 you have this amazing movement that you’ve started and built and literally had the first lady of the United States participate in only a couple of months ago, and then all of a sudden, everything’s cut. It’s unbelievable.
Christina: It is frustrating. My hope is that this is just a minor little hurdle for us, because I do think… as I see it, there is increased—even with decreased funding to USAID and the State Department—around the world, there is increased funding for girls and girls’ education and it continues to increase, so I find hope in that fact. Another thing that’s been interesting for us, really since last fall, is there’s been a sort of palpable renewed interest in our US educator materials. So when the original film, Girl Rising, came out, we created a curriculum that’s from upper primary through secondary. It’s mapped to the common core, so teachers can use it to teach all manner of things—to teach geography and social studies and history—and it’s all being used in many settings, both in school and out of school, to help students understand and get introduced to what it means to be a global citizen, to explore ideas of courage, of perseverance… and we have had an increased interest from teachers in those materials, really since last fall, and I think it’s because many teachers are looking for new and engaging ways because of the climate we’re in, because of this political climate—of engaging their students in understanding the world outside our borders, experiencing empathy for people who live drastically different lives than they do, and to feel and explore the idea of being an active global citizen and what it is to kind of have personal agency, and what an individual can do to be a change maker. So that’s been interesting too.
Scott: I mean it’s interesting that the defiance movement against the administration started, right from the start, as almost like a new feminist movement. It’s almost like the roots of—let’s say Girl Rising 2.0 is happening as a direct result of this new administration.
Christina: Yeah, it’s interesting. Because so much of our work is focused outside of the US, and getting girls who have very little opportunity to be in school or stay in school to have the opportunity. Some of the kind of changing of tides here doesn’t affect us that much and we are decidedly a non-political organization. And, I guess for me personally—and I think for many of my team—I feel very pleased that I have something that is, in fact, that feels important and positive to dig into, despite some of the challenges that are right here, underneath our noses in the US.
Scott: One of the things you have been amazing at from the start is aligning yourself with large organizations that have been sponsoring your movement. Moving forward, what types of organizations do you want to build relationships with, that can help you grow your movement, accelerate your movement, extend it to other markets. Are there types of companies; are there types of organizations that you think are better for you than others?
Christina: Yeah, that’s a very good question, and it’s a very timely one. As we are kind of at a transition point ourselves, and thinking about our partners and our kind of first phase of who we at Girl Rising were and why they were our partners and who our partners will be going forward. One answer is: it will very much depend, geographically, where we are. We have to think about the organizations in the places we are working right now. As I said, we are working in India, Northern Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but we’re also launching, moving into the Middle East and into Latin America. So we will consistently align ourselves with organizations that are seen as best in class when it comes to girls’ education and empowerment, but I think there’s a line now between what companies do in terms of their corporate investment in social good and what non-profits do and what media companies do. It’s all becoming blurry. So we are really looking for, in terms that we believe whole-heartedly that companies need to be deeply invested in the idea of equality for girls and women, and so we are looking for companies that believe that and that are eager to make a difference in that arena, and also of course companies that believe in and see the value of using media to change mindsets and attitudes. One of the things that’s a little tricky sometimes in this world—from funders and from corporate partners—is the desire for hard and fast and quick results and numbers. Metrics. And in education that is a little bit harder than counting the number of mosquito nets distributed or vaccines given. Education and, certainly, changing mindsets is a long-term game, so we are really looking for partners that understand that and are ready to be in it for the long term also.
Scott: It’s an interesting conundrum, because I think if you get into an argument about the economics of, for example, something like the Olympic Games, and you can have a debate with an economist that will tell you investing in the Olympic Games is a horrible decision for any city because it will cost, you know, zillions of dollars and so forth, but at some point, I wonder when the financial discussion needs to be put aside and the discussions around values have to be put front and center. IT seems to me that if you focus on the econometrics oft his type of movement, of course there are ways of demonstrating that it has an impact, but the reality is that it stands for a better world. It stands for a world where the things we talked about earlier can be solved, and that’s good for big companies. The more big companies improve the quality of life for their customers, the more stuff they sell. They have an actual interest to educate girl children because they would consume more expensive products and so forth. So it seems to me that companies out there, even in the United States, companies that stand for Girl Rising values, that stand for helping to bring more female engineers into the world and help to create a system and structure for women to not only be educated but continue to be adding value to society once they become mothers. We don’t have to look so far; we can see countries like Sweden or Canada where women can continue in professional positions once they are mothers. The structure is in place. There’s still room to grow even in the United States and I think Girl Rising is such a big idea, such a massive impact that it can play into many areas: obviously education, but in so many areas, I think, that I’m sure there are companies out there that recognize the power and importance of what you represent.
Christina: Well I think that’s right and there are some, I think big companies are in many ways also riding the waves of change of what’s happening here. Figuring out how as a company what their agenda is. I think that some companies go very granular into the kind of things they want to support, as opposed to trying to zoom out to thirty thousand feet and sort of get that frame work that you just laid out, which of course makes so much sense, right? Of course if you get more girls who are educated and get families that are more prosperous and have more disposable income, then they’re going to buy more stuff. But I think that also, the other piece that I certainly hope—and we talk a lot about is, there is the economic case, and then there’s just the moral case, I think. What happens to other people in this world affects us, whether we choose to pay attention to it or not. And it’s very easy not to pay attention to it; it’s very easy to just keep your walls up and make sure that you’re okay in your little circle, but all these things: money, war, disease, disaster outbreaks, climate change, declining literacy, education… they’re all factors that have these wide-sweeping influences that connect us to each other, and more and more with every passing year, as we know. So whether you live in a small town in Texas, in New York City, in a village in India, in a bustling city in Nigeria, what happened to our fellow citizens on this earth shapes us, and we have amoral responsibility and a practical reason to pay attention to that and to care.
Scott: I think if a martian came to Earth, people would be unified for once. Until that time, we’re sort of living on these islands and building walls—or at least trying to. Why, Christina, are you personally committed to this movement? What happened in your life, or what got you to a point where you said, “This is something I care deeply and passionately about. I want to see this thing take off.”
Christina: So there are a couple things. I was about fifteen when I first traveled to the developing world. I convinced my parents to let me go volunteer at an orphanage in Honduras, and it was really the first time that I experienced and was bulled over by the idea that I was sort of accidentally born where I was born and it had nothing to do with my great fortune, nothing to do with the benefits and the life that I had, but for a stroke of luck. I could have been one of those children in an orphanage in Honduras. And that experience really stayed with me, and I was always really interested in issues of development and at the same time I had this other burning passion that I loved, which I learned when I was in the fourth grade. When I was in the fourth grade—I went to an all girls school—and every year the fourth grade did a Shakespeare play and we did Macbeth, and I got cast as Macbeth as a fourth grader. And it really turned me on to the power of stories and engaging audiences. And so all through my high school and then college and graduate work, I ping-ponged back and forth between development—and the desire to make the world a better place—and storytelling. And it wasn’t until after I was out of college that I found documentary film, and when I did, I was truly blown away by the process. I loved the process of making documentary films, and by the possibility of reaching so many people with a message. And then more recently—I have been part of Girl Rising from the very beginning. I took over as the CEO last year, and one of the reasons that I did is, I looked at my then seven-year-old daughter and I thought, you know, if I were a mother somewhere in the world and wanted so desperately for my daughter to have choices, to just have the choice, perhaps, to not be married at age fourteen. I would hope that somebody, that anybody, that everybody—actually— that had any chance of trying to change this for her would do it, if I had no possibility to do it. And I just—in thinking about her, I thought this, to me, is one of the most important human rights issues if our time—girls’ equality—and to get to work on that issue with this other, in the way that we do at Girl Rising, using media is, for me, really just a dream come true.
Scott: Girl Rising is an extraordinary movement that is really brought to life in documentary films, in events and through tools and actions that bring visibility to the issues girls face, inspire people to break down the barriers that hold them back. You have governments, you have NGOs, the worlds most respected celebrities, obviously corporations and schools that are using the content, that are engaging with the ideas you’re spreading to drive home your message for change for girls. It’s really quite extraordinary. How—for the people that are listening to the Uprising show today—how can they join your movement? How can they participate in your movement, and where can they find you?
Christina: Well they can find us on the web—on GirlRising.com—and a great first step is to watch the original Girl Rising film and to get their communities together. We still see—the original film came out now over three years ago, but for people who have not seen it, it is an incredibly powerful—has an evergreen quality to it with these powerful, personal stories of these girls around the world. So one thing I would say is to go to the website. You can watch the film from there; you can purchase it and download it. And there are many ways to take action: join our list; we give people ways to take action. And the other thing I’m going to say is that this kind of bigger movement of girls’ equality and girls’ empowerment is thankfully bigger than Girl Rising. And so I also always tell people, once you start caring about this issue and wanting to dig in, dig in in ways that make sense for you, right? There are—we have wonderful partners in other organizations that are doing great world, from the Malala Fund to Girl Up, to Girls Not Brides… So there are many wonderful organizations that are doing great things. And I say to people, find something that you’re really passionate about. It could be Big Brothers Big Sisters club in your local community, or it could be that what really lights somebody up is trying to engage and make a difference in a school in Kenya, but whatever it is, get together with some friends and with people and commit to doing something.
Scott: That’s great advice. And can people find inspiration on your site?
Christina: Absolutely. We have all of the material for the films that we have, we have engagement guides, take-action guides, we also have—for people that are interested, I mentioned it earlier in the show, we have a curriculum that’s free for educators to use and chapters of the film that go along with that for free, so if your interested in taking it to your local school district, or if you’re a student or a teacher, that’s available on our site. We have a new young adult book that just came out that’s published by Random House Children’s Book, called Girl Rising which is a really—it goes into more depth than some of the stories that are in the film and many, many—we met hundreds of incredible girls all around the world and the book goes into some of their life stories a little bit more, into some of these issues a little more deeply than one can do in the film, so there’s a book to be bought if you want to snuggle up on the couch and dive in that way as well.
Scott: Girl Rising is a genuinely extraordinary movement about how the education of girl children can make a significant difference on a global basis, in so many areas. The movement is really extraordinary. There’s so much that you’ve done in such a short time and it’s such a compelling issue. I’m sure that people listening to this will go and check out your website and want to be a part of this movement. What’s next for you, for Girl Rising?
Christina: What’s next is we are expanding—as I mentioned earlier—to two new regions in the next couple of years, to the Middle East and to Latin America, and so we’re looking to tell new stories, create new films in those places and run campaigns and we also are looking to make some brand new films. We’re developing some new film projects that look very different than the Girl Rising film, considering everything from an animated feature to other documentaries. We really continue to be committed to using film and media to change the way that people think about and value girls. So all of those things: we are expanding in India, expanding our US educator work, and what will take a lot of our time and energy in the next couple of years is launching in these new regions. We really believe at Girl Rising that there’s an incredible opportunity to take these campaigns country by country, region by region around the world, and to continue to help spark and fuel a movement that unites all kind of different people: actors, organizations, companies, governments… under this unifying principle the educating girls is good for all of us and requires all of us.
Scott: Christina Lowery, this has been a really great discussion, and I’ve really appreciated your time, to hear about your big idea, to hear about your model—which is really fascinating because its not just about the idea, but about how you bring it to the ground and get people to engage in action—and your success and the challenges you’ve faced. Really, really inspiring. Thank you so much.
Christina: Pleasure to be a part of it. Thank you so much.