By Livi Lesch
The desktop computer stared back at 14-year-old Courtenay White. The blank screen mirrored her uncertainty. She knew the right thing to do, but her mind could not stop racing. Eventually, Courtenay came full circle to the same conclusion: “You’re either going to do this or you’re not,” she told herself. So she committed to find a way to encourage other young girls to start talking about women’s rights.
“I wish everyone had a moment like that … where they’re asked to stand alone and take a look at who they want to be,” Courtenay says.
Her idea eventually led to the formation of SheStrong, a program sponsored by the Center for Women. SheStrong is a forum for high-school-age girls to meet and discuss issues that affect them now and in the future. Since the formation of the group in 2016, SheStrong has hosted a summit every October, thrown fundraising tea parties, and had its leaders speak at the Charleston Women’s March in January.
Courtenay says she identified as a feminist only moments after learning the definition in her 7th-grade history class. When one classmate told her that women get paid less than men because they’re always on maternity leave, Courtenay realized that some people do not support feminist views. She contacted then-director of the Center for Women, Amy Brennan. After correspondence with Amy and her principal, Courtenay arranged for Amy to speak about the wage gap at her school, Porter-Gaud. About a month after the speech, Amy offered Courtenay an intern position at the Center for Women to start SheStrong.
Courtenay recruited her friend, Maya Green, from School of the Arts. Then followed Lilli Heinrich, from Academic Magnet, Katie Krawchek, from Porter-Gaud School, and Chase Mauerhan and Kaitlin Browne, both from Wando High School. The group meets three times a month at coffee shops or bookstores to keep their discussion flowing.
“We don’t want it to be a place where it’s super exclusive. If you don’t support certain topics, it’s not like we’re going to shun you, because we all just want to empower one another,” Kaitlin Browne says.
Support and community is what makes Kaitlin proud of SheStrong. The members all advocate for equal rights and envision a future where SheStrong is a safe space for all young Charlestonian women.
One of Courtenay’s goals for the future of the SheStrong program is for it to adopt more members to broaden the group’s horizons. At 5 p.m. Aug. 28, they are holding an open house at the Center for Women, 1 Carriage Lane, for prospective members.
“I want to help people find themselves. I don’t think that necessarily means being a feminist or not,” Courtenay said. “We don’t want it to be an organization just for young liberal feminists. We want it to be a place where people can come together and disagree.”
The girls all say they have benefited from the nonjudgmental environment created by all meetings and events. In Katie’s case, it has allowed her to step up as a leader.
“SheStrong has ultimately made me a better advocate, a better woman and generally a better person. Through this program, I have strengthened my abilities as a leader and as an advocate for others. I have better familiarized myself with world issues and potential ways to help combat those problems. And I’ve found platforms to speak my mind about the change I want to see happen in my own community,” Katie says.
Maya says the program has given her the confidence to take action.
“The program and its members have motivated me to try to make the change I want to see in the world now, instead of waiting for college or adulthood,” she says.
Members from the Center for Women take pride in the girls’ effort to spread awareness of pressing issues that they will have to face as women.
“What makes me most proud is watching the young women in the program grow, learn and speak up for what they believe in. They give me hope that the future is in good hands,” Center for Women executive director Lisa Dabney says.
The center provides the opportunity for the high schoolers to think for themselves and plan their own events. The program’s annual summit allows the girls to put their planning skills to the test when they book panel discussions on topics such as women in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, self-defense and more. Besides marketing and planning, SheStrong members are in charge of what they want to have at their event.
“We are giving the voice to the girls,” Kaitlin says.
The leadership team is looking to bring new people with unique ideas into the program. They want the program to grow not only in size but also ideologies.
“We are all ordinary. We’re all teenagers,” Courtenay says. “We all have normal teenage problems, but we have come together to form this greater entity that, when we are together, has more power than we do individually, and I think that’s the most beautiful part of the experience.”