The CEO of Girl Rising is Making the World a Better Place for Girls, One Story at a Time
Christina Lowery’s mission is to educate girls across the globe—and create new futures for them in the process
By Abigail Libers
It's not unusual for a movie to win awards, get rave reviews and win big (or lose) at the box office. But it's not every day one helps to change the world. Girl Rising is a film that became a powerful movement and gave filmmaker Christina Lowery the role of a lifetime. Now the CEO of a globally recognized non-profit with connections to Michelle Obama and support from Meryl Streep, Alicia Keys, Priyanka Chopra and Freida Pinto, Lowery's work is to show communities the power of education, get girls in school and keep them there. The reason: Educating girls is the single most powerful way to end global poverty.
The original film, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, aired in more than 170 countries to over 400 million viewers, and now the multi-faceted organization has programs around the world in some of the most difficult places to be a girl. Lowery and her staff developed a Girl Rising curriculum that is used by thousands of teachers, reaching tens of thousands of students, in the U.S., India, Nigeria and the DRC, with plans to expand later this year. It has also entered into partnerships like the Girl Rising Creative Challenge, powered by HP which calls for people all over the world to share stories, videos or art about how they or people in their communities are working towards gender equality and making the world a better place for girls.
Using storytelling to create change and make a difference is what Lowery has known she wanted to do since she was young. Here, she talks about how she’s helping make the world a better place, one story at a time.
What’s your background?
I was born in Canada and lived in Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio. When I was 12, my family moved to Austin. I have one older brother and my father was a surgeon, and my mother was an emergency room nurse. Their work in the field of medicine was built on helping people, and they ingrained that philosophy in me. I remember them both being very attuned to the needs of others, even outside of their work. So, the idea that life is about helping people was just a natural thing for me.
What was your first transformative experience of helping others?
As a kid, I helped build houses on a Native American reservation and helped paint a school in South Texas with my church group. When I was 17, I convinced my parents to let me to travel to Honduras to work in an orphanage. My father had an older patient from Honduras and her relatives lived in Tegucigalpa. With their help and connections, I was able to arrange a volunteer stint at the orphanage. I was studying Spanish at the time, so I was itching to go to a Spanish speaking country. I had my eyes opened to the unfairness of the world and realized it was a sheer stroke of good fortune that I was born into my family. I thought: Why did I get so lucky when so many children are born into situations that are really tough?
Why is storytelling such a powerful way to help people and change minds?
I have ping-ponged back and forth in my life between two main interests: storytelling and international development. In my late 20s, I went to Kenya and Tanzania with a group that was studying the communities around national parks and that experience led me to get a master’s degree in community and regional planning. I thought I would go into international development and work for a big NGO, but at the end of graduate school, I went to Mexico to research another documentary on women’s economic development, and I thought, "Oh! Why would I want to do anything but this? Telling stories from real people is so interesting."
I was working at a film production company when a funder approached us about making a project on how to end global poverty. We looked into the data around girls’ education and found a mountain of evidence showing that educating girls is the single best investment that can be made to break the cycles of poverty, improve health, improve families' resilience to disaster, improve prosperity and increase stability and peace. We wanted to grab the world's attention and shine a spotlight on this issue: to change minds, change lives, and change policy. That film became Girl Rising.
How does the work of educating girls globally impact you on a personal level?
I have two boys and a girl. My daughter is nine years old, and I look at her and think if I were a mom somewhere where it was normal in my community for her to be married off at this age, I would hope that somebody who could do something, would do something. My daughter and my friends' daughters have opportunities that many girls around the world don't and I’m blessed to be in a position to help make a change, and it feels like I have a responsibility to help. To me, equality for girls is the human rights struggle of our time, and that’s why I do what I do.
What has been your proudest moment?
One of the proudest moments I had was when I heard of a group of boys in Bihar, India, who, after being part of a Girl Rising program and watching the film, decided to form an End Child Marriage club in their community. If they heard about girl who was to be married, they went to her house and talked to her parents about why they thought she should stay in school. And another group of boys in rural India took a pledge to share housework with their sisters and they formed a club where they wore badges that announced to the community they were each a brother supporting his sister. Even when girls are in school, they bear the brunt of the housework which in turn keeps them from exceling in school because they have less or no time to study. When I hear these stories of people doing something concrete in their community to support girls and bring about a more gender equitable place, that’s when I’m most proud.
How have the past few years of new awareness around gender imbalance changed or affected the urgency of your work?
Our work seems to have new relevance and resonance with people in a way that it didn’t five years ago. People are aware of the spectrum of what happens when there are imbalances in power between genders, and what gender inequality can look like, and what the effects of that can be. And I think that has made people more interested in the work that we're doing and helped them connect with it in a different way.
Tell us about the Girl Rising curriculum for schools.
One of the ways we’re educating people about the important of gender equality is through our adaptable, free curriculum. Designed for upper elementary, middle and high school, it’s used to teach subjects ranging from English to social studies to math to art. Whether in the classroom or extracurricular programming, educators can teach directly from the materials, strengthen an existing lesson plan with select resources or build an energizing new unit. Using these compelling stories and an imaginative array of teaching resources, the program inspires young people to see beyond their borders, embrace their education and believe in their capacity to be agents of change. The aim is to instill them with a deeper sense of resilience, personal power, global citizenship and local responsibility.
We also have a Skype-in-class program that connects Girl Rising staff with classrooms around the world, teaching students about barriers to education for girls around the world and igniting discussions how to be active global citizens.
How is partnering with HP for the Girl Rising Creative Challenge moving the needle?
We’ve partnered with HP before and this latest round is really to bring attention the everyday stories of people who are making a difference for girls, and who are doing something in the realm of gender equality. We run across people who are doing amazing things all the time. I think HP and Girls Rising both believe in the power of stories to change mindsets and spark meaningful action. There are many submissions I’ve seen so far that have touched me, from a band that sings about what it means to be a woman in El Salvadoran society to Brown Girls Do Ballet, a photography project that shines a light on the lack of cultural diversity in local ballet schools in the U.S. [The winners will be announced on October 11, International Day of the Girl Child.]
What’s next for you and Girl Rising?
We’re expanding our programs and curriculum into Guatemala, Pakistan, Thailand and Kenya later this year, and over the next two years, we plan to make a series of short films that tackle the most urgent issues and draw the world’s attention to the most critical issues facing girls, along with promising solutions. The topics for our next series of films include girls displaced or living in refugee situations, the link between girls’ education and climate change and sports as a pathway to girls’ empowerment. The reality is that girls are twice as likely to never set foot in a classroom and girls who go to school are too often not learning the skills and mindsets they need to thrive. We want more people aware, caring and doing their part to take down the barriers holding girls back.