Meet Our Team: Emily Teitsworth

The Cairn Project interviewed Emily Teitsworth, GirlVentures' Executive Director, in early 2018, about her personal connection to the wilderness, and what's in store for GirlVentures this year.
The full interview featured on The Cairn Project as part of their series Women Who Lead.

Emily on the summit of Santa Maria Volcano in Guatemala

Emily on the summit of Santa Maria Volcano in Guatemala

Tell us about your role at GirlVentures — what’s a typical day as Executive Director? 

Being the Executive Director of a small non-profit organization means that every day includes a bit of almost everything – program development, HR, fundraising, Board relations, and more. The most joyful parts of my job are the opportunities to facilitate staff development and spend time with our participants and alumni, witnessing their “aha moments” of personal growth, whether they happen in the office or the backcountry. 

GirlVentures is at an exciting point of evolution as we close out our 20th year in operation and look towards the future. As a staff, we are engaging with intention and urgency on issues of inclusion, access, and representation in the outdoors. While we celebrate GirlVentures’ history of innovation and impact, we’re also focused on improving the inclusivity of our programs and challenging ourselves to walk the talk when it comes to providing access to the outdoors for all girls. 

Did you grow up in an outdoors-oriented family? What was your breakthrough outdoor experience - and where was it?

One of my most distinct early memories is backpacking in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness in central Oregon with my family. On the last day of our trip, we climbed up a shale field to the bottom of a glacier, and drank directly from a stream of glacial melt coming out below the ice and saturating a field of wildflowers. Many of my outdoor adventures since then have been spent chasing the perfection of that childhood moment. It shouldn’t be a privilege to experience this kind of transformative beauty and find your place in nature, but it is.

Part of the mandate of The Cairn Project is to help expand access to programs like yours in underserved communities. In your experience, what are the biggest obstacles to increasing young women’s participation in outdoor programs? 

We often talk about the barriers to access associated with poverty - the prohibitive costs of training, gear, and transportation to wilderness areas, for instance. Those are certainly obstacles in and of themselves. However, it’s essential to situate them within a broader conversation around systemic barriers that have allowed the wilderness to persist as a bastion of white male privilege. Girls from underserved communities, and particularly girls of color, don’t see themselves reflected when they read stories about outdoor adventure, scroll through wilderness photos on Instagram, or browse outdoor retailer catalogues.

The underlying causes of lack of access are complicated, and at GirlVentures we seek to respond to that complexity by ensuring that inclusion is both one of our foundational values, and is reflected in the details of our program design and delivery. GirlVentures intentionally brings together girls from diverse communities for 7-14 day wilderness expeditions, encouraging deep reflection on identity, leadership, and inclusion. The strategies that allow us to do that successfully range from conducting bilingual and culturally-competent outreach with families, to bridging the divide between social justice and environmental justice in our curriculum, to amplifying the voices of diverse outdoors people on our social media. 

Despite the roles of “leader” and “participant,” learning usually goes both ways. What is something you’ve learned from one of the girls in your program in the last few months? 

Whenever I spend time with our participants, I’m reminded that girls are already leaders, if we make space for them to lead. A couple of months ago, one of our alumna, who is 12 years old, agreed to speak at our annual gala. She and I spent several weeks working on what she wanted to say and practicing her remarks together. When she arrived at the venue on the evening of the event, the reality of speaking into a microphone in front of a crowd of hundreds of adults hit her suddenly, and she burst into tears. We took a walk, practiced deep breathing, and cracked a few jokes, and she told me she was ready. And when she spoke in front of the gala crowd, she looked everyone in the eye and told her story in a strong, clear voice. She’s the kind of leader I aspire to be.