Since she’s been volunteering with us here at Girl Rising, I’ve gotten to know a truly inspirational girl this summer—Gabriella Runnels.
And she’s involved in the campaign for girls’ education in a unique way. What started as reading and creating a YouTube video for a scholarship to Tulane University has developed into what Gabriella describes as a deep “passion for social justice.” Her interest in girls’ issues could not be more genuine, and I took a little time to hear her story.
Q: How did you first become interested in girls’ issues, like women’s health, child marriage, and education?
Gabriella: When I’ve been asked this question in the past, I always cite a June 2011 National Geographic article called “Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides.” Reading that article on the couch in my house, crying my eyes out, was when I learned that in some places in the world, girls are married as young as seven years old. That article inspired me to do more research on my own, which led to me uncovering shocking information about bride burnings, female genital mutilation, and other injustices girls suffer around the world.
However, I think my passion for girls’ rights goes back farther than the summer before my senior year of high school. Although I hadn’t yet learned about all of the ways in which girls are struggling around the world, part of me has always felt connected to girls everywhere. I always cherished my female friends and my two sisters, and my parents raised me to believe that girls are capable of everything that boys are. So when I learned about these issues surrounding girls’ health and education around the world, my fierce belief in the power of girls came to the surface, and I knew I had found my passion.
*Q: How would you describe the filming process for *“It Only Takes a Girl”?
Gabriella: Producing _“It Only Takes a Girl” _was an extremely collaborative process. First of all, I had to make dozens of large, handmade signs. My sister Sierra was so helpful, spending hours filling in big letters with black and red permanent marker. Then came the filming. Almost fifty women and girls from my community appear in my video, and they were all so supportive and happy to participate. In terms of actually filming, my other sister, Celeste, actually did most of the camera work. When it came to editing the video clips, my mom, a very tech-savvy woman, was a great help. I couldn’t have created this video without the help of dozens of women, and I am so grateful for all of their support on this project.
Q: What inspired you to create your video? Did you ever imagine that it would go as viral as it did, with over 400,000 views?
Gabriella: I actually made the video for a scholarship project to Tulane University in New Orleans. The guidelines were basically to create something that showcased who I am and what I care about—and I care about the education of girls around the world. My mom was actually the one who suggested I make a video. I decided that in my movie, I would start by telling the story of child brides, then I’d present a variety of facts on girls in developing countries, and finally I’d end with a positive message of a hopeful future. I posted my video to Facebook with a private YouTube link, thinking no one but my friends and family would be interested in viewing it anyway. To my surprise, a lot of people started sharing the link on Facebook, and after a couple hundred views I decided to make the video public. After a week, the viewership had climbed to 100,000, and today my video has over 400,000 views. Having my video go viral has been a humbling experience. I never expected it to happen, but I am so pleased that this important message about educating girls has reached so many people.
Q: Now that you’ve earned your scholarship, what are you studying at Tulane?
Gabriella: My ultimate goal in life is to make a real difference for girls around the world. I entered Tulane as a Public Health major, thinking it might be the best path to making the kind of change I am so passionate about. However, I realized toward the end of my first year that the most valuable thing I can do is figure out a way to apply my skills to my passion for girls’ education. I have always been good at math, and I have been curious lately about how financial motivations and economic environments affect barriers to girls’ education. I recently switched into an Economics major with a Public Health minor—so we’ll see how that goes!
Q: What else do you like to do at school and in your free time?
Gabriella: I play the harp for Tulane’s orchestra and concert band, and this spring I participated in the Tulane production of the Vagina Monologues. I am part of my university’s campus programming group, and I joined several clubs that focus on feminism, social justice and service. In my free time, I write for my blog or watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I also love spending time with my family—I’m glad my college isn’t too far from home!
Q: This summer you’re volunteering with us at Girl Rising, which is so exciting! Are you currently doing any other work outside of Girl Rising to fuel your interest in girls’ issues?
Gabriella: I worked as an outreach coordinator for More Than Me when they were competing in the Chase Community Giving Awards for the chance to win $1 million. They are a great organization that helps get girls in West Point, Liberia off the streets and into school—and they actually did end up winning the money! I am also a Generation Know ambassador with U by Kotex and Girls for a Change. As an ambassador, I have committed to busting myths and eliminating shame surrounding girls’ periods and their bodies. I am also an advisory board member for the What’s Your Brave? book project Take 5 for Your Dreams, which encourages girls to be courageous and ambitious. Finally, I keep my “It Only Takes a Girl” campaign going through Twitter, Facebook, and even Pinterest.
Q: What do you think you’ll be doing ten years from now?
Gabriella: Ten years from now I’d love to be an economic analyst for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I really respect the work that organization does with development, and Melinda Gates is one of my biggest role models. A successful businesswoman, a mom, and a social justice icon—she’s a triple threat. Plus, I’m fascinated by the economics of development and nonprofit work, and I think that kind of job would be a perfect combination of my mathematical mind and my passion for social justice.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you would give to girls who want to make a positive difference in the world?
Gabriella: I want to remind girls that they are powerful—that it really does only take one girl to make a difference. As we say at Girl Rising, “One girl with courage is a revolution.” My advice to girls is never to underestimate your own power or abilities. The future of our world lies with you, so rise up and lead the way. Gabriella is a great example of how one can quickly becoming an integral part of the movement for girls’ education. I feel lucky to work with such motivated people like her every day at Girl Rising, and I am excited to hear about the differences Gabriella will be making in the future.