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Organizers of a local conference to empower girls are searching for middle and high school students to serve as ambassadors for the event.

George Mason University in Fairfax is hosting the Virginia Girls Summit on Nov. 15 to foster self-esteem among young women in grades 7-12.

By recruiting peers from that target group to help shape the event, project director Patsy Mangas said she hopes girls who attend will see the conference as their space.

“We want them to hear what we have to say, but more importantly we want them to find their own voices,” Mangas said. “They’ve heard all the talk about body image and self-esteem before. But we want to get girls to let their guards down and open up to each other.”

The conference’s tagline — “You are enough” — embodies the goal of the Virginia Girls Summit, which aims to encourage participants to embrace their own unique personality and passions.

Mangas plans to bring in up to 30 ambassadors from Fairfax County and around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to help plan the summit. Applications are being accepted through Aug. 22.

Selected ambassadors will participate in biweekly meetings at George Mason’s Women and Gender Studies Center in the months leading up to the event, joining a planning committee of George Mason students established last spring.

“We throw all of our experiences out on the table and see how we can apply them to the summit to help other girls,” said Casey Marion, a rising senior at George Mason and a member of the planning committee. “We want to show these girls that people in their community are cheering them on.”

The middle and high school student ambassadors will also provide leadership during the all-day conference, helping facilitate workshops and discussions among their peers.

The Virginia Girls Summit is open to girls in grades 7-12. Parents can also attend but will participate in separate breakout sessions, allowing students to open up away from the pressure of parental judgment, Mangas said. Registration will begin Sept. 2 and will cost $30 per person.

In the lead-up to the conference, student ambassadors will also help run the Virginia Girls Summit social media accounts. The ambassadors will learn how to foster healthy conversation around the themes of the event.

While Mangas said she acknowledges the power of social media for communication, social networks can create an unhealthy environment for girls as they constantly judge themselves against their friends and celebrities.

“You’re more than just the number of likes on an Instagram photo,” Mangas said. “We’re trying to counter the message that media and social media in our culture can send to girls. We want to help them navigate these in a healthy way.”

Misty Copeland, keynote speaker for the Virginia Girls Summit, this month found herself at the center of a social media success story on which the conference hopes to build.

An Under Armour athletic wear company ad featuring ballet dancer Copeland went viral, accumulating more than 5 million views on YouTube since it was posted two weeks ago.

The video tells the tale of Copeland’s perseverance. Though several dance schools rejected her, telling her she had the wrong body type to succeed at ballet, at age 24 she became the second black soloist in the history of the American Ballet Theatre.

“That’s what we want to highlight,” Mangas said. “Be who you want to be. Leading up to this conference and at the conference, we want to create a safe place where girls can learn to be themselves.”

Virginia Girls Summit student ambassador applications can be found on the conference website, http://vagirlssummit.gmu.edu/.



kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com