Interviews

Meet the change-maker empowering girls to succeed on their own terms

Mérida Miller is the founder of Project Fearless, a non-profit running after-school programs - for girls aged 9-14 - that inspire bravery and leadership with a community impact.

Mérida Miller’s career got off to a rapid start. After being head-hunted at university by Under Armour, she climbed the ranks as a concept designer in their innovation team. But the truth, as she puts it, is: “Really sexy title but really hard to see impact - and where your position was in the greater wheel.”

Since impact has always been a huge part of her personal mission and motivation - “I’ve always been actively involved in giving back, from teaching skiing and snowboarding to people with disabilities to volunteering with TEDxAmsterdam Women and building blankets with scrap Under Armour material” - Mérida struggled with missing that magic ingredient. 

So in December 2018, she quit her job at Under Armour and set out on carving a new path with impact at its heart. “I did some internal deep-dives and realised the three things that make me the best me are: when I can create a space where I can empower and cheer people on; doing something with my hands or being physically active; and creating impact - not just for one person but in a ripple effect.”

Photo by David Meulendbeld

Fast-forward 11 months and Mérida has brought those three personal pillars to life in Project Fearless - a project-based learning space for girls aged 9-14 that encompasses The Maker’s Space, Mind & Movement and Community & Leadership.

“It’s a venn diagram. Those three areas always overlap - showing girls there are different options out there, you don’t have to stay in one circle,” says Mérida. 

But why girls and why that age bracket in particular? “Studies show it’s the most impactful age. I also remember being that age and it sucked. Is it the scarcity at the top idea or that girls are going through so much that it’s easier to be mean and fearful - who knows?” says Mérida.

While she likes to steer clear of using terms like ‘intervention’ or ‘prevention’, Mérida does see it as an opportunity to ‘rewire’ girls’ brains at an age where it’s likely to stick. “I thought: is there a way that we can show them that we all have a voice, we can all be here, we all have a purpose and can cheer each other on without tearing each other down?”

This mission is what makes Project Fearless different to other after-school courses or sports clubs. It consciously takes the best parts of team sports but it removes the competitive element.

“We’re giving girls a space to try new things without the pressure to be perfect. All we hope is by coming to us one day a week, in those two hours, girls have the pressure released to just be.”

Mérida supporting girls on and off the board. Photo by Anne-Charlotte Moreau

Alongside learning new skills, each course incorporates open conversations about leadership and teamwork and how everybody has the power to create an impact. The courses also give girls access to diverse and - crucially - multidimensional role models, through the course coaches. Like the Project Fearless yoga coach who’s also training to be a DJ.

“Our goal is to give girls the tools to succeed on their own terms. To give girls a space where she can shed who she’s been told or who she thinks she needs to be. We want them to go away knowing that they are enough, whatever they do.”

Mérida with the coaches and Fearless Girls in the Mind & Movement Lab

Project Fearless recently wrapped up their first semester of courses. Over 8 weeks, they had 30 girls take part in Skateboarding, Mind & Movement and Design for Impact courses. And to say the feedback has been positive would be an understatement.

“My proudest moment so far was in the final Mind & Movement class. We asked the girls to share something they were grateful for and one girl immediately raised her hand and said: ‘I feel like I can be myself here. I don’t get embarrassed like I do at school and it feels good to be myself’. I get goosebumps even talking about it,” says Mérida - caveating that, while this is the Project Fearless goal, it’s not something she or the coaches vocalise explicitly in the courses.

It’s the Project Fearless DNA at work - and parents are noticing too. “One parent said to us, I don’t know what you do or how you do it but it’s working.”

The Design for Impact Fearless Crew

Looking to 2020, the goal is to go from three courses a week to five. By the end of 2020, Mérida would also love to have secured a permanent space: “Having that community clubhouse is a really core part of Project Fearless.”

To get there will require funding. Project Fearless has just launched their crowdfunding campaign - calling on people, near and far, who want to empower more girls to succeed on their own terms, to dig deep. Are you one of them? Find out more and donate here.

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