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The Smart Girls Have Arrived

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Meredith Walker is a woman on a mission. As the executive director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, headquartered in Austin, and with the help of Poehler herself, Walker is determined to empower young girls to be themselves, especially if, like her, they’re more than a little unconventional.

Written by John T. Davis, Photos by Annie Ray, Styled by Ashley Hargrove, Hair and makeup by Gertie WIlson, Eleve Cosmetics

The world needs more Smart Girls. But we’re not talking about lowercase “smart girls,” of which there are paradoxically a whole lot and not enough. No, we’re talking about Smart Girls, the multifaceted online community cofounded by Austin resident Meredith Walker and comedian, actor, author and Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation alumnus Amy Poehler.

This conclusion was not arrived at by random chance. Being a source of unimpeachable authority on the subject (60-ish white guy, married very late, no kids, tends to frighten small children), this reporter has concluded without fear of contradiction that being a preteen or teenage girl these days can really stink. Smart Girls is designed to be an antidote. Think of it as a vaccination against the perils of growing up young and female in an era of promise and pitfalls.

Besides the usual school and friendship cliques with which young girls (and boys) have always had to contend, the 21st century has also given rise to a toxic fixation on celebrity at the expense of accomplishment (I’m looking at you, TMZ.), and an unhealthy preoccupation with new, shiny things.

Although the Internet and social-media environment can be wonderful for friendship and sharing, the unwary and naive can all too easily plunge into a cesspool of sexting, body shaming, vile Twitter pile-ons, sexual predation and worse. As they used to say in the old newsreels, “What an age we live in!”

And all that’s on top of the flood of hormones and other physical changes that make puberty and the teenage years such a delight.

That’s not to mention real-world complications with real consequences. According to stopbullying.gov, two federal surveys revealed that between 20 and 22 percent of students ages 12 to 18 experience physical bullying at some point. Stats on cyberbullying are harder to come by, as technology and social-media platforms evolve so rapidly, but it is a real and growing menace.

Poehler, by virtue of her celebrity, is the public face of Smart Girls. (The official name of the group is Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls.) Walker, a 47-year-old native Texan who follows in a long line of smart, sassy, self-starting Texas women, is the boots-on-theground, day-to-day workhorse who lives and breathes Smart Girls 24/7, and is taking the point in transitioning the organization from an online community into a functioning, real world entity.

It’s not a unique effort, yet it is highly unusual. Most charities, nonprofits and other like-minded groups begin with a functioning organization that generates content for distribution through its online counterpoint. Smart Girls, by contrast, began online in 2008 and has evolved so that rather than passively devouring top-down content, the target community of young girls—one writer called it a “hive mind”—generates a great deal of the content and shapes the direction of the website (amysmartgirls.com) in the process.

It’s Walker’s goal to segue that virtual community into a sort of brick-and-mortar presence that might grow to include local Smart Girl chapters coast to coast, camps and conferences, in-school programs and maybe even a Smart Girls television series. It’s a fulltime gig for one woman and an exceedingly hard-working intern, which is what Smart Girls’ world HQ in Austin consists of. It’s housed in the top-floor space of a converted antebellum-style house near the University of Texas campus, and Walker holds forth, spreading the Smart Girls gospel in Austin and coast to coast, thanks to a nearly nonstop speaking schedule. Her official title is cofounder and executive director, but that’s just boilerplate. She’s also employee of the month, morale officer and director of corporate mojo. In other words, she’s the whole show, at least in Austin. She does have the assistance of a director of development, a social-media manager and a general manager, all based in the Los Angeles area.

“I really oversee everything, the whole tone, the voice, everything,” Walker says. “What’s curated on all of our social media, all of that started with me. It takes a lot of diligence to help other people understand what it means to me and Amy. It’s not easy. They can’t be in our heads. I stay on top of that all the time.”

None of this marginalizes Poehler’s commitment, passion for the project and input, of course. But she is a mom, an A-list celebrity and she has her own career to run. “We wanted to build a brand that attempted to combat the deluge of s–t young people see every day online,” Poehler says.

“We wanted to celebrate the curious girl, the nonfamous, the everyday warrior. … Our hope is to provide something for people who can’t stand to look at another awful website highlighting some fame-obsessed garbage person.

“What is so great about working with a Texas girl like Meredith is her genuine ability to connect with people. She is interested in other people and their stories. Being based out of Austin helps her and Smart Girls stay connected in the real world.”

Asked what she does when she’s not doing this, Walker, who has no kids of her own, pithily replies, “Nothing.”

That’s not quite true. When pressed, she will grudgingly admit to playing tennis (She has a longtime beau who is a tennis pro.), and walking Austin’s hiking trails early in the morning. Once in a great rare while, she will escape to Big Bend or bliss out tubing on the Comal River. She also serves as a mentor at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, has taken part in White House conferences and traveled as an envoy to Malawi, Africa, and refugee camps in Jordan. And she partners with Austin American- Statesman “Fit City” reporter Pam LeBlanc in an ancillary girls’ outdoor program called Pocket Adventure ATX.

But she is a glutton for her day job. An email response to a query about her day-to-day responsibilities elicited a 420-word response citing roughly 30 labor-intensive and time-consuming aspects of keeping the Smart Girls ship on course that confront her in any given work day.

In person, Walker exudes an air of poorly suppressed energy and enthusiasm. The air almost seems to vibrate around her. A Houston native, the daughter of an Episcopal minister and a very forward-thinking mom, she has a mane of dark hair, wide set and disconcertingly direct eyes and a rapid-fire intelligence with a leavening sense of humor. She is tall and rangy and looks like she’d be more at home on horseback than vetting online content. (In fact, she did briefly work as a ranch cook in Wyoming.)

“Texas grows some pretty tough stock when it comes to women,” says Wendy Davis, the former state senator and candidate for governor who became acquainted with Walker through parallel interests and mutual work. “We have to navigate our way through some pretty tough terrain, and I think it imbues us with a strong sense of self and purpose, and an incredibly hard work ethic.”

Davis heads a nonprofit called Deeds Not Words, which focuses on helping young women find ways, through politics or policy, to advance gender equality.

“Meredith has done a beautiful and brilliant job of carrying that mission forward,” Davis says. “What’s remarkable about Smart Girls is the trajectory of it. It’s outpaced organizations that have been around for a long time.”

According to Walker, Smart Girls reaches more than 3 million users per week via the website and its presence on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and Snapchat.

Walker was 22 or so when Ann Richards was elected governor in 1990. For a young woman in Texas, and one not entirely sure of what she wanted to do with her life, it was, in Walker’s words, “seismic.”

She had had some female mentors growing up in Houston, principally, her mother, an actress named June Terry and some ladies at her father’s church. They meant the world to her.

“I was just one of those girls who looked sort of weird,” Walker recalls. “I was growing into myself [and]I came from a sharp and funny family, so, I wasn’t really demure. But these older women thought I was a kick to be around, so, they’d say, ‘Let me take you to lunch,’ or, ‘Let’s go to the movies,’ or whatever. And those were the times I felt OK.”

To see Richards parade down Congress Avenue on a dazzling January day and take the oath of office on the Capitol steps in a suit as glistening white as her signature coif of hair was a game changer for Walker.

“Seeing a salty, sassy, smart, super intelligent but well-mannered woman do that. … If you can see it, you can be it. When she walked across the bridge on inauguration day and there were people of all different physical abilities and ethnicities, I remember thinking, ‘OK, that’s a really important thing. I get it. And this woman’s the one doing it.’ ”

Walker didn’t know it at the time, but she was soon to meet another formative female figure in her life: television journalist and producer Linda Ellerbee. In broadcast journalism, Ellerbee is a legitimately big deal, having worked first at The Associated Press and then for 15 years as an anchor, writer and host at ABC and NBC before moving to the Nickelodeon network to host the Nick News With Linda Ellerbee kids’ news and documentary program for 25 years. She retired last December. In her 44-year career, she’s won every plaque, scroll and trophy this side of the Pulitzer, several times over.

After graduating from college in 1991, Walker was suffering a lack of, in her words, “clarity of direction,” which is when the aforementioned ranch-cook gig came along. But she took a summer course at Rice University in broadcast journalism and devoured it. In 1992, she wrote Ellerbee an unsolicited letter.

“It wasn’t a ‘To whom it may concern’ letter. It was my personality,” Walker recalls. “It was like, ‘This is why you’re so important to me, and I’d like to be more like you.’ ”

Whether she was impressed by the earnestness of the letter, or because it gave her a kick to jump-start the career of a fellow Lone Star woman, Ellerbee plucked Walker out of Houston and brought her up to New York to start working at Nick News.

The job began with “typical intern stuff,” Walker says, but before long, she was in charge of compiling newspaper clips, scouring headlines for story ideas, organizing tape libraries and other old-school media grunt work. Within six years, Walker grew into increased responsibilities, becoming a producer and traveling nationwide, generating stories and interviewing kids for the series. It was her years at Nick News, she says, that brought her interest in improving the lives of young people to the forefront.

“I use my Nick News research tactics to track down subjects for Smart Girls,” Walker says. “You look around local papers, communities and websites, and if you see something cool that’s being offered, you call the place and say, ‘Hey, do you have any young girls or teens who are doing something with you?’ ”

“She was so smart and so outstanding,” Ellerbee says. “I assure you she wouldn’t have worked there six or seven years…if she hadn’t been good at what she did. She became a first-rate producer.”

Ellerbee pauses when asked about Walker’s most singular quality, then continues.

“My father always said the world was divided between salespeople and bookkeepers. Meredith could sell me anything, and I mean that in a good way, not in a used-car salesman kind of way,” Ellerbee says. “She has the strength of purpose to persuade people to do things and to act. That ability to get other people enthusiastic is irreplaceable and has been crucial to Smart Girls. If you can get other people excited, you’re halfway there. … Her word is good. She keeps promises. She works hard. She doesn’t take ‘no’ very well. I attribute that to her being a Texas woman.”

Ellerbee adds that she has a 13-year-old granddaughter who she intends to introduce to Walker as soon as is feasible.

“Here’s my granddaughter. Get her involved,” Ellerbee chuckles. “Smart Girls become smart women, and smart women remember that they stand on someone else’s shoulders.”

Poehler and Walker became besties during their joint SNL tenure, when Poehler became a star behind the “Weekend Update” desk and Walker was head of the talent department, in charge of arranging and handling the hosts and musical guests on the program. Walker, who joined the show in 1998 straight out of Nick News and stayed until 2002, was on the scene when Poehler arrived in 2001.

In her 2014 memoir, Yes Please, Poehler admits being a trifle in awe of Walker from the get-go.

“She was tall and from Texas and had already met Sting and Tupac,” Poehler wrote.

During down time, Walker and Poehler bonded by reminiscing about the challenges of growing up as unconventional girls, and the many hurdles girls today are forced to confront. What evolved from those conversations was a YouTube video series originally titled Smart Girls at the Party.

“We were drinking wine and talking about that age range, fifth through eighth grade, how tough it is. If we could go back in a time machine, what would have helped us? And we were [like], ‘We should do this! We can really help. Let’s start a camp. Let’s do events, like conferences for girls. Let’s do it. OK, talk to you later,’ ” Walker remembers. “That’s how it started, like a good idea that we wanted to think about someday. Then the opportunity came up where we could do this [online]show, and we said, ‘OK, this could be our way in.’ ”

Smart Girls at the Party was modeled after a Charlie Rose-style interview show, with Poehler as the host; Walker behind the camera as producer, reporter and frequent on-screen partner in crime; and musician friend Amy Miles supplying a soundtrack. It began as a YouTube series in 2008 and featured girls from throughout the country talking about whatever their passion might be, from archeology to glass blowing to horse whispering to competing in a triathlon. There was also a complementary “Boys Minute” since smart boys need props too.

Poehler introduced each episode as, “The show that celebrates girls who are changing the world by being themselves,” and most segments ended with an impromptu dance party.

“When we started, we wanted to create an online clubhouse,” Poehler says, “a place that celebrated the curious girl, someone who was a smart cookie but still loved to dance like a goofball. We thought that phrase [Smart Girls at the Party] summed it up.”

In the years since its inception in 2008, the YouTube channel, which, as of August had more than 136,000 subscribers, has branched out. There are different segments among almost 300 videos, including “Modern Manners,” “Smart Snacks,” “Smart Life Hacks,” “Heavy Petting,” “Girls of the World,” “Ask Amy” and more. Some feature Poehler’s fellow Parks and Recreation alums, like Chris Pratt and Aziz Ansari, as well as actors like Jason Bateman, Geena Davis and Holland Taylor, but most put the Smart Girls themselves front and center.

The Smart Girls website is full of tools, including the “ABCs of Smart Girls,” a series of essays, many penned by Walker herself, dealing with apropos subjects like compassion, embarrassment and delight. There are links to video channels and episodes created for the site and the YouTube channel. There is a Topics tab that links to everything from animals and politics to poetry and get-involved activism. There is downloadable content and a merchandise link to buy onesies for the “future Smart Girl” and a coffee cup that advises, “There’s power in looking silly and not caring that you do.”

“Amy says we’re an online clubhouse where everyone’s invited,” Walker explains. “We’re starting our very first Smart Girls local chapter here in Austin [by 2017]…but we really live in social media. That’s where people love to engage and interact.”

In addition to Smart Girls, Walker’s mentoring work with the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders has her running what she calls journalism boot camp, in which she takes in high-school-age girls and instructs them in the time-honored practices of the inkstained wretches of the press, just as Ellerbee helped initiate her to years ago.

In May, she enlisted three juniors, Chloe Levy, Lina Breining and Jessica Pinney, to conceive of, research, interview and report a story for the Smart Girls website. The result, Understanding Ourselves and Others: Meeting Members of Austin’s LGBTQ Community, went up on the site last month.

“All the 11th graders have internships, which vary according to our [academic]pathways,” Breining recounts. “I interviewed with Meredith for an internship and she was cool. All the other interviewers were kind of intimidating.”

“When I was interviewing,” Levy says, “Meredith made it clear that we would be doing a story, and we would have a lot of control over what exactly we would be doing in that story. That really appealed to me because she said she was essentially giving us a platform, basically handing over the reins to us.”

“We got to contact people and do research and find groups and organizations,” Breining says. “It’s really cool that [the story]is online because that’s where everyone is nowadays. I’ve never seen a website like Smart Girls has.”

“Practically speaking, Meredith was really good at teaching us how to build connections with organizations and people we might want to interview,” Levy says.

“It was a really great experience,” Breining adds. “I’m really glad to be part of such a great community.”  Jendayi Bonds arrived at Smart Girls by a different route. A songwriter, vocalist and bandleader, Bonds was interviewed by Poehler in 2012 when she was 14. Now, at 18, she is recording her first album with her brother, drummer Gyasi Bonds, in upstate New York as alternative-pop band Charlie Belle. In that incarnation, she has been featured on NPR and in The Guardian, The Austin Chronicle and Wired.

“When the [Smart Girls] video came out, it definitely brought some attention to the band,” Jendayi Bonds says. “It was all really exciting to have people start listening to our music because they had seen the episode. … Filming the segment was really cool. I had never done anything like that. The room was huge and there were all these cameras and lights. I got to meet Amy before we actually filmed the segment, which was great because I had time to tell her that I loved Parks and Recreation. Everyone on the show, in front of the camera and behind the scenes was extremely sweet and funny.

“I think that the Smart Girls outreach is very valuable because it connects Smart Girls that ordinarily wouldn’t be connected to each other.”

And just exactly what constitutes a Smart Girl?

“A Smart Girl means someone who immerses themselves in something that they love to do, no matter what’s going on around them,” Bonds says. “Smart Girls have always existed and they always will. It’s comforting knowing that there are other people out there around the world that share the level of passion for something in their lives.”

That level of passion has come to define Walker and been honed by her decision to live and headquarter Smart Girls in Austin.

“It’s an interesting community. There’s so many different people interested in so many different things, and they follow their curiosity,” Walker says of the city. “I’ve found the girls reflect that. We’ve found a glass blower, an archeologist, a kayaker on her way to the Paralympics, musicians, poets. You don’t have to leave the city limits to find this really great diversity.”

“We are constantly inspired by the many people of Austin,” Poehler adds. “It’s a city that takes chances on people and finds beauty in small things.”

Austin also encourages Walker to keep her hair wet. When asked what that means, Walker pops a big grin.

“I thought, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be,’ ” she says. “I could see civic participation. I could see a community that cared about everyone’s voices being heard. And I saw people outside when it was raining. They were like, ‘I’m not going to scurry away because it’s raining! Keep on walking. Stay on that bike.’ I want to be around those people!”

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