Since 1996, Girls on the Run International has inspired girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident. By integrating social and emotional development with physical activity, GOTR strives to help every participant unlock her limitless potential and boldly pursue her dreams. Girls on the Run Memphis was established in 2018 under the leadership of Executive Director Joanna Lipman. Although she loves to run, Joanna was attracted to the organization mainly by a curriculum that focuses on teaching life skills, exploring emotions, approaching challenges, and developing strengths. “When I saw that Girls on the Run gives girls the power and vocabulary to express emotions and identify who they want to be, that was it. I was sold,” she says. With a heart for empowering girls and a passion for helping them grow, Joanna makes a perfect FACE of Memphis.
How did your path lead you to Girls on the Run Memphis?
I loved volunteering with organizations that focused on mentoring and educating youth to be more empathic and empowered. After my daughter was born and as she grew older, I learned more about a deep drop in self-esteem in girls starting around age 8 or 9. I wanted to be a part of something that offered them a safe space to explore their feelings and develop coping skills for the social and emotional struggles that come with adolescence.
I’d heard about Girls on the Run and actually reached out to them about starting a program in Memphis, but the timing wasn’t right. Fast forward a year later, I ran into my friend Paula Jacobson (now our board chair) and she blurted out to me, “We’re starting Girls on the Run in Memphis! I was given your name from the national office, and we want you to be a part.” I got in on the ground floor and helped build the program.
Can you tell us more about GOTR’s goal to “inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident?”
The key to Girls on the Run is that it is not a track program. It is a social and emotional development program, designed to empower girls. Running is an excellent tool, but GOTR hinges on the amazing biweekly lessons led by our volunteer mentors (called coaches).
The program culminates each year in a celebratory 5K. The training for it is carefully interwoven into each lesson. It’s not about grinding out laps and miles to be ready for a marathon, it’s about setting realistic goals for yourself and talking about how you feel. For example, one week the theme is “pressing pause” — as in, press pause on your emotions before you react. The coaches will weave that into running practice as well.
School is hard, and many kids are dealing with difficult things. There’s just not a lot of time for fun. Joy is powerful, and we show the girls that one way to access the positivity of joy is through physical activity. It’s all connected: your mind, your body, your spirit. When you run and release endorphins — guess what, you might feel better! When you connect with a person who really tries to understand you, that gives you confidence as well as joy.
What do you hope every girl learns about herself through GOTR?
I want them to embrace who they are, and not try to be anyone but themselves. That’s where you find your power. I hope they learn the importance of being able to accept help, that they don’t have to go it alone. It is not a weakness to ask for help — it’s a huge strength.
What is the biggest challenge facing GOTR?
Our biggest challenge is that we are a new brand. We must differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, so to speak, from traditional running programs. We know this program is transformative, that every girl deserves this opportunity. We must show how we add value to secure the funding to expand our reach to ALL girls.
What fulfills you most about your job?
The amazing volunteers who dedicate an immense amount of time to run the program, and the support of the communities around our girls — schools, neighborhoods, family. I have gained a huge appreciation for how many good people there are in this city, how generous they are. The girls also amaze me with their capacity for empathy and kindness. It’s incredible to watch the growth that happens, both in the girls and in the volunteers.
What do you do each morning to get the day off on the right start?
I drink coffee, I exercise, and I hug my daughter. I snuggle my puppy dog and spend some time with my husband.
Where can we find you when you are not working at GOTR?
What’s your best piece of advice?
One, try anything – don’t ever close yourself off from new experiences and opportunities. Second, the content of your character matters more than where you were born or what kind of background you have.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Coffee, running shoes, and the great outdoors.
Thank you, Joanna! To learn more about Girls on the Run Memphis, visit gotrmemphis.org.
All photography by Josh Lipman.