Meet the inspiring grandmother-granddaughter team behind ‘Wonder Girls: Changing Our World’

What does it mean to be a Wonder Girl? That’s the question author-photographer Paola Gianturco and her 12-year-old granddaughter Alex Sangster set out to answer through their new book Wonder Girls: Changing Our World. Through first-person interviews and photographs of 15 groups of girls, ages 10-18, in 13 countries, Paola and Alex show that Wonder Girls exist among us. They are protecting our planet, promoting education, and planting seeds for peace. We see that girls are the force we need to build a brighter future.

In this exclusive Q&A with the author-photographers, Paola and Alex share what they discovered about the power of girls to change the world.

What inspired you two to write the book, Wonder Girls: Changing Our World, together?

Alex: The book was my grandmother’s idea. She has written five other books, so for this book she wanted someone a little closer to the girls’ ages in Wonder Girls: Changing Our World. Once I learned about the girls’ stories, I wanted to help in any way possible. And in the words of Hillary Clinton, “We are stronger together.”

Plus, it was also a really nice way to bond since I don’t see my grandmother that often.

Paola: Alex is exactly right. You know the saying, “Nothing about us without us”? I wanted a partner to work with on this book. A smart, activist girl about the same age as the girls in the book. I was lucky to have one in my own family. And I was doubly lucky that she wanted to do this project with me since it’s so ambitious.

Before you began working on Wonder Girls: Changing Our World, did you know a lot about issues impacting girls around the world? Particularly for you, Alex, was this something you thought about?

Alex: I did not know about most of the issues. I am very fortunate not to face these issues in my normal life unlike the girls in the book. But it surprised me how young these girls were when they started their own organizations. For example, Melati Riyanto Wijsen was my age when she started the group Bye Bye Plastic Bags, and her sister Isabel was two years younger than her. I found this so inspiring because it led me to believe that we can all make change regardless of our age.

Paola: This is my sixth book about issues women and girls face around the world. But even with all that experience, there were some issues that I didn’t know anything about. One example was what I discovered while visiting Global Fund for Women’s partner Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan; I was just horrified to learn that boys drive up and snatch a girl right off the sidewalk and then force her to marry one of them. The practice, which is called bride kidnapping, is illegal in that country. But I was told that in rural areas, 80% of marriages start that way.

Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan is working to stop that by helping people to understand and respect that girls and boys are equal. It is a huge challenge for them because boys and girls are not considered equal in that culture by a longshot.

In the Introduction of the book, you describe how you both had different, but important roles in creating this book. Could you both share a little more about what you did individually and what the process was like?

Alex: I interviewed 70 girls via Skype, email, and sometimes in person. I had to rely on email for a couple of them because some groups are far from the U.S. For other groups, like the Technovation chapter in Mexico and Get Lit in Los Angeles, I went with my grandmother to the organization and took photographs.

Paola: I interviewed the girls about the issues and their activism; Alex interviewed the girls about the change they wanted to create, the challenges they face, and the support the girls would appreciate from the book’s readers. I want to talk about an invisible role beyond interviewing, and writing, and taking pictures. I did the background research for the book because I wanted to balance the book so that we had various issues, ethnicities, and geographies represented. Global Fund for Women’s Program Officers suggested a long list of grantees from which I selected four. Separately, I selected two other groups that Global Fund for Women had funded previously so there are current and former grantees in the book.

These groups were very active partners throughout the process. In advance of visiting, we invited the groups to be a part of the project. We coordinated to set up interviews and to be able to photograph in the homes of the girls so that we had a real sense of their lives. For example, in Mexico we were going to the meetings of the girls who were developing mobile phone apps to solve social problems. They were working in university labs and in cafes, anywhere they could get internet connection, and they just took us along.

After Alex and I had each drafted our portions of the chapters, we sent the chapter back to the girls we interviewed so they could fact-check. That was particularly important when we were working through an interpreter because it could be easy to misunderstand and our first job is to represent their voices accurately. We really worked with these groups from beginning to end.

To follow that up, what did you learn from each other?

Alex: I learned a lot from my grandmother; after all she is very experienced. But one of the most important things I learned from her was making sure everyone’s voice can be heard and to be inclusive. I hope my role in Wonder Girls: Changing Our World was to show that someone my age can tell other people’s stories and make change.

Paola: I learned so many things from Alex. Alex is a fast, good photo editor. She has an excellent eye. She and I sat together for hours on the couch and sorted out millions of photographs. That’s always very hard for me because I get sort of connected to the people in the pictures and have trouble telling which ones are the best. Alex knew immediately. I learned to go with your first impression and you’re pretty sure to be right.

Alex is also very free and creative about composing pictures. So, it was really liberating for me to shoot with her.

And finally, she taught me a lot about technology. Believe it or not, I had never done a FaceTime call before we started working together.

In the process of interviewing remarkable girls around the world, did anything surprise you?

Alex: I had my very first interview with a girl named Memory. Memory was from Malawi, and she and I seemed so similar. We both love snow and have little sisters though we experienced snow for the first time a little differently. She went to talk at the UN when she saw snow for the first time. And I saw snow for the first time when I went to Big Bear to learn how to ski. Memory and I also face different issues than each other. When I was worrying about getting my homework done and where to find Wi-Fi, Memory and her organization Girl Empowerment Network (GENET-Malawi) were fighting against child marriage. I was sad to hear how her younger sister was married at the age of 11. Now she’s 16-years-old with three children. I could never imagine anything like that happening to my sister. I would be devastated.

There are many other stories like this in the book and I was shocked to hear what these girls are going through. But overall, the process was amazing.

Paola: I was surprised by how creative the girls were. They make up activities out of the air. They fly kites. They make videos. They write blogs. They dance, sing, and write poetry. They sign petitions. They go on hunger strikes. They perform flash mobs. It is really wonderful to see how they use these creative activities to promote their causes.

I was also surprised by how determined they are. Those two things, creativity and determination, were really surprising and impressive to me.

What is one piece of advice you would give to young people if they want to support girls around the world?

Alex: My advice is to stand up and get involved…Like I said before, we’re stronger together. If we don’t help girl activists, they might not accomplish what they’re trying to do. And if you’re interested in supporting any of the groups in Wonder Girls: Changing Our World, you can go to our website or check out the sections of the book that I wrote, “How You Can Change Our World”.

Most of the organizations in the book would like donations and awareness. But some organizations have specific requests. Like School Girls Unite would like you to write snail mail to members of Congress. Bye Bye Plastic Bags would like you to use compostable bags. And GENET-Malawi would like you to donate new underwear since some families are too poor to buy them. There are so many ways to get involved and it’s really important that you do.

Paola: Everything that Alex just said!

What is your dream for girls in the future?

Alex: I dream that girls will see themselves as equal to boys. Once this happens, women will see themselves as equal to men. We can’t effect change to make ourselves equal if we don’t believe that we’re equal first. It all starts with that belief.

Gender equality is important to me because I believe that everyone deserves the same chance at success. And I hope there won’t be a need for me to write a sequel to Wonder Girls: Changing Our World by the time I’m my grandmother’s age because the issues that we highlighted will no longer exist. We demonstrated that girls my age can and will take action on problems that adults have not yet solved.

Paola: Like Alex, I dream that girls will be free, confident, educated, equal, and financially self-sufficient.

I really hope that the readers of Wonder Girls: Changing Our World will realize there are two values evidenced throughout the book. Gender equality and multicultural diversity are central pillars to a just society and they’re both under attack right now. I hope women, girls, and their allies everywhere will stand against the people who repudiate those values.

What impact do you hope Wonder Girls: Changing Our World will have on audiences around the world?

Alex: I hope that Wonder Girls: Changing Our World impacts our audience in three ways. Number one is to educate. I hope the book will educate the readers on the issues that girls face all around the world. My second hope is to inspire. I hope to inspire women and girls to support the groups in the book, which is why I wrote the sections “How You Can Change Our World.” And number three is to empower. To empower everyone, especially girls, to be activists and make positive change.

Paola: Alex’s sections, “How You Can Change Our World” embody my dreams for this book. I hope readers will support activist girls like those featured in the book and will support the organizations that fund them, like Global Fund for Women. Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, President & CEO of Global Fund for Women, underscores that same idea in her foreword of the book.

Also, anyone who buys this book will be supporting grassroots girl- and women-led groups around the world because 100% of my and Alex’s author royalties will go to Global Fund for Women.

Lastly, what does it mean to you to be a “Wonder Girl”?

Alex: The girls in the book are Wonder Girls. These girls see a problem in their community and fight together against the problem in order to make a change for future generations. They know that there is strength in numbers and that the group is powerful enough to make change. Wonder Girls see a problem, think about it, and then take action hand-in-hand with their sisters.

Paola: Wonder Woman, the superhero, fights for peace, justice, and equality with magic bracelets, a shield, and the lasso of truth. Wonder Girls fight for peace, justice, and equality with creativity, confidence, determination, and dreams.

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