ANNAPOLIS — It takes a good idea and a commanding presence to make a state committee listen intently this late in the General Assembly session. Kana Walsh, a middle school student from Montgomery County, may have that good idea.
From the witness table in the Health and Government Operations Committee room Tuesday, Kana asked her state delegates to pass a bill that would annually declare Oct. 11 International Day of the Girl.
“Members of the committee, I hope that you will take my experience as a girl into account when you take a position on this bill. I feel that there are too many girls who do not have a fair chance in this world. As a consequence, they give up on their opportunities to do amazing things,” Kana said.
“If more people celebrated the International Day of the Girl [Child], I believe that more people would be empowered to find solutions to the disadvantages that girls face in life,” she added.
Flanked on either side by her mentor Rachel Levine, of the American Red Cross, and Rodney Glasgow, her principal at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Kana held the attention of the room. Some delegates nodded as she cited studies from the University of Maryland and United Nations on how girls across the globe are not afforded the same opportunities as boys to get ahead in life.
Recognizing one day a year as the International Day of the Girl, however, is only the first of many changes Kana wants to make.
In an email to Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Kana lays out a much more extensive plan to establish more STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education opportunities for girls ages 8 to 18 as well as identifying the barriers that could keep girls and ethnic minorities, such as Native American and Native Hawaiian communities, from accessing them.
In particular, Kana is passionate about creating opportunities for girls to be able to participate in geospatial mapping, which is when people look at satellite images of landscapes to identify what is actually on the ground.
“The computer isn’t like the human eye,” Kana said in an interview after speaking to the committee. “Like it can’t see specifically if one thing is a house, or a building or something. So they need ... actual people to be able to search certain things out.”
Kana’s interest in geospatial mapping started while she was working on her Bronze Award for Girl Scouts of America. Her father, Michael Walsh, introduced her to the Missing Map program run by the American Red Cross, which uses open-source satellite data of developing countries to identify neighborhoods, street names and emergency centers that can help humanitarian workers provide aid faster after a disaster.
Throughout her Bronze Award, Kana was mentored by Levine, who is the Missing Map coordinator for the American Red Cross. Levine also testified on Tuesday in support of recognizing Oct. 11 as the International Day of the Girl, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 2011 as a global day of recognition. Kana is also now the Youth Outreach Coordinator for Missing Maps.
“Maps are how we represent our world, so the more opinions and viewpoints we have in that documentation, the more comprehensive our resources are,” Levine said in an interview after the hearing.
She is working with youth mappers, such as Kana, to add their views and opinions to the data, which in turn helps girls in places such as Tanzania, who may be at risk of genital mutilation, she said.
“When we have better maps, drivers can reach girls in trouble faster. Once at the safe house, girls continue with their education and additionally are taught digital literacy skills,” Levine said. “Over the last couple of years, they’ve actually become some of our top mappers and real leaders in the humanitarian mapping community.”
Expanding young women’s interest in STEM fields and geospatial mapping is also important to addressing some deep-seeded gender inequities in the American workforce.
Carrie Stokes, chief geographer and director of the GeoCenter at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), wrote a letter of support for Kana’s bill. Stokes has lived in Maryland for 23 years and started her own YouthMappers program, after seeing far fewer women than men in her own field. She now has more than 5,000 students — 40 percent of which are female — participating in geospatial mapping at 145 universities.
“These efforts to encourage and empower female participation did not require additional funding. It required a deliberate and creative communications effort to target the female half of the population that historically has been left out,” Stokes wrote.
“I believe the State of Maryland could also benefit from a simple investment in girls’ empowerment by formally observing the International Day of the Girl. Doing so will not only send a message to the citizens of Maryland that we value young girls in our society, it also signals to the rest of the country that we are a state that leads on such important issues as gender equality,” she added.
One of the main barriers keeping girls like Kana out of geospatial mapping, right now, is their age.
To use OpenStreetMap, which is the platform on which Missing Maps is hosted, users must be at least 13 years old.
It’s a legal and a safety hurdle that the American Red Cross and others are still working through, because legally children under the age of 13 cannot accept the license agreement needed to create an account on OpenStreet Map. It’s also a safety dilemma, because there is a chat feature in the program, which they do not want to see abused, Levine said.
For now, girls like Kana are able to log in with a parent and participate in group “map-athons” with parental oversight.
Kana and her father have participated in several mapathons in Washington, D.C., to map places, such as Tanzania, Kenya and Japan. Her younger sister, Ari, also participates using a smartphone application called Map Swipe, which helps funnel mappers toward locations where there are structures of interest, rather than oceans, deserts and uninhabited areas.
Before Kana started mapping for the American Red Cross a year and a half ago, however, the word “humanitarian” was just a spelling word she had memorized in preparation for the regional spelling bee. Now, it’s a lot more.
“Just the idea that you’re helping people without having to be there. Like that you’re able to actually do something to help others, when you’re not actually there,” Kana said.
Glasgow, who has been an educator for 20 years and is the head of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School where Kana attends middle school, also hoped providing girls more opportunities to take intellectual risks and be praised for the quality of their ideas, could help shift the troubling paradigm of young girls loosing confidence in themselves.
“It’s a long talked about story — the boy who never doubted that he could do whatever he wanted to do and be whatever he wanted to be as a matter of right, and the girl who worked twice as hard, ran twice as fast, pushing herself toward the privilege of being in control of her own path in life,” Glasgow told the committee on Tuesday.
“I have watched many boisterous, confident, adventurous girls start to shrink themselves in the presence of boys as early as fifth and sixth grades, and some even earlier,” he added.
In an email to Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery), who is the sponsor of the bill in the Maryland House of Delegates, Kana also asked for help to secure state funding for educational programs to run on Oct. 11 and help establishing reports on children’s access to STEM. Dumais selected getting the International Day of the Girl on the state calendar as a manageable first step, Kana said.
While she waits for the General Assembly’s decision, Kana will be focused on her middle school classes and playing lacrosse. And while she likes to geospatial map, she’s still uncertain she’ll ultimately make a career of it, Kana said. What’s more important, is that girls at least know that they can.
“It’s important for girls to learn different possibilities that they can have in their future, and not just think that they have to do [something] because that’s what we’re supposed to,” Kana said.