Interview with Executive Director Arden Joy of Girls Who Travel
By Nancy Mitchell
Founded in 2011, Girls Who Travel is one of the original online female travel networks. The organization has created a network for travelers who identify as non-masculine/non-male. The GWT mission aims to empower women travelers to explore beyond their boundaries and to create a more connected and inclusive world through responsible global citizenship. One of GWT’s key goals is to end the widespread culture of silence and violence by giving women around the globe a safe place to share, learn, grow and travel.
At WICI, we focus on the importance of women’s safety and inclusion in public spaces. We recognize the importance of women’s ability to visit and enjoy different cities and societies without experiencing harassment, inequality, or violence.
WICI: Since its inception how have the Girls Who Travel missions, values, and goals changed or evolved?
ARDEN: At the heart of it all, Girls Who Travel has always been about empowering women. The journey in how we’ve approached empowerment has changed and will likely continue to change as the community continues to grow. Back 15 years ago, the problem we were looking to solve was that there were practically no resources for women travelers. So I started a blog to curate some basic information and tips as a way to empower women through knowledge to travel educated and safely.
Today, there’s a vast online support system of websites and communities where women are now driving the transformation as leaders in travel. So our approach has evolved from empowering women to travel to empowering women to use their travels to transform the world. Today, we have a multi-platform community that focuses on building an empathetic community where women from around the globe can connect and share knowledge, experiences, ethics, and acceptance as a way to help each other become better humans so we can all have a better future.
WICI: The Girls Who Travel promise is centered around creating a sisterhood of global citizens. Can you speak to this goal — what does this entail and how is it being achieved?
ARDEN: If I had to find the red string in the concept of global citizenship and what it truly means in GWT, it’s about the connection and self-awareness. It’s about connecting with other humans around the world who will forever think, feel, live, love, and learn differently from you and then allowing those differences to help teach you how to become a more thoughtful, engaged, and kind person.
It’s so easy to explore the world without ever leaving your own. We have read, time and time again, about tourists who desecrate memorials for the perfect Instagram photo or who support animal cruelty for that “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. That’s not what GWT stands for. It’s more than the surface-level photos and checking off lists. In GWT, we challenge our community to be better than that and to be leaders in respecting each other and the world we all co-exist in. We want each of our members to continuously grow their self-awareness so that all of us can leave the world a better place than we found it. The only way we can do that, is to start with listening to each other empathetically.
WICI: How do you and the other Girls Who Travel moderators find a balance between publishing useful travel/safety tips and personal stories sent in by your audience while also ensuring that your audience feels included, represented, and safe in expressing their opinions?
ARDEN: This is an ongoing consideration for us and I won’t begin to claim that we’ve achieved it. As the world changes, the people change, the views change, people’s experience changes and we’re all constantly learning. The most important part for us is to always base all of our discussions and decisions around the safety and inclusion of the community. In any space, there will always be a majority that has a “louder voice”. So we seek to find balance not through silencing, but through consciously creating a space for the “softer voices” to be able to speak among the other voices. Some of the methodologies we use are:
Diverse Representation of Leadership. Our team is made up of a community from all parts of the world: different colors, backgrounds, religious faiths, political persuasions, world views, orientations, abilities, identities, and experiences. It’s important for us that all members feel that they are represented and that they will be heard by our team.
Education. While we don’t try to control the content that comes in, we do put out content to help create balance. As an example, we proactively bring up topics like cultural appropriation and the privilege of a powerful passport. So for instance, whenever someone talks about “just travel and worry about money later” – we step in to remind folks that while it may be a nice sentiment, it’s not true for everyone. When we bring those things to the table, we’ve found that it’s created a space and opportunity for other members to find comfort in standing up to speak their truth and to tell their story to help educate other members about their reality.
Supportive Discussion. In GWT, our foundation is built on “Educate Don’t Hate”. This is fundamental to our group as we want our members to have healthy discussions and understand that not everyone needs to agree on everything, but they can do it without shaming or attacking each other and they can choose to start with empathy and education. If they can’t speak kindly or empathetically, then they can also move on because it’s ok to co-exist with someone who thinks differently than you! We hear from our community that our policies have created the space they need to feel they can actually be themselves without fear of being attacked for who they are or what they think.
WICI: Much of the onus for female travelers’ safety seems to be directed to female travelers themselves. Do you think there are measures that can be implemented in hotels, airports, public spaces, etc that would better ensure the safety and security of female travelers?
ARDEN: It’s a great question, and it’s a great thought; however, while it may work for the interim, it will still need a long-term solution to solve the true problem.
Personally, I find that “security measures” reinforce a common message that “boys will be boys” and that we need to place security measures because the men can’t help themselves. As long as we make women, government, and businesses responsible for men’s behavior, then men will have no reason to change.
The real change needs to start with a global rise in zero tolerance for toxic male behavior and the onus for that behavior needs to be placed on men. For example, an airport security measure I would like to see in place is: if you harass a woman, you lose your flight privileges and countries close their borders to you for a year (or ten). Another would be: if you assault a woman in public transit, you are fined an exorbitant amount of money and lose transit access for a year (or ten).
When men understand that they are able to control themselves and that there are real world consequences, I think we will truly begin to ensure the safety of women travelers wherever they are in the world without needing to create a dedicated space.
WICI: Since the organization’s inception have you noticed any positive changes that have made travelling as a female safer (this could refer to evolutions in transportation, accommodation, travelling apps, etc)?
ARDEN: Yes! Online travel communities like GWT and the myriad of other wonderful female-centric resources out there. Women are getting the information and support they need to stay safe. And they’re using these communities to help each other in real time. In GWT, we’re constantly seeing people meeting for fun and to assist someone in need. It’s so inspiring and so powerful.
WICI: What are a few of your main (either broad or specific) tips for ensuring that female travelers stay safe and have fun while travelling?
ARDEN: There are so many ways but here are three big ones:
- Trust your gut – So often in GWT we hear from women who knew that something was wrong, but they didn’t feel they could trust themselves. As women, we are often taught that having feelings means we’re overreacting or being rude but that is just not the case. Trust. Your. Gut. If something doesn’t feel right, make a change, speak up, get out, get help.
- Take a self defense course – It’s not cheap, but neither is travel. Until we get to that world I was talking about where there is universal zero tolerance for toxic male behavior, I think every woman needs to take a self defense course. I’m not talking about karate, I mean a course specifically for women that focuses on physical and non-physical boundary defense.
- Have a community! Find a space where you are supported and then utilize it to its fullest. That doesn’t (necessarily) mean traveling in a group. It just means that you get the resources and help you need from a group of people who care for you. Sure, it’s nice to have a community like GWT with tens of thousands of ladies around the world be your support system, but it doesn’t have to be that big. In life and in travel, you need to find what works for you!