How I'm Skirting the Rules

I’m Creating Summer Camps for Girls to Spark a Compassion Movement

Through arts-based summer classes, co-founder of Spotlight:Girls Lynn Johnson helps youngsters build confidence and learn to love themselves and others.

Lynn Johnson, founder of Spotlight:Girls

Lynn Johnson, the co-founder of Spotlight:Girls, teaches girls and young women how to speak up and stand out.

When 9-year-old Violet started going to Go Girls! Camp, she was timid. She was a lonely outsider who had trouble connecting with others. But once she started creating a play with the other girls at camp and singing the camp’s theme song—I am proud, so proud, proud of me. I’m exactly the kind of girl that I want to be…I’m not a mean girl, I’m not a good girl, I’m a Go Girl!—she was transformed. After camp ended, Violet’s mom watched in awe as her now-confident daughter started reaching out to others at school, making friends, and saying things around the house like, “I’m awesome.”

This inspirational camp was created by Lynn Johnson, a former theater teacher and the co-founder of Spotlight:Girls, a benefit corporation based in Oakland, California that teaches girls who are in elementary school or middle school to love themselves, stand up to bullies and toxic friends, and make bold and brave contributions to the world. The program achieves this goal through arts-based summer camps. The girls make plays and films, use their imaginations, discover their voices, and collaborate with each other. “It’s about learning how to take center stage in your own life,” says Johnson. Here, she reveals the principles that have guided her toward success.

I am Skirting the Rules by igniting a compassion revolution. I believe that our world is completely out of balance. Our communities, our workplaces, and our schools are experiencing so much disconnection, disengagement and distrust that we are lacking the skills that we really need to value each other, empathize with each other, and make those connections that keep us happy and healthy.

I see this happening in our divisive political discussions and in the racial discrimination that occurs—there is a lot of black and white thinking, there are a lot of assumptions made, and there’s a lot of taking sides, as opposed to having deep, nuanced discourse about a topic and coming to a compromise. There’s this sense of: If we don’t agree, then we’re going to fight. Rather than: How do we come up with some sort of plan or policy that works for both of us? I see it in schools, too. Kids will say: ‘You’re mean or you’re nice. You’re good or you’re bad.’ And in the workplace, many adults are disengaged at work and hate what they spend at least 40 hours a week doing. Lots of people are stressed. They aren’t feeling creatively charged. And that’s really upsetting. All that said, I do have hope.

I’m inspired by words that Bishop Desmond Tutu said: “The world needs a revolution led by women.” There’s feminine power within all of us that is connected to the areas of compassion, care, and connection. It’s the center of feminine strength, and our world definitely needs that. The best way to help bring the world into balance again is to empower, educate, equip, and celebrate women and girls to really lead that movement. Women aren’t part of the story enough, considering that we are half of the population. We’re under-represented in business, government, and entertainment. It’s very important for women to take up leadership roles.

A time when I found the possible (a creative solution) within the impossible (against incredible odds) is by creating a business and raising funds to grow it, even when many people doubted me for various reasons—my background is being a theater teacher and I didn’t go to business school. A lot of people assume that I run a non-profit, but it’s a for-profit business that has a focus on social impact. I can remember on more than one occasion, I’d share my business idea with friends and the response was laughter. Maybe they thought I wasn’t serious, or maybe they thought that because I was an artist who worked with kids that I shouldn’t care about making money. They’d say dismissive things, like, “Oh, that’s not you, Lynn.”

And raising money wasn’t easy. I’m a black woman. I’m a lesbian. I wasn’t the next big tech start-up. So there were a lot of strikes against me. I knew I wasn’t going to get money from venture capitalists. I was feeling dejected. So I sought out coaching from two people—one was an attorney who was also a leadership and business coach and the other was a life coach. The life coach made me realize how resilient I was. He said to me, “There’s a lot of people who would be laughed at who would stop, but you’re still doing this.” The business coach taught me how to seek out other sources of funding, like crowdfunding. If anyone would like to invest, my site is:  WeFunder.com/SpotlightGirls. So far, I’ve raised $12,000 through crowdfunding and $50,000 through offline investors. I’m trying to reach $400,000. I emerged as an entrepreneur through this process. Our Go Girls! Camp has grown a lot since it first started. In 2008, we had just 17 girls in the program in a church basement. This year, we had 430 girls in five locations. I’m raising money because I would eventually like to grow the franchise in every state.

An example of how listening to my intuition has helped me is my love story. I had been dating men throughout my twenties and I never really thought I’d end up with a woman. But then I met Allison Kenny—we were both teaching drama at a summer camp in California. It was completely intuitive. We just had this connection with each other. After camp ended, I went back home to North Carolina. Allison was living in California and I missed her. I just said to myself: “I’ve got to go back there.” So I sold all my stuff, somehow got a job in California, and within a month I had moved across the country to be with her. I’d never done anything like that before and I haven’t done anything like that since. We’ve been together for the past 14 years, we started this business together, and now we’re parents to an eight-year-old daughter.

My secret talent is being an amateur mixologist. I love to make cocktails. Manhattans and whiskey-based, stirred drinks are my favorites. I like to look stuff up online and experiment with different recipes. I used to have a really well-stocked bar with every kind of spirit. Now it’s down to the basics. I like to entertain and serve drinks. I like that connection around conversation, like: Pull up a stool, have a drink, and let’s talk.

A woman is most powerful when she says what she wants and what she does not want, without apology. This can help you in your relationships with loved ones, relationships with friends, and relationships with co-workers. It’s about creating boundaries to make sure that you’re saying ‘yes’ to things that excite you and ‘no’ to things that you’re not into, and also about speaking up when there is something you need or desire. I’m still working on this, myself.

What I wish I had told myself when I was starting out is “You are doing everything right. Keep going.” In other words, it’s all going to come when it comes—be patient. I think those phrases came to me in a dream one time. I keep that sentence at my desk and often say it to myself, especially whenever I start doubting myself. We all work at different rhythms and it’s so easy to compare ourselves to other people, like “Oh, she’s 30 and she’s already accomplished A, B, and C, and I haven’t even gotten close to that.” But you can’t move any faster than you can move. You have to come at this at your own speed in your own way. If I had known that when I was younger, I would have had a lot less anxiety.

My favorite skirt is a philosophy from the writer Eckhart Tolle. I read one of his books and he says that if something is going wrong for you and is causing you suffering, you have three options: You can accept it, you can change it, or you can walk away. That helps me all the time. I first ask: Can I walk away from this? If I can’t, then I ask myself: Can I change this? And if I can’t, then I accept it.