“Why weren’t we taught this at a young age? Why didn’t we grow up thinking, ’If I fail, okay. I’m going to go do it again.’”
After burning out in her career, Mérida Miller decided it was time for a change. Her search for a more meaningful day-to-day led her to found Project Fearless (PF) in 2019, an after-school program in Amsterdam dedicated to empowering girls through skateboarding, boxing, science, and “artivism.” Today, 91 girls (or those who identify as female) aged 9 to 14 take part in PF every week.
We met up with Mérida (online) to talk about her unorthodox approach to instilling confidence in the women of tomorrow.
How did you come up with the concept of Project Fearless?
Mérida: I was going to all these networking events and women’s creative networks, and I kept hearing the same things: “I’m scared to speak up because that’s not really who I am,” “How do I ask for a raise?” and “I’m really unhappy with my career, but this is all I know; is it okay for me to make a switch?”
I kept thinking, “Wait a second—it’s amazing that we’re doing all of this stuff for women’s empowerment, but why weren’t we taught this at a young age?” Why didn’t we grow up thinking, “If I fail, okay. I’m going to go do it again.”
Where did you take your inspiration from?
Mérida: First I thought about how team sports had instilled good qualities in me growing up, because you learn about yourself and others. Then I thought back to the time I was helping people with disabilities, and it made me realize that I have to be a cheerleader. I have to be, like, number one hype-girl, supporting others in a ripple effect. So, if I empower you, you’re going to go impact and empower somebody else. Also, being behind a desk for too long makes me a very unhappy person. So that’s where Project Fearless has spurred out of.
“I’m really proud I got out of my comfort zone and tried a new sport that now I really like. And it felt good to try something new, so yeah, I’m gonna try more things out of my comfort zone in the future. I’m proud of that.”
- 13-year-old PF participant
In a nutshell, what are you hoping to achieve with the project?
Mérida: I just hope that these girls come out knowing that whatever life throws at them, wherever they end up, they have everything within themselves to go forward in life confidently. That what they hold within themselves is enough to navigate this world. It’s going to be tough, but we’ve built resilience, we’ve fallen down, and we’ve gotten back up.
You don’t have to be Greta Thunberg to make an impact. There’s so much focus on these impact celebrities and so much that needs to be done in the world that it turns into “Where do I even start? Does my voice even matter?”
So how do you see these activities like skateboarding or boxing making a difference?
Mérida: By giving them these tools, we say, “If you’re an extrovert, introvert, introvert-extroverted, whatever, and you love art, singing, or skating, there are ways to use your passions as a tool for change.”
You look around at the skate park, and 99 percent of the time, we are the only female-identifying people on skateboards. Our “roll model” video was all about encouraging others just to pick up a board, knowing how intimidating it can be to walk in and skate for the first time.
But in the second week of PF, we noticed that the girls started getting quite competitive, and while competition is good, nasty competition is not. Like “Oh, you didn't get that trick yet?” or “Coach, look at me, look at me.” So we talked about how the best thing we can do when we learn a trick is to teach somebody else, to bring them up with you. Let’s create this big, powerful community of girls supporting girls.
With kickboxing and boxing, we talk about different leadership styles, the kind of support we need, and how to support each other.
What’s the greatest reaction you received?
Mérida: Oh gosh—we had a girl who joined us in an autumn program, and she came in quite shrunken in the shoulders, didn’t look anybody in the eye. But by the end of the program, she’s, like, real proud. She’s standing up, she’s cracking jokes, she’s really fun and free. She came back in the spring, and the mom sent me a WhatsApp to say, “I just want to let you know that I finally have my daughter back. She finally found her confidence again, and its so nice for her to be in a space where girls are supporting girls because she’s had a real hard time at school with girl bullies.” In fact, her chief bully later joined the PF group, which was obviously a real challenge for her. But this girl agreed to keep an open mind in the belief that her bully may also need this space. It was really special, because over the course of the term, with protection, supervision, and open communication, the girls started to support each other and have actually been really good friends ever since.
“Everyone empowers everyone, and we make each other feel safe and comfortable. It also gives us a chance to do something that is normally occupied by mostly men.”
- PF participant
What has been the toughest challenge in this project so far?
Mérida: The toughest challenge is managing my continual want and fear of not doing enough. So as much as I preach, “You are enough,” we all still have our own insecurities.
The amount of times I get calls from parents on weekends, saying, “My seven-year-old really needs this program”… and my heart breaks. But we don’t have the space, we don’t have the capacity, we don't have the coaches. I mean, right now we have 91 kids under our care every week, but there are always more families and more girls to reach.
Also, I’m going to be honest—at the very beginning, I was like, “I’m terrified of girls. I’m too scared.” Because [when I was] that age, girls were horrible to me, to each other, and to themselves. But then I also thought, Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s one of those problems I need to go in and dig around.
“I learned that making mistakes is part of the growing process, and I’m okay with them now. Also I learned that it’s really nice to feel supported, and I really like supporting others!”
- 10-year-old PF participant
Where do you find the energy to keep going?
Mérida: Special moments. Last week, actually, we were talking about sharing fears in small groups, and I had a girl who I could kind of tell wanted to share but wasn’t sure about sharing it outloudy. So I said, if she wanted to she could just whisper it in my ear. She said, “So I like boys, but sometimes I like girls. Is that okay?” And I said, “Of course it’s okay! Fun fact, I also sometimes like women.” And she was like, “Really?” I said, “Yeah, and I’m still discovering this about myself. This is you. This is how you feel. It’s yours, and you can keep this [secret] as long as you want, or you can talk about it. Nobody else can take that from you. And if anybody tells you it’s not okay, send them to me.” And she smiled. And I just felt like the luckiest person in the world that I got to be in that little moment with her.
What do you do when you get time to yourself?
Mérida: I love cycling. I bake and sew. And I skateboard. I’m on a crew of women who are over 30 years old. We’re called Dorks on Decks and we have T-shirts. Our mascot is a pigeon because pigeons don’t care if they’re in the way, and neither do we!