GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow)
Conceived by Lael Wilcox and Cait Rodriguez while riding the Baja Divide, GRIT is a cycling mentorship program for girls in Anchorage, Alaska. Rue Kaladyte has been documenting the program for three years and just released this film. Watch it here and find a photo gallery alongside an interview with Rue and Lael about the program…
Anchorage GRIT (Girls Riding Into Tomorrow) is a six-week, after school program led by local women mentors to provide 7th and 8th grade girls (12-14 years old) an opportunity to ride bikes and acquire new skills. Throughout the course, the girls learn about riding safety, basic mechanics, first aid, route finding, mountain bike skills, bag making, team building, public speaking, and packing for trips—all skills that will help them prepare for the final trip: a three-day, 60-mile adventure ride into the Alaskan countryside. By completing the course and journey, girls earn their bike and gear to keep pedaling into the summer. Over the three seasons the program has been up and running, Anchorage GRIT has mentored 45 girls. Our friend and filmmaker Rue Kaladyte has been documenting the program since 2017 and just released this new video that chronicles the third season of GRIT. Watch it below, then scroll down to read our interview with Lael and Rue about the program and film.
You mention conceiving the idea for GRIT while on the Baja Divide. Was there a specific moment that sparked the idea?
Yes, Cait and I were riding towards San Quintin on the Baja Divide, a relatively flat and easy stretch of the route. We were talking about our experience the previous year organizing a program to give my mom’s low-income 3rd grade class bikes that we sourced and fixed at the local Bike Coop, Off The Chain, where Cait was a volunteer manager. I asked if Cait wanted to work on another similar project in 2017. She said yes, but she’d rather focus specifically on older girls—either middle school or high school. We started thinking about a mentorship program and building up to a challenge adventure ride. A couple days later, Cait and her crew got food poisoning and were holed up in a cheap motel. This gave us the opportunity to sit down with a laptop and make a mission statement for Anchorage GRIT and start reaching to schools and principals to see if we could get the program rolling. This was in January of 2017. We started our first season of GRIT in April, just a few months later. We definitely hustled to get everything together in time.
What have been the most rewarding aspects of the program for the two of you? Any big surprises?
Seeing the girls improve, gain confidence, and come out of their shells. It’s amazing to see this happen over six weeks meeting only 2-3 times a week. As the program progresses, the girls start leading the rides and really getting to know the local greenways and bicycle infrastructure. One of the main goals of the program is that the girls will continue riding after the program and have the skills to safely ride around Anchorage. Returning girls act as junior mentors and it’s incredible to see them grow up and take leadership roles. At the end of the final campout, the parents drive to Eklutna Lake Trailhead to pick up their daughters. They drive the 1,400-foot, six-mile climb the girls had ridden the previous day. The parents are shocked and impressed and the girls are so proud. It’s a really cool moment to see them reunite.
What kind of changes did you notice in the girls over the weeks of the program?
The bicycle and the program provide different opportunities for different girls. To some, it’s an outlet for athletic effort and mental space. To others, it’s social and a place to make new friends and express themselves. And some girls just get to be kids, especially those who have a lot of responsibilities at home, such as watching younger brothers and sisters. Though Anchorage is coastal, Begich Middle School is on the east side of town. Many of the girls had never seen the waterfront. Three weeks into the program, we ride from their schools to the inlet on almost entirely bike paths. It’s incredible to witness their reaction to seeing the water.
Have any moments stood out as particularly poignant while mentoring these kids?
One of the girls last year dealt with bad asthma. On the first ride, she struggled to pedal for more than five minutes without stopping and gasping for air. We took it slow and she rode at her own pace with a mentor. By the final campout, she was riding with the group and she wasn’t even in the back—60 miles over three days, 24 of the miles are on rough trails and there’s a huge climb. When her mom met her at the trailhead on Eklutna Lake at the end of the campout, they hugged and there were happy tears.
A lot of this has to do with both the students’ courage to continue in the face of hardship and the mentors’ capacity to show patience, encouragement, acceptance and still keep it fun even when it’s hard. Not every moment is easy, but I’m so impressed with the girls’ motivation to take on challenges and overcome obstacles. There’s always a lot of laughing too. They’re kids, they love goofing off, and that’s a good thing.
What, specifically, do you think this program offers girls that they aren’t able to get elsewhere?
An opportunity to spend time outside riding with peers and encouraging mentors, plus learning the Anchorage cycling network and how to get around town. Riding to new places like Cook Inlet, different parks, different cycling businesses around town (Revelate Designs, The Bicycle Shop, Off The Chain Coop to name a few). Every session includes a ride to a lesson or skill-building opportunity taught by local female experts, including bike maintenance and mechanics, first aid, mountain biking skills, bag making, packing for trips, and others. The goal isn’t to master these skills, it’s more exposure to new ideas and time for them to build relationships.
The three-day adventure ride at the end is the real capstone. They really look forward to it and we talk about it all season with excitement and trepidation. It’s a huge challenge and an opportunity to spend days outside on the bike, living without power and cell reception. It’s so much fun!
How many sessions are there per week, and what do after school bike rides usually involve?
We meet with the girls 2-3 times a week for after school rides and learning sessions. The rides leave school on bike paths, streets, and trails to different locations in Anchorage to learn skills from female experts. The group typically rides 10-25 miles per session.
What are a few of your favorite memories from filming the project?
The first year, Rue couldn’t be at the final campout due to another assignment with Anchorage Daily News. She gave the girls disposable cameras to document the weekend. It was really cool to see it from their perspective—they took selfies, photos eating ice cream, filtering water, and one particularly artsy shot of a dry outline of a bike that was left in the rain.
All of the whacky moments—the girls get used to the camera and are able to be themselves. They’re kids, they do some really funny things, like locking each other out of yurts and different riding positions. How many girls can they fit on a bike? And what is it like to pedal while sitting on their racks. They love riding with no hands.
Rue, how did your approach change when filming a youth-focused event, compared to what you typically film?
I was more careful about trying to be supportive and not embarrassing them. This is a really vulnerable setting. They’re learning something new and a big goal is for them to feel good about themselves, which can be a real challenge at this age. After a girl would crash, sometimes she’d search for the camera and ask if I wouldn’t include it. Sometimes they would just laugh. I just wanted to make sure I was respectful and that they trusted me.
What inspired you to take on this film project, and have you strictly been a videographer / photographer at GRIT? How has your role changed over time?
I pitched the video project to Anchorage Daily News in 2017 while I was a staff photographer/videographer. It was the first year of Anchorage GRIT and I thought it was worth sharing the story in uncharted territory. This is how Lael and I met. We didn’t start spending time together outside of GRIT until after the video was published.
In 2018, I took mostly photos with a few video clips to continue sharing the GRIT story on social media.
In 2019, PEARL iZUMi asked if they could support sharing a video story about GRIT. They loved the idea of the program getting girls on bikes. They sent clothing for the girls as a gift. I had creative freedom and mostly they just wanted to get the story out there to encourage others to start their own youth cycling programs.
Did my role change? Not really, but I definitely wasn’t strictly a bystander after the first year. I interacted more with the girls. They’d ask about camera equipment. If they crashed, I was there to help them. By season three, I was at every GRIT session. I got to know the girls. They could rely on me. That’s a really important aspect of the program.
Has the program changed in scope since it was first initiated?
Not really, except for the addition of junior mentors (girls that come back from previous years to mentor younger students).
The second year, we increased the program to include 18 girls. It was too much because we didn’t have enough reliable adult mentors. At this time we worked with two schools—half of the students were from a low-income school (Begich) and the other half were from an optional program (Steller). After year two, we decided to focus our efforts on more low income students because they generally have fewer opportunities and less access to bikes and trips. I firmly believe that any kid at this age could benefit from this kind of program if they’re motivated. We just only have the capacity to impact a limited number of students. We want to make sure that each girl gets attention and feels special. I don’t want to organize a national program, but I would love to encourage other communities to draw inspiration from Anchorage GRIT and design their own youth cycling program.
Any suggestions or advice for others who would like to start a mentoring project of their own?
Yes! Don’t be afraid to start. It doesn’t have to be perfect or big. Working with 1, 2, 3 or 4 kids is great. It’s all about getting on the bikes and spending time outside.
I’ll be writing more considerations for starting a GRIT program and things that have worked really well for us. Stay tuned!
Where do you see the program going in future years, and do you have any plans or ideas to expand this to other regions?
We’re just happy to keep it going. It’s awesome for the girls and inspiring for the community. Unfortunately, the 2020 season of GRIT (April 5-May 17) has to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of Anchorage School District school and the cancellation of all after school activities. I considered reducing group sizes to 1×1 or 2×2 mentoring, but ultimately feel like the most responsible choice is to wait until we can safely meet as a full group. I’ll be in Alaska in July and hope to get previous GRIT girls together for an overnight campout ride. Alaska summer = endless daylight = ultimate freedom.