Meredith Walker is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, an organization “dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves…a place where people can truly be their weird and wonderful selves.” Meredith has also produced the Peabody and Emmy award-winning Nick News, and served as Head of the Talent Department at Saturday Night Live.
A few weeks before HATCH Experience in Big Sky, we caught up with Meredith about the power of humor, the path to authenticity, and the appeal of dirt biking.
Tell us about your early life – how did you become the Smart Girl you are today?
I grew up in Houston, the middle child of an Episcopal Priest dad and stay-at-home-but handle-all-the -finances mom. They were both civil rights activists and they taught us about love and respecting all people, and mostly by example. They always said that how you treat other people was the real test of what you believe. I went to college at The University of the South, known familiarly as Sewanee. It was there that I followed my interest in true stories. I took Documentary classes and Broadcast Journalism in the summer. After college I wanted to develop those skills and deepen them. I had always admired Linda Ellerbee and wrote her a letter telling her about myself and what I hoped to do with my life. Amazingly, she took me under her wing working for her on Nick News. We won Peabody awards and Emmy awards and she taught me how to be an advocate for others via journalism. She was the original Smart Girl, we like to say.
Your project Smart Girls helps young people – especially young women- cultivate their authentic selves and “change the world by being [them] selves.” How naturally (or not) did celebrating your authentic self – quirks and all – come as a young woman?
Being my authentic self came naturally to me, like it does for most people, up to a point. There is a time when we give ourselves away for a false sense of belonging. I was just as easily ambushed by that as anyone. I was/am a late bloomer. I was always a reader and I was raised to be aware of injustice – I thank my parents for that. But when I felt weird or out of place, I wasn’t quick to embrace it as a strength. I hope my work can help someone skip a few steps. The culture we live in tells us what is normal, what success looks like, who to be if we want to fit in. That doesn’t make it right or true. Because of that, it is incredibly brave to make choices based on what is true for you, just you. That can look like a lot of things…..having short or long hair, riding a bike instead of driving a car, being interested in the macabre, not feeling drawn to marriage and children as your idea of family, being silly in public. It is important because we all matter – whether or not we are fitting into convenient categories.
Women in general – particularly women who live in a spotlight – are faced with powerful messages about who and what they ‘should’ be. Who has helped mentor you in staying in touch with that sense of self even as the spotlight on you got brighter?
My family doesn’t let me get away with not being authentic and neither does my boyfriend…. or my dogs. Having a sense of humor was an important ingredient in our family dynamics. We are able to keep straight with each other with lots of laughter mostly about ourselves. And so that I don’t just focus on myself, I spend time with girls who need an extra relationship in their life. When I am spending time with people, whether it’s on service trips far away or workshops and mentoring in my own community, being with people who weren’t born into an easy life or who need assistance helps keep my own perspective in check.
Your sense of humor has likely been invaluable in your roles an Emmy-award winning producer and Head of the Talent Department for Saturday Night Live. How do you see humor and creative expression playing a role in cultivating authentic sense of self and leadership skills in the current generation of girls and young women?
I think that humor is easily misunderstood. Lots of people think of it as a way of avoiding being serious. That can happen, but not nearly as much as you would think. It is said that people hide behind their humor. I think that more people hide behind their supposed seriousness. Humor is lots of things, not the least of which is the caretaker of sanity. And it is a great way into relationships, not a way to avoid relationships. Most of all, when you can laugh at your own life and some of the ridiculous decisions you have made, all of the ways you have gone off the rails, flopped, acted dumb, etc; when you can laugh that way, it is a beautiful way of seeing your authentic self, your honest self, and owning that.
If you could cast anyone to play you in a situational comedy about your life, who would that lucky person be?
Sean Hayes…..because he is authentic, kind, talented, and naturally funny. Or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Describe the perfect day for you to recharge your mental and physical batteries, and reconnect with what inspires you.
That’s easy. Get outside. As soon as I set foot in nature, without being plugged in to anything, I am able to reset. It is an immediate attitude adjustment and I easily go from expectation to appreciation. Being in nature is really good for my psyche. I also read and sit with my rescue dogs, which is calming and keeps me in the NOW. I sign up to try things even if they make me nervous. I took a dirt bike lesson the other day. That doesn’t mean I was on a killer looking bike doing wheelies around the track. The reality of that is, I was on a pee-wee bike going about 4 miles an hour for 30 minutes then worked my way up to 7 miles an hour. But I did it and I felt like the version of me I want to be.