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Interview: May 2011

May 2011

Elizabeth Berkley is perhaps best known as Jessie Spano from "Saved By the Bell" --- the smart, feminist, determined teen who, in one memorable episode, got addicted to caffeine pills. With a little help from pal Zack Morris, she kicked that study-drug habit and realized the error of her ways. Now all grown up, Berkley has been reaching out to teen girls to help them through their own issues --- from body image to relationships to trust. ASK ELIZABETH, her first book, is drawn from the many workshops she has conducted across the country and acts as a personal resource girls can turn to whenever they seek answers to teen life's toughest questions.

Teenreads.com's Jordana Frankel spoke with Berkley about her message and volunteer work. She explains how the book came to be, and gives insights into her method of providing a safe space where girls can open up and share.

Teenreads.com: How did you first get the idea that you wanted to work with teen girls?

Elizabeth Berkley: About seven years ago, "Saved By the Bell" started in syndication around the world. A whole new generation of teens started to approach me for a picture or autograph, but I found myself genuinely interested in answering some of their deeper, more meaningful life questions. I suppose they had the comfort of seeing me on TV at their age (I was 15 when I did "Saved By the Bell"), and this combined with my way with them led to my husband suggesting I do an advice column for girls called "Ask Elizabeth." He planted the seed and brought to light a deeper desire to be of service to girls in a way I felt they weren't being served or heard.

A girlfriend of mine who runs a non-profit organization, which provides an arts-based program to 40 inner city schools in the US, asked me to come teach a volunteer master class in acting. I asked her if I could share a two-hour self-esteem-based workshop I created instead, and then it grew from word of mouth.

TRC: Could you tell us a little bit about your non-profit, Ask Elizabeth?

EB: For the past five years I have been facilitating my self-esteem workshop as a volunteer for over 35,000 girls. I work with girls in their hometowns in middle schools, high schools and now colleges. I guide girls through the methodologies I have been using to give them a safe space to open up, share meaningful dialogue, connect to themselves and to each other. We've spent time talking on their football fields, cafeterias, libraries and school auditoriums. There is a huge takeaway and tangible tools girls can use in their lives to be their best selves and to know they are not alone.

TRC: Your book, ASK ELIZABETH, was born organically from discussions you had with teens all over the country. When did you know that you wanted to put all of those experiences into one book? 

EB: One of the aspects of the workshop is a section where they put anonymous questions into a basket that leads to opening a group dialogue. I collected and saved all of these pieces of paper so that I could see if there was a pattern or topic that they needed or wanted to focus on for future workshops, and so I could be sure I was giving them what they needed. What appeared in the most organic way was a clear group of questions that kept repeating in every city/state I visited. I put them into categories: body image, goal-setting, family issues, friendship, identity, etc. I noticed a collective group of questions no matter what region in the country or what socio-economic background.

School administrators, teachers, parents and girls themselves kept asking for a place to continue giving girls the support they needed, so I first created digital content for the website (www.Ask-Elizabeth.com). What amazed me and inspired me, though, is that girls were begging for a book! They wanted a tangible, sacred treasure to turn to whenever they needed it ---- something that was intimate and theirs. Everything I've created for ASK ELIZABETH has been born out of requests I've gotten from the girls. There was an overwhelming amount, and then it became clear to me what the book needed to be.

The discussions themselves or the personal letters and advice and wisdom shared within the book were new, fresh material from girls and experts who wanted to be a part of the mission of the book. They were not from previous discussions along the journey. Those are kept confidential to those who attend and participate.

TRC: But the stories in here are from real girls. How did they react when you said you wanted to share their words?

EB: The process for gathering the material from the girls was amazingly collaborative and beautiful. Girls were invited through their schools to participate and all knew the purpose was specifically for the book material. Once the questions were boiled down to the 15 most asked, I circled back to schools I had previously been to or new schools that had been requesting me to come. Girls also participated through conference calls, email blasts, Skype, iChat, texting and of course in-person workshops. At every step, girls were moved and empowered to share their stories to help another girl they may never meet in their life. I think we were all transformed from the experience together --- knowing the impact our past stories might have on empowering another's present. Girls felt a great deal of pride to be given a platform to share their words and voices.

TRC: In your workshops, what do you see as your role?

EB: I never stand at a podium professing to have all the answers. If it is a smaller, intimate group, we sit in a circle on their football field, in their library or cafeteria, or if it is a larger Town Hall-style "Ask Elizabeth" workshop, the auditorium or gym. I am there as a facilitator --- to guide the girls and to create a safe space for them to feel heard and to remind them they have value. The spirit in which I do this is speaking with them --- never at them. Think big sister-style girl talk, but always leading/guiding the dialogue.

TRC: What is the dynamic between the girls?

EB: The way in which I work with them gives them permission to feel safe enough to open up. Because some of the issues we discuss have a certain amount of depth and are handled delicately, the feeling in the room is quite palpable and honestly brings forth girls' best selves --- the part of them that can let fear fall away and let love and support come forward. Oftentimes girls will tell me it is the first time in their lives that they ever had a sense that another girl could have her back.

TRC: One of the awesome things about this book is that it establishes a place where it's safe to share things.

EB: Yes, thank you for acknowledging that. It is amazing how this generation never gets an opportunity to unplug. Reading is one of the only opportunities that allows them to be reflective. Between the content and the visual design and aesthetic, my vision for ASK ELIZABETH was to create a group diary feeling when a girl has it in her hands. There is an intimacy to it, and I think that is why girls are getting what they need from it.

TRC: But in a room with real live people, I'd imagine it's harder to establish that safe place. Is that true?

EB: There is a magic and safety in the live rooms too. It just takes a bit to get the girls to open up, but once one brave soul is courageous enough, the floodgates open. I create a sense of calm and security for the girls, and I think they start to give one another permission and they see there is relief. Both experiences (workshops in person and reading the book) share that feeling. A girl doesn't have to have experienced a workshop to feel the power of it. The beauty of the book is that a girl can turn to whatever she needs, whenever she is going through something or even to arm herself ahead of time as she is navigating these adolescent years.

TRC: How do you encourage a level of comfort?

EB: They know I am there to be of service to them and to create a space that gives them what they need. It is not about me. The way I also share my own challenges and truth gives them permission to stand in their authenticity too. It is a beautiful, meaningful, shared support of one another. I respect them.

TRC: You don't shy away from things that were viewed negatively in your past, and you're open about your ongoing struggle with body image and self-esteem. How do you think this allows teens to see you as a mentor, as opposed to an authority figure or a teacher?

EB: Well, in a classroom situation, the focus is on the academics, as it should be. When I am working with girls, I am coming in to share a dialogue about different themes than are typically discussed in a classroom setting, and on a different level --- an emotional-based message and a shared experience for the girls.

TRC: What do you hope girls will take away from ASK ELIZABETH?

EB: I hope they are filled with comfort, own their power, and feel strengthened, seen and gotten. I also hope they know they are a part of a sisterhood of girls who support them with me --- they are not alone and they are now armed with tools to make the path a bit more gentle and clear.

TRC: I'm sure there are tons of readers out there who want to know how they can get you to come to their school. How can they make that happen?

EB: Please go to my website www.Ask-Elizabeth.com and go to the "contact me" section on the homepage. Just fill that out and a member of the Ask Elizabeth team will respond to set a date, etc. I do this strictly as a volunteer. There is no fee for the work I do.

TRC: Can you see yourself doing another book?

EB: Absolutely. I am moved and inspired by how the book is being met with such love and is also empowering our girls to connect through their love for reading. I have gotten feedback from teachers and girls who have ASK ELIZABETH reading circles and teachers who want to use the book in classrooms. I was blown away by a recent girl who highlighted sections to share with her mom to open up a dialogue about some issues that had been on her mind and in her heart. These are just a few of the things I had dreamed of it providing. It is that rite of passage book that girls also seem to be buyingfor one another, which is the biggest compliment there is.