By Published: March 6, 2020

CU Boulder researchers create vocal-empowerment curriculum for young women

After more than a decade of research, fine-tuning and field testing around the world, from Boulder to Egypt, Tanzania and Guatemala, two theatre faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder will launch their SPEAK Vocal Empowerment Curriculum—a program meant to help women find their voice—with a workshop on March 9 in New York City, in conjunction with the 25th-anniversary celebration of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

Beth and Chelsea in Guat

Above: Beth Osnes and Chelsea Hackett. At top of page: Students in Guatemala take a moment to celebrate. Photos courtesy of Beth Osnes.

The program “utilizes tools developed by theatre performers and voice and speech pathologists for vocal strengthening and expansion of expressive range” to support young women in claiming and using their voices, says Beth Osnes, associate professor of theatre, who created the curriculum with SPEAK co-founder Chelsea Hackett, a 2010 CU Boulder theatre performance graduate and PhD graduate of New York University.

“This is empowering young women to become change makers in society,” Osnes says. “You see articles in The New York Times about the moral clarity of young women like Greta (Thunberg) who are claiming their voices. They are thought leaders, a moral conscience and voice for our future.”

SPEAK’s roots go back to 2009, when Hackett and Osnes first traveled together to Guatemala. With support from the Longmont-based Philanthropiece Foundation, they began working with MAIA Impact, a school for young Maya women, and began a more formal relationship with the school in 2013. 

They have been working closely with Jen Walentas Lewon, clinical assistant professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at CU Boulder, who “has advised this approach to vocal empowerment since its inception and has traveled to Guatemala to assist in the design and implementation of this research on the curriculum,” according to an article co-authored by Osnes, Hackett, Lewon and two others which was published in December in the journal Theatre, Dance and Performance Training.

“The curriculum uses a mixture of exercises, games, meditations and journal reflections,” Hackett says. “If you walk into a classroom, you might see young women doing the wave, going up and down on vocal quality like a siren and (other) vocal exercises from voice and speech pathology. You might see them singing songs about their voices that they have written.”

“As performers, we have certain skills, exercises and approaches to help people empower their voices. We’re not trying to create performers, but using the tools of performance to support young women with self-advocacy and civic participation” Osnes says.

In the penultimate week of the 12-week program in Guatemala, students perform for parents, teachers and community members, presenting an issue they see in their community, how it might be addressed in the future and at least one action they might take. 

As performers, we have certain skills, exercises and approaches to help people empower their voices."

“It’s very fun,” Hackett says. “Sometimes it can look like games that don’t have meaning. But everything is intentionally structured. They use their voices to speak up and it can be incredibly uncomfortable. But they are getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

“It’s really about the idea of believing that what you have to say is worthwhile, and your voice belongs to you,” Osnes says.

Osnes and Hackett have continually fine-tuned the curriculum based on feedback from field work with funding from the CU Boulder Office of Outreach and Engagement. They used the curriculum with girls in Tanzania in Swahili and CU Boulder theatre PhD student Sarah Fahmy has presented it in Egypt in Arabic, adjusted by local facilitators to ensure it is culturally appropriate.

Guatemala MAIA impact

A girl participates in MAIA impact in Guatemala.

Over the course of their work with MAIA Impact, Osnes and Hackett developed a list of 10 characteristics of an empowered voice, including: 

  • People can easily hear and understand my voice.
  • Shame is not an obstacle to using my voice.
  • I think my voice is mine and belongs to me.
  • I believe my voice is important for me and my community.
  • I use my voice with responsibility and courage.

Based on self-ratings, girls in Guatemala told the researchers that they felt the program improved their ability to be heard at school and in public, their confidence in speaking, their willingness to share thoughts and ideas and other measures. When asked how they would use their voices to lead and make change in the world after graduation, student responses included the following:

  • “I will use my voice to express myself and to take away fear.”
  • “I will demand rights for women. I will create change in my community and help the young women who have not had the opportunity to study.”
  • “I will use my empowered voice in my community to lead, to improve our natural environment, and to defend human rights.”

Osnes and Hackett will lead the two-day workshop in New York with Fahmy and Roselia Toj of MAIA Impact. In addition, the curriculum will be available as an open-source document for the month of March in celebration of International Women’s Day. It can be found at  

“Part of the excitement around the launch is that we have done the work as academics and performers,” Osnes says. “With this research, we can say this is an evidence-based practice, that we are responsible academic and artistic practitioners who are ready to put this out in the world to unleash the contributions of young women.”   

Find out more about their work at or by following SPEAK on Instagram @vocal_empowerment or Facebook.