From Isabel C. Stewart, National Executive Director, 1993 – 2000
In Girls Incorporated, I see the opportunity to blend what I think are the best aspects of the women's and the civil rights movements. From the women's movement, I borrow the goal of women's economic independence. From the civil rights movement, I embrace the vision of crossing boundaries and inclusion. So we're working to help girls across all races and ethnic groups become economically independent young women.
The organization today looks very different from those early centers in New England — for good reason. In this increasingly complex world, girls need more than just a “building of their own”; they need skills and knowledge to confront the challenges, make constructive choices, and take advantage of all the opportunities opening to them.
As the world has become more complex, Girls Incorporated has transformed into a multifaceted organization to meet girls' needs. In many instances, Girls Incorporated is a local center that girls attend after school. It is also a scholarly organization; our research arm identifies and explores the most pressing issues girls face. It is an advocacy organization; we speak out on behalf of equitable opportunities for girls. It is an educational organization; we develop innovative programs that help girls develop strategies for leading successful, independent and complete lives. The one element that is all-encompassing is the Girls Incorporated philosophy: In a society that still delivers subtle, often unintentional messages that girls are weaker, softer, and not as bright as boys, we help girls become strong, smart and bold.
All of our programs help to foster a girl's self-sufficiency, whether they expose her to a range of possibilities broader than she had previously imagined for herself, or help her avoid obstacles that could stand in the way of her success.
A rigorous program evaluation process provides statistical evidence that our programs are effective; my firsthand experience tells me they are. Every place I travel, I see how our programs make a difference for the 350,000 young people we serve. On a recent visit to an affiliate, I met one bright young woman named Theresa whose story quite affected me. Her mother suffers from an addiction to crack; often, Theresa and her siblings have nothing to eat, and no clothes to wear. She comes to the center even when she's not supposed to be there, she told me. For her, Girls Incorporated is the fun, challenge and inspiration she needs to triumph in the face of adversity.
While Theresa's situation does not describe every Girls Incorporated member, it does reveal the crucial role we play in many girls' lives. My driving ambition is to make our programs available to more girls and young women like Theresa. Urban youth typically have the greatest needs and the fewest resources. For girls, the problem multiplies. In the afterschool setting, girls are often observers rather than participants; one young woman summed up the recreational opportunities for young people in her neighborhood as, “Boys play sports. Girls sit on the benches.”
We have designed the Girls Incorporated Urban Girls Initiative to dramatically expand the delivery of our programs to girls who need them most. Our pilot site in East Harlem has met with resounding enthusiasm, and we are using our growing influence to speak out locally on behalf of girls' needs for resources and effective programs. In addition, partnerships and collaborations are building momentum in three other target cities: Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Our programs can go anywhere, so our growth is no longer constricted by the huge costs of building a brand new community center. We are expanding our delivery of programs through collaborative relationships with other youth-serving agencies, where we provide training and they implement our programs. More and more local Girls Incorporated affiliates are partnering with local schools, housing projects, and other youth groups to deliver programs to more girls in their communities. Nationally, we have embarked on a number of model collaborations, such as the one Margaret forged with the YWCA of the U.S.A. Within just the past year, these new collaborations have enabled us to bring our programs to thousands more girls.
With these creative strategies for wider program distribution and the targeted community penetration that the Urban Girls Initiative represents, Girls Incorporated stands poised to make a profound difference for millions of girls and young women across the country.
The fusion of board leadership and staff action has kept the organizational eye on girls, enabling Girls Incorporated to evolve into the vital establishment it is today. The influx of major funding Donny DonDero achieved enabled Edith Phelps to realize her vision of entering the advocacy and research arenas. The elevated status that Edith secured for the organization enabled Margaret Gates to realize her vision of developing the unique Girls Incorporated approach to informal education programs. And the combination of our program development expertise and advocacy agenda now enables Girls Incorporated to affect the life options and aspirations of more of this country's female population than ever before imagined.