Girls Leadership Nonprofit Works to Lessen COVID-strain for Girls of Color

courtesy of Girls Leadership
courtesy of Girls Leadership

Senator Kamala Harris embodies many firsts. She is the first Vice President-Elect who identifies as Black, South Asian, a woman, and an ardent fan of Mary J. Blige’s “Work That.” But for a statistically significant number of Black and Latinx girls in the United States, she is not their first leadership role model— and that’s a good thing.

As Harris was blazing the campaign trail in August, a non-profit based in her hometown released a study that shows Black and Latinx girls are considerably more likely than their peers to identify as leaders. They are also more likely to have role models in their lives who identify as leaders. The study, “Read to Lead,” was commissioned by Girls Leadership, an Oakland-based organization that researches, develops, and produces social-emotional learning programs for girls and schools, impacting 150,000 students each year. Girls Leadership’s slogan, “All kinds of powerful,” highlights their emphasis on diverse leadership.

“We equip girls with social-emotional learning skills so they have a compass and guide for what leadership means to them, even when they meet external barriers,” said Catherine Burns, the National Training Director at Girls Leadership.

“Ready to Lead” sought to examine factors that inhibit leadership in girls of color. According to the four-year study, teachers largely perceive lack of confidence, lack of parental support, and lack of adult role models as barriers to leadership for girls of color. But the study showed barriers to leadership are external, not internal.

Forty-eight percent of Black girls and 73% of Black parents identify as leaders, surpassing non-Black girls and parents. Black and Latinx girls aged 12 to 18 are mostly impacted by bias within institutions. Half of Black girls report experiencing unfair treatment from teachers and administration due to their race, one out of three Latinx girls fear being ridiculed for taking on a leadership role, and over half of teachers have never had professional development training on leadership and equity in education.

“We passively reward White and Asian girls for compliance, passiveness, and silence, and we actively punish Black and Latinx girls for demonstrating behaviors associated with leadership,” Burns said during an educational webinar last week. “We can change this.”

According to Simone Marean, co-founder and co-CEO of Girls Leadership, teacher bias is more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic because classroom dynamics are displayed in homes through Zoom. Marean said some Black parents are hesitant to send their kids back to school after hearing first-hand how biased teachers interact with their kids.

“[Girls Leadership] makes sure adults who hold power see girls as leaders and treat girls as leaders. Some women may not have been raised to use the power of their voice, so when girls come in and they’re powerful, I think often it’s perceived as a threat,” Marean said.

Girls Leadership says their data displays a need for anti-bias and gender-equity training, calling for policymakers, schools, and girl-centered organizations to “push back and dismantle” institutional barriers that prevent Black and Latinx girls from “activating” their full potential. The organization hopes Black and Latinx girls use the “Ready to Lead” data when fighting for inclusion and institutional change in their schools and communities.

“We don’t ‘look’ like or ‘think’ like or ’talk’ like what qualifies one as a good leader. Expectations of ‘good’ leadership counter a lot of our own tendencies and thinking as Black and Latinx girls. So, our leadership style is not taken seriously or not received as openly as others,” said a high school study participant for the Ready to Lead report.

“Our teachers placed white experiences and white culture at the center of our learning,” said Jordan Elizabeth, the New York Training Manager at Girls Leadership. “I am thrilled that this research is launching, that we are centering the voices of Black girls, and that there’s data to back up our lived experiences.” At present, Girls Leadership is working to mitigate COVID-related challenges for girls. Girls Leadership noticed social-emotional learning was often abandoned when classrooms adapted for virtual learning. In response, the non-profit developed 26 social-emotional check-in activities designed for distanced classrooms. “Social-emotional check-ins are a great jumping off point to be able to start the discussion and build the brave space as a tier one intervention,” said Burns.

The non-profit moved its programs online for the entire year in response to the pandemic, reducing costs and heightening accessibility. During Girls Leadership’s recent online trainings, a majority of adults said girls are  expected to feel “happy and calm” in their culture, though the adults themselves report feeling “anxious, disappointed, and lonely.” According to Marean, girls’ capacity to be emotionally intelligent is curtailed when their feelings are deemed impermissible. Marean encourages parents and caregivers to be vulnerable around their kids and demonstrate it’s ok to feel anxious and sad. “The disconnect between how our girls are expected to feel and how we’re actually feeling in the middle of [the pandemic] is an opportunity for caregivers to be authentic [around their kids],” said Marean. “You can say you’re fumbling right now as a parent. You can say you’re anxious.”

Girls Leadership uses a growth mindset to help students work through trauma they may be experiencing. Trauma can limit a student’s ability to benefit from social-emotional learning programs, and according to Burns, COVID is exacerbating the negative effects of generalized and chronic trauma. “Within our spaces, especially right now, we’re experiencing a collective trauma of constant uncertainty, constant loss of control, and constant change, and people are experiencing that to different degrees depending on their circumstances,” said Burns.

In addition to worsening trauma, COVID could harm students developmentally. Lisa Medoff, an adolescent development psychologist at Stanford University, said the brain molds itself based on new experiences in adolescence. During this period of neuroplasticity, the brain experiences a proliferation of synaptic connections. “The connections you don’t use, or your brain thinks you don’t need, kind of get pruned away. The more varied experiences that you have the more plastic your brain can stay,” Medoff said.

Medoff said having access to new experiences during your late teens and early 20’s can extend the brain’s plasticity. The synaptic connections you do or don’t retain as a result of this process can have lifelong consequences. “We’re talking about really serious disparities based on your socioeconomic status in terms of how long your brain can stay plastic and the experiences you’re able to afford,” Medoff said.

Medoff also said behavioral patterns that are established during adolescence are often harder to reverse than patterns established in someone’s mid-20’s. “If we’re not giving kids new experiences and they’re just sitting in front of the computer all day long, I worry about what that might mean long term for brain development,” Medoff said.

Medoff emphasized the challenges kids and adolescents are facing differ based on their learning style and home circumstances. She is unsure exactly how COVID-19 might affect this age group in the long run. The Society for Research in Child Development published an article last month suggesting early childhood and adolescent students may be especially susceptible to adverse psychosocial effects of COVID-19 in the long run. The Society’s article advises that institutions, such as Girls Leadership and their partner schools, use knowledge of developmental timing to inform new policies meant to support kids and adolescents during the pandemic.

Girls Leadership’s online programs for girls emphasize compassion fatigue and playfulness. But Marean admits it’s difficult to innovate alternatives to experiential engagement. Typically, Girls Leadership uses interactive games and bonding activities during their in-person LeadHERship Club, Girl & Grownup workshops, and Summer Camps.

“We really miss being in the same room playing physical games, we have a core value of play. So figuring out how to keep that muscle strong during COVID is a little tricky,” Marean said. Marean believes the COVID-19 pandemic should be viewed as an impetus to reevaluate school design and programming. According to Marean, the fundamental structure of schools is hundreds of years old and COVID is highlighting the system’s institutionalized racism.

“There’s an opportunity now to look at every part of the school structure and say ‘let’s reimagine and redesign schools that work for our most marginalized kids,’” Marean said. “What we’ve found at Girls Leadership is when one of our programs works for the most marginalized girls, it works for everybody.”


  • Chloe Wintersteen

    Chloe Wintersteen graduated from Stanford University in 2020 with bachelor’s degrees in american studies and theater, and a minor in music. During her undergraduate career, Chloe wrote as an arts journalist for The Stanford Daily, worked as the marketing and newsletter intern for the Vice President of the Arts, and performed in numerous musical theater productions. Chloe’s extensive artistic background grounds her belief in the beauty and importance of sharing human-centric stories, a mindset which passionately drives her journalism.

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