On Thursday, September 10th, representatives from Girls Leadership joined a panel of youth leaders to discuss the findings of the new report Ready to Lead. The webinar facilitators included report author Dr. Charlotte Jacobs and report foreword author Dr. Monique W. Morris, Morgan Stanley’s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Susan Reid, and Girls Leadership’s Chief Program Officer, Kendra Karr.
This interactive event included accounts from the young leaders’ lived experiences of the findings from the Ready to Lead report, which centers on the readiness of girls in Black and Latinx communities to step forward as leaders. The event drew out some fascinating and emotionally charged conversations, along with frequent encouragement from audience members in the comments.
Read on for highlights from the event — this event was a unique and poignant conversation, and spoke to the readiness the next generation of leaders has to step up for real social change.
Introducing Ready to Lead, Girls Leadership, and Girls Justice League
Susan Reid, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Morgan Stanley, kicked off the event by highlighting the findings of the Ready to Lead report and sharing more information about Morgan Stanley’s ongoing partnership with Girls Leadership.
“This organization’s mission is to help girls find the power of their voice, and to help them rise above many of the barriers that girls face in terms of leadership and making our voices heard,” said Reid. “I’m thrilled that [Girls Leadership] has done this research and that we are a part of it.”
Next, Reid thanked “a number of organizations critical to Girls Leadership’s research,” including Grantmakers for Girls of Color and the Girls Justice League. Morgan Stanley is the leading sponsor for the Ready to Lead research project, and contributions have also come from the NY Women’s Foundation, the Harnisch Foundation, Paul | Weiss, the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, Genentech, Applied Materials Foundation, AirBNB, and Vodafone Americas Foundation.
Introducing the Panelists
“Who better to understand that than the young women who are living these experiences day to day?” said Reid, introducing the day’s panelists.
We began with Daniella, who encouraged participants to acknowledge the land. “The reality is that we’re all here on colonized land, on land that was taken from its original inhabitants,” she said.
Daniella also introduced Girls Justice League (GJL), a collection of girls and femmes from Philadelphia, working together to change the communities in which they live. “Our goal is teaching each other how to advocate for ourselves and others.”
Next, Sarah Rose, a representative with GJL, shared the introductions for the panelists through an exercise called Community Meeting, encouraging the sharing of gender pronouns and creating a space and authentic space for the conversation.
In addition to Sarah, the other speakers included Blessing (GJL), Maya (Girls Leadership), Angeris (GJL), Naysa (Girls Leadership), and Daniella (GJL).
The open conversation surrounded key findings from the report, which the youth leaders discussed together.
How have you been ready to lead?
“I’ve been thinking about this question for a minute,” said Daniella. “The answer that I keep coming back to is that I’ve been ready to lead, and that’s because I’ve wanted to lead, I’ve been in a position where I’ve had to lead. I’ve learned how to lead through practice and by watching other people lead.”
“I think of this in reference to my high school experience,” said Blessing. “I came in wanting to blend in and not really do anything, but I feel that I’ve always been ready to lead because I’ve always had a voice and have always been very strong in my convictions. There are certain things that relate directly to this research about the kinds of barriers I face, but I did take up quite a few leadership positions in high school and now. I definitely thinks those are the ways in which I’ve been ready to lead.”
“Through the training of Girls Leadership, my school, and my peers, I’ve been able to lead in my school and in other ways through collaborative opportunities,” said Naysa.
What values do you take away from your community about leadership?
“We can’t talk about leadership without talking about our communities,” said Daniela.
“Other girls have definitely informed my leadership more than anyone else,” said Maya. “A big part of my leadership has been in direct relationship to racism.” She used the example of a program at her school in which Black students shared their experiences with anti-Black racism. The stories “made me inspired to become a leader and help everyone, because [anti-Black racism] affects so many people beyond me. There are so many people I know and love dealing with these traumas beyond schools.”
“A value I’ve taken from my community is trying to create positive impact and change,” said Naysa. “It’s important that my community sees a young Black woman trying to make improvements. If we continue in the mindset of violence and negative thinking, then we won’t progress to the future in a positive way.”
Sarah Rose said, “The reason why I’ve been able to step into a leadership role is because of my community. …A lot of the time, it’s humbling to know I was granted the privileges I did receive because my community believed in me. I also think a lot about how community looks different in different spaces,” they explained, using the examples of found families and found communities. “Sometimes, even though your community might mean well for you, they might limit you in certain aspects as well.”
Sarah also shared the experience of working directly with girls their age, as opposed to taking instructions from an adult figure. “You can do the work together,” they said.
Maya spoke to the importance of positivity and love in these collaborative spaces. “These are the people who are supporting me and keeping me going,” she said of the members of Girls Leadership and Girls Justice League. “We have to be there for each other, and that’s something I really value. It’s shaped the way that I think about what it means to be a leader, and what leadership is.”
“When I think about the impact that girls have on my leadership, the trust that we have in each other and how much we learn from each other is what I always think about,” added Daniella.
“Some people have had positive experiences, but some experiences can be negative,” said Blessing. As an example, Blessing shared a moment from her senior year of high school where she wrote an article about the dangers of white feminism and the importance of an intersectional approach to feminism. A women’s leadership group on campus, made up of mostly white members, brushed off her encouragements to take an intersectional approach. But when a white, male classmate made similar points, the response was much more positive. For Blessing, this felt like a major problem. “We need to think about community in our responses to each other, and find new ways to work together.”
“My community definitely pushes me,” said Angeris, sharing that she found motivation in her community. Many families continue living in her community for years and years, which Angeris sees as motivation rather than as a roadblock.
How have teachers impacted Black and Latinx girls’ leader identity?
“This question is really important,” said Blessing. “As girls growing up in a school environment, teachers are in positions of authority and they are supposed to have a greater understanding of these impacts.”
“I’ve always liked to speak my mind,” said Angeris. “It was always like, ‘Oh, Angie speaks a lot, so why don’t you lead the group?’” Because of this, Angeris found herself pushed into leadership roles often, which she took on eagerly but sometimes felt the pressure. “Anytime I need help, I consider a lot of my teachers my leaders,” she said.
“I come at this question with a lot of mixed emotions,” Daniella shared. “As much as teachers have a positive impact on my leadership identity, I also think about the dynamics.” Teachers, in positions of authority, have many students rely on them but have to juggle students’ complex identities and feelings.
“They have a responsibility to actually show up for us,” she said. “I think about the identity I had to take on as a young, Black girl for my white teachers. And that’s not something I should have to do.” Daniella often feels frustrated, since she feels like she must lead her teachers as well as her peers.
“I go through this question in different ways as well,” said Sarah. “I want to be a teacher when I’m older, because I trust young girls and teenagers. When I was a teenager, I so often trusted adults to give me the right opinion. Whatever they said, I thought was the Holy Grail. But as I started to grow up and see the world, I started to understand that not every adult has bad intentions, but not everyone can understand who you are and where you come from.”
Sarah and Angeris attended the same high school, a predominantly Latinx community—with predominantly white teachers. This has impacted both young leaders’ feelings toward their own abilities for leadership and their sense of mentorship and connection with their teachers.
“What does it mean when I’m told I have a voice, when it’s a white teacher telling me versus another Latina telling me?” Sarah asked. “Now that I go to a predominantly white school and a women’s college, I’m constantly asking myself, ‘Who gives me the mic? Who can I talk to? Who will give me power, and actually let me speak?’ For a long time, I doubted my own abilities because I received such specific expectations of myself in order to be successful when really, that wasn’t the case.”
“It’s the job of a teacher and a mentor to put personal feelings aside and understand the identity of the person you’re teaching,” they added. “At the end of the day, this is their life, and it’s not really something you can just give an opinion about.”
Experiences with teachers aren’t always positive, especially when it comes to race, say Black and Latinx Leaders
“I wouldn’t really think of my relationship with my teachers as positive,” said Maya, who also hopes to be a teacher someday. “I want to change that.” Maya also shared how much additional work comes with taking on a position of leadership among your peers, especially when you are addressing difficult issues—like racism and sexism—that your school’s administration won’t address. “While you’re young and you’re supposed to be the student, you’re supposed to be learning. But instead, you end up doing so much work.”
“In my experience, I’ve been pushed harder because I’m Black,” said Naysa. “In the Black community, we’re told we don’t appreciate our education. I appreciate the pushing from my teachers, but they’re still the ones teaching about things like slavery.” Naysa described the conundrum of white teachers attempting to teach about Black history, trauma, and culture. “How can you be my teacher if you don’t teach my trauma and my history correctly?”
“White teachers, what are you doing?” Daniella asked. “Our white teachers need to build up their knowledge and repertoires in order to build up our safe spaces. That way, we don’t have to endure trauma when they’re the ones who are supposed to be protecting us.”
“High school for me was a very interesting situation,” said Blessing. “Academically, I was an average student. If you’re going to be a leader in the girls’ education and the ‘race stuff,’ then your academics have to match. So why is it not matching?” Blessing wrote a letter to the teacher at the end of the year, not knowing if the teacher ever read it. “The reason I never felt safe to raise my hand in your class,” she said in the letter, “is because I was the only Black person in the class. When you tell me the things I’m doing are nice, but my academics don’t match that, I can’t come to you with this issue that I’m having trouble because I’m the only Black person in the class.”
Maya shared similar feelings from her high school experience, where she sometimes wanted to skip class because she felt targeted, uncomfortable, or on display in classes where she was the only Black student.
How was the research conducted and what are the limitations of the research?
The research process set out to find out the experience of all girls of color, but there was not enough participation from Asian-American girls to get substantive data about this population of America’s girls.
“Like all research, it can’t tell the full story,” said Daniella. “We aren’t just Black and Latinx girls. We have multiple identities that shape and inform our leadership and the ways we show up in the spaces in which we lead.”
There are plans to continue the research as well.
Sarah shared their experiences as a nonbinary femme person, who uses they/them pronouns. “There are so many identities we all share. It’s not just one thing—it’s all compounded.”
“There is no one Black experience or one Latinx experience,” said Blessing. “My Black experience is as a first-generation American with African parents and I also identify as queer. It can be harmful to say, ‘This is a Black experience,’ and ‘This is a Latinx experience.’ Instead, we need to explore all the different facets of those identities. That being said, the research does do a very good job of highlighting the ways in which Black and Latinx girls are ready to lead, as well as the barriers we face.”
What do we need to lead?
“I’m a person who deals in honest and blunt truth,” said Naysa. “As an advocate for the Black community and minority communities, I think it’s important to deal in truth, especially now, when there is a lot of racial bias, particularly in teachers. If you don’t deal in truth as a leader, what are you looking at?”
“I need to be selfless to be a leader,” said Maya. She shared the example of not taking individual credit for campaigns, or distancing herself from the acknowledgement that comes with success. “For a lot of us, doing all this heavy work within our communities is always greater than one person. It’s about the people that will come ten years from now, and making sure they feel included and seen by their communities. It’s about making sure those people feel more love than we did.”
“As much as I value being as selfless as can be, I’ve also come to value the importance of rest,” said Daniella. “We’ve talked a lot about self-sacrifice, and of leadership being stressful and gritty. I’m at a point in my life and leadership where I’m trying to find a style of leadership that is self-sustaining. I want to protect joy—everyone’s joy, as well as my own. I’m only as useful to the people I serve if I protect my joy as well.”
The event closed with a Q&A discussion between the panelists and the audience. Girls Leadership is hoping to put a highlight reel of the event up on social media soon, so keep an eye on their YouTube channel for updates.
To learn more about Girls Leadership, visit their website at GirlsLeadership.org. You can download the Ready to Lead report for free here (or read our full breakdown of the report in this article). As more research become available as part of the Ready to Lead Initiative, we will continue to focus on funding opportunities for girls of color.
This event showed some of the most promising and troubling factors surrounding leadership in Black and Latinx girls. By continuing to fund research like Ready to Lead, and supporting girls like the day’s panelists, we can contribute to a future where our young people feel supported, loved, and ready to lead.
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