For 20 years, Girls For a Change has helped girls of color find success in a world still plagued with inequality. Angela Patton refuses to let a pandemic get the way of their futures.
Angela Patton, Chief Executive Officer for Girls For A Change, got an email notification. It was from a Camp Diva camper — an organization that empowers teen girls — thanking her for putting her picture on the Camp Diva flyer. “That’s a victory today!” she said.
Right now, the venue where Camp Diva meets is empty. Patton and her staff make regular visits to maintain the mural-covered building, which is located in North Chesterfield. The space, equipped with a garden and meditation rooms, is designed to be a safe escape for girls who need it.
Patton knows how important it is to have a safe space. She knows what it’s like to move to the suburbs and experience racism from neighbors, and later, colleagues. At Girls For A Change, Patton leads a variety of programs that give young girls, especially Black girls and other girls of color, the tools they need to break through the glass ceiling — or more accurately, concrete ceiling — and make space for themselves. 95 percent of the girls who participate in GFAC are Black.
“That’s why they need these spaces,” Patton said. “To build that muscle, so that when they do have to face a principle, or face that boss, or the person who’s gonna give you the loan for your first entrepreneurial endeavor… you know how to advocate for yourself better than anyone else in this world. That’s the goal.”
Two of GFAC’s programs are now virtual. The Girl Action Teams, an opportunity for girls to collaborate and create policy change of their own, now exist in a “one and done” format. GFAC publishes individual video sessions via newsletter, each with different themes. In a recent session, “It’s My Hair and That’s Why You Should Care,” the discussion centered on the evolution of what Black people have had to endure with their hair, and what girls would like to change about it.
“What’s really fun is sometimes boys hop on there!” said Patton. “We’re not pulling them away, because he probably could learn something that day, too.”
The Girl Ambassador Program is also continuing virtually. Patton started it when she noticed that driven, talented GFAC alumni were struggling to find work.
“I would have girls who had just graduated from college, followed all the rules, did all the stuff the book said to do. They followed a lot of white feminist movements, right? But for them as Black girls, it wasn’t working,” Patton explained. When they spoke up for themselves at work, they were accused of being loud and disrespectful, denied raises, and left out of conversations with colleagues.
According to a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, some Black women say they have to “dampen aspects of their personality” in order to feel accepted by white colleagues. And while many companies claim to prioritize gender and racial diversity, they often fail to treat Black women with respect. In a Forbes Magazine survey, 42 percent of Black women had their judgement questioned in their area of expertise.
To combat the double standard, Girl Ambassadors attend four years of weekly training sessions, starting in the ninth grade. The program is designed to build “the whole girl,” from helping them discover their passions to learning how to navigate the professional world. They graduate high school with a paid internship, already way ahead of the game.
For those without internet access — 15 percent of households with school-aged children (many of whom come from low-income, non-white families) — GFAC is prepared. Courtesy of equipment donors, each Girl Ambassador gets a laptop and her own virtual hotspot to use throughout the pandemic.
The real obstacle has been securing internships. When businesses closed, many of GFAC’s usual partners could not afford to pay interns. Through their “Support a Black Girl, Lift up a Small Business” fundraiser, which is still live, GFAC raised enough to secure an internship for each Girl Ambassador this year. Interns may not get paid the full amount, but they will still be able to learn from valuable mentors.
It’s important to Patton that her Girl Ambassadors keep moving. “I don’t want them to be a Covid Kid,” she said, concerned future employers will frown upon an empty work history.
The Girl Ambassador program isn’t easy. Imagine trying to get an Instagram-obsessed teenager to show up for virtual coding classes on a Saturday. Of the 30 that enter the program each year, less than half go through with it.
“Most of the time,” Patton said, “it’s like, ‘I didn’t believe I could do it, I didn’t understand it.’”
While Patton exhibits a tough facade, she responds with open arms. Girls who aren’t able to commit to the Girl Ambassador program can participate in one of GFAC’s many career-building activities, or can just hang out in the garden. “It’s all about staying in it with them for the long haul,” she said. “And when you see all the magical things she has to offer, making sure that she has an opportunity to show her tricks.”
Patton, who grew up hearing “Because I said so,” has spent her time at Girls For A Change learning how to listen to girls. In the beginning, not all of her ideas were well-received. “They were like, ‘I don’t wanna do this!’” Patton laughed. She’s ready to negotiate.
“Black girls have always been in a situation where we are seen and not heard,” Patton said. “We switched it to say, ‘I need you to be protective and listen, not discounting that, but I also need to hear what you’re feeling, too. And what do you think? And what do you think that has shifted and changed? And what are you still fearful of? And what do you want to celebrate today?’”
A turning point for her was when she decided to ask the girls what they wanted to do.
“I thought that I had the answers, and the girls actually ended up having the answers. I ended up learning to be a more active listener,” Patton said.
In line with this philosophy, GFAC offers “Sister Circles,” a chance for girls to speak their mind to a supportive audience of individuals who can relate to their experience.
Early on, Patton received some advice. “When I started [at Girls For A Change], so many people told me ‘You just need to do the programs and get a white woman to be the face,’” she said. “I will not lie to you, it has been a different struggle [from those of] white women I know that run and operate organizations. But guess what? I know what I signed up for, and I refuse for someone to turn me into something that I’m not.”
To keep GFAC running successfully, Patton has a few strategies that work for her. “For one, I don’t have a problem telling people what Black girls have told me they needed,” she said. “I also surround myself with people that are on the moving train to make sure our girls get to victory. And if you’re not on that train to victory with me, then get the hell off!”
“I’m not here to fix people,” she continued. “There are going to be some people who believe in this, and there are going to be some people who don’t. So let’s go in the direction of the people who do believe in this!”
The Martin Agency, a company that has employed GFAC alum, hired Talent Experience and Belonging manager Abu Ngauja in 2019 to ensure that every employee feels welcomed. Commitment to change, Patton believes, is the only way majority-white companies will make real connections with people of color.
Referring to companies she’s observed, Patton said, “They spent thousands of dollars in workshops, and still don’t have access to Black people! I’m not saying they’re bad, I’m just saying, ‘What are the action steps that you’re going to take to be creative, and make sure that it is successful?’”
With or without a pandemic, GFAC will continue to provide education and opportunities beyond what many girls could have imagined. The organization has helped over 30,000 girls learn about themselves and the world. You can read about some of their experiences flying for the first time, running a fundraiser, and the struggles of being a perfectionist on the website’s blog.
To hear advice from highly accomplished Black men and women, tune into GFAC’s Lunch and Learn sessions on Facebook.
Top Photo via Girls For A Change on Facebook