Girls for Gender Equity President and Founder Talks About Working to End Gender and Racial Inequity

Taïna Sanon, Membership Manager at Nonprofit New York met with Joanne Smith, President and Founder of Girls for Gender Equity, a member organization of Nonprofit New York.

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Taïna Sanon: Tell me about the organization and a little bit about what you do.

Joanne Smith: My name is Joanne Smith, and I’m the president and founder of Girls for Gender Equity. What do I do? I help move the organization closer to its mission. I raise money, I lift up the profile of the organization and hire a solid team. The work that we do here is really around ending gender and racial inequity within systems, working with young people to develop their
leadership and advocacy skills – and when I say young people I mean ages 11 to 24.

As an organization, we engage in policy and campaign work, and one of the most exciting things that I want to talk about is that we just won our campaign, School Girls Deserve Campaign, demanding for seven Title IX coordinators to be allocated to NYC public schools and for their salaries to be baseline in the City’s budget.

We took on that fight with city council members Mark Treyger, Helen Rosenthal, Carlina Rivera and Laurie Cumbo as well as with our partners at BroSis, Planned Parenthood, Brooklyn Legal and Girl Scouts, and many other partners. But at the center of that campaign were young people saying that if I am assaulted or something happens to me or I have questions at school, I don’t know who to go to and there aren’t enough Title IX coordinators around. There’s actually only one that’s an interim coordinator for 1,800 schools, with 1.1 million students. No one can do that job. That’s total neglect of young people who experience sexual violence. It’s also Title IX being out of compliance in the schools.

With the seven hires of Title IX coordinators that are baseline in the budget, what we’re looking for is culturally responsive coordinators who understand gender and racial equity, who understand the need for a compliant school but more than that see young people first and can hear their needs and their solutions around ending – not just responding to but ending sexual violence in schools. We hope to work with them really closely to help shape the position but also help to determine who’s in those positions and to provide them with the institutional support because it’s going to take a lot more than those seven additional people to really help schools become compliant, to be trained. It’s going to take a whole community and many people’s hands and efforts going into the process for many years to come. We also don’t want schools to be penalized for being in compliance and reporting and actually following what should be followed with naming the sexual violence that happens in their school.

That’s the work that we’re looking to push next. This is a big deal because federally our Title IX policies are at risk. We have yet to fully actualize them since they’ve been enacted in 1975. We have a lot of work to do around them already. For them to be weakened does not help, especially disabled students, trans students, queer students. We want to be sure that all students feel safe going to school.

TS: Thank you so much! Some logistical things. How many are on your team?

JS: We have about 37 staff members. We have 15 in our afterschool program that are part-time and 22 that are full-time. And we have interns and fellows.

TS: Servicing how many of the population?

JS: In our afterschool programs, 150 young people and in our Sisters in Strength and Young Women’s Advisory Council is a combined 37. And then of course the community. We do a lot of trainings and courses and public events. We work nationally with eight other states to implement the Young Women’s Initiative and Young Women’s Advisory Council.

TS: Fantastic. Thank you. I think you’ve covered both the past, present and a bit of the future. Where do you see your organization in the next five years or ten years? What is your blue sky goal?

JS: That’s a very good question. Our work is to end gender and racial inequity. To support young people in actualizing their power. Their innate power but also accessing power that would help their communities. Not just power for power’s sake. To see themselves as agents of change, to be advocates not just in the moment but in a lifetime, not just while they’re associated with GGE but when they are out there in the world and they see other people. We see our work as to help young people to be their best selves as they look to navigate the world and advocate for gender and racial equity. That’s our first primary goal - the investment in young people, the value we see in young people understanding that young people are catalysts for change and that every single social justice movement has been sparked, momentum has continued because of the advocacy of young people. We also see these same people growing into positions and occupying positions of power. Being liberated gatekeepers and making decisions that will better their communities.

As an organization we see ourselves really delving deeper into policy work. We have been at times not seen as political players and advocates and we see that it’s so necessary that whether it’s local or federal politics that gender and racial equity – especially centered around young people and girls is missing from table. Youth are often lumped together or the crisis issue is lumped together. A thread through all that is how is it impacting girls of color, who is it impacting gender non-binary youth, how is it impacting the most marginalized young people.

When I think about the next five or ten years, we’ve always been an innovative space where we’ve been willing and able to experiment with strategies. This is an organization, it’s a container, it’s not the movement. But within the movement we know we need multiple strategies. We don’t relegate ourselves to, “This has to be the way the service or advocacy is provided.” We’ve been fluid and flexible enough to say okay, let’s respond to the time and need. As service providers who see and work with the young people at their youth development stage we see ourselves in innovating around different ways to provide services. As we look at different ways young people are impacted by sexual violence, gender based violence, we are just consistently coming up with strategies to meet them where they are and to help them heal while they see themselves are powerful and necessary voices. Not just to tell their story but voices to shape the legislation and the practices that need to change so we can prevent that violence from happening to the next young person.

TS: In order to grow and see your mission fulfilled, what do you need?

JS: So much! I think from a cultural perspective as a black, lesbian, Haitian woman leading this organization, oftentimes it’s expected that I’m going to do this work and I think it can be devalued. While if this were the antithesis, a white man who has grown up affluent doing this work, it’s seen as heroic. It’s consistent culture shift every time I or my staff of color show up in a room. Essentially, every time we open our mouths we are representing ourselves. We come to this work because we are the work. We are very connected to the community and who it is we are fighting for. We are fighting for ourselves.

I need more allies in positions of power who understand and make the way easier to access the resources we need, whether it be funds, space, media, or opportunities to get on the stage to have conversations. I need our time to be as valuable and invested in. The more we can have liberate allies who get that without asking us to keep proving that along the way, the better. We also do need more resources and investment especially in our policy work. We’re talking about systems change, we’re talking about institutions, and we’re talking about government. I think right now people are exhausted with government and may not see the value in a small organization like ours challenging government in these ways. I don’t think anybody really believed we would win our Title IX campaign because these kind of campaigns require so much financial investment. From lobbyist to the time and the staff and communications. It’s almost impossible to win if you don’t have the resources and so we do need those resources so that we can continue. Winning is just stage one. The implementation and the actualizing are the next stages. Doing that and bringing people along with you. We can’t do this in a vacuum and say this is what we’re going to put in place. We have to continue to work with the same partners that we won this victory with. It’s going to take longer and more energy rather than going solo but those are our values and that’s what’s going to allow for us to have deep rooted change.

We also need more expertise. We are looking to our 2020 year, our budget, and the roles that we need in our organization. So we’ll be hiring very soon and looking for a director of operations and deputy director of development and that kind of support would be greatly appreciated.

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