Dora HarrisIt didn’t take leaders at  Girls Inc. of Memphis long to choose someone to guide and manage the agency’s plans for growth. As an alumna of Girls Club (Girls Inc. precursor) and a veteran of more than three decades of working at every facility and in administration, the clear choice was Dora Brown Harris.

In her new role as Director of Growth and Expansion, Dora is the "woman behind the curtain," focusing on growing and expanding the impact of Girls Inc. programming through in-school facilitation, primarily in South City (38126) and Frayser (38127).

Girls Inc. of Memphis' growth work got a boost recently when the Memphis affiliate was awarded a $500,000 grant from Girls Inc. national to be used to grow all our programs, with an emphasis on expanding services in Frayser and South City.

Right off the bat, it's worth letting Dora explain her longevity with the agency.

"Being at Girls Inc. was my foundation for everything," she said. "My family couldn't afford to send me to places like the ballet or on camping trips - cultural and life opportunities. Girls Inc. gave me those opportunities and it's my passion to make sure girls today have those opportunities."

Dora started at Girls Club at age 8, originally at the St. Thomas Center (in the old St. Thomas Catholic School on Trigg). After graduation from Carver High School in South Memphis, she worked part-time for the agency as a program specialist while attending classes at the University of Memphis.

She’s worked in some capacity at just about every physical space Girls Club/Girls Inc. has ever occupied. Assistant director then director at Lemoyne Gardens, roles at South Park Center, Frayser and LDT. She's seen it all.

Recently, she’s served as Director of Training and Curriculum for the entire local affiliate. “I really like planning curriculum,” she says, “and designing programs.”

Her years with the organization and experience from so many vantage points mean she knows all the schools in South City and Frayser that are targets for growing and expanding Girls Inc.’s impact.

President and CEO Lisa Moore, feels Dora is the perfect fit for this vital position. What Dora will drive, Lisa says, is a core part of what Girls Inc. of Memphis is all about.

“The words ‘You Grow Girl’ are painted on the side of our Youth Farm storage container, and they are a mantra we use to symbolize our commitment,” Lisa said. “Commitment to providing girls an environment that allows them to grow; to a culture that sustains growth and development of our professional staff; and to growing our organization in order to establish and sustain growth in the girls we serve with impact.”

The goal for the Girls Inc. national grant funds is to serve nearly 1,500 new girls over the next two years, with 85 percent of that growth being overseen by Dora in Frayser and South City.

“This grant is an acknowledgement from our national organization that we are a strong affiliate with a strong plan for significant growth,” Lisa said. “Our growth will be a combination of meeting girls where they are in schools and anchoring communities with facilities and center-based programming in 38111, 38107, 38126 and 38127.”

Even with the emphasis on Frayser and South City, Lisa says that the organization is growing capacity at all its sites.

Currently, Dora oversees school-based programming in 9 schools, currently serving 250 girls with 50 hours of Girls Inc. programming per year.

To ensure the quality of the programming both in schools and at centers, Dora is currently overseeing the annual Strong-Smart-Bold Outcome Survey. The goal is to administer the survey to 250 girls from across all Girls Inc. of Memphis programs.

“It came from national, but folks from Memphis had a hand in developing the survey,” Dora said. “It helps us find out about girls and where they are, and what programs are the most needed.”

Dora raised a daughter - Marneissa Brown - who was a Girls Inc. girl from age 6 through high school and now lives in North Carolina. Dora  just completed her undergraduate degree in business administration from LeMoyne Owen College and is working on an MBA in HR management and management leadership from Webster University.

Looking back, Dora is most amazed thinking about the fact that she’s influenced two or three generations in her years at Girls Inc. And what satisfies her the most is watching a girl she’s worked with for years graduate high school or college.

“I had one come up to me the other night at dinner. She said, ‘Miss Dora, I had so much fun in Girls Inc.’”

Are you ready to advocate for your city? Do you want to be a part of change? If you answered yes to either of those questions, then there may be a place for you on the Young Women's Advisory Council (YWAC).

The YWAC will engage members in an 18-month pilot leadership program to create a city-wide action plan to address a need facing young women's and girls in Memphis.

Girls Inc. of Memphis is developing the YWAC in collaboration with The Women's Foundation of Greater Memphis (WFGM), which is one of eight women's foundations across the country that make up the National Collaborative of Young Women's Initiatives (YWI). The collaborative works to address the core issues that have kept too many of our nation's low-income young women from reaching their full potential.

YWI-Memphis is an initiative of WFGM that was established to align with the foundation's Vision 2020 Strategic Plan. The primary goal of Vision 2020 is to reduce poverty in zip code 38126 by 5 percent over 5 years. With its focus on young women, the YWAC will be a key component of YWI-Memphis.

YWAC is for girls 14 to 18 and will be designed as a girl-led initiative from start to finish.

Apply today - the application deadline is Friday, April 13!

Sound interesting? Download your application today, fill it out, scan and return to Britnee McKinney at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If you have additional questions, email Britnee or call her at 901-523-0217, ext. 201.

Leo headshotUntil the last year or so, Leo Watts didn’t consider herself much of an advocate. The 17-year-old junior at The Soulsville Charter School, who’s given name is Ja’Lin, says she was always too reserved for that.

“I’m socially shy,” she said, “and I get nervous in front of people.”

But she found her advocate’s voice as a member of the Girls Inc. of Memphis Youth Farm crew, which she joined last summer. It was there that she learned about a proposal to expand a construction-debris landfill in Frayser. It woke her up.

“The idea of as bunch of garbage next to a school and across from our farm, it struck a chord with me,” Leo says. “If it’s not O.K. to put it in your neighborhood, why would it be O.K. to put it in ours?”

Jada Powell, a junior at Ridgeway High School, also freed her inner advocate thanks to her involvement with Girls Inc.

"In Girls Inc., my confidence has definitely grown,” Jada says. "I’ve always been real outgoing. But Girls Inc. has taught me to speak my mind respectfully.”

Leo and Jada's advocacy is already bearing fruit. Thanks to countless concerned citizens from Frayser - including Leo and other Girls Inc. girls - the landfill proposal was defeated by a unanimous vote of the Memphis City Council on Jan. 8.

Thanks to Jada, Girls Inc. currently has a direct representative on the Girls Action Network, a national advisory and mobilizing group made up of young women’s from Girls Inc. affiliates across the country.

Both girls presented at the inaugural Bridge Builders Youth Action Summit in February, teaching other young people what they've learned as advocates for girls. And both took part - along with youth and adults from across the city - in the recent March for Our Lives. (Leo is quoted at the end of this Commercial Appeal account of the march.)

There’s no doubt that both girls are on fire to make a difference. And for both, Girls Inc. helped ignite that fire. Leo, a Chicago native who moved to Memphis at age 5, didn’t grow up in Girls Inc., but it's had a profound impact on her. She heard about the opportunity to be part of the farm crew from a school counselor.

“I wasn’t really looking forward to it, honestly, because of the heat and the bugs,” Leo said. “But we started doing things like volunteering at a homeless shelter and going to meetings about public issues.”

Being part of a group that helped defeat the proposed landfill, Leo said, made her feel proud. And she got to share that pride in a big way at the Bridge Builders Youth Action Summit held at BRIDGES in February. She, along with other farm crew members, presented the workshop “Girls Inc. Youth Farm Fights Landfill” multiple times to attendees from across the country.

Jada also presented multiple times at the Youth Summit, about her involvement in the Girls Action Network (GAN).

Her Girls Inc. connection stretches back farther. She started attending South Park center at age 5 and became involved with Eureka! at 13.

Jada was chosen to Jada headshotrepresent Girls Inc. of Memphis on the GAN last summer, a group of 10 girls narrowed down from countless nominations from 82 affiliates across the country. This is the inaugural year for the GAN and Memphis is well-represented - Girls Inc. of Memphis CEO Lisa Moore also was tapped to serve on the adult chort of the network.

The GAN is a year-long youth advocacy program that was created with the goal of assisting in the development of a Girls Inc. policy agenda and helping to mobilize grassroots action across the network. Participants meet regularly via video conference and discuss important issues like gun violence, barriers to girls, DACA and sexual harassment. The program culminates in an annual trip to Washington D.C. where girls meet with lawmakers.

“At Girls Inc., I saw a lot of people with positive outlooks, that had something going for themselves,” Jada said of her time at South Park and in Eureka. “I want that for myself.

She’s clearly excited by the prospect of meeting lawmakers in Washington.

“My mom says I’m an activist but I don’t always believe that,” Jada said. “A lot of times I feel like I’m in the shadows, like I’m not doing what you would expect an activist to do. But this is going to make my mom’s belief come true.”

Earlier this year, Leo attended the Women's March 2.0 conference and march in Nashville with other Girls Inc. girls. During the march, she encountered a counter-protestor with some strong anti-woman views. She calmly walked up and asked him to tell her more about where he was coming from.

“He referred to God a lot,” Leo said. “I told him ‘God accepts all in my book.’ I’m not sure he listened. But I made sure my opinions were heard."

And like Jada, Leo says her ability to stand up for her beliefs with respect was nurtured by Girls Inc.

“When I’m around Kelsey and the other adults at the farm, they’re positive and supportive and that makes me feel positive and supportive," Leo said. “When they say, ‘You can do it,’ I say, ‘I got this,’ and I’ll get up and say what I have to say.

“If it weren’t for their attitudes, I wouldn’t have done half these things I’ve done.”

Rahni StewartIf you want to see the Girls Inc. Experience at work in the world, in one complete package, look no further than Rahni Stewart. A 2017 graduate of White Station High School, she's now wearing her Girls Inc. legacy proudly as a confident, well-spoken and curious freshman at the University of Houston. But one of the most profound expressions of her Girls Inc. identity happened not in a classroom or lecture hall, but during a late-night conversation with a new college friend.

"We were hanging out late at night," said Rahni, who goes by Reece with her classmates at school. "I was on my laptop and she said, 'Reece, can I get birth control from Planned Parenthood?' It was her first boyfriend and they were becoming sexually active. So I thought, 'This is a teaching moment,' and I turned off my laptop, turned to face her and said, 'Tell me what happened.'"

She told her everything she knew about birth control and asked some more questions.

"I realized she had no context at all," Rahni said. "I talked to her about peer pressure, the side effects of birth control, what she should feel and shouldn't feel. And I said, "If you have any more questions, please come to me. Because I would rather you come to me and feel embarrassed than have you wind up in a situation you can't fix."

At first, her friend was indeed embarrassed and felt like like a burden. But she appreciated Rahni's willingness to help.

"I've always been naturally maternal," Rahni says. "And I've jumped in with friends on things I've gotten from Girls Inc. before, but never on that scale. That's what Girls Inc. helps with - the basic foundation of what should be happening."

That version of Rahni - the fearless advocate with a maternal streak - is no stranger to folks who've known her in recent years. She did, after all, represent Girls Inc. of Memphis in the summer of 2016 at a roundtable discussion about education hosted by the XQ Super School Project. She so impressed the staff they asked to interview her on camera (check out a clip of that interview.)

But that Rahni is a far cry from the shy, unsure third-grader who started Girls Inc. programming at South Park Center more than 10 years ago.

"Girls Inc. forced me to find my voice," Rahni says. "Without Girls Inc. I don't think I would be the person I am today."

And these days that person moves pretty fast. Rahni is a pre-business major on track for a double major in marketing and entrepreneurship. The Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston is ranked second in the nation.

"Basically, I'm training to be the CEO of something," she said. "“I want to open an education company that tracks the progress of students from sixth through twelfth grades and provides milestones for them to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and also allows students to virtually tour prospective college campuses from home. I can't say much more than that because the technology doesn't exist yet."

She's passionate about everything she does at school - from being part of an improv troupe to doing marketing and soliciting donations for her entrepreneurship club to relishing a care package (socks, Amazon gift cards, a water bottle and earbuds) sent by an acquaintance with the Memphis Chapter of The Links, Incorporated who has been sponsoring Rahni since she was active in our Eureka! program. And let's not forget her classes.

"College is WILD," Rahni said. "I was struggling at first conceptually, but I'm on track now to make straight As."

And she still makes time to be there for her friend.

"Now she asks for all kinds of things," she said. "Basic relationship questions. How to have a conversation with her boyfriend. And now when something happens, or she has a question, she just walks in and says, 'Reece, we need to talk.'"

 

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I’ve always been good in school and loved being involved in Girls Inc. I participated in a collaborative program with Hatiloo Theatre and it was then I found my voice. I realized what I want to do…I want to act! Since having my eyes opened through this experience, I’ve been in 3 Hatiloo productions and 5 White Station High School productions. - Kelsie


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