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.'"

 

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.

Rebecka DevlinRebecka Devlin has keen insight into what the Girls Inc. Experience is all about. After all, she was once a girl herself.

“As a child I was raised by my father. He was a business owner and he wasn’t there much,” Rebecka says. “I often wonder how it would have been to have more of a support system in my life - to fill in the blanks, to fill in the gaps.”

That question is at the heart of her drive to support Girls Inc. of Memphis.

A Detroit native, Rebecka moved to Memphis in 2015 with her husband and son so she could take a position in Loan Operations at First Tennessee Bank.

“One way we connect at First Tennessee is through Employee Resource Groups (ERG) - sort of extracurricular activities at work,” she said. “There are groups focused on diversity, for working parents and for former members of the military.”

Rebecka serves as the community outreach chair for an ERG called the Women’s Initiative. Recently, the group shifted its focus from a broad range of community endeavors to just two non-profits - DeNeuville Learning Center and Girls Inc. of Memphis.

“We thought Girls Inc. was just doing amazing things,” Rebecka said. “The tag line for the Women’s Initiative is ‘Working together to promote the success of women within our company and our community.’ But I usually say, ‘Empowering women to become their most amazing selves.’

“And when it came to Girls Inc., we thought, ‘Why do we have to wait for girls to become women before we do that?’”

Clearly, Rebecka “gets” the mission of Girls Inc. But the perspective she brings is unique.

“Girls Inc. impacts girls from elementary school all the way through and beyond college,” she said. “And life is interesting during those years for girls. It’s a great support system.”

Fortunately for Girls Inc., it’s more than just talk with Rebecka. She’s a donor and encouraged a number of co-workers to sign up for the Mother-Daughter Tea earlier this year. In June, she and six other fellow First Tennessee employees welcomed and escorted guests at the Celebration Luncheon.

She spearheaded a donation drive at several First Tennessee financial centers. And she was instrumental in organizing and coordinating the first ever Strong, Smart and Bold Boutique, held recently at the administrative offices.

“For two weeks, my ERG collected women’s professional clothes at five Memphis sites,” Rebecka said. “We corralled everything together and brought it to the Girls Inc. offices and had a sorting party.”

Fifteen volunteers helped set up and run the boutique, which was promoted among First Tennessee staff, and Girls Inc. supporters and friends. For $25, boutique visitors received a reusable Girls Inc. bag and the chance to fill it with whatever clothing they could fit into it. Proceeds went to fund programs and the left over items were donated to the clothing program at Union Grove Baptist Church in Frayser.

For Rebecka, Girls Inc. is important because it provides support for girls from any set of circumstances.

“Every girl has her own story. But Girls Inc. seems to meet all of them where they are,” she said. “It’s this skeleton key of a program that fits every lock. It make me feel good that these girls have a place to go.”

 

 

Testimonials

I was very shy and didn’t speak to anyone or interact with others much. I love to read, have natural hair, have been called weird. I came to Girls Inc. and because I was accepted the way I am, I came out of my shell. I tried new things, I have found my voice. - Rahni


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