The Pittsburgh Foundation

Tools to thriveThe Pittsburgh Foundation partners with a nonprofit dedicated to developing Black girls to be stronger than the forces working against their success.

Ashley Dandridge, a doctoral student at Chatham University, speaks at a meeting of the Black Girls Equity Alliance, a program of Gwen’s Girls. The program tackles, through research and advocacy, inequities faced by Black girls.

by Ryan Rydzewski
Ryan Rydzewski is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

KATHI ELLIOTT KNOWS THEIR STORIES — she hears them every day. Stories of girls like Talia, who hopes to travel the world as a photographer. Or of students like Jamaica, torn between architecture and medicine.

Stories of strong young women — scholarship holders and sibling caretakers, budding scientists and family torchbearers. Girls who know their potential: “I can do anything I put my mind to,” says Jamaica. “I’m powerful.”

But as executive director of Gwen’s Girls, Elliott also knows the statistics. The girls she works with are powerful, yes — but so are the strains of sexism and racism that fester throughout the country. The truth, says Elliott, is that for girls — particularly Black girls — those strains can turn minor slip-ups into lifelong setbacks.

“It’s a dynamic we see everywhere,” she says. “From schools to the juvenile justice system, Black girls are disproportionately singled out and punished.” And once they’re entangled with the law, says Elliott, it can be all but impossible to get out — a problem that’s especially pronounced in Pittsburgh.

In Allegheny County, Black girls are referred to the juvenile justice system 11 times more often than white girls, despite research showing that neither group commits more serious or more frequent offenses than the other. Moreover, when misbehaviors do occur, they’re often rooted in trauma:

Black girls in Pittsburgh are more likely to live in poverty, twice as likely to experience rape and nine times more likely to lose a loved one to violence.

“Our systems are supposed to support these girls and give them the tools they need to thrive,” says Elliott. “But in reality, they can be discriminatory and even harmful.”

It’s a reality Elliott knows well. Her late mother, Gwendolyn Elliott, was Pittsburgh’s first Black female police commander. While on the beat, says Kathi Elliott, “She’d get a lot of calls from mothers, especially mothers of [tweens and teenagers],” Elliott recalls. “They go through turbulent times. But when my mom tried to find programs focused specifically on the needs of girls, there weren’t any. So she decided to start her own.”

The result was Gwen’s Girls, a nonprofit that supports 120 girls daily throughout Allegheny County with program sites located in the North Side, Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg and Clairton communities. The organization reaches girls through gender-specific after-school programs, mentorship pairings and workforce training.

Now, after nearly two decades of helping girls cope with poverty’s stressors and trauma’s toxic effects, the organization is confronting a fundamental question: why is Pittsburgh failing so many girls in the first place? Those inside the organization and in other youth-serving agencies say it’s because traditional youth-development systems are gender-neutral and not able to customize programs to girls, who now face increasingly negative forces that diminish life prospects.

To grow more powerful counter-forces, Gwen’s Girls is partnering with The Pittsburgh Foundation and engaging with its 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle that addresses root causes of poverty and inequity.

The two organizations, along with more than a dozen additional agencies and advocates, spent months listening to young men and women and learning their stories of trauma, resilience and strength. The resulting report, “A Qualitative Study of Youth and the Juvenile Justice System,” outlined interventions and policy recommendations informed by the youth themselves.

From schools to the juvenile justice system, Black girls are disproportionately singled out and punished. These systems are supposed to support girls... but in reality, they can be discriminatory and even harmful.”

It also launched a joint effort to change the systems that can harm young women. “Both of our organizations believe in holding systems — and ourselves — accountable to the people we serve,” says Michael Yonas, the Foundation’s director of research and special initiatives. “In that, Gwen’s Girls is more than a grantee. They’re a partner.”

Indeed, Gwen’s Girls and the Foundation have made measurable strides in countering the biases and stereotypes that hold girls back. As a result of their advocacy, implicit-bias training and trauma-informed care are increasingly the norm in school districts and child welfare offices. A new data dashboard developed by the Allegheny County Office of Juvenile Probation allows for transparent, real-time monitoring of referrals and inequities. And a new Foundation-funded diversion program for young female offenders trades punitive measures — which often don’t help anyone — for a more restorative approach.

In Allegheny County, magistrates can now refer young women to Gwen’s Girls instead of to the juvenile justice system. There, a caring mentor can help them navigate legal systems, human-services agencies and the everyday difficulties of growing up. The hope, says Elliott, “is that we can prevent girls’ trajectory into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

So far, it seems to be working. As bad as the numbers can be, they’re actually an improvement on years past. And though much remains to be done, Elliott cites several reasons for optimism, including a $60,000 grant from the Foundation that will allow Gwen’s Girls to expand its mentorship program and implement a model proven to boost girls’ resilience.

Then there’s the Black Girls Equity Alliance — a network of organizations and advocates that Elliott calls “the most rewarding, productive project I’ve ever been a part of.” The alliance’s working groups — focused on child welfare, juvenile justice, education and health — meet monthly to develop programs and policy recommendations designed to move the needle.

Best of all, a growing number of girls regularly join the meetings to share their stories, guide the alliance’s work and lift each other up. At a recent equity summit, for example, “Girls from different schools came together and shared their thoughts about Black beauty,” said Rashonda, one of the participants. “It’s empowering.”

Nearby, a group of girls discussed their ideas for boosting self-esteem among young Black women. “Real queens,” they chanted in unison, “fix each other’s crowns.”

Elliott credits the Foundation not only for funding such work, but also for getting involved as an advocate. “The Foundation knows what it means to be a partner,” she says.

They come to our meetings. They get to know our girls. They take those extra steps toward understanding nonprofits’ needs and how to best support them — not just financially, but also with their expertise, their connections and their ability to improve the data or research. Working with them has been phenomenal. They’re an asset to the girls we serve.”

Original story appeared in the Forum Quarterly Summer 2019.