In a small, Capitol Hill office, Christmas lights still hang in the windows and a framed poster of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Washington Monument hangs on a wall.
This is the home of Powerful Voices, a nonprofit organization supported mainly by foundation grants and private donations, that for 11 years has worked to improve the lives of girls in both middle schools and juvenile-detention centers. Its motto: "Because strong girls become strong women."
Anshu Wahi, the instructional coordinator of the after-school RAP (Girls Rights! Action! Power!) program, is passionate about her work. Wahi speaks with energy and passion about the challenges "her girls" face. It is easy to see how young girls would respond to her enthusiasm and charisma. Leaning forward, she explains how the organization addresses both the immediate and personal needs of the girls, while improving their awareness of the broader issues of racism and sexism in their environment.
"We have girls come in saying 'all black people live in the ghetto,'" says Wahi. Race is a "huge" issue and many of the girls who live troubled lives and are helped by the programs are people of color.
The programs try to combat the effects of such negative stereotypes in part by analyzing the way women and minorities are portrayed in mass media. For example, Wahi says that lighter-skinned black women are consistently portrayed as more beautiful than darker-skinned women.
She tries to make her girls aware of these messages, to be articulate about what is being presented and what it means and to understand that they can take action-turning off the TV, if nothing else, or talking to their friends about the unfair stereotypes they see.
The RAP, which brings together small groups of troubled girls in Washington, Hamilton and Denny middle schools, also deals with the more immediate and personal concerns of the girls, addressing issues that are often ignored in public schools. There are condom demonstrations and information about safe sex to supplement what they receive in school. But many problems stem from the way the girls interact with their peers.
"They say there's 'girl drama,' all the time," says Wahi. Gossip, teasing and even physical fighting seem like the norm. "It's cooler to create a scene. There's lots of competitiveness and cliques." This is one of the core problems the RAP programs address.
"I think there is pressure on girls to not express negative thoughts, or to express them in a negative way," says Wahi. The after-school programs work to counter this pressure, by setting a tone of respect and teaching the girls about conflict resolution and positive decision-making.
Eventually, some of the girls who succeed in the program become teen leaders, getting involved in turn with the programs and helping others. Because of the program, they have a better understanding of what they hold in themselves," Wahi said.
Tenth-grader Shermika Smith was a participant in both the STAGES juvenile-detention center and RAP programs. Now that she has become a teen leader, she has the opportunity to pass along to others the wisdom she's acquired. Last year, many girls were upset and angry about a fight that had just happened near where they were meeting, involving the sister of one of the group members.
"It was a room full of chaos," says Wahi, "but the girls were more willing to listen to a ninth-grader like Shermika than to us." Shermika told the girls it was important not to let people distract them, and rather they should avoid the drama and focus on their studies. "You'll be successful and they'll be flipping burgers," she told them.
Speaking of her own experience, she says, "RAP informs me about how the media affects my self-esteem." She comments on the women one sees in magazines and music videos, and says she knows now that those women are "fake," that no one really looks like that. Knowing this helps build her self-esteem.
"It's kind of therapeutic to fulfill that role," says Wahi of her work in the RAP program. When asked if her own experiences help her to sympathize with the challenges her girls face, she hesitates before assenting to the presumptions the question contains, saying that a lot of the issues girls face growing up in America are the same, regardless of specific backgrounds. "This lets me give back in a way I wish someone would have given back to me."
Many of the art projects created by the girls are proudly displayed in the Powerful Voices' office. One massive collage displays headlines and pictures from magazines that the girls identified as sexist or demeaning. Another piece is simply the torso of a female mannequin decorated with gold stars and printed photographs of the favorite body part of each girl.
The torso has wings made of blue tissue paper, and on the wings are silver messages describing the girls' hopes for themselves and the world. They echo Martin Luther King Jr.'s words. "My dream for the world is to become non-ignorant or less ignorant, open-minded, caring, less violent, readers, writers, and things that benefit the earth," says one.
Powerful Voices is located at 1620 18th Ave. For more information, call 206-860-1026.
Milo Anderson is a student at the University of Washington's School of Communication newslab. He can be reached at editor@capitol hilltimes.com.[[In-content Ad]]