These Girls Are Proof: Investing in Young Feminists Pays Off

“Not enough girls in this world,” says Tina Lu, a high school junior, “know the power they have to make a difference.”

Lu is a member of HERLead, the growing mentorship initiative created by the NGO Vital Voices in partnership with ANN Inc. With an overarching belief that women leaders invest in their communities and that leadership can be cultivated at a young age, HERLead empowers teenage girls who want to improve their hometowns. Since 2011, 280 high school girls from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico have participated. They attend conferences, spend a year connecting with mentors from the business world, brainstorm with each other and then have the chance to apply for grants up to $2,000 to make the projects they dream up come to life.

“Young girls are not burdened by decades of being told things or being taught a certain way,” says Uma Iyer, Vital Voices Director of Engagement. “These girls push boundaries in ways adults would never approach problem solving. It’s also good business – they are coming up with better solutions to problems. Young girls are more up to speed on innovation and thinking outside of the box.”

Roann, a high school senior in Greenville, South Carolina, felt the daily discomfort of her peers not understanding why she wore a hijab. She was also alarmed by the deaths of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill and saw her community grappling with the loss. After attending the HERLead summit, she decided to reach out to local churches, mosques and temples to propose a series of gatherings; once they agreed to co-host, she invited kids from her high school to stop by each center and participate in games and discussions about how each religion overlapped and how they were different.

“We had a game where we answered very open questions about our religion,” Roann explained. “So, like there was no right or wrong answer, you’d just answer from your own perspective. We established the idea that even though we believe different things and answer the questions differently, that doesn’t mean we should disagree or harm one another. It just means we should accept those differences and move forward working together.”

After activities and a shared meal together (the HERLead funds paid for materials and food), students transitioned from the worship centers to volunteer projects. They pitched in side-by-side at homeless centers, soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity and re-sell stores. The group liked that each faith valued service and wanted to end each gathering by working together to create positive change in the community. In the months that followed, they created “Youth Interfaith Education Day,” where their neighbors, parents and siblings could better familiarize themselves with different religions and set a tone of inclusion.

Between meetings and the interfaith fair, Roann’s programs drew 450 attendees. “A lot of people were surprised by what they learned,” Roann told Ms. “One boy, who didn’t know a lot about Muslim women, came up to me and said: ‘I can’t believe you guys actually believe that. I used to think you were oppressed and didn’t have rights.’ It was eye opening for him to learn not only that we have rights, but also that there was a Muslim woman leading an initiative that he really benefited from.”

17-year-old Amy Wang was concerned when she noticed her school debate team in New Jersey was discussing issues of race without students of color present. She carried that concern to the HERLead conference, where she learned how to prepare an elevator pitch with Ann Taylor reps, and went to straight to school administrators when she got home with a proposal to integrate debate into the existing civics curriculum.

“Debate is all about having different kinds of arguments,” Amy says. “When you’re missing an entire group, everyone else is missing out on those perspectives and opinions.” The administration saw Amy’s point and agreed to implement her idea. From there, she created a series of free debate camps at the Princeton Library and at Urban Promise school in Trenton as Vital Voices helped her establish a timeline, framework and budget for her clubs – including line items for materials, snacks and prizes.

Should there be mandatory voting in federal elections? Should sports have more funding than performing arts? Amy was pleased with how quickly students took up arguments. She was  excited about the potential long-term impacts debate could have on their lives: public speaking skills, the ability to answer questions on a whim, persuasion, research and fact checking are all strengths students can utilize in the future.

When Tina noticed girls at her high school were less likely than boys to sign up for clubs in math and science, she decided she wanted to do something about it. At the HERLead conference, she originally proposed a STEM inspired board game to address women’s absence in the fields, but reconsidered when mentors suggested in-person approaches. That led her to launch Equalize It!, an after-school tutoring program for fourth- and fifth-grade girls to help foster confidence in math and science.

“Obviously people don’t tell girls they can’t be good at math or science,” Tina says. “It’s more of an implicit stereotype: when we picture somebody who’s good at math or with computers we automatically picture a boy most of the time. I think it’s important to show girls that they can be good at these subjects and building this confidence can help overcome this social stereotype.”

Tina set an example of delighting in math while leading games and lesson plans for the elementary school students in her program. The mentorship model was so well received that she agreed to teach an extra round of classes in the summer. To share what she learned, she then created manuals for other high school tutors with lesson plans and tips.

HERLead fellows remain connected to the network once their first year is up; as they continue their projects and run into challenges, they email and text each other finding ways around each obstacle. That kind of support only gets better with bigger numbers, and luckily HERLead is a growing group, one that welcomes reoccurring grants and new members. The next application period opens January 2018.

Vital Voices President Alyse Nelson knows first-hand the difference programs like this can make. “I was just a bit older than the average HERLead fellow when I traveled to the UN’s Fourth World Conference in Beijing,” she said. “The issues that I learned about, the women that I met and the stories that they told me changed the course of my life. Our hope at Vital Voices is that this fellowship will be just as life-changing, just as much of a pivot point for these young women.”

Building and maintaining confidence is fundamental to the Vital Voices model. The nonprofit, which primarily invests in mentorship of professional women around the world, notes that sustained levels of confidence is a big part of what helps keep female leaders going. While attending trainings, Vital Voices members are reminded that the best solutions to problems usually come from people within the communities affected. They are encouraged to dream up innovative partnerships, take calculated risks and to explore their work with curiosity and sincerity.

For participants, the support of ANN Inc. throughout the program provides affirmation as well. HERLead attendees recognize that incredible gesture of having a big business in the mix, and they’re grateful for the support. “I live in a relatively small city and a small state,” says Roann, glowing from the success of her interfaith program. “It’s surreal that powerful adults in a powerful company would invest in my idea.” Girls like Roann hope more businesses will follow ANN Inc.’s lead and team up with NGOs and students.

“To other companies thinking of doing this, I would tell them do it,” Roann said. “Pull out all the extra money you have and do it because there’s a lot of youth out there who have ideas. If more companies can recognize youth have a lot of potential and we have really great ideas (like, we don’t just spend all day on social media) I think they’d be able to create a really big change. You can empower a lot of youth to grow up as leaders.”


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.