Courtesy Girls Empowerment Network

With 25 years of service, the Girls Empowerment Network's focus on listening and being responsive to its clients drove home a key lesson: For any nonprofit to be effective, it needs to continually make its services accessible to people. 

During one of our first Community Bridges gatherings, we had the opportunity to speak with each partner organization to learn about their missions and project concepts. As I was whisked from Zoom breakout room to breakout room, I was both excited and overwhelmed by the wide range of past projects that previous fellows pursued. 

In addition to undertaking coursework in urban sociology, Community Bridges fellows have the unique opportunity to intern with nonprofits in Houston, working across issues such as  public health, food insecurity, education, community development and environmental justice. 

When I saw Girls Empowerment Network on the list of partners—a new addition to the program last year—I immediately felt drawn to its work. When I was a kid, my mom always encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities that I might not get as a girl growing up in a different place or time. However, it wasn’t just my personal connection to the organization’s mission that attracted me; I also admired its holistic approach and saw an opportunity to explore different facets of inequality within the bounds of a semester-long project. 

The Girls Empowerment Network works to “ignite the power in girls” from grades 3-12 through camps, leadership summits, and other programming accessible to girls at home or through their schools. The organization has been operating in Houston for five years, but it originally began in Austin in 1996 as The Ophelia Project, inspired by Dr. Mary Pipher’s book, "Reviving Ophelia." The book outlines the systematic decline of girls’ self-esteem during adolescence, which can have severe consequences, including a significant increase in disordered eating, depression, self-harm, poor academic performance, and substance abuse. Twenty-five years later, the group is still equipping its students with the tools they need to meet their full potential, and with tremendous results—this past year, it engaged, educated, and empowered 15,456 individuals across Houston, Austin, and central Texas. 

During the spring semester, I created a needs assessment the nonprofit could use to capture an accurate picture of each of its partner campuses and their most salient issues. This nuanced understanding of partners’ perspectives is particularly important because Girls Empowerment Network serves schools across several districts with vastly different needs. 

For example, a representative from Wilmer T. Hall Center for Education, a high school in Aldine ISD, shared with me that many students were having difficulties accessing the internet despite having been provided hotspots from the school. Many students at Hall are also parents themselves, struggling to simultaneously support their families, stay on top of their coursework and cope with the effects of the pandemic. At Horn Elementary School in Houston ISD, located in Bellaire, students were affected by the pandemic in a very different way. Unlike students at Hall, Horn students were able to access the internet with ease. In fact, their representative was concerned that they were becoming overexposed to the online world because of COVID-19, which in turn led to increased anxiety and sometimes manifested in behavioral problems. 

In addition to facing distinct challenges, these schools have very different demographics. Students at Hall are predominantly Hispanic and Black and are typically from low-income backgrounds, whereas students from Horn are largely white and of higher socioeconomic status—a contrast that is rooted in and reflective of a long and complex history of racist policies, systems and structures in our city. 

Because each school highlighted such distinct challenges, the needs assessment created a significant amount of follow-up work. In addition to grappling with anxiety and lack of internet access, students were also navigating tense relationships with social media and searching for role models who reflect their own identities across a wide range of careers. In light of all of this, I decided to extend my fellowship into the summer to continue what I started and help develop tailored strategies for meeting partners’ self-expressed needs. 

With the additional opportunity to dedicate 40 hours a week to this effort, I was able to explore a much wider range of the organization’s work, including assisting with The Impact Team, curriculum redesign, and the planning and organization of the annual Pathfinder Leadership Summit.

Girls Empowerment Network places an emphasis on helping girls discover their own power by cultivating self-efficacy, or a girl's belief in her own ability to succeed.Because self-efficacy is often considered a soft skill—an interpersonal skill that’s harder to quantify than measurable, hard skills—research and statistics are essential to demonstrating the effectiveness of the nonprofit’s work. As a member of the Impact team, I helped build out a literature review of self-efficacy. 

The organization also strives to ensure its programming is representative of the students it serves, who are predominantly Black and Latinx. In keeping with this, the organization is in the process of a curriculum redesign effort informed by feedback from girls themselves as well as a new framework known as Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. The approach emphasizes making learning more accessible by offering multiple means of exploring content to accommodate all learners. My exposure to UDL was a very small part of my summer—we had a two-hour training on it as part of the curriculum redesign project—but it was one of the most poignant moments of my entire fellowship. For me, it reemphasized a point that we touched upon several times in our Community Bridges coursework: that services must be accessible to those for whom they are intended.

One could argue that most nonprofit work boils down to improving access to some kind of resource. Girls Empowerment Network, for example, gives their clients access to different skills and programming that help them tap into their full potential. But when girls can’t understand the modules being delivered to them, can’t relate to the role models who come in as guest speakers, or have parents who don’t speak and read the same languages the organization uses in outreach materials, they can become cut off from the resources that are meant for them.

Through learning about the UDL framework, participating in the curriculum redesign, collaborating with the Impact Team, and helping to arrange Pathfinder, I saw firsthand how important it is for nonprofits to deliver their services in a way that clients can actually reach them. I am also proud to have been a part of a team that values all of its clients and seeks to connect with them in myriad ways. Whether it’s setting aside time to solicit direct feedback from its students or ensuring that counselors personally interact with each individual during programs, Girls Empowerment Network amplifies and uplifts clients' voices as it listens to and acts upon the input and perspectives of girls and their communities.

Throughout my fellowship, I was fortunate to learn from many different people who brought their own perspectives to our projects and who constantly strived to find new ways to help each girl get the most they can out of each program. I was surrounded by passionate coworkers, many of whom dedicated time to the Girls Empowerment Network through AmeriCorps and were eager to help me reach out to people whenever I faced language barriers. My colleagues often lingered after meetings to discuss each project in more detail and think about how we could tweak things to make them more exciting and engaging. My supervisor, who recently graduated with her degree in social work and is navigating life as a new mother, showed all of us what it meant to “bring the magic” and make girls feel like they are seen and special.

This experience has challenged me to employ holistic, human-centered strategies for forging authentic connections with people as I move forward into my career. Whether it’s trying to pick up a few phrases of a different language spoken by community members or educating myself about different learning styles, I am inspired to engage with diverse people in new ways that validate their experiences and open opportunities. 

There’s one thing I know for sure: I still have lots of learning to do. 

Veda Kumar is a Community Bridges summer fellow and a psychology and sociology senior at Rice University.