Talking with ... Ayana Ledford

She's making progress in mission to empower girls

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On Thursday, the Girls Coalition of Southwestern Pennsylvania will kick off what it hopes will become an annual event: a daylong conference in which professionals who work with young women will have access to a wide range of advice and expertise on how to equip girls for future success.

Among the workshops scheduled is one on how to empower girls through negotiation skills they can use from their early school years through their professional careers. A co-leader of that workshop is Ayana Ledford, executive director of Progress, a program based at Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management that undertakes research and designs activities for girls and young women.

Q: Progress stands for Program for Research & Outreach on Gender Equity in Society. What are its origins?

A: We started in 2006 as a result of [CMU professor of economics] Linda Babcock's research on women and negotiation. (Dr. Babcock co-wrote "Women Don't Ask" and "Ask for It.")

Q: What has Progress accomplished to date?

A: We do advocacy. We did a partnership with the Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania to develop a badge for negotiation called "Win-Win: How to Get What You Want." We're working with the Girl Scouts of the USA to do it nationally. We hope to execute the national patch this year.

Ayana Ledford

Job: Executive director, Progress, Carnegie Mellon University H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.

Hometown: Sag Harbor, N.Y.; resides in Friendship

Education: Bachelor of arts, sociology, Dickinson College, 1997; master of social work, University of Pittsburgh, 2003.

Career: 1997: health education facilitator, Gabon, Africa; 1998-2001: service associate, United Healthcare; 2001-03: youth employment supervisor and employment manager, Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.; 2003-05: research and program associate, Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University; 2005-06: community specialist, Wireless Neighborhoods & Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.; 2006-present: executive director, Progress.

We partnered with the Women and Girls Foundation to develop a game, and students from CMU's Entertainment Technology Center helped get it online. It's called "Reign of Aquaria." It's designed for middle-school girls ages 10 to 12 to learn to ask for what they want. But even some younger girls can whiz through it. We tested it to make it a realistic, problem-solving exercise. It's free on our Web site. (

We're creating a film with help from some CMU faculty. The film has vignettes of girls arguing over a rumor. A fight is about to start. The issue is: Will they negotiate or talk it out? We have a version with a suburban cast and one with an urban cast because the inner-city school kids won't relate to a suburban setting and an all-white cast. We're still shooting the film and hope to release it this year.

It will be part of the Progress tool kit that will include the film, the game and a Negotiation Guidebook for Girls that we are currently editing.

Q: You personally go out and do workshops and seminars where you speak directly to girls. What negotiation strategies do you attempt to instill in them?

A: I don't blame aggressive or passive girls. I try to teach them how to communicate with their peers and group dynamics. How to be in a group project.

Let's say they're working on a group project at school and the rumors start about so-and-so not doing their share of the job. I teach tools for how to take a piece of the project, how to speak up.

Some of these girls are as young as 7 or 8 and are baby-sitting their younger siblings and going to school and everything else. And they think their teachers are against them. So I tell them to speak up and let their teachers or other adults know what they are juggling.

Q: Progress' mission is to provide girls with the power of negotiation to achieve more influence and advance equality between men and women. How does teaching negotiation skills to girls help them do that later on?

A: There's value in it for women and girls. People think negotiating is just about work wages. But nonworking women are juggling households. Young girls are socialized to do chores. But is it part of a reward system?

We teach them to think and talk about their goals. Whether they want a cell phone or an A grade in a class. It takes planning and preparation and steps to achieve that goal. The key is always: Ask for what you want; don't be afraid. The worst answer you can hear is "no." It's really, really quite simple, but we don't do it.

Q: How did you develop your own focus on young women's issues?

A: I have five sisters. And what I did at Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. [case managing 20 high school, at-risk youth] tied into the work I'm doing now. I saw girls who just quit their jobs. They might not have if I had the experience then that I have now.

Q: Do you have a mentor?

A: There have been so many, I won't name them. There are so many women in my life who have helped me out. Pittsburgh is so small you never know who will be a stepping stone to help you out.

Q: How did you land in Pittsburgh after growing up on Long Island and spending time as a volunteer in Africa as a young college graduate?

A: I came to Pittsburgh to go to graduate school at Pitt. Then the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. hired me right after grad school. I had done a field placement there during grad school.

Working in a grass-roots job was the best for me right after school. I was fund-raising, managing individuals. Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. had trust in [me] and let me run with it. They thought it was great to have an African-American woman for girls to come to for [employment counseling and help]. Q: How do you spend your leisure time as a young, professional city dweller?

A: I love to run, even outside during the winter. I go to the gym. I'm training for a marathon.

I work on the Sankofa Fund of Southwest Pennsylvania (a group of volunteers who invest time and resources in issues and organizations that benefit African-Americans).

I just dropped a book club because I was sick of organizing it.

And I'm trying to find a way to start a company to make headbands out of my boyfriend's used neckties.

For information or to register for the Girls Coalition conference, go to

Joyce Gannon can be reached at or 412-263-1580.


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