Gwen’s Girls’ summit at Pitt to focus on challenges girls face
October 7, 2016 12:25 AM
Totianna Hill, 15, left, and Deaysa Trent use the microscope last week in the newly refurbished science lab at the Gwen’s Girls North Side after-school center.
Seaneria Bruce, 11, left, and other members of Gwen’s Girls color after completing their homework with volunteers at the North Side Gwen’s Girls after-school center.
From left, Amy Yeu, Denise McGill-Delaney, Kathi Elliot, Ingrid Edwards and Lea Thomas at the North Side Gwen’s Girls after-school center. Ms. Elliot runs Gwen’s Girls and the others have been on staff since the beginning of the program.
By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When she became executive director of Gwen’s Girls last year, one of Kathi Elliott’s goals was to bring together experts throughout the Pittsburgh region who work with at-risk girls and craft a plan to tackle the racial and gender disparities that prevent some young women from achieving higher education or long-term, sustainable employment.
Ms. Elliott’s vision will be realized next week when Gwen’s Girls, a nonprofit founded by Ms. Elliott’s late mother, Gwendolyn Elliott, convenes its first Equity Summit at the University of Pittsburgh. The aim is to raise awareness of inequities in education, social services and juvenile justice systems that create barriers for disadvantaged girls.
The daylong event on Oct. 14 will include a preview of a State of the Girls Report — funded by the Heinz Endowments and the FISA Foundation — which provides hard data on challenges girls face.
“There’s a really alarming rate of racial and gender disproportionality,” said Sara Goodkind, associate professor at Pitt’s School of Social Work who authored the report.
Her research found, for instance, that black girls in the city of Pittsburgh are more than three times as likely as white girls to be suspended from school.
Nationwide, she said, data show that black girls are three times as likely as white girls to be referred to juvenile court. In Allegheny County, the statistics are much higher, with black girls 11 times more likely to be referred to juvenile court than white girls, Ms. Goodkind said.
“We know a lot of that is due to racial biases and differential treatment.”
Besides providing highlights from Ms. Goodkind’s report, the summit will bring together experts in education, child welfare, health care and juvenile justice who will conduct panel discussions and workshops to focus on racial and gender disparities.
“If my mother was alive, these are the types of things she would focus on and be involved in: equity issues that impact women and girls,” Ms. Elliott said. “We want to have that conversation in Pittsburgh.”
Gwendolyn Elliott, who died in 2007, was the first black, female commander on the Pittsburgh police force. She launched Gwen’s Girls in 2002, after her retirement, to provide programming and resources for girls from troubled homes or abusive situations.
Kathi Elliott, who holds a doctorate in nursing practice as well as degrees in psychology and social work, served on the board of Gwen’s Girls for eight years before becoming its executive director in August 2015. The nonprofit’s annual budget is about $2.5 million; about 80 percent of its funding comes from the state through the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families.
The North Side-based organization operates after-school programs for about 100 at-risk girls ages 8-18 at centers on the North Side, as well as in Clairton and Penn Hills.
At those sites, services include academic tutoring, job training, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming, health and wellness activities including yoga and gardening, and group and individual counseling support to deal with issues such as bullying, grief, dating violence and body image.
The organization also has a group home for teen mothers and other girls who are referred by the county CYF; and it sponsors in-school and community programs for girls about making positive life choices.
What about the girls?
When Kathi Elliott brought the idea for an equity summit to the FISA Foundation, “We leapt at that opportunity” to help fund it, said Kristy Trautmann, executive director of the foundation whose mission is to support programs for women, girls and people with disabilities.
“It was a way to support Gwen’s Girls in raising some of these issues to the attention of the broader community,” she said.
The timing was right, said Ms. Trautmann, because of racial discord resulting from high-profile police incidents nationwide.
“For the last couple of years, we’ve been hearing increasingly an amplified message on the national stage about inequities facing men and boys of color. But what about the women and the girls?”
Follow-up work after the summit, she said, will include convening work groups to address policies and practices and to develop “a road map for what happens next.”
Carmen Anderson, senior program officer at the Heinz Endowments, said that foundation funded the summit and the State of the Girls report because race and gender disparities in social systems “have to be addressed more holistically.”
“We need to move upstream to think about how we can intervene where there’s inequitable treatment of girls.”
The endowments and FISA each allocated $5,000 to sponsor the summit.
The endowments’ relationship with Gwen’s Girls goes back to its founding, Ms. Anderson said.
“Gwen Elliott as a police commander was seeing first-hand on the street the kind of challenges young people face,” Ms. Anderson said. Gwen’s Girls has developed “a long-standing commitment to … best practices that increase the potential for positive outcomes for the girls” including pregnancy prevention and encouraging girls to stay in school.
The keynote speaker for the summit will be Mary Burke, founder of The Project to End Human Trafficking and a professor of counseling and psychology at Carlow University.
A dinner the night before the summit will feature Kimberlyn Leary, associate professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a former adviser to the White House Council on Women and Girls where she developed the “Advancing Equity” initiative to improve life outcomes for women and girls of color.
Proceeds from the dinner event benefit research at the Gwendolyn J. Elliott Institute, which was founded in 2015 as an affiliate of Gwen’s Girls to conduct research and training for individuals and organizations that work with girls.
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