Author, Leah Krieble with S.O.U.L. Sisters
This is the first in a series of three blog posts highlighting S.O.U.L. Sisters’ work.
It’s a Monday afternoon and girls fly into a room on the fourth floor of Girls Prep Lower East Side Middle School, a charter school on the Lower East Side of New York City, to begin S.O.U.L. Sisters. Laughter, chatter and excitement fill the room as we begin. “Where’s the talking stick?” one girl asks. “I want to talk about my feelings first!” says another girl in the room. The girls know the routine and they are ready to take over the world, beginning with understanding themselves and the power that can come from supporting each other and organizing together.
S.O.U.L. Sisters is a national nonprofit with programs in New York City and Miami that mobilizes young women of color to interrupt cycles of poverty and violence through after-school programming, leadership development, healing opportunities, and community organizing.
Jadea, a middle schooler, says “I thought S.O.U.L. Sisters would help me become a better person and help me in expressing the inner me. It’s important because it helps you realize you’re not the only one and you can be yourself.”
Ariela, another student, agrees, “S.O.U.L. Sisters is fun and it’s important because everyone is there for each other.”
This tight-knit strength that we can find from supporting each other is the essence of S.O.U.L. Sisters. Twice a week, middle school girls from Girls Prep come together to discuss life, love, leadership and social justice in an effort to create positive change within their communities, finding support amongst their peers throughout the journey.
In 2014, after years of working with youth involved in the juvenile justice system in New York City and finding little support and programming for girls of color, Tanisha Douglas and Caitlin Gibb, S.O.U.L Sisters Co-Founders and Executive Directors, began building the foundation for today’s S.O.U.L. Sisters. Young women of color are facing high rates of incarceration, gender specific violence, unemployment, and school push-out. They are between 3.5 to 6 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended and expelled from school. We need to take action. To address these issues, Douglas and Gibb recognized the need to create separate healing spaces and leadership development for young women of color and founded S.O.U.L. Sisters.
In January of 2015, Douglas and Gibb opened applications for the first S.O.U.L. Sisters’ Youth Leaders Board. Over forty young women applied, and fourteen were selected across both cities to come together as the guiding voice of the organization. Danelvi, a young woman on the Youth Leaders Board, explains her reason for joining; “I can do so many things to change the world and some people may feel little but affecting change is when you know you’re doing something right.”
Our newest project is our Youth Social Enterprise, a program that is laying the groundwork for our S.O.U.L. Line Business, Inc.
Gibb says, “Possibilities for entrepreneurship are endless, and launching a youth social enterprise felt like a super exciting, innovative, and radical way for us to move away from the nonprofit industrial complex while also providing young women with an opportunity to create something, gain new skills and confidence, and of course make some money.”
This project blends the worlds of business and social impact. Staff member Olivia LaViolette, says, “The youth entrepreneurship project provides our young women with an opportunity to learn marketable business skills, gain confidence in their decision making abilities, and associate themselves with a larger social justice movement.”
Members of the Youth Leaders Board are designing products and providing guidance on curriculum for our younger middle school girls at Girls Prep. Our first products will include stationary, canvas bags and t-shirts with the theme of love as our inspiration. Love is a critical piece of social justice work and in order to make change and embark on journeys of healing, it is fundamental for us to understand what it means to love and be loved. We focus on the importance of loving ourselves and loving each other. We want to use our products to also promote this message of love.
Vanna, who co-facilitates workshops at Girls Prep and also serves on the Youth Leaders Board says, “As a young woman myself, it’s important to be aware of the social issues and help younger girls become leaders within the community. Working with the girls has given me a new perspective on what love means to them.”
As the girls begin to talk about the theme of love, they’re getting excited about the process of design and production. Kassadi, a middle school student who is excited about the project, says, “It’s important for you to understand love before you can spread it. You have to love yourself before you can really love others.”
Logan, a member of the Youth Leaders Board, also echoes this excitement for the project by saying, “I’m excited to see what the youth create. There aren’t many opportunities for youth to guide endeavors of this magnitude so I am extremely excited to see what we produce.”
To get the project going, Molly Shaheen, a NYC fashion designer and business owner, is also working with the Youth Leaders Board to create a clutch that will be ready for sale this Spring. For Shaheen, fashion is much more than a 9-5 job – it’s about passion, imagination and connection. She says, “We need to help each other, especially as women. We feed on each other for support and building relationships is so important.”
It’s important, she says, for women to remember they’re beautiful and capable of everything they set their mind to. “Building confidence is necessary as a woman. You have to be confident and carry yourself as such in order to get people to take you seriously and while it can be intimidating at times, you have to persevere. It’s worth it.”
Our Youth Social Enterprise project will last through April, 2016 as the young women learn about the design process, help develop our business and continue to build confidence in themselves and each other through the process. The first round of products with the message of love will be available for purchase on our online store in March and the products that the young women create with Shaheen will also be ready for pre-orders in the coming month. All profits will go to S.O.U.L. Sisters’ programming and help us continue to do the work that we do.
Shaheen reminds us all, “It’s important to talk about your passion, especially as women. If we don’t talk about our passions and believe in our success and possibilities, we’re not going to move forward.”