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Girls as Grantmakers

How To Get Your Daughter Involved in Grantmaking To Make A Difference

It was the "girlcott" heard 'round the world – or at least around the country. A small, handpicked group of preteen and teenage girls was trying to find a way in which they could empower other young girls. One thing that came up over and over in their meeting was the proliferation of demeaning T-shirts sold by retailer Abercrombie & Fitch with slogans such as "who needs brains when you have these?"

The girls, all of whom, by the way, have both brains and breasts and choose to use the former, decided this was a trend with which they were not comfortable. They organized a "girlcott" to protest the messages on the shirts. The national media picked it up, the girls got a meeting with Abercrombie officers, the shirts were pulled from the shelves, and the very first action of the new group, Girls as Grantmakers, made history, put a feminine spin on our cultural lexicon and proved that girl power isn't just a cute slogan.

Girls to Women, and Back

Girls as Grantmakers is a program of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. The organization was started in 2002 by a group of women who wanted to establish a local women's fund. Executive Director Heather Arnet says groups such as hers have been around for about 25 years. "Independent groups like this are all over the world," she says. "What they share is a similar history where a group of women get together and share their money to focus on women and girls."

In forming the group, Arnet visited similar organizations for inspiration and ideas. From the very beginning, she knew it was important to get girls involved in the grant and mentoring process. "I thought we already had the women part, and we'd made grants to and by women and some of those projects served girls, but we felt we weren't incorporating them," she says. "It was important to me they didn't feel as if they were just being served, but were being granted ownership."

In addition, Arnet was dedicated to the goal of choosing a diverse group of girls so that they could learn from each other. Her group sent applications to every school in Allegheny County, hoping to get applications that reflected the ethnic and economic diversity Arnet had in mind.

Even as the diverse group Arnet had envisioned took form, not in Arnet's wildest dreams did she think they'd make such a splash so quickly. The first applications for grantmakers were sent out in early 2005. The girls were chosen over the next few months, and the meeting of the first group of grantmakers was in late August. Arnet says this first meeting was to choose an issue to focus on and that many big issues came up – such as Darfur and the wage gap – but one theme was how appalled all of the girls were by these racy, sexist T-shirt messages. So that's what they decided to focus on. Once the media picked it up – smart young girls vs. greedy corporation – they were guaranteed their platform.

Girls Helping Girls

While the girlcott and its subsequent media attention was an amazing experience, says 15-year-old Rebecca Adelsheim, that has little to do with the nuts and bolts of the Girls as Grantmakers program. One of the first girl grantmakers, Adelsheim of O'Hara Township, Pa., was also one of the girls chosen for the important meeting with the Abercrombie executives. But that was last year. This is now, and there's still work to be done.

The girl grantmakers are chosen to serve a two-year term. The first year is devoted to reviewing grant requests from other girls. The second year the granters follow the programs that have received the grants and help to insure their success. While the entire program is still in its infancy, Adelsheim was thrilled to be chosen as one of the first grantmakers.

The application process consisted of a questionnaire, asking them about themselves and some of the problems they saw facing the girls of this area. Adelsheim says that her answers to those questions, while they got her on the board, would be very different today if she were to answer them than they were nearly two years ago. Growing up in a mostly white suburb and attending a mostly white school, she had never really gotten to know many girls outside of her cultural and economic sphere. She credits the group's diversity with her wider perception of the problems of women and girls. "I don't remember the exact answers I gave on my application, but I know my ideas have changed so much since I filled it out," she says. "I realized so many things that the girls in this county and this country really need just to function day to day, and it gave me a greater understanding of the basic problems facing girls."

Adelsheim is currently helping to mentor the eight projects her board granted money to last year. Her growth in understanding of women's issues is probably the most powerful testament to Arnet's vision. As for the future, Adelsheim hopes she will continue to be able to play a role in the organization even as her term winds down.

Arnet, meanwhile, notes that while the publicity over the girlcott was a great way to get Girls as Grantmakers on the map, the Women and Girls Foundation, which sponsors the grantmakers, is doing important work that will benefit these girls when they become women in the workplace. Their most immediate goals are to address inequities in wages and how to empower women to negotiate in the workplace –for example, for flexible hours, higher wages or whatever helps them to do their job better. She sincerely hopes that groups such as hers proliferate and make a real difference in the lives of women everywhere.

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