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Girls Empowerment Network celebrates 25 years with new advocacy program for girls of color, lessons from pandemic

Chelsea Dean-Martinez assembles a Spark Kit that will go to one of the girls served by Girls Empowerment Network. Spark Kits were a big success during the pandemic, reaching more than 3,000 girls with hands-on programming they can do at home as well as a virtual component

Like most programs for kids, Girls Empowerment Network shifted from in-person afterschool programs, summer camps and big events to all virtual offerings when the pandemic began. 

Now as cases of COVID-19 decrease and people get vaccinated, the group is taking the lessons learned in the virtual world and keeping the programs that worked as well as beginning to offer some in-person events.

It's also creating new programming around the theme of activism to celebrate its 25th year of providing empowerment programming for girls in third- through-12th grades.

The big hit of Girls Empowerment Network's virtual work has been the Spark Kits. The fourth edition of the activity box is out now and a fifth one is planned for summer. Each kit is around a different theme and comes with a journal with dozens of activities a girl can do on her own or as part of a virtual group. 

The latest kit has the theme "Unstoppable Activist" and takes girls through identifying problems in their communities, solutions, and whom to contact. It shows girls how to make demands in Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely ways (the SMART formula) and create their strategy around making their demands, whether it's to their schools, an organization or a political leader. 

Spark Kits come with more than a dozen activities plus supplies. Each kit is decorated by a volunteer and comes with a letter from a volunteer.

There are activities on self-care and relaxation and ones asking girls to figure out what footprint they want to leave as activists. 

The kit also comes with chalk, colored pencils, pens, postcards, a water bottle and a sachet with lavender rice. The box is hand-decorated and has a hand-written note from a volunteer inside. 

Girls Empowerment Network tries to make the box fun to open and special, like it's just for you, says Girls Empowerment Network CEO Julia Cuba Lewis.

Alexis Cruz receives a Spark Kit from Girls Empowerment Network.

Reaching more girls with Spark Kits

School districts who had Girls Empowerment Network's afterschool programs have purchased Spark Kits for their girls to use and had their own virtual groups working through the Spark Kits. 

Parents also purchase them for $35 for their girls, and those girls can join an open virtual group that is not tied to a school. People also make donations to give Spark Kits to girls who can't afford them.  

If girls don't have access to technology to join a group or they just don't want to do another virtual thing, they can work through the activities on their own. 

Since last March more than 3,000 girls have been reached through Spark Kits, says Cuba Lewis. It has allowed Girls Empowerment Network to reach girls in other parts of the country beyond Austin, Dallas and Houston. There's also a Spanish version.

"We learned so much about how to make the virtual program fun and effective," Cuba Lewis says. Girls Empowerment Network intends to continue the Spark Kits and virtual programming around it. "It's a key strategy for us to ensure we reach girls where we don't have staff placed."

Girls Empowerment Network does research around everything it does, and it did testing on one of its virtual groups. "We showed significant gains in self-efficacy for girls from that virtual group," Cuba Lewis says. "There is evidence of us making a real impact for them."

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In-person camp will return this summer for Girls Empowerment Network, but it will be smaller and with COVID-19 safety measures.

Returning to camp

Last summer, Spark Kits and the virtual program became Girls Empowerment Network's summer camp. This year, Spark Kits virtual groups will continue, but two in-person camps for third- through eighth-graders will be offered. "Own Your Power; Find Your Voice" is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 12-16 and "Use Your Power: Be an Awesome Advocate" is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 26-30. Both are at First Baptist Church of Austin downtown. 

They won't be the large camps of years past and will have health checks, mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.

"We see this as an option," Cuba Lewis says. "We want there an option to be there for our girls and our team, too. People can't face another summer from home." 

Julia Cuba Lewis, left, the CEO of Girls Empowerment Network, talks with Courtney Robinson, the founder and executive director of the Excellence and Advancement Foundation, about the Spark Change Project.

A new project with a big mission

They are not planning a big gala to celebrate the group's 25th anniversary; "we're not doing a walk down history lane," Cuba Lewis says.

"We have something much more urgent ahead of us: How are we going to solve social justices that our girls and girls of color are facing today?"

They are putting the girls at the center of this question and potential solutions through the new Spark Change Project pilot program, a collaboration with Excellence and Advancement Foundation.

Five high school girls of color were selected from applicants to be part of this intensive program to learn to be advocates and then plan programs on advocacy for fellow girls. 

The Spark Change Project teens, called facilitators, are paid $15 an hour for their work and attend two-hour meetings after school as well as do work on their own and with mentors. 

The girls have planned a town hall event and will plan a Spark Change Camp for August, but their next big event is Spark Change Day, a virtual program from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. May 15 for sixth- through 12th-grade girls. It will have a keynote speaker and activities in breakout rooms.

The Spark Change Project facilitators are building on their skills first with the two-hour town hall, then by planning a four-hour Spark Change Day, and leading up to a Spark Change Camp. 

"We are playing a big role in this, which is why I feel like an adult," says Keearah Kyles, a 16-year-old junior at Hendrickson High School in Pflugerville, who is one of the Spark Change Project facilitators. "I have to check my email. It's almost like I have an office job, but in my house." 

Becoming an advocate

The project is creating a closely connected group of advocates. "They are the most important people in my life," Keearah says of her fellow facilitators. "We can cry, we can be vulnerable. We are really comfortable with each other." 

Through Spark Change Project, Keearah is able to take what she is passionate about — injustices in the school system including inequity and discrimination in dress codes and standardized testing — and turning it into advocacy and then passing on what she's learned to her peers through Spark Change Project events. For the town hall, she gave a presentation on injustices in the school system. 

"Now I might be able to talk to Texas representatives and take this outward from Spark Change," she says. 

She plans to create a school club on advocacy next year, and she's interested in studying public policy or political science in college.

Keearah Kyles is a Spark Change Project facilitator for Girls Empowerment Network. The Spark Change Project empowers high school girls of color to become advocates and teach their peers to be advocates.

Spark Change Project, she says, is the first place she's ever had "a sisterly bond" with fellow participants. "It's the healthiest thing I have ever been a part of."

Other groups become competitive, but at Spark Change Project, she says. "we uplift, we compliment, we pay attention to small things ... we're all here to help each other."

Her co-workers pitched in to help her when she was struggling with a project, just like she would pitch in if they were struggling. 

"We have the same passion to make change, but we're passionate about different things," she says. 

Her hope is that more girls can be part of Spark Change Project in the future. "I wish I could stay in this job forever, but hopefully another girl can take my spot and do her thing."

The skills she is learning, she says, she can use in her everyday life. 

One thing she's learned: "You do not need to be a person who is famous or has a huge platform to make change." 

Girls Empowerment Network is looking at its next 25 years and expanding beyond Texas to engage girls nationally. "We were on this path before we were on the virtual piece," Cuba Lewis says, but the virtual programming has accelerated that process. 

They are looking at organizations with which they can collaborate and finding the funding to support this growth. 

"It feels like we're at a major apex," Cuba Lewis says. "We know ourselves better. We are good at what we do and we can prove that what we do matters."

Nicole Villalpando writes about parenting for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at nvillalpando@statesman.com.

Girls Empowerment Network

Find virtual programs, buy Spark Kits and register for Spark Change Day and summer camp at girlsempowermentnetwork.org.