Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Angela Patton of ‘Girls For A Change’ Is Helping To Change Our World
You don’t have to do it all. Arm your staff and volunteers with the skills and resources they need so that they can do the work alongside you. When I started I was by myself and I always ended up doing the work instead of setting people up for success so they can do it for themselves.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing
As CEO of Girls For A Change, Angela Patton is a serial innovator and Ambassador for who she calls “at-promise” (as opposed to “at-risk”) girls. Angela is committed to “Preparing Black girls for the world … and the world for Black Girls.” She is also a contributing author to the book Finding Her Voice: How black girls in white spaces can speak up & live their truth .
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I had the vision to start a girl program, I was working for an arts based nonprofit in Richmond. One of the things that struck me was the lack of participation from the girls in the program. The boys were very active and engaged, and the girls usually needed more attention. It shook me seeing the differences between the boys and the girls. I felt bad for the girls. They seemed to be holding back who they truly were and not getting what they needed.
What did they need? A space of them own where they could really express themselves and build confidence. So, I decided to start a girl program. I didn’t even think about it being just for Black girls, I just wanted to give girls a voice. My first program (Camp Diva Leadership Academy) was centered on building self-esteem, self discovery, creating a sense of self-worth, and navigating the transition into womanhood armed with a set of skills.
I named Camp Diva after a girl in the community named Diva, which means “divine goddess”. I made flyers with a picture of her on them (I didn’t have a logo at the time), and went all over the place to recruit girls. But an interesting thing was happening as I went from neighborhood to neighborhood… Many of the white mothers I talked to weren’t interested in sending their daughters TO camp, they offered up their daughters as volunteers. Even though their daughters were the same age as the group I was trying to recruit. They would tell me, “My daughter needs volunteer hours, they could come really help those girls.” Black parents, however, were ready to sign on. They saw the value of the program and thanked me for starting it.
So guess what happened? My first camp was all Black girls. That’s when I realized the multiple barriers Black girls face growing into womanhood and beyond. A lot of them could not afford the program, they had transportation barriers, there were a lot of cultural awareness barriers, they were struggling to navigate who they were… I saw what their schools looked like. I saw the homes they lived in. I saw the lack of parenting happening in their homes. I started seeing all the systemic issues that we talk about today. It shook me. That’s when I realized my path and I have been on it consistently ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I had a Girl Action Team who started a conversation about their Dads that ended in them all realizing how important it was to have a relationship with their fathers. So, we talked about how the girls could develop healthy relationships with their fathers on their own terms. They decided to have a dance. Unfortunately, some of those girls dads could not attend because they were in prison. So the girls thought about it, and suggested having a dance in the jail — an idea they all thought would never happen.
I encouraged them that you don’t know until you ask. And so we wrote a letter to Sheriff CT Woody asking if it could be done. He called me and said absolutely! The girls could not believe it! Telling them that they got the yes was huge. Those girls realized that their voice could be heard, and that they could rally behind something they cared about. They were expecting to be rejected but instead learned that their voices had power, that they matter, and that they could make change. They gave hope to themselves and to other girls in future Girl Action Teams.
That’s not the only interesting part though. We continued to have those dances and at some point, someone reached out to me about doing a TED Talk at TED Women. I didn’t want to do it at first but I stepped out of my comfort zone and did a talk about Date with Dad. The TED Talk helped us gain global attention to our social change projects and opened so many doors. It opened my eyes to a lot of opportunities and gave me an experience I will never forget. I tell this story a lot to our girls and share how I had to think outside of myself and do it — and so did those girls who wanted to dance with their incarcerated fathers. I use it for the girls as a way to create change by using your voice. Sometimes you have to take risk and not know where it’s going to lead you.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I rented a van for a field trip and had a chaperone with me. We had both been working with children for a while at this point (she was a social worker). There was a lot to be done that day and we were intense about packing the van and getting it all done. We got the van packed up, hopped in the front seat and drove off. As soon as we started driving we heard screaming. I looked in the back and no one was in the seats but boxes. We had driven off without the children! We were so busy doing that we forgot them. The lesson learned was to pay attention. Slow down, check all the boxes, and count your children.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
As an organization, we are an example of staying the course. We came from humble beginnings of using someones house, using a school, borrowing space, renting space and now owning it. We teach our girls that drive, integrity, dedication, and commitment are important and we lead by doing. As an organization for Black girls everything we do is for them — from owning a building to being there for them through their journey. We are that model for our girls. Our mission is simple but powerful: We prepare Black girls for the world … and the world for Black girls.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Our Brand Ambassador, Iyanna Hardin, has been with us since the 7th grade. She was recently on Virginia This Morning with me. During her interview, she shared that the experiences she had with us touring film studios and sets and meeting Producer D. Channsin Berry made her realize that she wanted to be in film. It was so touching and reminded me of the importance of our work. Our girls find their calling because we give them access. We gave a group of girls the opportunity to go behind the scenes and see how movies were made and learn more about different careers in the industry. That experience helped Iyanna find her path and since then she has been making big moves towards that path — including applying to film school. I’ve learned that simple trips or experiences can lead to Aha moments that can change trajectories. Early access and meaningful opportunities where girls can see themselves in different roles can be life changing. Sometimes, the adults in your life can paint pictures of what you should do. Instead, I encourage girls to find what will make them happy, satisfied, and clear. The experiences, exposure, access, and opportunities we give our girls help them make better decisions about their future. I like to think we’re the weatherwomen. We help prepare them for what’s coming down the road.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Understand and accept that Black girls need to know who they are. They need spaces to heal and grow. Instead of trying to ban cultural education and programming, those spaces and programs should be funded and supported by allies and people who look like them.
- Stop questioning why a program, space, or curriculum was created for Black girls. Instead, join us. Join our movement and use your influence, resources, and tools. Join us in breaking the concrete ceiling instead of adding more cement on top of it. We need people with power to stand in the gaps and not push girls further away.
- Champion and celebrate Black girls. Allow them to be themselves and help lift them up.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Being a leader means so many different things but today, for me, being a leader means being clear and consistent on my path and never wavering. It also means knowing that you don’t have to take on every challenge or do it all just because you are the leader. Over the years I’ve grown my staff and learned how to set them up for success so that they can help move us all forward. I’ve learned to let them figure it out, process it, and reward them for trying if they take a risk and it doesn’t work out.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You don’t have to do it all. Arm your staff and volunteers with the skills and resources they need so that they can do the work alongside you. When I started I was by myself and I always ended up doing the work instead of setting people up for success so they can do it for themselves.
- You can walk to the beat of your own drum and do things differently. Create your own way when it seems like there’s no path carved out for you. When I first started, I was given a set of rules I needed to follow as a Black woman in order to get money and be accepted. People kept asking me to change my narrative, my hair, my dress, etc. I decided it was wrong and I wasn’t going to do it. I put on my own playlist and beat my own drum. People have told me I am one of the most consistent CEOs in that regard. It’s something I teach every girl.
- Explore all your options — beyond what others have told you. I don’t think within the box. I have a very well rounded view. I refuse to believe that this is all you’re going to give me because I know there’s more. Show me those options you’re keeping from me. They give you what they want you to eat but there’s more in the kitchen, I promise. I can’t just accept what’s on my plate — I know there’s more to it. Invite yourself to the table, take a risk, and ask questions.
- It’s going to be a long and lonely road. The charitable sector is cut throat and all about who you know. There are not a lot of people doing girl work and there are less for Black girls. I am often the only one in the room who runs a girl centered program. It was hard to find my tribe. It wasn’t until I was invited by the Novo Foundation for a conference of other women doing work with Black girls that I found my people. Seek out your community of peers who understand your work and can offer support.
- Being a Black woman in the charitable space is challenging. I wish someone had prepared me for the inequalities around funding and racism. When I decided to lead in this space I was constantly questioned, told that I needed a white CEO, and constantly had to explain why my work was needed and important. Be prepared for the challenge, because this work is hard.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Girls For A Change is a movement. This movement I’ve created of championing Black girls could be pushed even further through Black parent engagement. If I had more time, I would work to get parents to really truly show up the way Black boys and girls need. I’ve found when girls are struggling in our programs, there’s usually something happening at home. A lot of the trauma we face is generational. A Black parent movement would take this movement of Black girl advancement to the next level. I can get funding and space, but when I don’t have the buy in of the parent, it’s challenging. It starts at home.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Denzel Washington has a lot of wise words that inspire me. One that stands out today is,
“If you don’t fail. You’re not event trying.”
I often say to my girls: “Did you try? Are you trying?”
It’s easy to label and make tasks huge when you feel overwhelmed — but you’ve got to give it a shot. Don’t be an excuse maker — give it a try.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to share a meal with Gabrielle Union. I love that she walks to the beat of her own drum. She speaks truth to power and is open and honest about her experiences. She knows the power of advocacy and uses her celebrity to have open conversations in order to solve the problems she sees. I love how open she is about infertility and her struggles conceiving children. Her courage to be vulnerable and talk about it has empowered other women who feel less than because they can’t conceive. She also sets an example for parents on how to love your children unconditionally — no matter who they are or who they become. Being transgender in the Black community is stigmatized. So many people have given up on their children because they were uncomfortable with their lifestyle. Gabrielle offers a platform for that issue, which is much needed. My dinner with Gabrielle would be to say thank you.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
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