Two women in professional attire seated on a couch
Christen Brandt and Tammy Tibbetts, founders of She’s the First and authors of Impact. Photo Credit: Gaby Deimeke

At Darling, we are passionate about cultural, environmental and social issues impacting women and girls. “Nonprofit Spotlight” shines a light on nonprofits that are doing impactful work on the ground level. Each month, we will spotlight a charitable organization in order to educate and encourage advocacy and action.

This year, almost 90 percent of the world’s countries closed schools in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The impact will be felt by all, but the brunt of the burden will fall on those most disadvantaged and marginalized—oftentimes poorer communities and, within those communities, girls. 

Unfortunately, for many girls around the world, the inability to go to school is not new. According to the Malala Fund, more than 129 million girls in low- and lower middle-income countries are kept from receiving an education. The list of education barriers facing girls is long—from shortages of schools and teachers, high costs of education, lack of transportation, forced early marriage and harmful gender norms (such as a girl’s reproductive status). Once COVID-19 has passed, it is estimated that 20 million more secondary school-aged girls won’t return to the classroom. 

She’s the First, a nonprofit focused on fighting for girls’ rights, is racing against the clock to make sure that this doesn’t happen. The She’s the First team is working to make sure every girl is educated, respected and heard by partnering with community-based organizations in 11 countries to ensure girls attend school and after-school programming. In addition, the organization funds programs for girls focused on mentorship, sexual and reproductive health and rights and life skills.

We got to chat with She’s the First CEO and Co-founder Tammy Tibbetts about the work that the nonprofit is doing for girls’ rights and the urgency to prevent the global pandemic from stopping millions of girls from returning to school.

A group of girls jumping and smiling in hiking clothes
Tammy and Christen with student leaders who were part of a She’s the First Community Impact Fellowship in 2018. Photo Credit: Carly Piersol

There’s a saying that a passion is something you love or something that breaks your heart enough that you are compelled to change it. What was the passion that led you and Co-Founder, Christen Brandt, to start She’s the First?

Christen and I share a passion for seeing girls in control of their own destinies. We believe every girl, regardless of her circumstances, should get to dream big and have a chance to make those dreams a reality. 

For each of us, as first-generation college graduates, we had this opportunity. However, we live in a world where girls do not get to experience their rights. As a result, millions of girls become mothers when they are still teenagers, millions of girls drop out of school and millions of girls don’t feel safe in their own homes. So as much as we are passionate about seeing girls succeed, we are also angry that our society has failed all the girls who cannot.

As much as we are passionate about seeing girls succeed, we are also angry that our society has failed all the girls who cannot.

In our new book, “Impact: A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In,” we call what you’re referring to as passion as “your North Star.” Your North Star is the outcome you want to see in the world—for us, that’s a world that is more equal and just for girls. You find your North Star by examining your own life experiences, by noticing what lights you up and what fires you up. 

There are so many ways to make a difference and so many issues that both touch and break your heart. It’s much easier to make progress and come up with a plan when you can align your actions and resources behind the one main outcome you most want to see.

How does She’s the First uniquely speak to the issue of girl’s education and the gender disparities that limit girls?

When we started out in 2009, we were very much focused on education and getting a girl to graduation. While this is important, today it is just one aspect of what we do. STF takes a holistic approach to our work that is grounded in supporting girls’ rights and centering their needs and voices in everything we do. In short, we listen to girls.

For example, last year, we co-led the Global Girls’ Bill of Rights—a declaration of 10 rights that all girls are entitled to, written by girls, for girls around the world. These are the 10 rights that girls deemed the most important to them, and it includes the right to  education, the right to safety from all forms of violence and the right to decision-making about their bodies and sexuality. The Global Girls’ Bill of Rights guides our advocacy for girls.

Another key aspect of STF’s model is teaming up with local organizations that can reach the most vulnerable girls in their communities and do so in a way that builds strong bonds with families. STF provides funding, training and toolkits to our partner organizations to improve outcomes for girls. 

While there is truth to the saying, “When you educate a girl, you change the world,” it’s important that we don’t put all that work on girls’ shoulders! We must support organizations that are actively working to remove the barriers a girl faces and change the systems that are working against her. For that reason, STF thinks a lot about how we not only impact individual girls’ lives but transform entire systems and redesign programs around what girls really need.

We must support organizations that are actively working to remove the barriers a girl faces and change the systems that are working against her.

How has COVID-19 impacted how She’s the First operates? How has it affected the girls and communities you serve?

For girls around the world, the ramifications of COVID-19 are the second pandemic that no one is talking about. Going into 2020, there were already 130 million girls out of schoolNow, according to the Malala Fund, an estimated 20 million more girls will never return to school because of COVID-19. Schools around the world are still shut down.

The longer girls are out of school, the harder it will be for them to return. These consequences are exacerbated when you are living on less than a dollar a day. There is pressure for girls to get a job and contribute to family income, and school takes a back seat.

The girls we serve largely do not have access to tech devices and strong Wi-Fi, so it’s not so easy to keep learning remotely. During economic stress, the rates of child abuse, early marriage and teen pregnancy increase. Local girls’ organizations are now doubling down on their interventions to prevent these worst-case-scenario outcomes. 

Anyone working in the girls’ rights and education space right now is racing against the clock. There is a window of opportunity closing by the day. There is this incredible urgency that we all feel working in this spaceto stand up for girls and to put their needs first.

When you do prioritize their needs, everyone benefits. So it’s important that we act now. We don’t want girls to just survive. We want girls to come out on the other side of this pandemic thriving, but that will only happen if we take the right steps now.

We don’t want girls to just survive. We want girls to come out on the other side of this pandemic thriving.

Tell me about the trainings that She’s the First does for local organizations. How has it evolved in 2020? 

She’s the First believes in strengthening local solutions to the global problems that girls face. For this reason, we lead a coalition called the Girls First Network, and we share resources with any organization that wants to take a girl-centered approach to program design and improve outcomes. 

Annually, with our partner Akili Dada in Kenya, we host a Girls First Summit, which 70+ girls’ organizations have attended. After the Girls First Summit, more than 66% of organizations reported that they have adapted or created new initiatives, based on the trainings they received, to better incorporate girls’ voices into their program. An additional 33% report that they have plans to do so in the future. 88% of organizations created or updated their child protection policies to better protect girls, which will benefit more than 9,600 girls.

If you want to see better outcomes for girls, you have to build the capacity and invest in the professional development of the teachers and mentors who run girls’ programs. This year, we’ve transferred the webinars over to Zoom and we look forward to doing on-site trainings as soon as it’s safe again.

Another initiative that we launched during the pandemic, directly for girls ages 13 to 17, is the “Discover Your Power” journal. The journal helps them to understand and interpret what their rights are and to influence the world around them by speaking up and advocating for themselves. It’s something we also sent out to organizations serving girls in our network so that they can use it as curriculum. While it is always ideal to run programs in person, like everyone else in 2020, we have found new ways to adapt and innovate.

A girl holding a sign that says, "I feel safe when I am with my friends at school."
Rose, a student in Uganda, Arlington Academy of Hope (a partner of She’s the First); this photo was taken in Jan 2020. Her sign illustrates what girls are most at risk of losing this year due to COVID-19 school shutdowns—their safety. Photo Credit: Esther Mbabazi

Is there anything exciting coming up with She’s the First that Darling readers should know about?  

The biggest thing is our ongoing COVID-19 advocacy, for which we created the campaign, #GirlsCant Wait. We have published reports that capture the needs facing girls, whom we are fundraising for through our COVID-19 Response Fund. Donations will go toward providing food, water and hygiene supplies for girls and their families, supporting mentorship programs about girls’ safety and mental well-being, and granting access to technology and curriculum for remote learning. 

It is also important to know the power in using your voice and raising awareness for girls’ rights. As mentioned earlier, this year alone, there are 20 million girls that could lose their future due to the pandemic. You can never underestimate the power of raising awareness because you are reaching people in your network who might be able to give.

It is true that there are many people in our own country facing health and economic struggles, and we need to show up in our local communities. However, many of us have the capacity to do more. I don’t think it’s an either/or. You can make a difference both in your own zip code and continue to be a champion for girls around the world.

You can make a difference both in your own zip code and continue to be a champion for girls around the world.

Christen and I also have our book, “Impact” coming out Nov. 17. It’s based on 11 years of leadership and learning from She’s the First. All the proceeds will benefit She’s the First. This book gives readers (with any North Star) the tools to contribute to whatever cause lights them up. We help you match your resources and gifts with what the world needs. 

The first step is figuring out what is your North Starwhat drives you, what do you have to give and how do you match that up with existing efforts. You come away with an action plan based on that with specific goals. Then, we go onto examining biases and where you hold privilege and how to shift that power and practice allyship. In the last part of the book, we focus on building resilience and how to sustain this for the long haul. 

Changemaking needs to be a constant, everyday part of their lives, and “Impact” will give you plenty of ideas on how to achieve that.

What are some practical ways Darling readers can support She’s the First? 

Donate

If you can give, wherever you give, signing up for monthly donations, by far, is the most helpful. It allows nonprofit organizations to predict what they are going to raise. You can give $5 a month and that is more reassuring than giving $100 one time. Anything you can commit to give sustainably is beneficial.

Fundraise Within Your Network

As far as raising awareness, we have seen that birthday fundraisers do really well, specifically on Facebook. If you are raising awareness for #GirlsCantWait, post graphics to your preferred social media platform. If you are cooler than me and on TikTok, make a video that teaches people the facts. People are guaranteed to listen if you share the facts and explain why it is important to you. 

If you want to copy and paste and share anything from the She’s the First platform to raise awareness, please do, but if you can take the extra step to share why it matters to you, that is what really makes all the difference. If you can tell that personal story and why you are passionate about it, you will reach someone in your network. You will inspire them to pick up the mantle and do something. 

Nothing has sustained She’s the First more than regular contributions and the voices of really passionate people. I can’t encourage people enough to put their personal stories on whatever it is they care about. 

Nothing has sustained She’s the First more than regular contributions and the voices of really passionate people.

A group of women holding hands as they lift their arms to bow on a stage
Young women supported by She’s the First—Angelica, Cynthia, Masheshwari and Ellie—taken at the 10th Birthday Bash for She’s the First last October. Photo Credit: Marc Hall

What is your favorite part of the work you get to do with She’s the First?

I feel like I have a front row seat to see what happens when you give a girl an education, a mentor and a support system. That’s been endlessly inspiring.  

Girls truly are unstoppable. I have seen this to be true across so many different countries and cultures. It has been an honor to be one link in that chain that sets a girl up for personal success and to become a trailblazer. It is an honor to watch girls break cycles of poverty and truly live the lives they want to.

Girls truly are unstoppable. I have seen this to be true across so many different countries and cultures.

If you had three words to describe the work you do at She’s the First, what would they be?

Unstoppable

That is the spirit of the girls we serve.

Urgent

That this work has never been more urgent than now in 2020.

Anti-Oppressive

It’s something that we have always been, but we are communicating more clearly now. Christen and I are conscious that we are two white women in New York City running this organization. It’s really important that we make it clear what we stand for and commit to anti-racist practices in our work, in our office, in our progams and in our communities.

To learn more about She’s the First, follow them on Instagram. Also, visit their website to donate to the COVID-19 Response Fund and help provide programming that keeps girls in school.

Is there a nonprofit that is doing important work to support and empower women and girls? Leave a comment below to let us know who to feature next!

Lead Image via Gaby Deimeke

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