Maybe you’ve heard: A “Girlvolution” has been taking place in Seattle.
And if you haven’t, here’s what it’s all about.
Powerful Voices has been helping girls and gender-nonconforming youth of color learn how to take action in social justice initiatives since 1995. The organization’s signature program for high school age youth is called “Activistas.” In this program, participants spend 10 weeks researching an issue that matters to them and working with an adult to create a presentation and a “call to action.” The program culminates with a free daylong “Girlvolution” conference and celebration, open to other youth. The Activistas also receive a $1,600 stipend for their hours of research and conference work.
This year’s summit, held at the Museum of Museums, brought together about 50 girls, women and other gender-nonconforming community members. They showed up on a recent Saturday morning in their best blazers, braids, hijabs and high-tops to support each other with snaps, claps and plenty of selfies. They took notes and nodded as their peers delivered presentations that dived into Black voter suppression, youth incarceration, race and education, displacement and gentrification in South Seattle, among other issues.
Activistas alumna Salematu Waggeh, 18, attended and said she is proud of how Girlvolution has evolved since she first participated five years ago.
“In my group, we weren’t thinking the way these girls are. We weren’t as socially conscious maybe. This year’s presentations had a lot of facts and they were very serious. I learned so much,” Waggeh said. “There’s a lot happening in the world right now.”
Hewan Berhanu, 17, said she was going to research Black maternal health disparities, but pivoted to Black voter suppression as the U.S. heads into midterm elections. She warmed up her audience with a Wordle-style exercise, asking for a four-letter word for change (answer: vote) before giving an overview of literacy laws, poll taxes, voter ID barriers and gerrymandering.
“I want people to know what to do and how to register to vote,” she said.
Ismahan Khalif posed the same question to participants before and after her presentation on youth incarceration: “Do you think juvenile detention should be abolished?”
Khalif said she’s known people who have been in juvenile detention systems, and was stunned to learn statistics like how 2 out of 3 detained youth are held in the most restrictive facilities and can be held in isolation, putting them at higher risk of depression, anxiety, even suicide.
Each Activista concluded their presentation by taking questions and sharing resources and ways to get involved in the cause.
Getting to talk about these important topics in an intimate and safe setting, like at Girlvolution, is “more engaging,” Khalif said. “We don’t really talk about these things in school even though it’s happening to our youth.”
As a 15-year-old Seattle-born Somali American, Khalif said she also appreciates being able to connect with other young women of color and to hear their ideas and experiences. “It’s very important to be in this kind of community. I did not know a lot of things that I know now. It made me excited to show up.”
Powerful Voices Executive Director Charhys “Chimaera” Bailey said Activistas often go on after Girlvolution to share their research in workshops in schools and at other youth organizations, and sometimes help develop curricula around their topics. Other youth continue their calls to action by leading community organizing campaigns around issues they face, like bullying, sexual assault and dating violence.
During the event, members of the youth-led Powerful Voices Radio podcast interviewed presenters and participants, which will soon be shared on their SoundCloud channel.
“It’s been amazing listening to their experiences. I’m super-grateful for this opportunity, especially as a Middle Eastern Arab woman,” said 15-year-old producer Zainab Alhamawendi.
“It’s so powerful to be here and see how many people want to be a part of making change,” said co-producer Jehan Hashi, also 15.
Another component of this year’s Girlvolution was hosting a Power Up Market, which included youth makers and vendors selling everything from earrings to baked goods. The young entrepreneurs were paid a $100 stipend. Other youth empowerment organizations provided swag and educational materials. Self-care and healing-services providers led deep breathing and meditation exercises to help calm presenters’ nerves and recover from the day’s heavy but important conversations.
Powerful Voices board member Cynthia Davis-Vanloo said she left the day feeling uplifted. “Hearing the voices of young people and seeing their ability to think critically about what’s happening in our world, it just brings me hope.”