Challenged by time constraints, small budgets, and a lack of expertise, many small nonprofit organizations struggle to successfully engage in public policy. With the goal of increasing these organizations’ capacity to advance mental health policy in Texas and increase the consumer voice in policy development and implementation, the Hogg Foundation launched its Policy Academy and Policy Fellow Program in 2010.
In 2021, Girls Empowerment Network was one of ten Central Texas nonprofit organizations awarded the two-year grant and invited to participate. The experience provided Policy Fellows with professional development, training to enhance their advocacy skills, and networking opportunities with legislative staffers, policy experts, individuals with lived experience, family members, and direct service providers. This year, GEN will participate in the program for a second time.
In this episode of Into the Fold, we sit down with Sarah Miller-Fellows, director of impact at GEN, and Ana O’Quin, current mental health policy fellow at GEN, to get an update on their advocacy work with girls and learn more about their plans for policy engagement in 2023.
Girls Empowerment Network
“At our core, we help girls discover that they’re powerful people,” says Sarah Miller-Fellows, director of impact at Girls Empowerment Network (GEN). “That’s the core focus of everything we do.”
Founded in 1996 by parents concerned about the significant drop in girls’ self -esteem that often occurs in early adolescence, GEN’s mission is to ignite the power in girls by teaching them the skills to thrive and believe in their ability to be unstoppable.
With a focus on equity, GEN serves youth across the gender spectrum, youth of color, and youth of different socio-economic levels.
“We know we cannot be a girls-serving organization without also being dedicated to equity,” says Ana O’Quin, mental health policy fellow at GEN. “We’re prepped to advocate on behalf of youth who might be marginalized by policies that, unfortunately, we are already seeing.”
The organization’s impact is impressive. During the last school year, GEN served over 4,000 youth at 70 schools across Texas. Ninety five percent attended Title I schools (schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment) and 84 percent were youth of color.
GEN focuses on building girls’ sense of self-efficacy-the belief that they can succeed and reach their goals.
“We’ve learned over the years that self-efficacy is a really important concept for youth mental health,” says Sarah.
The organization initially focused on helping youth develop “Six Cs” of self-efficacy: confidence, coping skills, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Increasingly, however, they saw a need for girls to develop strong advocacy skills as well and added a seventh “C” to their curriculum: change-making.
GEN’s first Policy Fellow, Vanessa Beltran, was instrumental in creating two SPARK kits that allowed the organization to continue serving youth during the isolation of Covid. With the themes “Lead with Your Voice” and “Unstoppable Activists”, these take-home boxes included self-guided and collaborative activities, access to virtual programming with girl experts and a community of other girls, and resources and activities to help build girls’ self-efficacy and core advocacy skills.
“They were distributed to over 2,700 youth across Texas,” says Sarah. “Which is just an incredible reach!”
Vanessa also helped initiate the Spark Change Project (SCP), a collaboration between GEN and the Excellence & Advancement Foundation. Like the Hogg’s Policy Fellow program, the SCP focuses on skill-building around advocacy, centering girls of color as leaders who have the skills to engage their peers and work toward positive social change.
Current policy fellow, Ana O’Quin, began her work with GEN in the summer of 2022 and will be heading up the SCP project during the current legislative session. She developed a strong interest in building youth advocacy skills while engaging in a community-based participatory research project on the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at the Center for Public justice.
“That experience really solidified my passion and realization that teen voice in the political process is so key and is so transformative for everyone involved,” says Ana.
In her position as a mental health policy fellow, Ana will be collaborating with high school-age BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) youth hired as paid SCP peer facilitators at GEN. Together they’ll develop a platform and agenda to testify to local policymakers about issues impacting their communities.
“Our current policy vision is that we center girls’ experiences and teach them the skills to speak truth to power,” says Sarah. “We support policies that promote girls’ well-being so that they can thrive in achieving their goals and advocating for a world where girls are unstoppable.”
After conducting a survey of staff and youth, GEN selected four policy priorities: mental health, safe and supportive schools, healthy relationships, and equity issues.
“We plan to incorporate [these priorities] into our work with the Spark Change Project,” says Ana. “A huge part of my role is going to be being that ‘bridge’ between youth voice and the political process, which is really a key passion of mine personally.”
Although the legislative session has only just begun, many newly introduced bills already relate to SPC’s priorities, including menstrual equity, contraception, sex education, and ethnic studies.
“Bills not only are going to be ineffective if we’re not incorporating the voice of girls and the voice of youth, but they’re actually going to become harmful to the very youth we’re trying to help,” says Ana. “So, I think it’s key that policy makers are listening to not just youth opinions, but also youth ideas, and youth collaboration and really highlighting that and prioritizing that in the youth bill-making process.”
Making an Impact
Overall, SPC’ss goals are more qualitative than quantitative, with a focus on taking action, empowering Spark peer facilitators, and inspiring more youth to become involved in advocacy work.
“I really believe that the more that youth and girls are able to talk about the issues that matter to them and the ways that bills are going to impact their lives, the better youth mental health, better educational systems, better state we’re going to create,” says Sarah.