Centering the Leadership of Black Girls Can Change the World

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024
GGE The School Girls Deserve campaign launch.

It’s been more than 20 years since Joanne N. Smith founded Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a nonprofit that works intergenerationally to center the leadership of Black girls and gender-expansive young people of color to reshape culture and policy. Smith says, “GGE challenges systems of oppression and drives change through a ‘three-legged stool’ model that includes direct service programs, policy change, and culture change work.”

GGE understands that supporting and uplifting the most marginalized among us benefits all of us. Sixty percent of Black girls will experience sexual violence before age 18 (Black Women’s Blueprint, ND). Black girls and women are three to four times more likely to experience pregnancy-related death than their white counterparts (CDC, 2019).

Changing Lives and Saving Lives

The model is working. The organization is not only changing lives; it’s helping to save lives. 

Smith recounts how one young person asked her how she could get more involved with GGE after participating in the organization’s Sisters in Strength program, which is a survivor circle for youth survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their allies. “Sisters in Strength is a healing justice program for young people to join in siblinghood, where youth advocate and strategize ways to interrupt patriarchal violence – from participating in city council testimony to spearheading legislation to holding healing circles,” Smith says. 

The young person listened to Smith detail the holistic youth-centered programs that GGE offers. At the end, the young person quietly told Smith, “I just really wanted to thank you because before joining, I was contemplating suicide, and now I have a reason to live.”

“She was very introverted when she started, and to hear that her survival was not only because of this program but was also because of how other program youth showed up for her was powerful,” Smith recalls. “Her voice was heard; her identity affirmed because I think she was figuring out what her sexuality and gender was. The permission to figure out who you are, to show up in different places, allowed her to not feel so isolated to the point where she didn’t want to commit suicide.”

Smith says, “I told her I couldn’t imagine sitting here without her. I told her she is probably that story [of hope] for somebody else in the room and to keep showing up. And this young person went off to college and continues to prosper.”

Cultivating Joy and Justice

GGE centers Black girls’ joy with initiatives such as an internal joy committee dedicated to ensuring that, despite serious work, young people enjoy being young. “In the words of young author Leila Mottley, ‘We owe Black children the gift of childhood,’” Smith says. She adds, “We’ve been able to see what it looks like to pour into young people in ways that we might have never imagined, and then see them lead in ways that make them proud of themselves, from getting the Incorrigible Bill passed in New York State to leading the National Young Women’s Initiative in eight states.

“The youth are the climate protectors, the thinkers, and doers that we are working to make it easier for, and knowing that Black girls and gender expansive youth have done so much with so little, it would work against us as a whole to short them during a time when they need uplifting the most. 

“We’ve seen young people become doctors, teachers, nurses, parents, and just overall phenomenal people. To know that GGE has played a part in that trajectory, and now they’re off in the world expanding democracy with and for other young people, makes us want to do more.”


Girls for Gender Equity

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(917) 647-3157
President & CEO: Joanne N. Smith


Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) works intergenerationally, through a Black feminist lens, to center the leadership of Black girls and gender-expansive young people of color in reshaping culture and policy through advocacy, youth-centered programming, and narrative shift to achieve gender and racial justice.

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