Girl Talk

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Few question that much of the youth service field is pathetically underfinanced. So it is no surprise that those who follow the patterns and practice of youth-related spending quickly notice how much can be accomplished with so little money and how little can be done with ample resources, especially if the paymaster is Uncle Sam.

Take girls - specifically girls most at risk of wasting their young bodies through self- mutilation, bulimia, unprotected sex - or involvement with drug abuse and other criminal behaviors. Among the numerous current undertakings aimed at helping these girls are three unfortunately barely linked national efforts. Considered together they illuminate how the prudent allocation of money within a particular sphere of capacity building to serve at-risk kids can be as far apart as Mars and Venus. The orbiting three are: Girl Power!, an HHS initiative that bills itself as helping nine- to 14-year-old girls "to be the best they can be ... confident, fulfilled and feeling good about themselves"; Green Peters & Associates, a Nashville for-profit technical assistance provider to at-risk girls' programs, funded by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJ); and the grassroots National Girls' Caucus of several hundred mostly female youth workers serving high-risk girls.

Each of these disparate groups recognizes that the gender gap in American society is steadily closing with mostly positive results. But girls catching up with the boys has also meant, for example, rising arrest rates (up 23 percent for girls and 11 percent for boys from 1989 to 1993) and smoking rates (28.7 percent of girls attending high school, the same as boys, according to a 1999 survey), while girls account for 57 percent of all arrests for running away. The national statistics on re-arrest rates for first offender girls are shameful, with 59 percent landing back in lockup. Among high school seniors (from whose ranks 10 percent of senior-age girls have already departed), 29 percent of remaining girls report that they hate school.

Into this narrowing misery gap has stepped the fragile six-year-old National Girls' Caucus (NGC). It might not have garnered the attention of January's Iowa Caucus but it has plenty to brag about, including a modest outreach strategy. That thrift of expectations is just as well, since the caucus has never been more than a farthing away from flat broke.

Since a gathering of 200 mostly female youth workers in Ft. Lauderdale in 1996, the NGC has grown into a fledgling national nonprofit with a "volunteer" staff of one. That staffer, Helena Almeida, is housed at the Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters of the 15-year-old Pace Center for Girls. Pace is an acknowledged pace-setter in youth work for delinquent girls through its 16 centers throughout Florida. Chairing the NGC is Pace Center Executive Director LaWanda Ravoira, a former director of program services for the D.C.-based National Network for Youth, whose start in the field began as a youth worker at Covenant House in Ft. Lauderdale. NGC's mission is to "focus national attention on the unique needs of girls and young women who are 'at risk' or in the Justice System in order to create change." Says the NGC occasional newsletter, Caucus Focus, "merely 'painting the walls pink' in a youth program does not guarantee a successful girls' program."

So far the NGC cause and organizing effort, meagerly financed by an obscure foundation and a few leftover scraps from the banquet table of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice, has been good enough to get 450 agencies or individuals to pay modest dues of $25 to $100 and to attract another 2,000 "interested supporters" to its practitioner network. Only one "interested supporter" out of the nation's 44,000 foundations (66.4 percent of whose professional staff are female) was interested enough to underwrite the NGC. Donating $10,000 per year for three years is the tiny ($3 million in assets) Valentine Foundation in Haverford, Pa. Although it ordinarily funds only in the Philadelphia area, the foundation searches for women-oriented ventures that, says former trustee Robbin Derry, "have trouble getting any grants," a description that surely fits the destitute NGC.

Yet the NGC is struggling mightily to turn itself into a true national group. Now most active participants are from Florida and the Mid-Atlantic region. One outlander in more ways than one is Mike Wolf, director of the 50-bed St. Croix Girls Camp in Sandstone, Minn., who, thanks to the wonders of affirmative action, is the only male on the 15-member board of directors. Wolf has found the NGC "not at all resistant" to involvement by male youth workers. Still, Wolf himself made up half of the male attendees at one of the group's earliest gatherings.

Some of the quickening tempo of national efforts to help girls in trouble, the subject of a recent meeting of top federal youth officials, has been funded by the Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant. That's a $250 million state formula grant program within OJJ that has been used frequently as a slush fund for constructing secure detention facilities and increasing the payroll at prosecutors' offices nationwide. But thanks to the support of former OJJ Administrator Shay Bilchik, now director of the Child Welfare League of America (and who keynoted the NGC's first gathering in 1996), programs for troubled girls (but not the NGC) now have their own technical assistance provider: Greene, Peters & Associates. The for-profit consulting firm received $1,141,800 from OJJ from 1996 through 1999. Drawing on the expertise of the NGC, Greene, Peters & Associates produced in 1998 "Guiding Principles for Promising Female Programming: An Inventory of Best Practices," which is available for free from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse. Contact: (800) 638-8736.

With two 1999 OJJ grants totaling $541,800, Greene, Peters & Associates will produce two curricula: one for decisionmakers, the other for direct-service youth workers. It will also hold its first professional gathering open to all youth workers, a train-the-trainers session scheduled for August in Nashville. But, neatly illustrating one of the chronic shortcomings of federal technical assistance and capacity-building undertakings, virtually none of the OJJ funds have directly benefited the NGC. Partner Sharon Peters in Nashville acknowledges that some OJJ contractors do fund travel, per diem or other expenses for meetings, an investment that would quickly help expand the NGC's membership and woeful staff capacities. The NGC's chair, Ravoira of the PACE Center, serves on an unpaid advisory board to Green, Peters & Associates but says the two groups, one in the money, the other getting by on what Ravoira acknowledges is a NGC budget of less than $15,000 per year, have only intermittent contact.

While doing little for the struggling NGC, Green, Peters, & Associates, guided by OJJ, has entered into a contract with the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, to establish The Gender-Specific Programming for Girls web site: www.girlsspecificprogram.org, and a toll-free number, (888) 877-0691, that is also designed to serve youth work practitioners.

Also in the federal works is an InterAgency Working Group on Gender Specific Issues, which will try to orchestrate federal government initiatives. Contact: OJJ (202) 307-5911.

A recent meeting of the federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (attended by Elian-obsessed Attorney General Janet Reno, who mused "delinquent boys are one thing, but mayors?") focused exclusively on girls ("gender-specific" in govspeak). Plans were announced for a National Girls' Study Group of experts to review existing research and prepare a report on effective prevention programs.

Were OJJ to dust off its own files, it would learn of an earlier era's failed attempt to build national girl-specific delinquency prevention and treatment capacity. A Tucson, Ariz.-based outfit, New Directions for Young Women, led by Ruth Crow, gained OJJ funding during the last years of the Carter administration, only to lose it during the "de-fund the left" early years of the Reagan era, and with that lost its corporate solvency.

Not actively caucusing with the National Girls' Caucus are the New York-based Girl Scouts of America, Girls Inc. and YWCA, all of which have local affiliates that run excellent programs aimed at girls in trouble with the law. Even more conspicuous in its absence from a supporting role is Girl Power!, a girl power lite P.R. initiative of HHS Secretary Donna Shalala. Since its November 1996 debut, Girl Power! has been draped in a Hijab worthy of a teenage girl in Kabul, and hidden within the deepest shadows of the HHS bureaucracy. Allegedly minding the effort is the education branch of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

But the CSAP official in charge has been on extended sick leave for months, making Girl Power! a sort of cyber-dwelling latchkey kid.

Every syllable of the Girl Power! web site (www.health.org/gpower) maintained by CSAP is scrubbed clean of anything that could possibly offend anyone from the Beer Institute to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, both of which "endorse" Girl Power!

Asked about Girl Power!, NGC staffer Almeida replied "Girl Power?" before volunteering "I've got a poster right here." Says Sharon Peters, project manager of Greene, Peters & Associates of their relationship with Girl Power!, "We don't have any."

Even the easiest-to-reach girls, Internet-savvy teen activists, find Girl Power! of little use. Lindsay Hyde, a Miami high school senior headed to Harvard and a react magazine Take Action Award-winner, could only guess, "It's a website, right?" Hyde is founder of the Strong Women, Strong Girls Project, created to provide young girls with the opportunity to study prominent women in history so they can "understand the skills necessary for their own success." Perhaps Hyde could offer HHS a remedial course in energizing Girl Power!, if only Shalala could put her in touch with whoever is in charge of Girl Power!

On a more positive note, Girl Power! cites on the web the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. for creating a Girl Power! merit badge for "girls who have shown leadership and exemplified Girl Power!" as a major success. Adm. Marty Evans (ret.), the national executive director of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., says the Girl Power! merit badge is "the most popular recent activity" among its 2.7 million members.

Another creative add-on to Girl Power! is the BodyWise web site (www.health.org), which seeks to educate nine- to 14-year-old girls during those years when "many girls develop a negative self-image - especially about how they look," says HHS's Office on Women's Health. But BodyWise is a public awareness campaign, not a con job on girls, says an emphatic Dr. Jonelle Rowe, the senior advisor to Secretary Shalala on adolescent health. "It would be disingenuous for adults to say to young people that it doesn't matter what you look like." But even Rowe had never heard of the NGC and asked a reporter for its Jacksonville phone number.

A random survey of some girl-serving agencies carried on the roster of the NGC did turn up modest awareness of Girl Power!, but even less of the NGC. Eduardo Lopez of the Harriet Tubman Residential Center in Auburn, N.Y., finds Girl Power! a great resource to find effective practice ideas. And Maria Lele-Colmenero at Nuevo Dia in Salt Lake City likes Girl Power!, too. Neither service provider group reported much contact with the NGC - not surprising given the group's need to beg just for postage.

Is this state of affairs, like, real girl power, or what? Contact: (904) 358-0555, ext. 101.