The girlsBEST (girls Building Economic Success Together) grantmaking committee met at the beginning of June and knew that this year’s process of awarding grants would be different than any previous year. Ordinarily, grantee-partners applying for multi-year grants describe how their girl-led programs increase girls’ awareness of systemic gender and racial inequities, grow their sense of being change agents, foster their development as leaders, or build their capacity for individual and collective activism in order to increase girls’ readiness to achieve economic well-being. This year, in addition to building those programs with girls, many of the organizations applying for funds are on the frontlines of caring for community during a global pandemic and advocating for racial justice after the police k illings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

Staff and program participants have been largely confined to their homes, responding to ongoing emergencies with little space or time for collective healing or social connection. Although girlsBEST is dedicated to advancing economic opportunity for girls and young women across Minnesota’s diverse communities, the conversations during the grantmaking process reflected the fact that economic opportunity is not only about financial prosperity. It is also a critical piece of mental, social, and physical well-being for community-based organizations and participants in their programs.

Developing pathways to economic opportunity through learning as a cohort and building skills and confidence as a team can support the mental and emotional health of young women and girls as they navigate social isolation, increased family demands, distance learning, and racism. Front-line organizations and youth who participated in the grantmaking process described the ways they are craving connection, and that mental health is a concern as girls lose the support systems they would normally find at school or through friends. Some girls fall behind in school because their families cannot access the technology required for successful distance learning. Communities are mourning the loss of Black lives at the hands of police and participating in painful and powerful conversations to address anti-Blackness and advocate for racial justice.

In the face of this struggle, front-line organizations like WFMN’s grantee-partners are stepping up with innovative and flexible solutions to ensure young women and girls are supported so that they may heal, grow, and thrive. During this round of grantmaking, WFMN awarded 20 multi-year grants and three seed (formerly planning) grants totaling $300,000 to these nonprofit organizations. This grant represents the sixth cohort of girlsBEST grantee-partners who are receiving the first of a multi-year grant, a model invests in girl-led programs over a three-year cohort and builds strength with girls leading the way. The work led by these grantee-partners will impact more than 6,600 girls across the state, with priority given to programs that include outreach to underserved, underrepresented populations around the state, including low-income girls, girls of color, American Indian girls, and girls from Greater Minnesota.

Each partner, each year builds its own stories of success. Duluth-based Men As Peacemakers, working with Native girls and girls of color, builds power with girls of color to change the systems impacting youth and to normalize the power, influence, and leadership of girls of color. In Saint Paul, RECLAIM! works with queer and trans youth to access mental health support. By hosting a Queer & Trans Girls in Helping Professions group, they are helping LGBTQ+ youth champion justice and take care of their communities, while building their own mental and emotional resilience.

girlsBEST-funded programs build not only professional connections and skills toward greater economic prosperity, but equip girls with the know-how to advocate for change while also creating connections with peers and mentors to reinforce their social support and emotional well-being when the work is especially painful and trying.

Since the inception of girlsBEST in 2002, we’ve learned that: 1) girls thrive when they have equitable and intersectional access to economic opportunity, safety, and leadership; 2) a vision for equity in Minnesota must include girls and center their voices; and 3) when girls thrive, families and communities thrive.

We also know girlsBEST programs work. The most recent program evaluation of the last cohort of girlsBEST grantee-partners (April 2019) clearly illustrates the model’s effectiveness:

  1. High School Graduation: girlsBEST participants have an 95% high school graduation rate, compared to 50-83% in Minnesota overall, depending on ethnicity.
  2. Post-Secondary Enrollment: girlsBEST participants have an 88% post-secondary education enrollment rate, compared to 44-72% in Minnesota overall, depending on ethnicity.
  3. Teen Pregnancy: girlsBEST participants have a teen pregnancy rate of 3 per 1,000, compared to 18-48 per 1,000 in Minnesota girls overall, depending on ethnicity.

WFMN works to catalyze innovative solutions with community so girls can be safe, lead, and pursue economic opportunities, and these strategies are interwoven throughout the girlsBEST grantmaking process. Because girlsBEST grantmaking is community centered, it is responsive to the needs and solutions expressed and led by communities themselves. Following the feedback from community partners, this round of girlsBEST grants were awarded as general operating grants for the first time. In times of heightened need and uncertainty, organizations have been nimbly responding to emerging and rapidly changing needs. Philanthropy must also reflect this adaptation. Additionally, because the grantmaking committee could not physically visit organizations and talk with program participants, youth were invited to participate in virtual site visits and offer their own thoughts on what is most needed and how WFMN could most effectively support the needs of community. When the grantmaking committee made their final investments, the reflections of community organizations were at the center.

Through the painful and seemingly chaotic times, we continue to listen to communities most impacted by the heightened, visible racial injustice in Minnesota against the backdrop of COVID-19. Within tragedy and trauma, we see inspiring young women and girls rising to lead the way toward a more just and equitable society. As WFMN supports their leadership, we must ensure they have the resources to thrive, and healing spaces where they can reflect, grow, and safely establish new pathways together. The process of girlsBEST grantmaking illustrates just one way WFMN lives its vision of investing in a world of equal opportunity where women, girls, and all people hold the power to lead safe, prosperous lives.

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