By Darlene Donloe
Dawn L. Brown believes in the work being done at EmpowHer Institute so much that two years ago, she agreed to leave her consulting job in Washington, D.C. to become the president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based organization.
“I really believe in the work,” she said. “We’re doing good things. Plus, I missed L.A.”
The mission of EmpowHer is to empower Black and brown girls in marginalized communities from the seventh through 12th grades by giving them the necessary skills through education, training and mentorship to become confident and college and career-ready.
“Serving Black and brown girls is important to me,” said Brown, who was raised by her mother and grandmother in the projects of Washington, D.C.
EmpowerHer Institute, started in 2003 by now retired Betty LaMarr, boasts that it has been the only gender-responsive organization in Los Angeles County that provides a social-emotional learning class in Title 1 schools that is fully integrated into the school day.
Through what they call “a social justice framework,” the company examines the intersection between race and gender and equips girls with the necessary skills and access to resources that will disrupt the systems that impede Black and brown girls from reaching their fullest potential.
EmpowHer envisions a world where every girl is provided the opportunities and resources she uniquely needs to embrace the power of her voice, make informed decisions about her body and future, break generational cycles of poverty and contribute to the creation of an equitable society.
“Our vision is for every girl to have opportunities,” said Brown, who received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in acting and minored in Africana studies at New York University where she also earned a master’s in drama therapy. “We want there to be an equitable society.”
Brown, who eats and sleeps social justice, said EmpowHer has a “very aggressive but realistic six-year growth plan.”
“We are in year two of our six-year vision,” said Brown, who has more than 20 years of nonprofit management and consulting experience. “We served 600 girls last year and we’re poised to serve 1,000.”
Today, EmpowHer is in 13 junior high and high schools with 200 volunteers and an operating budget of $1.4 million.
Brown, who also attended Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, believes she’s in the right place at the right time. Before joining the organization in 2020, she was a consultant in Washington, D.C. doing work with nonprofits and social and racial justice.
“I worked with girls in gangs, sex trafficking and domestic violence,” Brown said. “I was consulting and helping nonprofits get through the pandemic.”
EmpowHer’s programs are designed to help teens become the best versions of themselves.
The curriculum is created with the help of experts. Every four weeks, a new module is introduced.
The girls learn about credit cards, stocks, cryptocurrency and more. Students get credit for participating.
Middle school participants meet once a week for an hour, while high school participants meet twice a week for an hour a time.
The program for seventh and eighth grade girls uses a social-emotional learning-centric curriculum that EmpowHer designs to build confidence, skills, social justice awareness and college and career readiness.
There is also a two-hour EmpowHer Leaders Academy program on Saturdays for girls in the ninth through 12th grades.
“We will pay for them to get there if the parents can’t get them there,” Brown said. “The program is free. We are only in Title 1 schools. About 96% of the girls live at or below the poverty level.”
EmpowHer also has emergency funds that provide gas, electricity and even partial rent payments for families who “just need a little help.”
There are four focus areas to the EmpowHer program: confidence, skill development, social justice and college and career readiness.
“Every girl gets mentoring,” Brown said. “The girls in high school get one-on-one mentoring. There is a group mentoring for the lower grades.”
The goal for girls in middle school is to “get them to high school.”
“The goal for those in high school is to get them through and get them to college and beyond,” said Brown, who is also an actress. “One hundred percent of the middle school participants go to high school and 100% of the girls in high school graduate and go on to college.”
There is a Social Justice Steam Summer Camp, an entrepreneurship program, a financial literacy program and workshops on how to get generational wealth.
“The Social Justice Summer Camp is in its second year,” Brown said. “We collaborated with Black female marine biologists to develop a curriculum.”
The camp is three weeks and has 25 middle and high school girls staying on a college campus.
During the summer, the older high school girls are employed and work at the camps or at other companies.
“The first week they stay in the dorm and get the full immersive experience,” Brown said. “Every morning they have an excursion. We trained them as marine biologists. The second week is about coding and environmental justice and racism.
“Through the Museum of Natural History and California African American Museum, they learn how art can be activism. In the third week, we take a look at all that they learned and have a showcase on the last day.”
EmpowHer wants the girls involved to be well-rounded.
“We have gotten deeper with our girls,” Brown said. “We talk about what it’s like to be a girl of color in the world.”
Brown grew up as a girl of color in Washington, D.C.
“It was normal for me to see chalk outlines,” she said. “My mom got me involved in the arts. I also had mentors who took me to the next level. There was something beyond the walls in which I lived.
“The drug dealer wouldn’t sell drugs until I got on the bus. He’d make sure I was safe. His thing was ‘she’s going somewhere.’ The community wrapped their arms around me.”
Brown, who hosts a podcast called Stiletto Revolution, which focuses on issues impacting Black women, wants the same for the girls involved in EmpowHer.
“I grew up poor and Black in D.C.,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to support Black and brown girls so they can get to the next level.”
Her hope is that others will also care about empowering girls.
“Girls, in general, face a lot of trauma in the world simply by being a girl,” Brown said. “Then add on girls of color living in poverty. The trauma increases and the systemic barriers increase.
“When we look at the future, women are going to lead the way. It’s women who are shifting the trajectory. Why would we not want that?”
Brown insists it’s critical when it comes to saving girls of color.
“The highest percentage of sex-trafficked females are Black girls,” she said. “We have to invest in these girls. They are the least cared about. We see that in the media. There is a lack of humanity when it comes to us.”
When it comes to Black and brown girls, Brown believes there are a number of pressing issues.
“So many disparate numbers out there,” she said. “The core of the issue is that we are the most deeply impacted by patriarchal racism. We’re consistently seen as aggressive and less than when that’s not who we are. The rhythms of how we function as women are misunderstood.”
Upcoming events include a second Teen Summit planned for next April. Brown said 400 girls and 120 female mentors will “come together for a day of celebrating being a girl.”
There will be workshops, keynote speakers and celebrities on hand.
On Oct. 6, EmpowHer will host a Pathmaker Awards Gala. Proceeds from the fundraiser will go to its scholarship fund.
“Making a Difference” is a regular feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.