Ja’Nyah is a young woman who boldly asks profound questions of adults; the questions you often don’t have the courage to ask yourself. Today she inquires, “do you ever get scared of your own dreams?” I ask her to tell me more. Ja’Nyah wants to be a filmmaker. She knows what she’s up against in the field: women counted for 12% of directors working on the top 100 grossing films in 2019, up from 4% in 2018, and black women directors are all too often overlooked and unrecognized for their art. Ja’Nyah is determined to beat the odds. I hear Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” in the back of my head, and think it is well overdue to address these failures.

International Day of the Girl is a day for us to pause, take a deep look in the mirror, and consider the plight of girls like Ja’Nyah. Traditionally, International Day of the Girl aims to address the needs and challenges girls face while promoting empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. The United Nations has selected “My Voice, Our Equal Future” as this year’s theme in hopes the day inspires adolescent girls to see the change they want, the solutions they are leading and demanding across the globe. Unfortunately, it is all too clear that not all girl voices are treated with the same dignity and respect.

We must do better

As we continue to see systemic inequities exacerbated by COVID-19, the challenges facing girls of color are all too staggering. Black and brown girls face unique day-to-day inequities. Georgetown Law researchers found that black girls as young as five years old are already seen as less innocent, and needing less support, than their white counterparts. Teachers and authority figures were found to treat black girls as older than they actually are. The school discipline numbers tragically reflect this disparity. Not to mention the rampant over-sexualization of girls of color, particularly Black and Latin young women. It’s not merely individuals who have failed these young women, but the systems with which we operate that fail to take into account the intersectional disparities of girls who will soon grow into young women.

We should not feel comfortable being ranked as the 53rd country on the Global Gender Gap Report per the World Economic Forum. I cringe reading the data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which gave Indiana a “D” grade in its women’s equity ratings. Indiana ranks 43rd out of 50 states based on employment and earnings, political participation, poverty and opportunity, health and well-being, reproductive rights and work and family. Almost every indicator is worse for women of color or those experiencing poverty. We must do better.

We embed learned behaviors from life experiences, making it essential that girls are encouraged to be themselves from a young age when they are most impressionable. While organizations like Girls Inc. can make a large impact on young girls’ lives, the girls we serve will spend just a fraction of their lives with our team. Promoting empowerment and supporting a more equitable future for girls has to be a collective imperative.

Showing up for girls

But how do we change systems? Systems are collective mechanisms built by people. I suggest we start here. Systemic change is deeply personal. It starts with each of us individually before we can come together as a collective. Let’s dig into the tough work required to create intersectional equity for women and girls. Let’s be aware of the disparities between girls in our community, and use our words, our power, and our resources to lift up all girls. Because when we lift up girls, especially girls facing higher barriers to access, we lift up the women they will become. And when we lift up women, we lift up communities.

There are plenty of ways to support young girls, even at a local level. Giving time or donations to women and girl-serving organizations including Girls Inc. can help our impact go even further. Systemic work takes tangible resources. Unfortunately, organizations serving women and girls receive just 1.6% of all philanthropic donations.

At an individual day-to-day level, we can be impactful by being cognizant of the messages we are giving our girls. Our implicit biases with girls and girls of color show up in our actions and words. Let’s encourage girls to take risks and be bold in their pursuits while voting and advocating for legislation that supports all women, not just some, at a local, state and federal level.

As we celebrate International Day of Girl, let’s ensure girls like Ja’Nyah are heard and can bring their entire selves to the director’s chair because it’s well past time for her to lead. After all, in the words of Michelle Obama, “the difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of women who are valued.” All women.

Elyssa Campodonico-Barr is the proud President & CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis, an organization that serves thousands of girls in Indianapolis annually with a mission to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold. Under Elyssa’s leadership, the organization is committed to strengthening its operational health and implementing a new impact-driven program model with strong financial sustainability, smart resource management, and bold programmatic results.