In Oklahoma, the rate of teen pregnancy is eighth highest in the nation; fewer than 15 percent of girls complete four or more years of college, 19.4 percent of girls never graduate high school and 26 percent of girls report being in a physically abusive relationship by the time they enter the ninth grade.
For girls in our state, the outlook is grim.
This, Gloria Miller knows all too well. Six years ago, when she was dating the single dad who would later become her husband, she looked into finding some local, reliable resources for the 10-year-old daughter he was raising. Finding none locally, she came across Girls Inc., a national non-profit with the aim of empowering girls to become strong, smart, self-sufficient women.
For five years, Miller searched for something locally that was equivalent to Girls Inc., all the while thinking, "someone should really start an Oklahoma chapter of this organization."
Finally, while also attending school as a student of social work, Miller took matters into her own hands. She formed a steering committee, which met weekly for six months to examine what services were already offered to girls in Tulsa and where there were gaps that needed filling.
"[Looking at statistics in Oklahoma], I thought, what is happening? Where are we losing our girls?" Miller said. "All girls ages six to 18 are at risk, no matter their socioeconomic level or race. Those are just the risk factors in Oklahoma when you're a girl."
Because the national Girls Inc. organization offers its chapters flexibility, local members are able to alter their programming based on their city's needs. Miller used a national longitudinal study called the "Super Girl Dilemma" about the way girls view themselves and the ways in which adults and boys look at girls as a basis for conversation locally, in which 50 adults and 25 high school-aged girls attended.
"The girls who participated [in the panel discussion] were so excited that an organization was coming that would hear them and be interested in what they had to say," said Miller.
A year ago, the Tulsa chapter of Girls Inc. was approved for a provisional membership, which gives it two to three years to build the chapter. In that time, the local chapter is responsible for planning programming, forming a board of directors and raising a minimum of $150,000 to begin programming.
"We're ahead, as far as meeting the benchmarks go," Miller said. The organization already has a board of 14 in place, is holding fundraisers planned by girls the organization aims to serve and has already implemented some of its programming.
"She Votes" is the first campaign Girls Inc. Tulsa is conducting, and its goal is for girls to see themselves, not only as voters, but also as candidates. The campaign is only conducted during election years, and Miller said this was the perfect time for the Tulsa chapter to start its campaign.
"This is the first year there has been a viable female candidate," she explained. "It's the first time these girls have seen a woman at the debates.
Love [Hillary Clinton] or hate her, that is huge."
With "She Votes," four area-wide high school girls learn about the history of voting--specifically, when groups like women and minorities were given suffrage--how to choose a candidate, campaign commercial imagery and stereotypes and more. The girls will tour city hall, assist in voter registration, plan three fundraising events and meet local female politicians to learn about their experiences as candidates.
While only four girls are participating in this first program, Miller said she hopes, as Girls Inc. gains popularity, more girls will be interested in joining and participating. She said, if enough girls, after hearing about Girls Inc., want to be a part of the "She Votes" campaign, she will re-teach the program to a new batch of girls.
Future programs will teach girls about media literacy, financial literacy and sex education. The programs are specifically designed for age appropriateness, so, for example, girls ages six to eight in the financial literacy program will learn about piggy bank-type savings, while high school-aged girls will learn about 401Ks, global economics and investing.
"One of the main reasons women stay in bad relationships is financial dependence," explained Miller. "We hope to teach girls to be financially independent at a young age."
The Girls Inc. sex ed program, which probably won't be introduced in the local chapter for some time, is abstinence-plus, Miller said.
"Congress only funds abstinence only sex education," she explained. "Ours is 'abstinence-plus,' education beyond the choice of abstinence, which is offered as a primary choice, about sexual health. Across the U.S., abstinence-only education has not changed the percentage of teens having sex or the age at which they first experience sex, which is 15. All it's done is made them believe that condoms will not prevent STDs. Girls who complete the Girls Inc. abstinence-plus program see a 50 percent decrease in teen pregnancy."
Though Girls Inc. Tulsa is still in its most primary stages, Miller has already received some resistance from male members of the community, who feel programs geared only toward girls are sexist and unnecessary.
To that, she says, "Research points to the fact that girls benefit from gender-specific education. There are lots of organizations for boys. Girls Inc. fills that gap for girls."
While some may feel that the idea of feminism and empowering girls and women are fairly recent developments, Girls Inc. was established in 1867, during the Industrial Revolution, in Waterbury, Conn., and known as Girls Club. It was established because young women and girls needed a safe place to go after school and before work. The club continued to grow until, in 1945, 19 clubs nationwide came together and incorporated as Girls Clubs of America and wrote the Girls' Bill of Rights (visit www.girlsinc.org for this uplifting list of innate rights). During the next few decades, the organization continued to grow and change as women's roles in society grew and changed. In 1990, the club changed its name to Girls Inc. At the same time, Boys Club changed its name to Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Girls Inc. Tulsa hopes to gain momentum over the next one to two years and become a permanent chapter of the national Girls Inc. organization. Miller said she's already received phone calls and e-mails from people in different areas of the state looking to start Girls Inc. chapters in their cities, especially in Oklahoma City.
Miller is excited about the possibility of more Oklahoma Girls Inc. chapters, especially in the more rural areas of the state.
"Once you begin to empower girls and educate them about the options available in their lives, then you begin to change families. Maybe not the family of origin, but if these girls choose to get married and have children, then what they've learned in Girls Inc. will change their family and, eventually, others in the state," said Miller.
Girls Inc. Tulsa will hold a fundraiser for the "She Votes" campaign Fri., Sep. 19, in the Vista Room of Gilcrease Museum at 6pm. Ticket prices are to be determined. Local female politicians will speak about their experiences, and Miller hopes more locals will be interested in furthering Girls Inc.'s cause.
Share this article: