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Conversations: The Lower Eastside Girls Club

We’re so proud to be supporters of and to be able to share this story on the New York-based Lower Eastside Girls Club, an organization we have worked with since 2016. Founded in 1996, the LESGC is an organization connecting girls and young women to healthy and successful futures…a new model of community agency, creating a culture that values creativity and experimentation, while putting girls and women at the center of community development and revitalization.

Their stunning 35,000 square foot community center in NYC offers a safe haven with programs in the arts, sciences, leadership, entrepreneurship, and wellness for girls in middle and high school, with facilities including a Maker Shop, biology lab, Alphabet City Art School, Center for Media and Social Justice, Sound Studio for music production and our radio station/podcast, WGRL (Where Girl Radio Lives); Design Shop for fashion design; a rooftop farm; full culinary kitchen and cafe; and 64-seat state-of the art, 30-foot dome planetarium. Collectively, they offer over 50 unique programs a week, at no cost to girls and their families.

We began our relationship with the organization in 2016 while searching for a way to support food education as we started to explore opening a location in NYC. Working alongside the LEGC, we helped establish relationships with Upstate farms to provide and donate produce for daily meals in 2016-2017, and to assist in foundational food, produce, and gardening-driven programming that could be sustained internally on an ongoing basis. Today, we continue to be close supporters and followers of their work, and were honored to speak with their Co-Executive Directors Jenny Dembrow and Ebonie Simpson about the organization’s ongoing mission, current initiatives, and conversations at the forefront of their inspiring work.

All images courtesy of the Lower Eastside Girls Club.

The Lower Eastside Girls Club was founded in 1996 to ‘address the historic lack of services available to girls and young women on the Lower East Side’. In retrospect what are the biggest changes or challenges that have arisen since your founding?  

25 years ago, the women of the Lower East Side looked at our young girls and realized that there wasn’t a place to nurture their power. Our challenge was to make the Girls Club dream a reality. We hustled and created programs in schools, community rooms, basements, and just about any donated space we could get our hands on. Our 35,000 sq. ft. state-of-the art Center for Community, which opened its doors in 2013, was the fruition of a 15-year capital campaign and grassroots political lobbying effort. (Learn more here in our origin story.) We offer a safe space with free year-round innovative programming in the Arts, STEM, Civic Engagement, Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Wellness and Movement. By always keeping the girls and our community at the forefront of our vision, we have grown from a small volunteer-led organization to one with global reach and yet challenges remain. We recognize that advancing racial and social equity for our community depends upon increasing access to wellbeing tools and resources. 

One of the other challenges is that in 1996 there were 3 Boys Clubs, two of which have closed and one is now co-ed. As we have grown, we see the crucial need for programs not only for boys, but for our entire community. As we came together 25 years ago to address the needs of girls, we are now at a pivotal and exciting time.

To meet this need we are expanding our mission and service population with our Center for Wellbeing and Happiness (CWBH) initiative with a core belief that the wellbeing of our members is intimately connected to the wellbeing of her family, her community, and her world. Our Center for Wellbeing and Happiness will offer free intergenerational and holistic wellness programming for all community members, all genders and all generations.

Looking back on the last year — what learnings have stood out about how we find and serve community when we’re physically separated? And as we emerge out of the pandemic what needs are feeling most urgent in the Girls Club community to immediately meet and serve?

During the pandemic we quickly mobilized to meet the pressing needs of our community. Beginning in March 2020, our team began identifying food insecure members and their families and established a robust weekly food pantry operation, providing Girls Club-made meals and fresh produce, pantry staples, Girls Club-made masks, and cash infusions, as well as daily grab-and-go meals for virtual learners. Aside from addressing food insecurity, when we were fully remote we had daily check-ins with members and families. This pantry operation expanded to serve over 450 families on a weekly basis, with nearly 100,000 meals served to date.  Here is a video documenting our pandemic response. 

As we are in the midst of our summer programs, we feel rejuvenated and hopeful. We were one of the only free programs that were open for in-person classes last summer and remained so throughout most of the school year. Being together in the same space and away from our screens has been a gift. We are not out of the woods yet, as Covid is still severely impacting our community and the world. We are seeing firsthand the effects of the pandemic on our mental and physical health. Mental wellbeing and social connectedness are at the forefront of our programmatic focus as we forge our way ahead.

You recently launched your Center for Wellbeing and Happiness, which provides intergenerational and holistic wellness programming. Can you share a bit about what inspired this project and what this programming includes?

The COVID pandemic has added a great deal of urgency to this need of addressing racial health disparities in NYC.  Through CWBH we deepen support for wrap-around wellness services to all genders and all generations with the aim of fostering collective healing and sharing lifelong skills  that ensure our members and their families thrive now and in the future.   Programming will address the health and wellness of our community through the framework of the Social Determinants of Health.  Youth as well as community members of all ages will be able to register for sessions/workshops or drop in.  Programming will be culturally responsive and inclusive, healing centered, financially accessible (free!).  CWBH will include classes in yoga, dance, movement and mindfulness, meditation, nutrition and culinary education, and access to counseling, family supports, job training and workforce development. CWBH will serve as a wellness  hub providing the space and opportunity for local organizations, expert practitioners, health-based city agencies, and our talented and resourced-filled community members, to connect, collaborate and serve.  

We love the trio of “Joy. Power. POSSIBILITY” pillars that guide the Girls Club vision and offerings — who are some specific women (past or present) that serve as your own North Stars in embodying this ethos? Or — perhaps some books, writers, or resources that you return to again and again as inspirations and touchstones?

There are countless extraordinary women who inspire us. Here are a few:

Lyn Pentecost, our Co-Founder and Executive Director Emeritus for her radical imagination. Our 40,000 sq ft state-of-the-art Center for Community and the thousands of girls whose lives have been impacted by the Girls Club are a testament to her legacy. We walk in her footsteps. 

Rosario Dawson, actress, activist, Girls Club Board member and co-founder of Voto Latino. Raised in the neighborhood and devoted to her community. Our members are inspired by her advocacy and activism. 
Shirley Chisolm, for inspiring us to start New Girl City, our city-wide civic engagement and leadership initiative 

We are also inspired by the extraordinary women who have walked through our doors and spent time with our members from Michelle Obama, to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Simone Biles, Stacey Abrams and so many more.

What’s next for The Lower East Side Girls Club? What dreams do you have for the project that you hope will unfold within the next 10 years? 

We are transforming the Girls Club from a local neighborhood organization with citywide, national, and global influence to a sustainable, citywide organization with expanded local impact and deepened national and global footprint. For us, this means charting a path towards replicating our outstanding Center across the city and around the world.

Learn more about their work and support here.