News & Politics

Washington “Girls Up” With the United Nations Foundation

A campaign to help Third World teenagers that began in Washington goes national

DC native Erica Lamberson (far left) is one of 17 spokegirls nationwide who have raised more than $15,000 for international aid. Photograph by Jazelle Hunt

Less than half a cent of every dollar spent on global development goes toward resources that will improve the lives of teenage girls. The United Nations Foundation’s newest campaign aims to change that, says executive director of global partnerships Elizabeth Gore—and the epicenter of the campaign is in Washington. The DC-based organization Girl Up helps teenage girls raise money that’s distributed overseas as aid, and the group brings in celebrities to help raise awareness of its efforts. Local organizations such as the DC chapter of Girls Inc. and Washington Middle School have gotten on board, and the campaign is broadening its approach overseas.

Two years ago, a few UN Foundation executives met at their headquarters in the District to brainstorm a plan to raise a nationwide “army of support” for the world’s hardest-to-reach adolescent girls—an endeavor they have pursued for the last decade. One of their ideas was that American girls would make great recruits for that army. Over the next two years, they conducted extensive research and heard directly from American girls through focus groups.

“We were surprised to find that over 70 percent of girls are already philanthropically active,” Gore says. Much to the surprise of the executives, American girls wanted to play a key role in whatever the UN Foundation was planning. “And we realized not only do we want to support girls internationally, but let’s create the equal goal of inspiring American girls to be global leaders.”

The team named the campaign Girl Up and created a system that would feature a group of “teen advisors”—adolescent American spokesgirls—at its core. As Girl Up began to crystallize, UN Foundation professionals in other departments who had girls of their own inquired about its goals. Two parents in particular, Edima Elinewinga and William Layton, encouraged their daughters to get involved.

Elinewinga’s 13-year-old daughter, Bridget, and Layton’s 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, were among the first chosen for the inaugural class of teen advisors when Girl Up launched in September.

“The families of UN workers make many sacrifices because these issues are their lives, and it’s the nature of the job,” says Gore. “So seeing [Bridget and Olivia] get involved and address large crowds is like seeing my own family members being a part of leading this. It makes me proud.”

Bridget is student-government president at Montgomery Village Middle School. On one of her summer trips to Tanzania (her mother’s birthplace), she interviewed girls at an orphanage on behalf of Girl Up and held a donations drive for them when she returned. Olivia, who attends Westland Middle School, plans to sell items she knits to raise money for Girl Up. She also wants to put together a school assembly with guest speakers to raise awareness among her schoolmates. Erica Lamberson, 17, the third Washington teen advisor, has led the DC chapter of Jack and Jill (for which she is community-service chairperson) and helped her school, School Without Walls, to become local partners with Girl Up.

In addition to acting as representatives, the girls help Girl Up staff develop ideas to engage youth, mobilize their peers to raise funds for international aid programs, and spread awareness of issues affecting girls in the developing world (such as child marriage and lack of access to education). Young people get involved through the High Five strategy, which asks them to share five facts about the campaign on social-networking sites, donate $5, start a fundraiser and invite five people to help, and challenge five friends to do the same. The donations go toward funding social services for the hardest-to-reach teen girls in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Liberia, and Malawi.

“[These girls] were the first to tell us, ‘No, we want to lead this,’” says Gore. “They’re providing the ideas, the stories we put on the Web site. They want to know about the violence, the child marriages.” She adds that Girl Up executives underestimated how much they could expose the girls to the hard-to-swallow issues their international counterparts face.

Before launching the campaign, the staff also took into account the regional differences they noticed during their focus groups, which Gore says is reflected here in Washington.

“The kind of diversity found in this city is an important part of the make up of Girl Up’s campaign,” she explains. “The DC community is already philanthropic, but it’s a melting pot of the world; people who live here are from all over the US and the world. We want to do several methods so girls in Texas are just as inspired as girls here.” As an example, she says that West Coast girls leaned more toward initiatives that involved friends and family, whereas East Coast girls gravitated toward initiatives within their schools.

Armed with their preliminary research, insight from UN Foundation parents, and the first teen advisors, Girl Up spread across the country. Today, it has secured its footing with pep rallies in five cities, nearly 150,000 Facebook fans, donations from more than 60,000 girls, and 17 inaugural teen advisors from ten states including Maryland, as well as the District, who have collectively raised more than $15,000. The campaign has already caught the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama and her chief of staff, Tina Tchen, who advised Gore during Girl Up’s rapid development.

Now that the campaign is growing on its own momentum, the staff is turning its sights on the adults—particularly on Capitol Hill. Gore wants to make sure that lawmakers pay attention to issues affecting adolescent girls here and abroad, and that they actively support legislation that addresses those issues. She also plans to present Girl Up to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and expects it will be the beginning of a fruitful alliance.

Girl Up execs are figuring out how to transition from their inaugural group of teen advisors to a new group of young leaders. In the meantime, the girls are staying informed and making sure others are, too.

“It’s important to educate yourself about what’s going on in the world,” Erica says. “I know it’s easy to notice what’s going on around you, but we’re part of a global community. Things that are happening overseas affect us whether we know it or not.”

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