Girls’ Bill of Rights
Girls have the right to be themselves and to resist gender stereotypes.
Girls have the right to express themselves with originality and enthusiasm.
Girls have the right to take risks to strive freely and to take pride in success.
Girls have the right to accept and appreciate their bodies.
Girls have the right to have confidence in themselves and be safe in the world.
Girls have the right to prepare for interesting work and economic independence.
– adopted 1992 by Girls Inc.
When Athena Fliakos came to work for the YWCA of Ulster County in the autumn of 2020 as facilities and operations manager, her immediate charge was to oversee the renovation of a building that was “in pretty severe disrepair.” Built in 1856, the structure was so overgrown with trees that most Kingstonians didn’t even realize it was there, despite its site at 209 Clinton Avenue being located directly across the street from Academy Green Park, at the boundary of Uptown and Midtown. Between its lack of physical visibility and the fact that way too many people mistakenly think it’s simply the “ladies’ auxiliary” of the YMCA, our local YWCA had what might be called a low profile.
A former teacher with a particular interest in economics and the founder of the GoodBrain Project, whose mission is to “reimagine the business of teaching and learning,” Fliakos wields an irrepressible roll-up-your-sleeves attitude. “If you tell me something can’t be done, I say, ‘Let’s try,’” she says. “My main goal in our early goings was to get this building restored to its former grandeur.”
So, armed with grant funding from Peter Buffett’s NoVo Foundation, she and her colleagues took advantage of the program hiatus of the pandemic to fix up their headquarters, its more modern annex and an adjoining 1845 building at 51 Maiden Lane (the latter currently available for rent as office space). They replaced the roof and the front steps and repainted the interior in appropriate Victorian colors. They trimmed back the jungle in the yard and opened up the view to Academy Green.
In 2021, Fliakos was tapped to take the helm – not only of the YWCA, but of its affiliated chapter of Girls Inc.®. There had previously been two separate program directors, but combining the two roles was deemed a promising cost-saving move. It was part of a strategy by a newly reconfigured Board of Directors to “distribute leadership” and “flatten the hierarchy,” Fliakos explains. Within her first 30 days as CEO, she ensured that all of the 14 teachers and teaching assistants employed by YWCA of Ulster to run its daycare and preschool programs – the Magic Circle School, before- and aftercare at the Meagher School and at Family Court – were making a minimum of $15 per hour; they got a second raise in July. She also recruited more teachers of color, raising their number from one to seven – “making sure our insides and outsides match,” as Fliakos puts it.
The Girls Inc. programs that have been hosted by the YWCA in Kingston since 2007 got a big boost around the same time: MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates, the ex-wives of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates respectively, teamed up in 2020 to create a philanthropic initiative called the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, targeting organizations promoting gender parity to receive large grants. Their goal was to expand women’s power and influence in the US significantly by 2030. Of the four recipients selected for $10 million grants, one was a nationwide project of Girls Inc. called Project Accelerate. This program addresses inequality in the workplace, particularly the absence of women of color in positions of influence and leadership, by providing academic enrichment and support services to girls who will become “the first in their families to go to college,” Fliakos says. Project Accelerate ties in well with Girls Inc.’s Eureka! Program, established in 2010 with support from the Clinton Foundation, which prepares girls in grades 8 through 12 to enter the STEM fields.
“Strong, smart and bold” has long been the motto of the Girls Inc. organization, which got its start in 1864 in Waterbury, Connecticut and went by the name of Girls Club of America until 1990. Its initial mission was to provide safe refuges and job training to young women displaced by the Civil War. Health and sex education programs were established as early as 1906, and there’s still plenty of emphasis on giving girls the tools they need to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexual violence. Other “life skills” programs focus on wellness, avoiding addictions, coping with prejudice, civics and community leadership, media and financial literacy. The national Girls Inc. organization supplies evidence-based curricula for the local affiliates to use in administering these programs, although Fliakos notes that the “money sense” module “needs updating. It doesn’t cover cryptocurrency, for example.”
Almost from the beginning, Girls Inc. has been committed to providing a “girls-only” environment where its clients can thrive and feel safe. Given the spotlight on transgender rights in recent years, that model is currently in flux, with programs now open to “those who identify as females, regardless of sex,” according to Fliakos. How do you navigate the minefield of creating a single “safe space” for both trans girls and cisgender girls who may have experienced rape or sexual assault? “You don’t,” the director admits. “They’re all going to get the program, but not necessarily together.” She utilizes a model of “affinity groups that lead to larger integrated groups.” Roundtable gatherings where diverse subgroups of youth can express their needs while practicing empathy with those who are different represent “the kind of world I’m interested in,” Fliakos says.
Not every national program is being implemented at the Girls Inc. of Ulster & Dutchess Counties affiliate; Fliakos notes that partnerships with other local organizations are emphasized: “We’re careful not to have redundancies.” She mentions Mentor Me of Ulster County and the United Way’s Raising Hope program as examples of mentoring programs that make it unnecessary for the YWCA or Girls Inc. to try to provide competing services. The YMCA is already Kingston’s go-to source for physical fitness programs for youth, so the YWCA focuses on more specialized wellness offerings for girls, such as trauma-informed yoga.
For the future, the organization is seeking ways to increase the number of girls it serves, including those who don’t live close to its Kingston headquarters. “We served 208 girls in 2021. Eventually I would like to serve about 2,000 girls a year. My goal is 700 by 2023.”
“Transportation is the single most expensive and difficult logistical piece. But give me the programs and we’ll figure out how to get them here,” Fliakos says. She’s also looking for partner organizations in far-flung communities that can provide appropriate sites for more localized programming. “Get in touch and tell us what you need.”
For more information about the programs and services of the YWCA of Ulster County and Girls Inc. of Ulster and Dutchess Counties and how you can get involved, visit https://ywcaulstercounty.org.