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Girls Inc.: From sweatshops to stars

On the surface, the differences between Carole Black and Stephanie Garcia couldn’t be more striking. Black is the president and general manager of NBC4, faced with the daily pressures of overseeing all facets of a network affiliate in the second largest television market in the country.

Garcia is a 17-year-old from inner-city Oakland, faced with daily pressures of her own, pressures that have nothing to do with ratings shares. Right now, she’s filling out college applications. She hopes someday to be a surgeon.

Seen through the lens of the nonprofit organization Girls Inc., Black and Garcia aren’t necessarily from different worlds. In fact, they’re part of a continuum — one that awakens a young woman like Garcia to her potential so that she may end up, like Black, at the top of her male-dominated field.

The first girls club opened in 1864, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, as a haven for young women working in the factories and mill towns of New England. Girls Inc., headquartered in New York, today serves 350,000 young people 6 to 18 years old in some 1,000 sites across the country.

The programs in Girls Inc. have evolved over the years — from teaching girls proper social skills and how to sew back in the 19th century, to today’s media literacy program, dubbed Girls Re-Cast TV, which involves girls in discussions of primetime and children’s programming and in turn heightens the entertainment industry’s awareness of the images they feed back to girls.

A recent partnership with cable’s USA Network, for instance, arranged for premieres of its original movie “A Member of the Wedding” in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles and brought the film’s star, Alfre Woodard, into the Girls Inc. family. In addition, a Web site (www.girlsinc.org) includes girls’ comments on popular, big-budget movies.

“Re-Cast came out of a natural evolution of everything they do,” says Leslie Carder-Hoffman, media literacy coordinator in Los Angeles. “Anything that would make a girl smarter, or open up their life to new possibilities, is what Girls Inc. is all about.”

Girls Inc. has boosted its connection to the entertainment industry with an annual luncheon in Los Angeles honoring those in TV and film who reflect the Girls Inc. mission.

This year’s second annual ceremony will be held today at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. “It’ s important that (women) who get through the door first do as excellent a job as they can to provide a comfort level for those who come after them,” says Black, one of this year’ s honorees.

But the focus of most of Girls Inc.’s programs are on more pressing problems than breaking into the entertainment industry. Referring to a recent report that found acts of juvenile delinquency triple between the hours of 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Girls Inc. executive director Isabel Carter Stewart says that points to one of the organization’s central missions — to act as a buffer between what parents and schools can provide for children. “It’ s astounding how much downtime a kid has,” she says. “These kids get out of school at 1 or 2 p.m. and they have nothing to do.”

To that end, Girls Inc.’s programs are aimed at both prevention and opportunity, focusing on girls from low-income backgrounds (81% come from families with incomes of $25,000 or less, 54% from racial and ethnic minority groups).

In Los Angeles, collaborations with the L.A. Unified School District and YWCAs in Los Angeles and Santa Monica have brought more girls into the fold.

Workshops on prevention of adolescent pregnancy and substance abuse are combined with programs that build skills in math, science and sports and offer instruction in community health issues.

With an eye toward the future, Girls Inc. has given out $374,000 in college scholarships since 1993.

“We’ re not in the business of fixing kids’ problems, but in the mode of helping them understand their strengths,” Stewart says.

Selected to participate in Girls Inc.’s math and science program, Stephanie Garcia did a series of internships, including one at a sports medicine clinic in Berkeley. Now a senior at Skyline High School in Oakland, Garcia has an eye on a career in medicine. “I found out about Girls Inc. when I was taking a pre-algebra class,” she says. “There aren’t that many Girls Inc. sites here, but you can do a lot of networking once you (get in a program).”

Girls Inc. came to Garcia in the seventh grade, but Stewart knows it’s important to get girls involved much earlier. Recently, she says, she was in Washington at a seminar where one of the speakers was Leon Dash, the Washington Post reporter whose book “Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America” offered a gritty, honest look at the obstacles facing young people in the inner cities. “He said, ‘You can offer all of this great stuff to 10th- and 11th-graders,’ ” Stewart recalls. ” ‘But if schools are as dismal as I have observed, you lose them in the third and fourth grade if a kid can’ t read.’ ”

Ironically, teaching girls to read was one of the mandates of the national Girls Inc. org, founded in 1945. In that sense, sadly, not enough has changed. “But if we can address as many aspects of girls’ lives as early as we possibly can, we’ll see results,” Stewart says.

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