I first knew Mandy Van Deven as the editor of Altar Magazine and later as a co-editor at Clamor. Only recently did I learn of her role as Director of Community Organizing at Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a Brooklyn-based non-profit. “GGE’s mission is to improve the physical, psychological, social and economic development of girls and women,” Van Deven told me. “GGE encourages communities to remove barriers and create opportunities for girls and women to live self-determined lives through a combination of advocacy, leadership and self-esteem development, community organizing, education, and service provision.”
In order to educate myself and help spread the word, I asked Mandy a few questions via e-mail.
Mickey Z.: Tell us a little more about GGE.
Mandy Van Deven: Girls for Gender Equity is a volunteer-run, grassroots, youth development organization that was founded in 2000 by a Haitian-American lesbian, who organized a coalition of 70 low-income, African-American and Caribbean parents from the Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant communities to adamantly advocate for the organization to begin its work within these communities.
MZ: How did you get involved?
MVD: I began working with GGE in September 2003, just a few weeks after moving to Brooklyn from Atlanta. I started as a part-time Community Organizer, developing a curriculum for and running Gender Respect Wokshops with elementary and middle school girls and boys and organizing parents and teachers around Title IX in three schools in Brooklyn. Now I am the Director of Community Organizing and I supervise and train staff to run our programs and continue the organizing work, collaborate with the Executive Director on the development plan for the organization, develop and implement new programs, and work with high school girls to train them to be community organizers and peer educators…among other things.
MZ: Besides the unavoidable factor of peer pressure, you’re obviously butting heads with issues like ethnicity, class, culture, immigration, and of course, gender. What’s that been like?
MVD: The high school girls are, for me, the easiest age group to work with.
They’ve got the cognitive ability to think abstractly about these kinds of issues, and enough lived experience to back up their opinions. I started an empowerment and community organizing group for teen girls, and this year is my third year running that program. I’m constantly inspired by the girls in the group and envious, in some ways, that they still have so much hope and idealism. I mean, I’ve got a lot of hope, but I also have a bit more disillusionment with the world. So these girls really reinvigorate my sense of purpose and drive to continue doing this work. They’re so committed to their community in a way that I don’t remember being as a teen. I thought I was going to have to convince them to do community service projects and organizing actions, but they’re always so excited and committed that I spend a lot of time having to convince them to focus on just one thing at a time.
MZ: What type of response do you generally get from the girls?
MVD: They’re extremely accepting of me – a white, queer, feminist woman from the South – and focus more on our similarities than our differences. They jokingly tell me that I’m not really white, I’m just light-skinned, which I appreciate (despite the complicated-ness of that statement) because it’s their way of making me feel included. It’s really brilliant to have the privilege of being a part of their lives, particularly as they shape their concept of social justice and their role in creating change.
MZ: So, what’s next for GGE and how can those reading this interview help and/or get involved?
MVD: As with any nonprofit organization, it is so important for people to donate (money or in-kind goods) and volunteer their services. GGE is primarily a volunteer-run organization and works with over 50 volunteers annually. We are always looking for people, especially women of color, with varying talents-self-defense instruction, mentoring, financial expertise, and coaching experience, to name a few-to get involved to the degree that they can, whether it’s once a year or once a week. Girls for Gender Equity exists because the community demanded it, and it continues to exist because the community lends their support to help us move forward. One of our slogans is “Strong girls need strong women,” but we also encourage men to get involved because girls need male role models as well who support gender equality and girls’ right to freedom from sexist oppression. In solidarity, we will level the playing field.
MZ: How can people donate money and/or contact you?
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.