The changing demographics of New York City has touched virtually every neighborhood within the five boroughs. Places like Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant or Harlem — areas occupied by a Black majority for decades — are now perfect examples of gentrification’s overnight impact on cultural hubs.

Manhattan’s Lower East Side is no exception. A settling point for Chinese, Italian, Jewish and eventually Dominican immigrants throughout the 20th century, LES truly embodied the melting pot that is the Big Apple. But the tight neighborhood known for its blue-collar workers and railroad flats, now boast tiny one-bedroom apartments starting at $2,000.

Things are different, to say the least, which is partly why the Lower Eastside Girls Club, co-founded by Dr. Lyn Pentecost in 1996, exists. As a way to address the historic lack of services available to girls and young women on the Lower East Side, the center offers state-of-the-art programs in the arts, sciences, leadership, entrepreneurship, and wellness for middle and high school girls. 

Erikka James (left), the Managing Director of Leadership and Global Initiatives and Ebonie Simpson (right), the Managing Director of Govt Relations/Special Development Initiatives spoke to ESSENCE about their work in creating the next leaders of the world.  

Since you’re working in a space that’s encouraging leadership, who put you in a place to realize the importance of having female leadership? 

Erikka: All my experiences with my family and my sisters who, even though they’re younger, inspire me to be a positive role model for all of these young people that I work with. I think that’s really important. 

Ebonie: I would say my mom and my stepmom, in particular, were women who I always saw as role models doing amazing hard work and breaking barriers. My mother is from Deep South Georgia, came from two working-class parents and used the military as her way to get out and receive an education. She has accomplished so much — a retired veteran, Rotarian and community leader, and exceptional doctor of education who works as a public school vice principal and local university professor. My stepmom is [executive director] of a North Texas nonprofit which serves victims of domestic and gender violence, heading the organization before 35 and without a graduate degree. Her work advocating for Black and brown and immigrant women inspired my drive for gender justice. They are the definition of Black Girl Magic, have worked their butts off, and they’ve always pushed and inspired me to believe in myself and my abilities.

Can you speak the importance of having role models that look like you, for these girls?

Ebonie: The fact that they have these examples, and the fact that we present opportunities for them to meet and network with these amazing women of color who are doing all these amazing things, obviously that just makes a difference. Just like anyone who’s able to see T’Challa [played by Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther ] and be like, “Oh I could be a superhero. I could actually dress up as a superhero and be me,” the same idea. I can see these people doing these amazing things, and that could be me.

I don’t see them limiting themselves. They don’t give any semblance of “I can’t do it,” or lack of confidence. I think, obviously, it could be very much just a part of who they are, but I’m sure being in this space and being surrounded by sisters who are able to support them and create this culture where they can honestly do anything. I mean, when you get out into the real world, you’re hit with so much. So, it’s so important to have a foundation.

From a professional perspective, what’s one lesson the girls are learning?

Erikka: Exposing them to all of the different jobs that are currently out there, but also reminding them to create your own thing. You can have a nine-to-five, and on the side, you’ve got to be working on your own projects all the time because you never know. That’s really important. So, bringing in women of color who are in office who are fashion designers, all these things just reminded them that all these jobs exist.

And what does success look like?

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Erikka: Showing success takes many forms.

Ebonie: Exactly.

Erikka: It took me a long time to realize that too, actually…When we’re talking about teaching wellness and alternative paths to higher education, sort of coming to terms with that ourselves, and then sharing that with our young members.

What are the everyday stressors of these young girls? How does a changing neighborhood affect them?

Erikka: A lot of our girls come from single-parent homes or homes where there are a lot of siblings in a small amount of space. So there is this sort of urgency to get out, to maybe get a job so you can have your own place, or go to school. So these are some of the things that some of the older girls are talking about. But a lot of them do want to stay in the area and actually work at the Girls Club. It’s wonderful to intern at these places that we’re able to take them.

Ebonie: Another thing that we do in particular — what Erikka is able to do with our art and activism and our gala, I don’t know if you know…

Erikka: Our teen leadership program is called the GALA Program, and it stands for girls as activists, leaders, and advocates. So the idea is, everything we do here, whether you’re taking a maker shop class or an art class or a sewing class, you’re bringing those skills into a tangible project that we can take out to the world. So, maybe it’s making a banner for a march or designing a screen, and we make T-shirts and we give them out at the next rally. Using these skills from the facility for real community work.

Ebonie: I think we actually set a great example of how we can ensure that they are understanding that the work that we are doing here it’s not just about art or fun or whatever. It’s about literally making a change directly within your community.

Erikka: Last summer we went around and we registered people in this community to vote. We’re a polling site; we designed stickers and posters and gave them out in the community.

Ebonie: The kids created videos about voting and led a forum with female candidates running for public office within the community, running for city council. Leading this forum gave the girls access to engage with the people n their direct community who are vying to be their leader, and they’re women. This should be you.

All of that, it’s just been direct action where applicable. I think everything we do is applicable. Even though we have all of these really amazing partnerships with organizations all across the country, and even internationally, everything we do here is about the girls and their community.

Let’s talk about more activism. How can we talk girls about integrating it into their everyday lives? 

Ebonie: We’re in a constant campaign for social justice. So, it’s not just about, oh we marched for women, we marched against gun violence, it’s like we’re always having to do something. So, how do we institutionalize the activist space and give the girls their own tools to be organizers of their community on their issues?

And also, it’s just a great space for all of these great organizations who are already here and who have already decided to work to be able to kind of centralize the operation room to have meetings or whatever it is. So, it’s kind of a communal space as well as space for the girls to do their activist work.

What’s next for LESGC?

Ebonie: Our Mothers and Others Holistic Wellness Center will be opening in fall 2019. We have a unique opportunity to expand our facility by 5,000 square feet and scale up our health and wellness programs and partnerships. The center will provide intergenerational programming, training, and resources for women, LGBTQ, girls, elders, their families in our community.

Erikka: The girls will also work at our new Campaign HQ on Avenue C, which is huge. It will be a  place where we can register people to vote year round and also share resources, books, T-shirts, and posters, host speakers and rallies, all related to the political activism and social justice work that we’re doing.

​​​​​​What do you think you’ll see from the next generation of these beautiful Black and brown girls?

Erikka: I hope that they take every opportunity that they can as a learning experience, as a growing experience and especially in this space, sort of learning from each other and learning how they can support each other to be the next generation of successful leaders, entrepreneurs. We have to change the game entirely. I just hope that they learn how to build up, grow up together in a network that supports them.