Until the last year or so, Leo Watts didn’t consider herself much of an advocate. The 17-year-old junior at The Soulsville Charter School, who’s given name is Ja’Lin, says she was always too reserved for that.
“I’m socially shy,” she said, “and I get nervous in front of people.”
But she found her advocate’s voice as a member of the Girls Inc. of Memphis Youth Farm crew, which she joined last summer. It was there that she learned about a proposal to expand a construction-debris landfill in Frayser. It woke her up.
“The idea of as bunch of garbage next to a school and across from our farm, it struck a chord with me,” Leo says. “If it’s not O.K. to put it in your neighborhood, why would it be O.K. to put it in ours?”
Jada Powell, a junior at Ridgeway High School, also freed her inner advocate thanks to her involvement with Girls Inc.
“In Girls Inc., my confidence has definitely grown,” Jada says. “I’ve always been real outgoing. But Girls Inc. has taught me to speak my mind respectfully.”
Leo and Jada’s advocacy is already bearing fruit. Thanks to countless concerned citizens from Frayser – including Leo and other Girls Inc. girls – the landfill proposal was defeated by a unanimous vote of the Memphis City Council on Jan. 8.
Thanks to Jada, Girls Inc. currently has a direct representative on the Girls Action Network, a national advisory and mobilizing group made up of young women’s from Girls Inc. affiliates across the country.
Both girls presented at the inaugural Bridge Builders Youth Action Summit in February, teaching other young people what they’ve learned as advocates for girls. And both took part – along with youth and adults from across the city – in the recent March for Our Lives. (Leo is quoted at the end of this Commercial Appeal account of the march.)
There’s no doubt that both girls are on fire to make a difference. And for both, Girls Inc. helped ignite that fire. Leo, a Chicago native who moved to Memphis at age 5, didn’t grow up in Girls Inc., but it’s had a profound impact on her. She heard about the opportunity to be part of the farm crew from a school counselor.
“I wasn’t really looking forward to it, honestly, because of the heat and the bugs,” Leo said. “But we started doing things like volunteering at a homeless shelter and going to meetings about public issues.”
Being part of a group that helped defeat the proposed landfill, Leo said, made her feel proud. And she got to share that pride in a big way at the Bridge Builders Youth Action Summit held at BRIDGES in February. She, along with other farm crew members, presented the workshop “Girls Inc. Youth Farm Fights Landfill” multiple times to attendees from across the country.
Jada also presented multiple times at the Youth Summit, about her involvement in the Girls Action Network (GAN).
Her Girls Inc. connection stretches back farther. She started attending South Park center at age 5 and became involved with Eureka! at 13.
Jada was chosen to represent Girls Inc. of Memphis on the GAN last summer, a group of 10 girls narrowed down from countless nominations from 82 affiliates across the country. This is the inaugural year for the GAN and Memphis is well-represented – Girls Inc. of Memphis CEO Lisa Moore also was tapped to serve on the adult chort of the network.
The GAN is a year-long youth advocacy program that was created with the goal of assisting in the development of a Girls Inc. policy agenda and helping to mobilize grassroots action across the network. Participants meet regularly via video conference and discuss important issues like gun violence, barriers to girls, DACA and sexual harassment. The program culminates in an annual trip to Washington D.C. where girls meet with lawmakers.
“At Girls Inc., I saw a lot of people with positive outlooks, that had something going for themselves,” Jada said of her time at South Park and in Eureka. “I want that for myself.
She’s clearly excited by the prospect of meeting lawmakers in Washington.
“My mom says I’m an activist but I don’t always believe that,” Jada said. “A lot of times I feel like I’m in the shadows, like I’m not doing what you would expect an activist to do. But this is going to make my mom’s belief come true.”
Earlier this year, Leo attended the Women’s March 2.0 conference and march in Nashville with other Girls Inc. girls. During the march, she encountered a counter-protestor with some strong anti-woman views. She calmly walked up and asked him to tell her more about where he was coming from.
“He referred to God a lot,” Leo said. “I told him ‘God accepts all in my book.’ I’m not sure he listened. But I made sure my opinions were heard.”
And like Jada, Leo says her ability to stand up for her beliefs with respect was nurtured by Girls Inc.
“When I’m around Kelsey and the other adults at the farm, they’re positive and supportive and that makes me feel positive and supportive,” Leo said. “When they say, ‘You can do it,’ I say, ‘I got this,’ and I’ll get up and say what I have to say.
“If it weren’t for their attitudes, I wouldn’t have done half these things I’ve done.”