The Lower East Side Girls Club of NY: A "Dream Incubator”

Audio Description

How does a girls club started by local moms and a shopping cart evolve into a 40,000 sq. ft “dream incubator” connecting young women of color to successful futures? Ebonie Simpson discusses her disruptive nonprofit.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

00:00 - 00:22

Now we have an incredible city council of majority women and mostly women of color and folks who I know personally and they're just like, we need a golf club in the bar, the golf club in Queens. So, in 25 years, I do hope that we can have local growth clubs across New York City. But it's important that those entities are run by the community itself.

00:28 - 00:33

This is Changing the Trajectory. I'm James Seth Thompson, Bernstein's Head of Diverse Market Strategy.

00:34 - 01:08

And I’m Maci Philitas, the Emerging Wealth Strategist here at Bernstein. Thanks for joining us today. In college, Ebonie Simpson came to New York to intern at the Lower East Side Girls Club. And now, a decade later, she is running the whole thing. Ebonie is the co-executive director of this incredibly disruptive nonprofit that changes the trajectory of historically disenfranchised lives through its mission, rooted in community opening doors and providing opportunity and positive outcomes for girls. Ebonie. Thank you, first, for the incredible work you're doing, but for also joining us today.

01:09 - 01:13

Thank you for having me. I'm incredibly honored and excited for our conversation.

01:14 - 01:43

Same. So, let's just jump into it. Last year, the Girls Club celebrated its 25th anniversary, which, while working through the challenges of a global pandemic, is no small feat. So, kudos to you guys. Upon visiting Ebonie at the Lower East Side Girls Club, I quickly learned that it's not your average community center, but for our listeners who are not familiar with the organization and what you do, can you provide us a little overview of your service and the club and how it operates?

01:44 - 02:20

Yes, the Lower East Side Girls Club is an independent nonprofit founded in 1996 by a group of moms who recognized there was a dramatic lack of services for young women on the Lower East Side and decided to do something about it. So, they came together, but it was a little shopping cart and said, hey, I am going to create this. There were three boys’ clubs in the Lower East Side. And so, like I said, there was nothing for girls. And the community is rich with incredibly talented brown and black young people. And they decided, let's do something about that.

02:20 - 03:04

So, 25 years later, we're now globally recognized as a nonprofit that is serving innovative young women and people of color across New York City. We have a 35,000 square foot facility that our founders built from the ground up, literally advocated for six empty lots of land on the Lower East Side to be developed to build this incredible facility. So, it's incredibly unique and it's a safe haven and what I like to call a dream incubator that allows our young women to really recognize and realize all of their potential and have access to all the resources to really discover their passions and really make a change in the world.

03:04 - 03:37

We have a planetarium, which is probably our coolest element is a 30-foot dome planetarium that features everything that the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium has to offer those services for free to Memphis, for girls, but to the entire community of local schools and students. We have a rooftop garden. We call it a rooftop farm because it truly is a farm where the girls cultivate and grow all types of plants. And then we have a full culinary kitchen that allows them to really explore healthy eating and nutrition hands on.

03:37 - 04:07

And the space also has incredible lab, full art studios, for sound studio, for music production, podcasting and using. They also have their own TV show. We also have a full sewing and design studio, a full photography studio, lab for entrepreneurship and design product development. And they also have their own store where they sell a lot of their handmade natural products. There's so much more on the space, and the girls literally get to explore every single avenue.

04:07 - 04:44

And what's also really cool about the Girls Club is we really are big on collaboration, partnership, and so we have partnerships not only across the city but across the country and even internationally. So, I guess that really amazing opportunities to explore social justice and art and activism. We're expanding. We have an additional 5000 square feet that we've built and we're about to open to establish our new Center for Wellbeing and Happiness, which is our newest endeavor that allows us not to take the girls, but to serve her family and her entire community through holistic wellness services and program.

04:44 - 04:53

You know, Ebonie. First of all, that's a place I feel like I want to live because there's so many things you guys have built that are very near and dear to me. Congratulations on that.

04:53 - 05:10

We'd love to hear a little bit more about your personal and professional background. So thinking about your personal, professional background. What is it that kind of led you to this space? What's driving your passion for helping young Black and Brown girls realize their full potential?

05:10 - 05:38

So, I went to Duke and at Duke we were able to explore New York City as interns navigating social justice at the intersection of women's rights. And I got lucky enough to be paired with the Lower East Side Girls Club. At the time, they were in a little storefront, probably total of 4 to 5000 square feet, the entire facility. And they were doing all the things that we're doing. And it’s now a huge, incredible facility.

05:38 - 06:18

And I was just really moved by their approach to youth programming, the way that they truly center voices and allow them to really be on the front lines of all the things that they were into for them, whether it was selling fresh produce or doing lots of anti-violence, social justice work in the community, to photography, art and cultivation, they were able to curate all these amazing shows and building robots. This is like, how is this little baby doing all this amazing work? Um, I also found it really special. The amazing people that the Girls Club cultivated to support and mentor the young women.

06:18 - 07:01

My background is in public policy. I'm super passionate about the intersection between policy, civics and social justice. I moved to New York to do policy work. I was in the mayor's office for a little bit, and I did that intentionally because I wanted to have a lens that was tactical and understand how government can work, how government can be really thoughtful about creating change through the policy. But I recognized very soon on that you need that grassroots and that community first and foremost. And so I knew I wanted to try to make some type of shift that allowed me to be more on the ground and more directly impacting the lives of the people that I cared about, which are black and brown people.

07:02 - 07:52

And I'm especially passionate about young women. So and in 2016, which I have still remained involved and as a mentor, imagine your point member. They said, hey, we're looking for someone to run our government relations. And so I was like, wow, I get to be at the intersection of these things I'm super passionate about and I get to come back to this organization and all of the magazines. And so I ran to the opportunity. It was just like a dream. But as nonprofts go, you end up doing a lot more than what you're signed up for. And so, yeah, that's what really brought me here. And what's kept me here has been the continuous forward thinking approach that girls club has for young. And we're continuing to evolve, and I'm just really grateful to be in the position so, you know, help push that evolution forward.

07:52 - 08:16

Congratulations on all of the work you're doing there. I think when you when you spoke about, you know, being hired to do one thing, but having your hands in a lot of things, it just reminds me I might show my age here. One of my favorite shows of all time was In Living Color, and there was this Caribbean family that had leave. And you better not dare tell them you only had one job. Only one job, right? That's about it.

08:16 - 09:10

Right. The one thing we all know is important is, you know, representation. I have two kids, son and a daughter, specifically for my daughter who has interests in entrepreneurship. I always try to make sure that she sees beyond diversity. Know what I mean by that is as a young girl who's going to be a woman and technically you're diverse, but diverse doesn't always mean inclusive, right? So we do understand that that representation is inclusive. And I'm pretty certain bright that the Girls Club members are now able to see black women like yourself in positions of leadership. Talk a little bit about what you see or any stories that you may have that really illustrate how important the presence of a Black woman like yourself is and how that impacts the girls and how they view their future possibilities.

09:10 - 09:59

Well, what a question. This has been on my mind a lot lately, especially because of the founding history of the Girls Club and the way that leadership has evolved over time. Not to get into too much, but the Girls Club was founded by seven women and the majority of them were Latina women and Black. And there was one white woman who became the executive director. And, you know, she's amazing. She was a mentor of mine. But it really drew a lot of questions for me as to how that can happen and how that has impacted the experience of the young women that we've served all these years. And when I became co-ED, I was a mentor before I joined the Girls Club.

09:59 - 10:48

My mentee is now about to be a senior. And I told her she was like, what? Like, seriously, like, you're running this. It was sad how surprised they were and shocked they were about it, especially because they haven't seen any of that. The Girls Club has incredible practitioners of color, staff of color, and same with organization for years. But to be in those significant visible leadership positions, they didn't see anyone like them. When I came to the Girls Club, that was daunting for me. It was one of those things that made me grapple with a lot initially, and I did a lot to try to make change around that as best I could in my position. And since then, I've done a lot of change around that in terms of hiring and all that.

10:48 - 11:32

But when it comes to the girls, go through them here. So they're a ten years old and now they're going off to college. I speak about one in particular to some incredible young woman who just started college literally last week. And she always says to me every time she says to me, I am always so proud to see you up there, your black girl magic. Like, literally, she's the one encouraging me. A lot of the time. These girls are encouraging and mentoring me and they're always cheering me on and really making it clear how important it is that I'm there. I have a particular lens that relates to their day to day experience, and that is incredibly important, especially when you have power in these type of institutions.

11:32 - 12:05

I can really go on about just this the glances, the looks, the admiration to be in this room full of all these important people. And here I am standing up there speaking on behalf of the organization when they haven't seen that for 20 years. It's really, really powerful. And it's something that regardless of, you know, however long I'm in the organization, it's a legacy that I am very intent upon maintaining. And so I'm very intentional about who we hire, why we hire, and the lens that that comes from.

12:06 - 12:59

And one thing I'll add about this is just before we were on vacation for a week, but right before we took our vacation with the three days of anti-racism training. And so it's very eye opening. He's never done anything like it. And it really allowed the organization, the staff, to have an understanding of the impact of representation and the insidiousness of racism and the importance of our staff who are not of color, to be deferential and to understand how their existence has an impact on the experience and the work that we do. There's going to be some tough, you know, reflection to come, but some really important ones. Having a lens that is connected directly to these girls experiences is, in my opinion, a requirement of the job.

13:00 - 13:16

Ebonie, can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and background? Did you have experience in a club like Laurie, say, Girls Club or, you know, what kinds of support services did and what kinds of, you know, access did you have growing up and what do you wish you had?

13:16 - 13:53

I was a military brat. My parents were seven from poverty. And my my mom's from southern Georgia. My dad's from West Texas. And they didn't have the opportunity to go to college, even though they're incredibly smart. Now, my mom has a Ph.D. and my dad has his college degree as well, but they had to use the military to get them out of their circumstances. And so being a military brat required moving around a lot and not really having a stable existence. And therefore, I didn't really have a lot of direct support as a black girl, as a black person.

13:53 - 14:28

But I've always been an explorer, even though hyper aware of my blackness. Like before, I was recognized myself as a young woman. As a girl, I'm hyper aware of my blackness. I never let any circumstance make me feel alienated. And so I would just do whatever I would go from joining culture clubs and exploring different, you know, environments and cultures to join in Junior ROTC, the joining stop class, joining volleyball. I would just do everything. And, you know, I think that from one, this gave me the confidence to know that I can do different things.

14:28 - 15:21

Every time I walk into the Girls Club, I'm like, What could I have been if I had something like this? Because I love to dance, I love to sing, I love music, I love poetry. One of the things I really hated about my childhood is I didn't get to do those things. I am really grateful that I found the love for public policy and that and for leadership. And I think that that would have been something I would have gravitated to my girls club if I had been a member, but also these other things. These other patterns that, for one, allow you to really meet that creative energy that you may have, but also gives you opportunities professionally as you get older to explore all these avenues of yourself, especially in the culture side hustles that we have nowadays. It's like this opportunity to really explore all these different creative side of yourself that I think it is such a gift.

15:22 - 15:38

And it sounds like the younger Ebonie is almost your inspiration behind, you know, some of the programming that you introduce. Do you kind of look at it through that lens like, Man, I wish I'd had this. How can we introduce this to the girls or expose them to this?

15:38 - 16:33

Absolutely. I mean, the Girls Club was already very well equipped with all these really cool opportunities from STEM to all these other things. And when it comes to like creating new growth, that is valid for a little Ebonie for sure. And New Girl City really is about allowing young women to take back their power and and recognize that their knowledge and their lived experience is more important than anything as it relates to social change. And I just wanted them to feel confident and equipped with the knowledge around civics, around navigating our political system, around connecting those both practices to grassroots organizing so that they can always use their voice for whatever purpose they seek. If it's just activating around something going on in their community or its run for office, which is my ultimate hope for all of them, that's something that I really need it.

16:33 - 17:20

My lived experience as a Texan in particular was very, you know, just. You shouldn't be here. You know, I was barely celebrated as the first black valedictorian of my school and all the way to when I was a freshman in college. And we went to this trip into D.C. and I said to my colleagues, I want to be a senator one day. And one of my white male colleagues said, Oh, don't aim that high now. But oh yeah, everybody else has been battling. So are they being sad, being in spaces that are validated with people who are validated and who reflect you and your experience is just so, so important. And I think about that in every aspect of what we do.

17:21 - 18:09

Seeing some of the girls there, you can tell that that passion for activism is so strong within the community you guys nurture. It's truly incredible. Earlier in our chat, you proudly referred to the Girls Club as a dream incubator. And I love that because it absolutely is. I mean, your facilities and programming are I haven't seen anything like that since, you know, visiting Phillips Academy and other prestigious boarding schools. And through your facilities, you empower the girls through access and opportunity every day. Your motto is Joy, power and possibility. And so can you tell us a little bit about that and why that club chose those three words?

18:10 - 18:37

Absolutely. Well, it was a pretty self-explanatory. But what's important is to recognize when it comes to young women and particularly women of color, that they should and deserve to be joyful. And to recognize that everything they do, whether it's a tough social justice issue or it's going out and, you know, interviewing neighbors, they should be able to do that with joy.

18:37 - 19:24

Joy is not just happy and laughing. It's resistance, it's activism. It's using your voice. It's it's knowing that you deserve to exist and you deserve to be blissful and to be authentically you. That is so important that that's the first part of our motto that you should be able to have fun and explore and make mistakes and do it with complete happiness and obviously power. Right. That's our entire goal. And entire mission is to amplify their inner power and their voice and for them to know in themselves that they can and should affirm and stand up for themselves in every single way, and that they should walk into a room knowing that they deserve to exist there.

19:24 - 19:59

And then possibility is really like, you know, that you have every possibility to be anything you want to be. That space allows you to try it and try it again. Make mistakes, you know, expand your knowledge, grow your skill sets. And we also have the privilege of having access to so many resources that whatever you want to do is possible. Do you want to do a documentary about, you know, your lived experience growing up in West Africa? Yeah, we got everything you need for that and we will train you and anything you're interested in doing. So, yeah, those words really mean a lot.

20:00 - 20:53

Yeah. And you've you've talked about how the girls club has evolved over the years. It's like you want to make a documentary about your upbringing in West Africa, like go for it. And then also how, you know, they were doing these kinds of things to empower the girls, even when, you know, the club was essentially operating out of a shopping cart in the early days and now you have an even greater platform with 35,000 square foot facility. The club has such an impressive list of benefactors and supporters, including I will call our Forever First Lady, Michelle Obama. And then I personally learned about your work from Rosario Dawson when she was on Bernstein Show. Let's talk how have you developed these partnerships and how have they impacted the programming and experiences you offer the girls? Can you kind of crystallize that for our listeners?

20:54 - 21:15

Absolutely. I cannot take credit for the legacy of the relationships that have been cultivated to the girls club historically. The girls companies that are really savvy at using emerging technology and the media to really amplify their message. And that brings really cool partnerships.

21:15 - 21:53

From the early days, they were documenting everything and really pitching to different entities around the uniqueness of their approach. And I think the organic nature of this being such a community driven organization and the rich history of incredible people on the Lower East Side, it really brought in a lot of different folks from the art world, from the media world. And of course, what you have a little bit more of that legitimacy. It brings even more opportunities from government and other entities that tend to require you to prove yourself a bit before you're given, you know, that access.

21:54 - 22:48

One thing that's really important to us is that our girls get really hands on experience with our partners, whether it's corporations or different brands or things like that, because that's about the girls lived experiences and that they really have something that they can say they legitimately did with the experts. And so we've been really thoughtful about that, particularly over the last few years and ensuring that, Hey, partner, okay, how are you going to amplify our girls individually and collectively? How are you going to show that your organization is representative of who they are and how are you going to allow their stories and their voices to be truly centered? So that's just been a critical part of our model. People really gravitate to the authentic nature of our work and the innovation that comes from, and it's not based in pure academics inside base.

22:48 - 23:26

Then, you know, we're making sure our girls go out to the best schools in the country. Those things are important as well, but it's really about the lived experience, that skill set, that experiential learning and engagement that we prioritize for our members. And I think that is pretty that's something that's pretty attractive to partners. The magic, it's it's kind of it's infectious. It's about building a family for us. You know, we really are about, okay, you're part of our family now. Like these girls are your family. And, you know, you're equally responsible for how they are able to move forward and grow. And how do we do that? Gather.

23:27 - 23:46

Every program that piqued my interest is we mean business. All right. So that's a program that connects leadership and entrepreneurship and certainly financial literacy. So obviously, there's a connection as to why that that piqued my interest. You know, what's the pitch? What's so unique about the we mean business program?

23:47 - 24:44

The winning business program is all about self-empowerment and self efficacy. It's about committing to your ideas and believing in your ideas. And really, the growth part is to facilitate the tools that they need to be successful, give them the key knowledge and the key resources that allow them to navigate their entrepreneurial journey and really, truly trust in their ideas and and really value their own labor. I think it's important when you think about valuing and what was exciting we said for this, how much are you going to charge for this item? You have to be sure of your value and understand the impact of, you know, what you represent. And so I think that the We Mean Business program is about obviously financial empowerment and allowing them to see themselves being independent in their financial wealth. But more than anything, it's about them having confidence in their own ideas and betting on themselves.

24:45 - 25:05

Yeah, I love it. There's too many times where I might ask, you know, my fake nieces and nephews say, Hey, you do this, can you do that? I have my daughters friend. Like, water flowers when we went away. So I'm going to pay you how much you want, "you know, whatever." I'm going to walk through this. You have to value your services.

25:05 - 25:28

You know, you obviously talked about the center a little bit at the Center for Well-Being Happiness. Obviously, there's a lot of great things. I don't know if vision boards extend 25 years, but could you quickly just kind of touch on what's your vision for the next 25 years? And why is this center specifically important and how it contributes to that vision going forward?

25:28 - 26:09

So the center is a legacy to our hyper local roots. The Growth Club again was founded on the Lower East Side and since we've expanded with partnerships all across the country, city, etc., and it's so important that we're able to maintain that hyper local impact that we were founded upon by extending the work that we've done with our girls every day through her entire family unit and towards her community. And we thought that wellness is a really important lens for that expansion and allowing us to recognize that the health and success of the girls that we serve every day is deeply connected to the heart and success of our family.

26:09 - 26:23

Her grandmother, a little brother, her mom and her entire community and our community, where we live. It's incredibly disenfranchised, lacks many resources and is primarily low income.

26:23 - 26:53

So our goal is to is to change that and make our little impact on that through the lens of wellness and not just physical wellness, but emotional wellness, financial wellness, not just financial one on one, but entrepreneurship and true certification programs that allow for upward mobility and merging careers and green jobs and health based jobs, and really creating community and making sure there's a space for folks to come, have their own and to build connections.

26:53 - 27:35

Now, going forward, you know, me and Jenny came on a lot of my thought when it came to Girls Club was how to make the Lower East Side Girls Club, the Girls Club of New York. Because so many of my colleagues, the folks I look up to in public office who are women of color, there are very few of them, but they were very powerful, really felt that we needed more Girls Clubs in New York City because we're the only one and there's nothing really like us in the city now. We actually have the true opportunity to expand and open up a girls club in Brownsville, Brooklyn, another special project that I have the privilege of spearheading the Congresswoman

27:35 - 28:25

Clark, who represents Brownsville, came to visit the club in 2018 and said, I need this in Brooklyn, I need this in my community, I need this in my district. And so she brought on the locals simply want to envelope Councilwoman Bond and folks in the mayor's office. And they fought for about three years to convince the mayor to appropriate funds to build a girls club in Brownsville. So that is happening. And with that being said, and how we have an incredible city council of majority women and mostly women of color and folks who I know personally and they're just like, we need a golf club in the borough golf club in Queens. So in 25 years, I do hope that we can have local girls clubs all across New York City, but it's really important that those entities are run by the community.

28:26 - 28:38

I just wanted to make sure we left time for people or for our listeners to hear about how they can support you and the Lower East Side Girls Clubs efforts. What can they do to support your work?

28:38 - 29:30

So every organization, whoever you're serving, they're always going to need financial support. So I always make an ask for folks to consider donating either on a monthly basis or giving a significant gift that they have the ability to do. By going to But we're always also looking for incredible volunteers to support our girls as mentors. We're especially looking for mentors of color. We're also looking for folks who can support our continued food pantry efforts. We've started a food mutual aid program during the pandemic that we are continuing through this fiscal year, especially because of inflation and all these other things. And so we're always looking for folks who can come every week and help us start fresh produce for our community and support us through that endeavor.

29:31 - 30:21

Ebonie This is this has been really awesome. I am a hashtag girl dad. I really appreciate the intentionality that's given to Black and Brown girls so they can be amazing women. We always try to just support organizations who do great work like yours and make sure people really understand the value that you're bringing to communities and in very intentional ways. And, you know, I'll I'll go back to something I said earlier. Representation matters, right? I actually want to add an AI to the I am of the second. I'd be intentional, but that's a conversation for another day. But we just really want to thank you for being with us and sharing a lot about the great work you and your organization are doing. And congratulations for realizing some of your dreams from your early Ebonie days.

30:22 - 30:32

Oh, I'm so grateful. Thank you so much for the time for what you do for this platform and for amplifying the girls club. Thank you.

30:32 - 30:51

I hope you enjoyed today's episode. We'd love to hear from you, so please email your thoughts, questions and any feedback to diverse markets at Bernstein dot com. Be sure to share, subscribe, comment on and rate us on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to your podcasts and check us out on Twitter at Bernstein.

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