“Be Uncommon, Change History” are the words that greet you in large black font as you enter the Achievement First Brooklyn High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It is exactly the message Tola Lawal, the director and creative force behind Gyrl Wonder, is instilling in young female students of color. The initiative, now in its third year, aims to empower and support those students to excel in their studies after graduating high school.
During the school year, the Gyrl Wonder Mentorship program focuses on teaching students about self-love and self-care. Each student meets weekly with a mentor to discuss building self-empowerment in and out of the classroom. There is also the Gyrl Talk series, which is a multi-platform dialogue experience that encourages girls to engage in discourse on current events, life, and personal progression. These discussions offer an open space for young girls to communicate and share their thoughts with each other.
At 30, Lawal is an alumnus of Pace University and worked in media for 15 years with MTV and BET. Her five-foot-three frame has a slight bounce when she walks, and her smile greets students and staff in the hallways. Without wasting time, she immediately launches into the importance of the organization. In its short life it has positively impacted these young women, something she wishes she had growing up in the Bronx.
How did Gyrl Wonder begin?
In 2015, one of my sorority sisters from university asked me to bring a program to this high school, saying that the girls needed an organization to help them work towards a goal. I actually had the domain for Gyrl Wonder since 2010 and always meant to do something with it. Now seemed like the perfect opportunity.
What makes Gyrl Wonder different in its approach?
We have a very holistic approach — a lot of other organizations are very niche. They empower girls with athletics or work in the STEM field. I want an organization that focuses on self-care and self-love. I want these girls to feel empowered in their own community and to give back to their communities. They’re our vehicles of hope for the future. We want to instill strong values and for them to feel represented in the culture with strong black female role models.
Some of these role models are?
Representation is everything. I want these girls to have true role models, women who lead their lives with integrity. We talk about Angela Rhye on CNN; Tarana Burke, who began the Me Too movement in 2007...yes, it’s been around for that long! We’re hoping to have Cleo Wade, a fantastic writer and artist, give a talk next month. There’s just so many.
Who were your role models growing up?
I’d say for my generation it was Oprah. Her story is an amazing one of resilience.
Do you wish you had something like Gyrl Wonder in high school?
I always longed for a girl power organization. When I went to college, I was president of the Black Student Union, Senior Class President, you name it. I wanted to build my community on campus. I love seeing the amazing things women can do when we work together — that’s where Gyrl Wonder stems from.
What is the biggest struggle for these girls?
Many don’t see themselves in leadership positions. They go to social media for inspiration and it gives them a skewed vision of what their capabilities are. Coming from a media background, I know how impressionable their minds are. It’s our job to rope young girls of color in and show them that making an honest living and pursuing a life with integrity is attainable.
What is some programming you’ve set up to achieve your goal?
We kicked off the year with Mentoring Matters, which was sponsored by LuluLemon. Mentorship offers support when we learn, so it’s very important that the students know they have mentors to help them grow. There’s a monthly conversation piece called Gyrl Talk. This month, we’re doing a partnership with FIT and bringing someone from the fashion industry to give a talk. There’s another organization called Our Periods Matter, which talks about reproductive health. And in April, I’m going to be doing Gyrl Wonder Takes LA, doing fundraising and programming there.
Seems incredibly busy!
It has to happen. These are non-negotiables.
Do you have doubts about the work?
Every single week, I’m like, “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” And then there will be a email in my inbox from a congresswoman and I know this is what I’m meant to do.
Is this work producing the impact you want?
We’re getting there. Opportunities are endless. Give me two more years. Girls who have graduated have written to me, telling me how this initiative changed their lives. One student, Kayla, wrote to us saying, “Gyrl Wonder has really helped me put things into perspective. We are building community with each other and learning to support each other through thick and thin.”
What do you hope will no longer be an issue for young girls of color?
I hope that young girls of color start to feel secure in who they are and safe in their skin… to just have this unwavering passion that they can do anything that their peers can do. That’s black girl magic.
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