January 7, 2016 — Imagine coming of age as a woman in a crime-ridden, impoverished environment with little to no resources or guidance. The odds are stacked against you, and there are few individuals to look up to who have overcome them. For young girls in Camden, New Jersey this is daily life. In 2012, Camden had the highest crime rate in the United States, and teen pregnancy runs rampant in the community.
In an effort to positively change the life trajectory of these young women, prevent them from becoming another statistic, and show them that there is opportunity beyond where they live, Leslie Morris launched Women of The Dream, a nonprofit organization designed to mentor and guide girls who are socially and economically disadvantaged. As part of our National Mentoring Month series, we caught up with Morris to chat about the influence that mentors have played in her life, the inspiration behind Women of the Dream, the elements of a successful mentor/mentee relationship, how we can get young girls interested in pursuing STEM careers, and more! Check out the interview below.
What was the inspiration behind Women of the Dream?
Throughout my adult life I’ve mentored low-income girls. Early in my career, I was a social worker for inner city girls in Boston. I also worked on a teen pregnancy project in Baltimore for several years. Then I spent 13 years working in a school-based program in Jersey City. Women of the Dream started as a research project, which transitioned into a book project and then into a nonprofit organization.
I’m a graduate of Simmons College in Boston. During the 60s and 70s Simmons had a number of African American women graduates who went on to become very successful, like Gwen Ifill, Ann Marie Fudge and Paula Ann Sneed. These are black women who were the first to become vice presidents and presidents of major corporations. Back in 2012 I wanted to see what these women were doing to give back to low-income communities. I identified about 32 black women graduates of Simmons College, and we convened at the Campbell’s Soup headquarters in Camden for a full-day discussion of our lives and the challenges we faced, but more importantly what we were doing to inspire the new generation of African American girls. I collected a lot of information and I was going to create a book about how can we use our success stories to reach these girls, but there was a voice that said to me, “if you really want to provide low-income girls the kind of assistance that they need, a book is not going to do it; you’re going to have to provide programs.” That’s when I decided to start Women of the Dream.
Have you had any mentors along your journey? If so, how have they had an impact in your life?
I’ve had a lot of mentors, but not in the formal sense of the word—they were people like my mother, grandmothers, and all of the other African American women in the community. I grew up in the housing projects in the 70s. We didn’t have access to organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, YMCAs, and all of those organizations. When I went to college in Boston, my mentors became some of the women who were our advisors on campus. There were very few African American women at Simmons College, but we did have a support system in place. These African American mentors inspired us to do our very best and to take advantage of all of the opportunities available.
Tell us about the girls you have mentored:
I started mentoring two high school seniors at the same time because they were together at the launch event for Women of the Dream in Camden. I met them at the tail end of their senior year, but when you mentor it’s important to maintain your relationships with your mentees even after they graduate, so that you can continue to have some influence in their lives. That’s what I’ve done with Ashley and Shamerah—they both graduated from Camden High School in June 2014, but I continue to see them. Both of them have now graduated from culinary arts school. One of the things that I worked with them on was identifying some sort of career interest and pursuing that. They’re still trying to find themselves, but that’s okay because they’re both working and gainfully employed. The majority of girls that we encounter in Camden were children of very young mothers, which places them at a very high risk for also becoming teen moms. Many of the decisions that Ashley and Shamerah have made, and the pitfalls that they have avoided, are related to my constantly talking to them about the consequences associated with becoming mothers before they are financially and psychologically ready.
How can we get more girls interested in pursuing careers in STEM?
It’s all about exposure. We can’t expect our girls to make choices if they don’t know that they have them. A lot of times when I mention “STEM” to my girls in Camden, they don’t know what that acronym means until I explain it to them. On May 20th, Women of the Dream is going to bring about 150 socially and economically disadvantaged girls to Drexel University and expose them to STEM. We’re going to identify African American women who are engineers at Lockheed Martin and have them be workshop leaders and keynote speakers. We want to get the girls who are really interested in pursuing a career in STEM paired with women who are already in STEM, and have those women mentor the girls throughout their high school years.
What would you say are the elements of a successful mentor/mentee relationship?
Time and consistency are the most important building blocks for an effective mentor/mentee relationship. We’re dealing with kids who have faced abandonment, frail relationships, and all types of social issues. If you miss a commitment to mentor and you don’t show up, that will destroy them. It takes time for a mentee to open up to you and to share what is truly in her heart.
Advice for young women who feel like the odds are stacked against them:
What I say to young women is: “Where you start out in life does not have to be your destiny. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. With hard work and sacrifices, you can rise above those challenges, obstacles, and barriers.” This is not academic for me, it’s real. I talk about getting into trouble and hanging out because I’ve been there. When I got accepted into Simmons College it changed the entire trajectory of my life. I’m an advocate for taking advantage of opportunities when they are put before you. I know what it means to grow up feeling like there is nothing for you beyond your immediate environment. Nothing comes easy. I’m all about leading by example. This month I’m going to Boston to speak at Simmons College for the Martin Luther King breakfast and I am taking four girls with me from Women of the Dream. They will tour Boston and get to see institutions like MIT and Harvard which are totally foreign to them. I want to expose them to places beyond their immediate environment.