Let Girls Lead Founder Talks Girl ¡Poder!

Let Girls Lead is building a global movement that empowers girls and their allies to lead social change, and to share their stories to empower others! Let Girls Lead has already transformed the lives of over 1 million girls around the world.

Let Girls Lead

We spoke with Denise Dunning, the founder and executive director of Let Girls Lead, about how the organization is spreading the word about its very important cause!

"At Let Girls Lead, our vision is that girls have the power to transform their own lives, families, communities, and the world," Dunning said.

Let Girls Lead empowers girls to better not only their own lives, but also transform the lives of other young people in their communities and across the world.

Let Girls Lead also works to make sure that girls have a voice when it comes to the issues that really matter. It operates in the U.S., Latin America, and Africa to improve the lives of girls.

Based out of California, Let Girls Lead has worked for five years to empower girls to become leaders and advocate for change  in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Malawi, Ethiopia, Liberia, and beyond.

In 2010, Let Girls Lead partnered with a woman in Liberia named Rosana Schaack who had a safe home for girls, where vulnerable girls could live with protection and without fear.

In the safe home, Rosana supported about 25 girls each year to finish school and develop the work skills to help them rise out of poverty.

Through her involvement in Let Girls Lead, Schaack realized she could go far beyond helping 25 girls each year. With support from Let Girls Lead, Schaack launched a national campaign to pass a new law that protects girls from violence and child marriage, and ensures they can finish school and get medical care.

Thanks to Schaack's visionary advocacy through Let Girls Lead, Liberia's National Children's Law passed in 2011.

"The National Children's Law is one of the most progressive in Africa. Rosana has improved the lives of 600,000 girls and transformed the future for generations of Liberian girls," Dunning explained.

Let Girls Lead
(Mahawa Ngaima leads Liberia's first International Day of the Girl celebration (credit: HOPE Liberia)

Today, Let Girls Lead continues to work with Schaack and other Liberian leaders, focusing on implementation of the Children's Law.

"It's important to make sure it's implemented effectively, rather than just being a nice law on paper," Dunning explained.

She said that Let Girls Lead works on a tipping point model.

"We partner with visionary leaders and organizations who work to benefit girls, enabling them to drastically expand their impact," she said.

Another success story was when Let Girls Lead began working with Juany Garcia in Guatemala in 2009. Garcia had previously led a small girls' education program for indigenous Mayan girls.

"When Juany became part of Let Girls Lead, she said 'I don't want to advocate for girls. I want to advocate with girls'" Dunning explained.

Garcia created a leadership and empowerment program for a group of about 15 girls, including Elba Graciela Velasquez, who was 12 years old at the time.

Elba is from a rural village located about 8 hours from Guatemala City, where less than 10 percent of girls finish elementary school.

"Elba is an amazing young woman," Dunning said. "She's the oldest of six siblings from a poor family. When she joined Let Girls Lead, she decided she wanted to become a community leader and convinced her parents to let her finish her education. With support from Juany, Elba and the other girl leaders realized the biggest problem was that girls had no support to finish school and see a doctor when they need one."

Elba and the girl leaders mobilized the community, bringing together religious leaders, indigenous community leaders, and government officials to join a community dialogue about how educating girls would lead to greater economic opportunity and improved health outcomes for the entire community.

"The girls went to meet the mayor, and in the first meeting the mayor literally looked at them and laughed out loud," Dunning explained. "He said 'I've never had a group of girls walk into my office –who do you think you are?'"

Though the mayor was not supportive of Elba and her group's goals in the beginning, they refused to give up and kept campaigning for the rights of girls.

Over the next year, under continued pressure from the group, the mayor eventually passed policies and funded programs supporting girls' health and education, and started to publicly voice his support for their girls' rights.

"It's incredible what the girls have been able to do," Dunning said. "We wanted to share the girls' success with a broader audience to help people understand the power of investing in girls."

Let Girls Lead partnered with Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker Lisa Russell to create ¡PODER!, a film about Elba's success.

The story is based on the real stories of Elba and her friend Emelin, who fought to lead change in their community. The two girls play themselves in the film in a new narrative style.

"Rather than shooting the film and telling the girls' story, we wanted Elba and the rest of the girls to raise their own voices and speak their own experiences," Dunning explained.

While part of the film will be narrated in English, most of the dialogue will be in the original voices of the girls as they tell their own story.

The film is called ¡PODER!, which means "Power!" in English, and is currently featured on Catapult,  a crowd-funding site for projects benefiting programs for girls and women.

"We have never made a film before but knew this was a story that needed to be told. We don't have the money for it and thought Catapult would be the perfect platform to do fundraising to complete the film."

Contributions will help the filmmakers finish editing, subtitles, music, and animation for ¡PODER!

So far, Let Girls Lead has raised about $2,000 of their $10,000 goal. We hope they can reach it before the end of the year! Click here to support Let Girls Lead and share their important work on Facebook and Twitter!

But Let Girls Lead isn't stopping after they tell Elba's story of triumph. They are also launching the Let Girls Lead Global Girls' Conversation video contest!

"When we were in Guatemala shooting the film, we realized we needed to do more than just help Elba tell her story," Dunning said. "We wanted to create a space for girls all around the world to tell their own stories and inspire us all with their powerful solutions."

Dunning noted that although there is increasing media coverage of the issues that girls and women face, much of it tends to focus on the problems.

"We want people to think of girls not as victims, but as leaders. Girls are agents of change who can create their own solutions," Dunning said.

Let Girls Lead is enabling girls to share the stories of how they changed their own lives for the better. Whether the girls asked their mayors to fund girls programs, convinced their fathers to let them attend school, or created a girls' club in their community, Dunning wants the new interactive platform to show that girls are capable of solving their own problems.

Let Girls Lead is even awarding $10,000 in cash, equipment, and training to winners, so that they can turn their story into a film to inspire even more girls!

The Global Girls' Conversation platform is a place that not just girls, but advocates and global leaders, can go to see the amazing things girls are doing to better their own lives, communities, and countries.

"We want girls to have a voice in the global conversation and a seat at the global table," Dunning said. "The time has come for the global community to invest in girls."

Let Girls Lead developed a partnership with the Huffington Post, which will be featuring a blog post highlighting a girl's video each week. The goal is to share girls' stories, voices, and solutions with a global audience.

Check out the trailer and fundraising video for ¡PODER! and weigh in on the conversation!

Do you have your own girl power story? Share it with Let Girls Lead and with us at Sweety High!