DR. KATHI ELLIOTT, center, CEO and executive director of Gwen’s Girls, with Gwen’s Girls students and staff during an appearance at the S.H.Y.N.E. Awards in Pittsburgh. Gwen’s Girls is celebrating 20 years as an organization in Pittsburgh.
by Renee P. Aldrich, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Dr. Kathi R. Elliott, daughter to the founder of the organization Gwen’s Girls, and its current executive director, has a vivid understanding of the need for this organization because, as she said, “I was the original Gwen’s Girl.”
“My mom was divorced, and had to work, and there had to be support for her as she was raising my brother and me alone,” Dr. Elliott said.
This is just part of what makes her uniquely qualified to be at the helm of Gwen’s Girls, a heralded organization in Pittsburgh that is celebrating 20 years in 2022. “I am filled with gratitude to be able to continue my mother’s legacy. And am equally thankful for the partners without whose support, it would have been far more challenging to sustain over the years,” Dr. Elliott told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. “We would not be where we are today were it not for the consistency of our partnerships and collaborations we’ve had—because they believed in our mission; but also in the name of my mom and the relationships she created.”
When the late Pittsburgh Police Commander Gwendolyn J. Elliott started Gwen’s Girls in 2002, she knew that there was a specific need for girls in this region that was not being met. She felt there were many programs for boys at risk, but nothing for girls, no space for them to get services to help them navigate through those often-turbulent adolescent periods.
GWEN’S GIRLS founder, the late Gwen Elliott, first row, center, in front of the first location for the organization.
Her vision came to fruition with the support of Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families. As an early funder, they paved the way for other funders to get on board to establish programs designed to help girls have productive lives.
“Some of the sustaining partners over the years, along with DHS-CYF (Department of Human Services-Children, Youth and Families), have been The Heinz Endowments, most recently RK Mellon, and Hillman, as well as our relationships with area universities and community entities for which we remain grateful—they have been instrumental in our ability to deliver our mission,” Dr. Elliott said.
Thousands of girls have come through the Gwen’s Girls program in the past 20 years. Gwen’s Girls has three residential program locations—the North Side, Clairton and Wilkinsburg. Between those locations, the Gwen’s Girls programs include its Academic Support Initiative, After-School Programming, Clinical Services, Mentoring, and the Black Girls Advocacy Leadership Alliance. About 350 girls ages 8 and up are involved in the programs annually, the majority of whom are African American.
Dr. Elliott came to be the second executive director of the organization a little under seven years ago. She spoke of the standout achievements, the challenges and victories encountered along the way. “The most overriding challenge we’ve faced has been low academic achievement and high suspension rates of girls in our programs; these urgently needed to be addressed,” Dr. Elliott told the Courier. “When we examined the data, we found this was an issue that was impacting Black girls across Allegheny County. We worked with other community partners, along with researchers from universities in our region, and system administrators to further evaluate.
“With that said, being able to connect with girls and their families, and redirect the pattern where the needs of Black girls and women are second to others, was a win; and though we still have a list of inequities that impact women—we are privileged to be available to bridge that gap for women and girls in this region. We see this as a victory we will work to sustain,” Dr. Elliott said.
THE GWEN’S GIRLS ORGANIZATION, with Senator Bob Casey.
In 2016, Gwen’s Girls held its first Black Girls Equity Summit. Dr. Kathy W. Humphrey, now president of Carlow University, was a co-sponsor of the summit. The summit came out of an exploration of the data that showed the disparity between Black girls and others in this region around juvenile justice, health and wellness, and education. The initial summit brought together the leaders of these systems for the purpose of addressing these disproportionate number of Black girls being represented in said systems.
Out of the summit, the Black Girls Equity Alliance was formed, and the group has been meeting monthly ever since. This group is comprised of individuals across genres who have a stake in examining the causation factors, the disparities, and exploring solutions; all culminating with creating a new reality for Black children in this region.
“Everyone leaves their egos at the door, whether they be a judge, an educator, a community activist, an administrator or whatever,” Dr. Elliott said about the group that meets monthly. “There is one goal in mind—to address the many systemic racial issues that impact our girls on a daily basis, trying to address those barriers so our children can have access to the things that shouldn’t have barriers in the first place.”
Gwen’s Girls this year won a contract with Allegheny County CYF to spearhead a “Pre-Diversion Program” in efforts to keeping girls out of the criminal justice system.
“Our job is to create a network of resources for families instead of calling 911—and even the police, as partners in this effort, would be aware that (an) incident is not one they would be called for; they, too, would have the resources to refer parents, and/or schools to (instead of incarceration),” Dr. Elliott told the Courier.
Jacki Hoover, deputy director of Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families, said that Gwen’s Girls “has been a pretty important and powerful partner. Always willing to see and hear what the community needs and then change their service delivery within the community.”
Hoover added: “They know and they understand the needs of the community and they want to be that agency that meets the needs.”
Hoover told the Courier she recalled the late Commander Gwen Elliott’s commitment to supporting the girls and families on the North Side who found themselves involved with the department of Children, Youth and Families.
THE EARLY DAYS OF GWEN’S GIRLS—Shown in back row, center, is the late Gwen Elliott.
Hoover said the partnership between Gwen’s Girls and CYF goes back to Gwen’s Girls’ infancy in 2002. She recalled how Commander Elliott, as a member of law enforcement, would talk to girls and families about the dangers of sex trafficking—”the dangers of being groomed, being lured to this type of trafficking,” Hoover said. For Commander Elliott, Hoover said, it was all about “empowering” girls in Pittsburgh.
She said Commander Elliott’s daughter is the same way. “There isn’t anything that I bring to her that she (Kathi Elliott) isn’t willing to be a great partner on,” Hoover told the Courier. “I’ve seen her really be proactive, not only in the North Side, but also in the East End community; she’s really focused on creating opportunities for those who are more vulnerable, particularly women and girls of color.”
On Thursday, May 12, Gwen’s Girls will celebrate “20 years of Inspiring New Destiny,” during a gala at the Wyndham Grand Hotel, Downtown. There will be legacy awards given to: Alma Speed Fox (posthumously); Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey; Maurita Bryant; Esther Bush; Doris Carson Williams; Courier editor and publisher Rod Doss; Tim Stevens; Bill Strickland; Sala Udin; and Cyril Wecht. The honorary chair is Blayre Holmes Davis, director of community relations for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
During the affair, Dr. Elliott will discuss a new physical building in Wilkinsburg which will house Gwen’s Girls, as the organization enters its next 20 years of “inspiring new destiny.”
“I hope that the girls understand that no matter where they come from,” Dr. Elliott told KDKA-TV, “no matter what their life experiences are, whatever’s going on in their family and in the community, that whatever they choose to be and dream about, they can do that.”