Strong Women, Strong Girls

Strong Women Strong Girls mentoring session at the University of Pittsburgh.

Two hundred professional women and college girls have gathered at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning at CCAC’s Allegheny Campus. Which is saying something. Maybe not so much for the professional women, but definitely for the college girls, who are doing their best to stifle lingering yawns from a Friday night of too little sleep. Everyone is here to further the mission of Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG), a nonprofit mentoring program that helps young women from inner city or underserved neighborhoods to “imagine a broader future.”

The student mentors are from Duquesne, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Carlow, Point Park—campuses represented by logos on shirts, hoodies and lanyards tethered to jangling collections of metal keys and plastic dorm keycards. 

First-timers have been recruited by their school’s SWSG chapter, each of which is run by an executive board of student leaders. After filling out an application and passing multiple background checks including Act 33/34 and in some cases, FBI clearances depending on residency, they’ll unite with peers and professionals to learn how women can make a substantial difference in other women’s lives.

So many of them registered for the SWSG fall training program that it would have been impossible to fit them all into a normal sized classroom. Instead, everyone is sitting around square tables that dot the cafeteria in the Foerster Student Services Center.

Financial advisor Laura Freedman is a SWSG board member who has been a part of the organization for three years. She attributes the program’s success to the momentum that comes from building on the strength that the girls and women bring to the table.

“You are our most valuable asset,” board member and Mt. Lebanon resident Laura Freedman says to the crowd.

Sitting among the mentors in training are women with some experience under their belts, proudly wearing multi-colored tee shirts with sayings such as MENTOR!, Strong Girls, Strong World, and We Can Do It! above the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter.

Within 10 minutes, the participants break into two groups. Tenured mentors head off for the Strong Leader agenda, which offers sessions on Deepening Our Mentoring Relationship and Group Mentoring. Undergraduates who have never mentored or have fewer than five semesters of experience and training attend a separate learning track with sessions such as Strong Foundations, Keep it Cool: Classroom Management, and Leadership Opportunities for Girls.

Regardless of whether the sessions are geared toward newcomers or a seasoned pro, every teaching material and conversation is anchored by a singular idea: empower girls. 

That’s not to suggest that women haven’t made great strides, as Freedman, a financial advisor for Southpointe Wealth Management, UBS Financial Services, who got involved with SWSG three years ago, notes.

“What’s so important is the potential we hold to have an even more profound impact because in so many ways, women are stronger than they’ve ever been,” Freedman says.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of gaps to bridge. With the girls, we’re helping them optimize their potential, yet they bring a strength, too. It’s important that we don’t approach it from a deficit standpoint but from a strength-based momentum that we can build upon.”

Building on strengths and bridging gaps to empower women is what founder Lindsay Hyde had in mind when she started SWSG in 2000 as a Harvard freshman. Today, funding is derived from a combination of philanthropic foundations, corporate sponsors, individual donors and a small amount of government support; it costs $500 to support one girl’s participation in the program for the entire academic year.

A chapter came to Pittsburgh in 2006, and with it, what the organization calls the 6 C’s of Positive Youth Development: Connection, Character, Confidence, Contribution, Competence, and Caring.

The 6 Cs are promoted through a trickle-down effect: professional women are available to mentor college students who sign up to mentor pre-adolescent girls residing in inner city or underserved communities. If a college student does choose to match up with a professional woman, it isn’t unusual for those relationships to develop into something long term. 

“I’ve been with my mentee, Ashanti McCormick, for four years,” says Tammy Graybill of Mt. Lebanon.

They were matched “speed dating” style, each answering a list of questions to see what made the other tick. “Ashanti was so bright and bubbly and had a great smile and personality. I just wanted to be with someone that was going to bring some sunshine into my life as well.”

The two get together as frequently as their schedules allow—Tammy works as an assistant complex manager for RBC Wealth Management, and Ashanti, who lives in Dayton, Ohio, attends the University of Pittsburgh. They grab coffee or dinner. Talk about work, life, relationships, goals. It’s a personalized support system that cruises along a two-way street of “I’ve been there” empathy, a relationship that also helps Ashanti mentor younger girls.

“This has been such a rewarding experience, being a professional mentor,” adds Graybill.

“I’ve grown and learned a lot from her. It’s amazing to watch how these young college students are enriching the young girls’ lives by being positive role models.”

That enrichment can be transformative. When D’Naya Jeffries entered the SWSG program in 2014 as a third-grader attending Phillips K-5 Elementary School in the South Side, she was shy. Quiet. Over the next three years, she emerged from her shell, taking on leadership roles at school, encouraging peers to join SWSG and even volunteered to participate in a photoshoot that was used for outreach materials. 

Mentor training, held in the spring and fall, serves multiple purposes. SWSG’s research-based curriculum was developed with support from experts in the fields of education, instructional design, child and youth development and mentorship with a heavy emphasis on lessons based on female role models and skills. The curriculum is constantly evolving, based on feedback and the needs of the elementary girls it serves, and training serves as a refresher. At the core, it ensures that the 90 minutes mentors spend with the elementary girls are positive, productive and fun. And while the curriculum is designed to keep everyone on track, it also allows room to breathe. Mentors don’t always have to do A, B, C,and D in that order to guarantee a successful session, they’re told. Sometimes you have to skip C and go straight to D to make everything click. If the elementary girls are bouncing off the walls after sitting at their desks all day, mentors can harness that energy by focusing more of the lesson on a physical activity rather than academic/literacy based activities, arts, social time/group discussion or tech/science activities.

Training is also designed to help ease participants into their mentoring role. Ten days from now, new members will join a tenured core of mentors and head to one of 40 area schools or community centers including the Manchester Youth Development Center, Shadyside Boys & Girls Club, Grandview Elementary, Urban Pathways Charter School, and Arlington K-8 Elementary for their first weekly 90-minute session with girls in third, fourth, and fifth grades. 

You’ll be fine, the group is assured. This isn’t a sink-or-swim situation. We’re all here to help and guide you.

Mentors can navigate through the “How are we going to do this?” phase by tapping into a wealth of resources. These include the availability of the Strong Leaders, a large network of professional women, as well as access to materials designed to help manage their expectations and optimize their relationships both with each other and the girls they are mentoring. You’re not always going to click with everyone, but that’s life. And that’s okay, explains executive director Dr. Jocelyn Horner. “Some of the greatest growth can occur with those you don’t naturally click with.” 

And while not everyone is going to click, the more important component is that mentors consistently participate. Don’t be another person in their life that just ups and leaves, they are told. It’s one of the reasons why mentors must commit to showing up at the same place at the same time on the same day throughout the school year. And that first show of commitment comes during a training session at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, a time when most would be tempted to just hit the snooze button. 

“That’s the whole notion of community,” says Freedman.

“Consistency means community; relationships and groups of individuals you can rely upon to support you, to listen to you, to see what your potential is and what’s powerful about you… even when you don’t see it yourself.” 

If you are interested in getting involved, visit or contact senior program manager Laura Pollanen at for details.

Photos by Martha Rial