Today we’re celebrating a leader who is making others better as a result of her presence and making that impact last in her absence.
Meet Laila Moustapha
What is your role? And how do you currently work with girls?
I’m the Program Director at Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), where I manage three programs. Two are K–8 programs, and one is middle school. Pre-COVID, I interacted with students daily, which meant being available to parents on a regular basis. For girls, I was able to learn very early on how to create space for them. Even before I was director, I would also facilitate girl groups, like a sleepover for girls transitioning to high school. I was able to facilitate rich and deep conversations about life and relationships, and how to navigate them. It’s important to know how to create those spaces where a girl feels safe to feel vulnerable, bold, and curious around you—that they can tell you anything and feel safe.
As a director you don’t have as much time on the ground, going back and forth between three programs, so I’ve created an open space where if the door to my office is open, you can come in and crash. If I’m working and it’s something I have to concentrate on and close the door, then you can just sit here. It’s important to create space where people know you’re there for them, whether you need me to say something or just be there with you to separate yourself quickly and have that moment to decompress and calm down if needed.
What social-emotional learning skill have you found yourself using a lot recently for yourself and for the girls?
For myself and even for the team, definitely self-awareness and this idea that we are being asked to do something that we’ve never done before. How do we operate and show up in this virtual space? How do we not only show up and virtually clock in, but how are we present and ready to engage? In an organization that serves a community with varying needs, we have to do more self-work to make sure we’re ready. We need to have enough energy to provide for someone else, so I had to mandate for myself and encourage my team to find a space where you can disconnect and check in with how you’re feeling. Some people say it’s quiet time in my closet, taking a bath, or taking a walk.
For students, we had to teach them the freedom to do that for themselves. Some of them have siblings or multiple households in one home. It’s difficult for them, and some of our team, to find physical space and therefore mental space. The siblings are always there, and if they’re the oldest in the home, they have to help parents monitor school and their free time. They no longer have physical space to disconnect from home. We give them suggestions and encourage even five minutes to decompress and check in with yourself. They can even do it with siblings or parents, if they didn’t already have that type of relationship, which a lot do. We talk to them about how to create a brave space at home to have conversations about what to do at home and how you feel in a pandemic.
What was your biggest takeaway from Power ColLABorative that impacted your work with girls?
What’s been most impactful is we now have a tool that’s been accepted into our organization to lead and spearhead conversations that are helping people learn for the first time how important social-emotional awareness and learning is, from employees to child to parent. I’m able to explain to colleagues and people I manage the necessity of creating brave spaces. If we’re not well as adults dealing with these students, if we do not understand that we need to feel safe and brave to honor what we need to do, then we can’t replicate those spaces for children. We’re ensuring everyone has access to this information now and can embody this—it’s not something we can pick up and falsely put on for one session. Kids are watching us when we don’t even know or realize they’re watching us.
On the student end, it’s been impactful because we are seeing them respond and identify with the activities, saying “Yeah, I’ve done that.” It’s seeing the light bulb go off. With self-awareness, we have tools we can teach our girls to empower them to speak up for themselves. How are your actions impacting not just yourself but the community around you? And how does that affect community space? Being able to have guiding games and questions to lead those conversations has been powerful. Kids can be reflective in the moment and share, or for those who are “tougher,” you see their body language change.
We’ve always done the work in youth development around girls and boys groups, but it was a different format depending on the leader—not one approach aligned us together. The same curriculum gives us a consistent model and allows us to deepen our work and create extended learning, not only in the girl groups but throughout the entire program.
For example, the community contract creation and the process for brave space groundwork set us off into a different trajectory after the training. We needed a space that was safe for students to submit ideas and know that someone takes those ideas seriously. We saw them respond in a different way. It was different from prior community agreements, promises, or rules, because they had a vote in it. Before, the rules were already there, so there was no room for the child to have a voice in it. If you ask the child, especially the adolescent who is used to having the mindset that people are always telling me what to do and not asking what I want, you get to hear things you did not before.
It also forces staff to think, have I really created the space necessary to get the results I’m asking for? I saw light bulbs going off and ideation happening from employees too.
Who has helped you step into the power of your voice?
Several women have done this for me along my career. I used to teach vocal choir in middle school, and a former teacher and colleague headed out to retirement had to remind me, a first-year elective teacher, to speak up for myself. I was a new teacher with 75 kids and none interested in music—they were all the kids in detention and it was a convenient drop-in spot because tenured teachers wouldn’t accept them in their classes. That teacher helped me refocus so I could have those conversations with the school and get students who were interested in music. I had been afraid of being fired if I broke the monotony—I needed to be reminded I had a voice and could advocate for myself.
Another was Jasmine, one of the first directors at HCZ and an advisor to the CEO. She was the first person to model how you advocate for yourself and for your program, and how to demand and come in expecting excellence through a number of conversations. I also learned through watching her actions and how she organized things—she’s been incredibly influential and continues to be here at HCZ.
And my mom, but as adults it’s reversed a little bit. Now I’m more the person empowering her and advocating for her. She was an advocate and champion for me as a young girl.
Anne [HCZ’s former CEO] has also modeled this for me. It has been a village and I’ve been blessed to have a village of women allowed to come into my life to show me a variety of things—to be there to encourage, guide, and instruct, and to be a listening ear.
What would you want other parents or teachers to know right now?
I want [families] to know that our organization is committed to our work, especially during this pandemic and time in our country. We are still committed to deepening our practice. If that means Zoom classes, training, or anything else, that’s what we’re going to do to continue to provide a space where they feel safe to send kids online. We are here to help navigate, where kids can log on and be safe, with no intruders. We are replicating those small and special spaces where we can still connect. No, we can’t hug, but we can recreate that online. We can still look at you on your camera and tell when you’re having a good or bad day.
For other organizations working with girls: I continue to believe that you can have impact with this generation. They still need us no matter how different, awkward, or frustrating our circumstances become for us. Our girls still need us and we have responsibility to respond to that need. Our responsibility in current times has even heightened as girls ask more questions than ever. If we don’t step up to the challenge to that brave space and provide the information they need while they’re willing to engage and connect with us, then we risk them getting information from sources less reliable, or continuing to feel lost or alone. When teens quarantine, they just miss connecting.
For groups like ours and ones that serve girls, our responsibility is to be relentless in our pursuit to connect with our kids. That means we need to continually research models that work for us, and be open and flexible to make mistakes and go back to the drawing board. We need to constantly reinvent ourselves in this virtual world that changes so instantly and be in tune with our world; we need to spend time hearing from students and reacting [to what they say] to guide us in this new world of innovation. We have to make sure that we’re connecting and clear on what our mission is and what we’re teaching girls so we can have greater impact.
For groups like ours and ones that serve girls, our responsibility is to be relentless in our pursuit to connect with our kids.