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Empowering Young Women Through Faith Based Programs

An Interview with Lorena Parrish

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SOURCE: Lorena Parrish

Listen to the interview (mp3)

This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Rev. Lorena Parrish is the associate minister of Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York. Lorena has served at Riverside Church and was executive director of Girls, Inc. in New York where she developed leadership programs to inspire girls to be “strong, smart and bold.” She has served as a U.S. delegate to the World Council of Churches and Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. Her work with women and girls has gained notice in Essence Magazine, The New York Daily News, and other national media. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in systemic theology at Union Theological Seminary. Lorena has worked with faith communities on a range of sexuality issues and she is a member of CAP’s Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute.

Sally Steenland: In the work you do with young women and girls, you’ve said that many of the girls are sorely underserved in terms of their needs. What do they need?

Rev. Lorena Parrish: Our girls need opportunities and an environment where they can learn, grow, and discover their particular gifts and skills, along with a positive sense of self and healthy decision-making. Study after study shows that structured programs in dance, sports, math, science enrichment, and creative arts help teen girls improve their sense of self. These programs also improve their attendance at school and keep them from being involved in activities that might be dangerous for them.

And yet many girls are underserved or underrepresented in programs, particularly within mixed-sex organizations. Girls make up only one-fourth to one-third of the youth served; yet they are more than half of the youth that need to be served.

I began to design leadership development and empowerment programs to address the developmental needs and concerns of teenage girls. Again, research has shown that offering girls college prep and career planning, as well as financial literacy programs, sexuality education, and other programs helps them see themselves and their choices more expansively.

SS: You did that when you were executive director of Girls Inc. in New York. Tell us how girls responded to the programs. Was it a hard sell or were they lining up?

LP: They were practically lining up. The challenge is not so much girls’ disinterest—it is their lack of knowing what their interest is and a lack of programs coupled with the way we socialize our girls. A lot of the girls did not attend programs even in mixed-gendered organizations because they were the second mamas in their households. They were given chores to help out the families in ways that boys aren’t.

When we offered programs to the girls, they were thrilled at having a space to be able to explore their own sense of self. Because when you’re a teenager and you get into a mixed group with boys, your mind turns to things our culture says we’re supposed to be interested in. How do I look? Does he like me? Programs made for girls allowed them to move away from some of that and begin to be honest with themselves and explore in more open ways.

SS: What changes did you see? And how do you deal with the fact that girls may love to be in these programs, but who’s going to take care of their brothers and sisters?

LP: To talk about your first point, girls’ changes and movement, this is one of the programs that I’m thrilled about. We developed a financial economic literacy program because we know that most women don’t get the financial literacy training they need to make choices about saving and finances. And so we developed this program—I think it’s one of the best things we did—that really began to change the landscape for girls and women in terms of finance.

We developed a relationship with some of the top financial institutions in New York City and were able to offer the girls internships with these institutions. They would be mentored by high-powered women in finance and banking. What that did was incredible. Many of these institutions had never offered internships to high schoolers, but the girls so impressed them that they gave many of them year-long internships. Some of the girls went on to college to study business and finance.

The main thing they developed was a sense of confidence in their ability to move through the business world, to raise their voice, and become part of the conversation in these institutions—which was huge. These were girls from households that did not have a lot of resources. Many of their families were on public assistance of some sort. And so to see them in these areas making decisions and learning was just incredible.

SS: It sounds very exciting, and it also sounds like having a mentor in that environment is really important. Can you talk about the socioeconomic limitations girls may have—the external forces pushing against them? And what about internal limitations—whether girls see themselves as smart and capable? How do you work on both?

LP: Just to touch base on what you said before about girls being caregivers—second mamas—in their homes. How do you work with that? Well, one way is you partner with their parents. So while you’re offering programs for girls, you’re also offering programs or discussion groups that allow parents to talk about some of things they grew up with that they’re passing on to their children that they might not want to pass on. What kind of ideologies and thoughts hinder their daughter’s ability to move forward and have a better life?

Part of our financial literacy program was offering the same kind of program in a discussion format. Someone came in to talk about women and finances. It was so successful. They could see the value of sending their daughter to our programming. The other piece was helping people understand the value of it. And if it wasn’t a part of your life and you’re bombarded with just trying to make it day to day, it’s hard to see the value.

SS: So the intergenerational piece was important. It’s not just working with girls and young women. You have to work with the adults in their lives as well?

LP: You absolutely do because that’s where the support comes from. When the organization moves away, they’ve got to have support in the community through the businesses you partner with, support from their parents. You have to work with the parents so they see the value of what you’re doing. And of course, if at all possible, you want support through the school system if there’s any way to do that. It’s a community effort.

SS: Is it hard to get the adults on board? People have a lot of stresses in their lives. Also schools are supposed to do so much for kids. Again, is that a hard sell?

LP: It can be a hard sell for families that are inundated with challenges, for single moms who don’t have a lot of resources. But if you approach this as support for the whole family, then it is welcome. If it’s approached as something for one member and the others suffer, then yes, it becomes a burden. Our task was to approach this as something for the whole family. To help mom understand that there’s value in this for her child today, not just when she grows up and says, “Mom, I’m going to help you.”

Offering this financial literacy curriculum to parents—to women for the most part—was really helpful because it also helped moms talk about some of the things they need to do to stretch their dollar. How can you do that in a neighborhood where there aren’t very many supporting institutions, when you don’t make a whole lot of money?

SS: When you started working with girls and young women, was the adult piece always part of it? Was it in your plans from the get-go or as you started working?

LP: Actually, for me, it was there from the get-go. I grew up in a very intergenerational church that saw the value in that kind of work on behalf of children. In doing this programming for girls, I looked at the fact that most of the successful activities and programs children participated in had support from adults. People in their lives would either take them to programs or encourage them to go. Teenagers often didn’t go because there was nobody supporting them. If someone’s mom says, “She’ll go if she wants to. I’m not going to worry about it,” that’s not helpful. So little kids often get that kind of support, but when they grow older—particularly girls—no one pays attention to them.

SS: When does the drop-off start?

LP: In adolescence. It starts when girls hit 10, 11, 12 and start to individuate from the family. Moms and daughters are probably starting to bump heads. And if mom is overwhelmed and doesn’t have resources or support herself, she might say, “Hands off, I’ve done my job,” because everything becomes a battle.

Our job was to look at that and say, yes it’s maybe a battlefield right now, but how wonderful this would be if we could support mom and help her understand what her daughter is going through so that she doesn’t back off. And then that daughter, even though she’s trying to individuate, gets the support she needs. Even though she’s saying one thing, she wants something else.

SS: She’s an adolescent. And maybe that helps the mom remember what she went through.

LP: Absolutely. That was one of the reasons we did the sexuality education piece the way we did, which was a mother-daughter discussion.

SS: I wanted to ask you about that because financial economic literacy sounds great, leadership training sounds great. But then you get to sexuality education where it gets trickier in terms of people’s comfort level, and if you add the faith community, that’s another layer of complication. How did you navigate these conversations?

LP: One way was doing a program in which we didn’t tackle just one subject—we tackled them all. And we framed them in such a way that by the time that we got to sexuality education, there was a relationship that honored the individuals, cultures, and sensitivities that had been developed.

I remember the very first time we did this. We didn’t do it with parents but with volunteers who were the mentors of the girls. Towards the middle of the program we did our sexuality education module. I introduced it to the women before we started the program. I told them, here are the topics we’re going to talk about. In the sexuality piece we’re going to share with the girls our stories. We’re going to let them know that whatever their thoughts are or whatever they’ve gone through, they’re not alone. That every single one of us has dealt with some hard decisions, made some faux pas, made some wonderful discoveries. Our bodies are sacred, not because we don’t know them or don’t pay attention, but because we should know them and should pay attention. They’re our bodies and we need to take responsibility. Nobody else should know better about our bodies than us, or make decisions for them.

By the time we got to sexuality education, there was a relationship. It’s important to have that before you embark on these conversations. It helps people to hear and helps you to respect and honor and sit with what is said.

SS: Talk more about stories. Do any memorable stories come to mind? Why do you think stories have such an impact on us?

LP: There are so many stories that come to mind. In our sexuality education program we did a fishbowl workshop. There’s an inner circle and an outer circle. The inner circle is the talking group. The outer circle is the listeners. They cannot speak or call into the circle. They’re there to receive.

We had women who ranged in age from twenty-three to sixty-three sitting in this circle talking about their lives. I passed out some questions and statements to get them started. And one of the statements was, “My mom told me X about my body.” I remember a woman sitting there and she started to cry. I couldn’t understand because I’d just handed her the question. I said, “Do you want to step out?” She said no. And she sat crying as everyone talked, and finally she shared with the girls her difficulty in accepting her body because of things that had been told to her about her body.

That opened a floodgate of people being released and feeling safe enough to tell their own stories, to comfort each other and hear. I think stories empower us to get close, first with ourselves and then others. Also to be vulnerable and to understand that vulnerability won’t kill us.

Stories are like testimonies to me. I grew up in a church where every week someone stood up and did a testimony. We were kids and used say, “Oh my God, here she goes again. Mother so-and-so’s going to talk about her food bill and how God helped her.” But there was something affirming in that testimony for someone sitting there who may have been thinking, “I’m not going to get through this.” I think stories connect us in ways that are deep and so enriching.

SS: How do those circles radiate out? What are some results of a group that’s had that kind of empowerment and support? What can they do that they couldn’t do before?

LP: One thing is to raise their voice with confidence when they are in a situation that does not feel right—to be able to say this is who I am. I’m wonderful. I am endowed. I am made in the image of the Creator. I may have faults but none any larger or grander than anyone else. That’s part of my humanity and there’s something beautiful even about those things that aren’t perfect. I am miraculously, wonderfully, beautifully made. That is where I want to see every girl land.

SS: That’s a beautiful vision, and you’re certainly working to bring that into reality. I want to broaden the lens a little bit from girls and women to talk about your work at Fort Washington Collegiate Church. It’s a very diverse congregation in terms of age, culture, nationality, language, socioeconomics. We often read about diversity as an ideal. It’s a hard thing to put into practice. How are you building an inclusive, loving community in your church?

LP: Oh boy, one step at time. We do it through everything we do, including through our worship. We have an art-space worship style that infuses arts into every single worship that we do: dance, music, and visual film and video. It allows us to bring various voices and experiences into worship. On any given Sunday you might hear us singing in English, Spanish, Swahili. We’re trying to do so in Mandarin. It allows us to lift up various cultures in a space that is sacred. And then cultural understanding becomes sacred. Attempting to understand each other’s cultures becomes a sacred endeavor.

That’s one way. Another is through our educational programs. We approach our church school—especially our adult education Sunday school—as a place to infuse Biblical scriptures with issues that people are grappling with. We did a series on sexuality and the Bible and the Song of Solomon to talk about body and love and our gendered selves that are beyond the labels we use.

We have used some of Jesus’ sayings to talk about social justice issues that should absolutely concern us from economics to racial justice and more. We’ve even used scriptures to talk about immigration. And so our job here, our God-given task, is to allow scriptures to inform our everyday lives and what we do in those everyday lives, and be a community of faith that does justice and looks like the reign of God, in all of our difference. And to be able to create a table where no matter where you are on your faith journey, you can come and plop down and have conversation.

SS: There’s a similarity in what you’re saying now to what you were saying earlier about building relationships with girls and parents. If in your congregation people approach issues quite differently—if there are some people, for instance, who think marriage is between a man and a woman and there are families with same-sex parents and everybody is part of the community—rather than splitting over that, there’s conversation and acceptance of difference. I don’t mean to make it sound easy because it’s hard work. It sounds like there are no short cuts—that every day you have to be faithful and do the work.

LP: Absolutely, there are no shortcuts. We just blessed and implemented our LGBTQ ministry, which is not really an LGBTQ ministry because it’s called “No Labels.” So everyone—everyone—is invited to be part of that ministry. It’s a place where our LGBTQ sisters and brothers can come and talk and share. And others can do the same. While it certainly is a ministry where we deal with issues that impact the LGBTQ community, it is not sectioned off. That is important because it becomes a place where we can learn how to be who we are in the midst of everyone around us, and be embraced by everyone.

SS: Along those lines I want to ask you about reproductive justice because you’re a member of our Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, and as you know, it’s a vexing issue. Reproductive justice includes abortion care, which can be challenging when speaking to faith communities in a way that people can hear and not have judgmental reactions. What needs to happen in terms of faith and reproductive justice?

LP: The first thing is to really center around justice. That is the place where we can all say yes, say amen. Our faith calls us to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God. And reproductive justice is about being able to do all those things. Walking humbly, not deciding for others, respecting each other’s’ choices, or seeing it as a justice issue in making choices for ourselves. It means being responsible for our own bodies and our own decisions without having others tell us—I mean that’s a little creepy to think about someone telling you what to do with your body.

And to affirm that it’s complex—more complex than we would ever want it to be. But it is what it is. And so how do we live as a loving community of faith that is called to seek justice and to walk humbly before God?

SS: How do we bring scripture and Biblical faith in a complex way to these issues? Sometimes things seem black and white—right or wrong. But life is complicated. It’s not that the Bible or spiritual truths are irrelevant, but are they at a six-year-old Sunday school level or are we looking at them through adult eyes?

LP: Absolutely. And who better to point to than Christ as the complicator? He said, ‘ok, y’all need to love everybody.’ Well how in the world are we supposed to do that? Love is complicated, but it’s what we’re called to do. It’s highly complicated. There ain’t nothing easy about love. I wish it were, right?

SS: Right, nothing easy about it.

LP: But that’s what we’re called to do. And if that’s what we center our actions and thoughts on, then we accept the complication.

SS: I have one last question. What gives you hope in a time when a lot of people don’t have hope? A number of political leaders have been saying America is in decline. We know there’s great economic inequality. The papers are filled with news of lost American wealth among the middle class, and the poor are suffering even more. Some would say, “It’s bleak. We’re really in trouble.” As a person of faith, what gives you hope?

LP: What gives me hope is the possibility of partnering with my Creator to change landscapes with my brothers and sisters. I really do believe that we can change landscapes. I believe that we can come face-to-face with those things that limit our possibilities and sense of self and become more expansively thinking and understanding women, men, and children. I believe that because we are created in the image of God, because there is a spirit that dwells within us and with us, that nothing we see is unchangeable or immovable. Everything, no matter how horrible it may appear to our eyes, can be positively impacted.

SS: What it sounds like you’re saying—and actually it gives me hope—is that with moral imagination, you can see a better world, and then you can bring it about. Even when realists would say that’s never going to happen. You have to see it before you can make it happen.

LP: Absolutely. I like to talk about my baptized imagination. So with my baptized imagination—being baptized into Christ’s vision of a world where there is no hunger, where the lion will lay down with the lamb—I can see with my baptized eyes something different, something more, something greater, more loving, and more nurturing for us all. And that’s what I work towards.

SS: And that’s what you lead us towards. Thank you so much for being with us.

LP: Thank you so much. My pleasure.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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