In 2011, an enraged 12-year-old stormed into the office at a charter school and marched up to Edwena Lanier, the office manager at the time and founder and leader of Girls Talk, a forum for girls aged 10 to 19.
“She was furious because she’d gotten a D on an English paper,” says Lanier, 38, who now works in human resources at a West Philly charter school. “At first, she said she wouldn’t go back to that class or talk with the teacher. I knew from the girl’s participation in Girls Talk that she struggled with adult authority.” That knowledge helped Lanier find a thoughtful solution.
“I asked the girl what she liked doing in summer, then I pointed out that if she had to repeat the class and attend summer school, it would put a crimp in those plans,” Lanier says. “In the end, she returned to the classroom, retrieved things she’d thrown around the room and apologized to the teacher. Later, in a conference with the teacher, she explained how hard the course was for her. The teacher began giving her extra help, and she passed the class with a B.” Incidents that could derail a young person can become key life lessons with good advice, Lanier says. “Girls Talk encourages that outcome.”
The program is free. Friends, families, community partners and Lanier herself fund activities, she says.
A South Philly native, Lanier saw firsthand the results of unwise choices.
“I grew up seeing the consequences of my parents’ poor decisions,” she said. “I want to help girls avoid those pitfalls.”
On the other hand, Lanier saw the difference one person could make for neighborhood youth.
I want girls to know how to express themselves with style and grace, especially when they’re hurt or angry.”
— Edwena Lanier, founder of Girls Talk
“My grandmother didn’t have much money, but if she knew a child’s parents would be home late, she would call that child in to eat with us,” Lanier says of her grandmother, who moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Philly as a teenager. “Sometimes, she seemed to feed the whole block.”
Lanier also gained inspiration from Pamela Price, her teacher in sixth through eighth grades.
“A small group of us would meet with Ms. Price in Clark Park,” Lanier says. “She would bring snacks and talk about what I later realized were life skills. A bunch of us caught up with her recently and gave her a festive dinner to show how much she’d meant to us.”
Like Price, Lanier keeps Girls Talk groups small, with 10-week sessions in the fall and spring, each with a dozen girls. She divides the gatherings into one group for girls aged 10 to 14 and another for participants aged 15 to 19. Besides other group members, each girl has a buddy, a special confidante.
Like many girls, Amirah Branch, 13, a member since age 9, learned about the program through word of mouth in her South Philly neighborhood.
“It’s made a huge difference,” Branch says. “I was shy at first, but we had icebreakers like trivia. I feel like I have a bond and a trust with the other girls.”
Branch’s mother, Ashley Williams, 33, is grateful for her daughter’s participation.
“Mrs. Lanier is like a big sister, a parent ally,” Williams says. “Amirah doesn’t tell me everything, but she has Mrs. Lanier.”
Lanier emphasizes self-esteem, self-acceptance, hygiene and assertiveness.
“I want girls to know how to express themselves with style and grace, especially when they’re hurt or angry,” she says. “It prepares you for professional life and leadership. I want to equip them to find their way forward when their plan A falls through.”
Lanier encourages the girls to develop affirmations as guideposts.
“Sometimes they surprise me with their wisdom,” she says. “One girl came up with: ‘You are stronger than your deepest fear.’”
Lanier also urges participants to look at the media through a critical lens.
“The media depict young women with the supposedly perfect shape, the perfect hair, and girls often feel they fall short,” Lanier says. “I’ll ask them, ‘What do you like about yourself?’ They realize that their strengths and vulnerabilities make them unique.”
Dread is a frequent topic.
“Many have childhoods filled with fear due to gun violence,” says Lanier, the mother of two daughters, Aleemah, 12, and Aniyah, 17. Lanier, a social work major at West Chester University who will graduate in 2023, uses her knowledge of community resources. “I refer girls for grief counseling or therapy, if necessary.”
Older girls often discuss college, careers and health, according to Lanier.
“Some girls have become sexually active or are considering it,” she says. “I offer guidance.”
During winter break, Lanier rents a suite at an airport hotel for a giant slumber-and-pool party.
“It helps reinforce principles and aids in bonding,” Lanier says.
Sometimes, long-lasting connections develop.
“I joined at age 12 because Mrs. Lanier had a positive attitude,” says Chynna Morris. “I’m 23 now, and we’ve stayed in touch,” says Morris, who assists people with disabilities. “I was 17 and in high school when my mother passed. Mrs. Lanier was a great help then.”
Lanier has also reached youth through a book she co-wrote with Aleemah during the pandemic.
“I was 7 or 8 when a girl began bullying me at school,” says Aleemah. “She would say things that made me feel bad about myself. I felt like the situation could turn physical, so I told my mom.” Lanier and Aleemah met with the bully and her mother. “I wasn’t sure the girl would change, but when I saw her stressing over schoolwork, I started helping her, giving her tips about reading. It turned out, she was a nice person. Now we’re on the same basketball team in middle school.”
“Let’s Help the Bully,” available on Barnes and Noble’s website for $20, mirrors bullying experiences of both Aleemah and Lanier. “I liked writing with my mother,” Aleemah says, “and we had lots of people at the launch party.”
Lanier’s accomplishments won her West Chester University’s Charlotte Newcombe Scholarship. “Edwena’s commitment to advances in equity and inclusion is … clear in her more than ten years working in the education sector and serving as a mentor through … Girls Talk,” judges for the scholarship committee wrote.
In the future, Lanier hopes to open Girls Talk centers.
To learn more about Girls Talk, follow @letshelpthebully2021 on Instagram or email EL963000@wcupa.edu