By Michelle Lancaster. You can follow her and let her know your news on Twitter @MichLancaster. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a seemingly endless list of not-for-profit organizations doing outstanding work in DC. A number of them call Borderstan home and are providing support services within the city limits.
So how does an executive director make her organization stand out? A nomination for fashion maven Diane Von Furstenberg’s People’s Choice Awards is one way to get a fair amount of attention, which is precisely why Andrea Powell, executive director of FAIR Girls, is talking to us.
Consider this our hometown push before voting ends to help an organization that has helped so many in DC and abroad. Voting ends at 11:59 p.m. on February 15, so go vote (http://www.dvfawards.com/#) ASAP!
Borderstan: First of all, congratulations! Tell us right up front how you were nominated for the DVF Awards, what they are and how people can go vote for you and FAIR Girls?
Powell: I have been nominated for the Diane Von Furstenberg’s (DVF) People’s Choice Award by an amazing women’s rights leader who believes in FAIR Girls’ work to empower and assist girls who have experienced exploitation and trafficking.
The DVF award recognizes women who have demonstrated commitment and leadership to women’s causes. The award is really recognition for every girl we empower at FAIR Girls who has gone from victim to survivor. You can vote for FAIR Girls online at www.dvfawards.com — please vote by 11:59 p.m. on February 15 and share with your friends on Facebook and Twitter, too.
Borderstan: You’ve been at the helm of FAIR Girls for about eight years now, and co-founded the organization. What is FAIR Girls and what prompted you to begin an international non-profit?
Powell: I have always felt strongly that every girl deserves to have a voice and a chance in life! I remember standing up for this girl in junior high who all the other girls decided to pick on one day. I was so surprised that when I said, “Stop!” they did! When I was 18, I was an exchange student in Germany.
While there, I befriended a young Syrian woman who had been a debt payment and the fourth wife to a man three times her age. Soon after we became friends, she disappeared, and it seemed to me that no one cared. This sense of injustice against girls inspired me to start FAIR Girls when I was 23 years old. I really didn’t know what I was doing back then, but knowing that there were thousands of girls being trafficked and exploited every day gave me the conviction to dive in.
Borderstan: What is the biggest challenge you face? And what is the success story or moment that keeps you going through those challenges?
Powell: I think that the biggest challenge is making sure that FAIR Girls has necessary resources, including funding, to keep serving thousands of teen girls in all of our D.C. and global programs. My days are spent fundraising, helping individual girls with finding jobs, or even responding to a police officer who has found a trafficked girl and needs us to find her housing in the middle of the night. It’s a balancing act, but I love what I do. There are so many success stories; just yesterday one of our teen girls, who was being sold for sex by a horrible pimp just a month ago, found her first job. I loved hearing the joy and excitement in her voice!
Borderstan: I’ve noticed that JewelGirls has several DC youth featured on the page. What kind of work are you doing in DC, and how can readers get involved?
Powell: A lot of Americans think that an American teenage girl or boy can’t become a victim of trafficking, but they can. In fact, of the more than 200 teen girls FAIR Girls has helped recover from trafficking in the past few years, almost all of whom were local DC girls.
FAIR Girls goes into DC public schools, shelters, youth centers, and foster homes to reach some of DC’s most vulnerable teen girls before they become victims of trafficking. We also chair the training and victim’s services committees of the DC Anti-Trafficking Task Force, where we work with our partners, including local and federal law enforcement, to train police, social workers, and even teachers to see the warning signs of trafficking and help us find and assist more exploited youth.
Finally, FAIR Girls manages an after-school program for girls who are empowering themselves against sexual violence. Our JewelGirls program offers these amazing teen girls the chance to make and sell their own jewelry. They learn job skills, build self-confidence, and earn an income. We have sales parties where the girls get to sell their jewelry, which have taken place in diverse locations ranging from an indie art studio on O Street, the Embassy of Switzerland, to the Betsey Johnson store in Georgetown. We’d love to work with volunteers who have skills in the arts, working with youth, or a passion to mentor a young girl.
Borderstan: As a relatively young executive director with a wealth of non-profit experience, what’s the best piece of advice you can give to someone looking to get into the field?
Powell: You have to love, with all of your heart, what you do. Managing a nonprofit, particularly if you are young and do not come from personal wealth, can be really tough. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make a difference. Be open to advice, but know who you are and have a clear and measurable vision.
I have FAIR Girl’s mission statement on my desk. I look at it each day, and I ask myself constantly, “Is what you are about to do going to help more girls? Does this fit into your goals?” That helps me stay focused and true to our vision. Also, find a mentor — someone who believes in you right now and is willing to share her/his knowledge and support you even if you feel like you are just getting started.
Borderstan: There are many non-profits in DC. Do you work with other groups? And would you say it’s more of a collaborative, caring environment or a competitive one, given limited resources?
Powell: It can be a bit of both. We have really wonderful partnerships with some hardworking partners in DC and around the world. In DC, a few of my favorite partnerships are with the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the Department of State, as well as Sasha Bruce YouthWork, Covenant House Washington and Polaris Project.
Borderstan: You’ve gone from college in Texas, to graduate school in Germany, then to London to Boston. What prompted the move to DC? How does it compare to your other ‘homes’?
Powell: It’s true, I have moved around a bit! To me, DC is a mix of the multicultural landscape of London, the down-home friendliness of Texas and the youthful energy of Boston. I moved to DC because FAIR Girls was just getting started, and I wanted to be around other international advocates. I had no idea how invested I, or FAIR Girls, would become in the daily lives of DC’s teen girls. Now, whenever I think of moving, I just can’t leave. I am too attached to the girls we serve here. I want to see them graduate high school, go to college and become strong young women. It’s like being a mom to about 200 girls now!
Borderstan: In your eight or so years here, what are a few of your favorite ‘only in DC’ experiences?
Powell: It still blows my mind that you could be sitting on the Metro with people from all over the world at any given time. Where else do you find yourself sitting next to a British parliamentarian and a farmer from Virginia (true story!) on the same train? Sometimes I feel like I live a few different lives. I might start my day inside a public school, then go to Capitol Hill to meet with anti-trafficking advocates and legislators, and end my day at a police station where I’m picking up a girl to take her to a safe place. Being in DC and working at FAIR Girls is NEVER boring!
Borderstan: While we know you are incredibly busy, what are some of your favorite spots for drinks, coffee, dinner, to get a good book or have a meeting?
Powell: Okay. So, confession here: I love Rosemary’s Thyme Bistro. I eat there about twice a week either for pizza, carryout or a great salad. I love it there. The manager, Mumtaz, is so sweet. I also really like Black Fox in Dupont Circle — incredible hummus and live jazz music. Uni Sushi on P Street is open again after the fire incident from 2011. Their sushi is incredible, and their staff is so nice. I really value these places because they seem like they are a part of the community, not just another restaurant.