As we prepare for National Social Work Month in March, our team at A Small Good Thing wants to turn our attention to social workers and community organizers across the country who dedicate themselves each day to making a difference in their local communities and in the world at large. As we approach this month of gratitude, we are eager to discover stories about individuals working tirelessly to improve the lives of the people around them and we are excited to share these stories with our supporters.
Last week, in Part One of our two-part article, I had the pleasure of speaking with Shirley Edgerton, a community organizer in Pittsfield, MA who has invigorated and empowered young people in the Berkshires through her Youth Alive Step Dance and Drum teams. By speaking with Shirley, I learned more about the inception of Youth Alive, Shirley’s passion for gratitude and giving back to her community, and her dedication to helping young people thrive both in their local neighborhood and in the world at large. This passion for working with youth, in fact, has more recently led Shirley to work in another important arena of social work: cultivating the empowerment of adolescent girls.
As Youth Alive grew and Shirley spent time with the kids involved, she discovered the importance of mentoring teenage girls. Shirley launched Rites of Passage and Empowerment (ROPE), a program dedicated to instilling in adolescent girls the skills, knowledge, and experiences they need to become successful, independent adults. ROPE was launched in 2010 and began as a four month course that provided bi-weekly classes focused on self-worth, self-esteem, Resilience, Cultural Competence, women’s history, and the arts. The idea for ROPE first emerged when Shirley began to notice that the girls in Youth Alive would focus more on paying attention to the boys and their preparation for a show, rather than on their own creative and personal development. Shirley recognized the need to cultivate a space where girls felt emboldened, did not relegate themselves to secondary roles, and could instead pay attention to their own development, come into their own, and develop their own voices. Together with five other accomplished professional women, Shirley founded ROPE.
Today, ROPE is in its fifth year and has developed into a year-round program led by eight stable, steady mentors and a series of people from Pittsfield community who are invited in to share their knowledge and experiences with the girls. Learning opportunities cover everything from relationships, to public speaking, to financial planning, to STEM, to college tours. This year, ROPE’s Annual College Tour will begin in Western Massachusetts, travel to New York City, and then head south to visit a number of Historical Black Colleges and Universities. The Tour provides an opportunity for girls to focus on their academic future and explore different educational opportunities. In all of its programs, ROPE is dedicated to introducing the girls to new ideas, new experiences, and new perspectives -- whether they are found in distant countries or near to home. Last month at the annual retreat, ROPE invited a young man from the community to speak about his experience as a father, struggling as he watched his daughter become involved with a young man making dangerous decisions. Amid an increase in violence in the community, the girls were blown away by the new perspective.
This year, ROPE is particularly focused on service learning and connecting women with their larger world. In February, the group will travel together for their biggest project yet: a trip to Illovo, South Africa to meet with girls at the Mother of Peace children’s village orphanage. There, the girls from ROPE will have a joint session with the girls at Mother of Peace and they will have the opportunity to both learn about life in South Africa and share their experiences of life in America. Through these exciting and powerful conversations, the girls can gain new perspectives on womanhood and continue to develop an understanding of their role in the global community.
As we begin the New Year and soon move into National Social Worker’s Month, let’s try to find new ways of honoring the incredible work that people like Shirley are doing. Share a story with us in the comments about someone you know who embodies the spirit of Shirley’s work. Reach out to individuals in your local area and discover the important ways they are fostering community all around you. Or perhaps host a screening of A Small Good Thing, share Shirley’s story with your local community, and celebrate the invaluable work community organizers and social workers are doing in your hometown. Let’s work together to recognize the power of compassion, gratitude, and giving back and share that spirit with everyone around us.
You can learn more about Shirley Edgerton and ROPE on the ROPE website: http://ropeberkshires.org/