Skating to Success in Harlem

Practicing Servant Leadership to Build Skills, Confidence, and Transformational Relationships

In our current political climate, characterized by confusion, vitriol, and disruption, practicing servant leadership is more important than ever. Servant leaders are those who place the needs of the group ahead of their own and use empathy to create environments in which everyone can thrive. At the PIMCO Foundation, this philosophy is visible in our volunteering initiatives and in the focus of our grant making. In our view, an ethos of caring for others is the cornerstone of healthy societies. We firmly believe that volunteering builds this spirit of community empowerment; it can be transformative. In my own experience, it has both moved and molded me. It has been my privilege to work with others who embody these same values.

One of the PIMCO Foundation’s philanthropic focus areas is gender equality, which coincides with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” We combine our approach of servant leadership with our passion to end gender inequality through active mentorship. Women are a powerful force for positive change, and in order to unlock their transformational potential, it’s imperative that we close the persistent gender gap prevalent in schools and the workplace.

Women are a powerful force for positive change, and in order to unlock their transformational potential, it’s imperative that we close the persistent gender gap prevalent in schools and the workplace.

Quality mentoring relationships can be life-changing for underserved youth, as they witness servant-leadership in action. By placing a mentee’s needs first, a mentor develops empathy and insight that enables the relationship to grow in the right direction. In return, mentees have the opportunity to gain trust in others and learn the valuable role that volunteering plays in healthy communities. Mentoring has demonstrated positive quantitative and qualitative results, but all too often, it isn’t accessible, reliable, or consistent for youth disadvantaged by race, gender, income, and education.

Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH), one of the nonprofits supported by the PIMCO Foundation, is successfully providing mentorship to reduce the negative consequences of gender inequality. FSH began more than two decades ago with a vision to empower young girls in the Harlem community with the skills and foundation to achieve their dreams. It continues to be the only organization for young women of color in the United States to combine the power of education with the discipline of figure skating. FSH provides young women with access to programs that advance their physical, emotional, and intellectual health. The organization’s hope is that each student will graduate the FSH program as a powerful speaker, effective leader, and global citizen.

FSH students come from New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. Approximately 65 percent of the girls are from families with annual incomes under $45,000. Seventy percent of the participants are on the Free Lunch Program. These students face generational poverty, violence, lack of access to positive educational experiences, and countless other hurdles.

For students who participate in FSH, it is transformational because of its holistic approach. It paves the way for at-risk girls to grow in confidence, leadership, and academic achievement. The organization is helping these young women to become “champions in life.”

FSH promotes the girls’ advancement by focusing on a philosophy of Education, Opportunity, and Empowerment. Via the Education pillar, FSH’s goal is to advance its students’ grades in English and math. All students are placed in small tutoring groups where they remain for the school year. The FSH team creates individual learning plans for each student, and also teaches financial literacy, public speaking, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) classes. The result of this emphasis is that 100 percent of graduating seniors go on to higher education.

The FSH team creates individual learning plans for each student, and also teaches financial literacy, public speaking, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) classes. The result of this emphasis is that 100 percent of graduating seniors go on to higher education.

Ice skating provides both Opportunity and Empowerment for youth that typically have limited access to either. Through fitness activities both on and off the ice, girls learn nutrition, health, body awareness, and self-confidence, as well as enjoy exercise in a safe and supportive environment. These young women develop physical and mental discipline, resilience, and a strong work ethic.

FSH also has two certified licensed social workers on staff. The social workers deliver a 24-week life skills class focused on managing stress, combatting bullying, and resolving conflicts. One-on-one counseling services and resources are provided as needed. Furthermore, the FSH staff curate cultural experiences throughout the year. Recently, students visited Washington, D.C. to meet with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and toured the United Nations.

In the simplest terms, FSH is impactful because of its innovative model, the fact that it serves girls for 12 years (ages 6-18), and because of the meaningful relationships built between staff, students, and families.

FSH’s results show that its students achieve higher school grades, develop stronger bodies (as measured by the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills test), and report increased feelings of personal accomplishment and self-worth. The world needs more Figure Skating in Harlems! With more organizations lifting up our girls, they’ll be instilled with the confidence to be anything they want to be.

Why? Because the reality is that some countries fail 25 percent of their youth by not availing them with formal educational training or decent employment. Young people aged 15-24 continue to be diverted to the margins of society, without opportunities for skills development or gainful employment. This lack of access – a pervasive global problem – resulted in 74.5 million youth reporting inability to find employment in 2013. We are failing this population and we can do better.

We can take a page out of FSH’s book and both promote and provide education and fitness programs that build drive and determination in our girls. We can offer underserved youth our skills, structure, and support. We can become positive role models at the same time we become mentors. As servant leaders, we can create a healthier, more just society – one that offers opportunities to everyone, including those populations that have historically been disenfranchised.

Young people aged 15-24 continue to be diverted to the margins of society, without opportunities for skills development or gainful employment. This lack of access – a pervasive global problem – resulted in 74.5 million youth reporting inability to find employment in 2013. We are failing this population and we can do better.

Next month, I’m looking forward to speaking alongside FSH founder and CEO Sharon Cohen and FSH program alumna Sherrie Smith at the  7th Annual Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) Forum in New York, where we’ll be discussing pathways toward confidence-building in marginalized young women. Some of the biggest names in women’s empowerment will be present at this convening of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, United Nations Office for Partnerships, UN Women, and the UN Global Compact, exploring the challenges girls and women face and what role the private sector can play in addressing these issues and in attaining SDG 5.

There are countless girls around the world just waiting for a mentor. Through mentoring, we can prepare girls for higher learning, the workforce, and life. And when we we empower our girls with education, the skills needed to stay healthy, access to the formal economy, and better paid work, we can make progress toward gender equality, and create a more inclusive and equitable world for all.

All photos courtesy of FSH

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