Qushema Johnson

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Qushema Johnson accepted her first invitation to the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York, she was 14 years old and a self-proclaimed loner. She turned up to a dusty classroom somewhere in the East Village and realized she had found her people.

In the river-side neighborhood that was once primarily home to low-income immigrants and young artists until the economy boom brought in money and, with it, wealthier, more gentrified occupants, Johnson found a safe haven.

“I didn’t mind being by myself,” Johnson said recently. “My friends at high school, when they would get together, they would want to go and play basketball–well, not even play but watch the boys play–or go to the salon to get their hair done. I was happy to let my Mama give me two corn rolls and call it a day.”

That was eight years ago, when the Lower Eastside Girls Club–the first and only community-based facility for the girls of the Lower Eastside–consisted of a room in the back of the apartment of Lynn Pentecost, founder and director. It’s development was fueled by women, mostly mothers, who lived in the housing projects of the low-income community that placed great importance on family but often couldn’t afford to provide education and extra-curricular opportunities.

Now, 21-year-old Johnson is a full-time program associate in a sparkling new East Village office space, where 16 part- and full-time employees run and raise funds for the club and 300-plus girls between 8 and 18 wander in and out to visit their program coordinators and friends.

The bustling white-walled office, along with a recently opened cafe and gallery space, are just the beginning of a new era for the organization.

In a couple of years, the club expects to possess so much room of its own that it will never have to beg, borrow or rent space again and it can open its doors to the hundreds of girls on the waiting list for club membership. In a city in which rising rents are continuously disrupting communities like the one at the heart of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, the security of a site is very much a triumph. Rents have risen even since the club first opened its doors and many of the founding members can not afford to live in the neighborhood anymore.

With funds raised through bake sales, community fundraisers and individual donations, organizers have secured an entire block of the East Village for a 37,000-square-foot clubhouse by the end of 2006. The environmentally sustainable structure, using solar-friendly, energy-efficient building methods and materials and equipped with full recycling facilities, will contain offices, a gym, art studios, a library, technology center, dark room, screening room, a wellness and counseling center plus a commercial kitchen supplying a retail cafe.

The club estimates it will need about $12 million to complete the building–funds it intends to raise 60 percent of through traditional fundraising, and the rest through bond financing.

Girls Benefit From Same-Sex Territory

The boost into independence that the Lower East Side Girls Club is enjoying is shared by other girls-only facilities around the city and the country. It is a trend fueled by research showing that girls benefit from safe, same-sex territory.

“Bodies of research show that having a girls-only space is very important to young women,” says Patti Binder, director of the YWCA-NYC’s Center for Girls. “They identify safety with having a safe place to be themselves and to talk freely in the company of a guiding adult.”

Longstanding institutions such as the YWCA and the Girl Scouts have conducted in-house research that shows these same-sex environments equip girls with a higher sense of self, increased confidence to pursue goals and an awareness of the lives of those around them. Less dictated by the expectations of the men and boys in their lives, the groups offer their young members a place to develop and assert themselves outside of gender roles still imposed by cultural and social norms.

Field research from the Girl Scouts indicates that girls in single-sex environments “feel better able to compete fairly, garner attention, take a chance they may be wrong, or not look physically wonderful at the moment,” says Ellen Christie, Girl Scouts New York City director of media services.

Less Neighborhood Opportunities for Girls

The growth in female-only facilities is a catch-up game, since boys have, for many years had many more organizations devoted to their special needs. The Boys’ Club of America has been sprouting neighborhood clubs since 1930, some 20 years before the Girl Scouts of America became the nationally (and internationally) recognized institution it is today. On a neighborhood level, however, there have been fewer opportunities for girls.

In the East Village, for example, there have always been boys clubs, one of which is The Boys’ Club of New York, founded in 1876. In 1997, the club rebuffed the Lower Eastside Girls Club’s bid to combine forces, saying it wanted to maintain a boys-only atmosphere. Since 1876, the Boys Club has acquired three self-sufficient clubhouses across New York.

Pentecost, who saw her two sons benefit immensely from the resources offered by The Boys’ Club, decided girls needed their own atmosphere too, and held the kickoff meeting for the Lower Eastside Girls Club in a meeting in her apartment in 1996.

In New York, the Girl Scouts, the YWCA and Girls Inc. provide a wide range of opportunities for girls from trips overseas to live and interact with different cultures to health and fitness programs to entrepreneurial and art training. Last year, Fordham University introduced its Institute on Women and Girls. Since 2001, the YWCA has been developing its Center for Girls that focuses on providing young women–between 9 and 24–with the tools to succeed in leadership roles.

On a national level, significant growth in girls’ facilities began in 1990, the year The Boys’ Club of America, a nationwide club providing a range of extra-curricular and career preparation facilities for boys, and now girls, became The Boys and Girls Club of America.

This boom came just in time to point Johnson in a new direction. When her father died in her senior year of high school, it was Pentecost and her colleagues who talked her through it, encouraging her to make her own choices about her future.

“I was going through so much emotional stuff and they said, ‘What will make you happy?’ It was all about making me happy,” she says.

Johnson opted out of college for the time being, encouraged by her elders in the club not to rush her decision about which career path or academic discipline to pursue. She volunteered in the programs after graduating from the Lower Eastside Girls club at 18 and accepted a job offer from the club in 2002. She is now creating and helping run the programs that opened her eyes to a world she might have been blind to before Girls Club–a world in which girls ask questions, start businesses, form basketball teams and go to college.

Some of her fellow graduating members have gone off to colleges around the country, pursuing various programs from psychology to liberal arts, however, Johnson is making a living giving back her experience as a club member and a lifelong resident in an ever-changing neighborhood to the girls growing up there now.

As is central to the running philosophies of Girl Scouts and YWCA as well as the Girls Club, alumnae are called on to give back to young women because, asks Ellen Christie, “Otherwise, who will?”

Emma Pearse has written for the Village Voice, Newsday, Time Out New York, and Bitch magazine.

For more information:

Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York:

Girl Scouts of the USA:

YWCA of the City of New York: