Ebonie Simpson PPS ’12, the co-executive director of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, feels the impact of representation every day.
As a Black woman leading an organization that primarily serves girls of color, she is a witness to the intangible value of her presence to the community she serves.
“Representation. It means everything,” Simpson said. “Part of what my whole life and journey has been is trying to find things that look like me and represent me in spaces that don’t always look like me.
“It’s a beautiful privilege to be able to be in a position where someone else doesn’t have to do that. The staff, who are primarily women of color, don’t have to do that. It goes back to our girls, and how we center them in the work we’re doing and having a leader who looks like them.”
Simpson’s public policy journey started at Girl State in Texas, a national leadership and civics program for high school juniors.
“I wrote my Duke essay on my experience, and how that clarified my passion for policy,” Simpson said. “I went into Duke knowing I wanted to explore that.”
After a parent-encouraged detour into pre-med, Simpson couldn’t wait any longer to pivot to public policy her sophomore year.
“I dove straight into applying a passion for change,” she said.
This passion morphed into being elected vice president of student government, an internship at the Women’s Center, serving as vice president of the Black Student Alliance, participating in Common Ground as a facilitator, and working as an RA.
Simpson applied lessons from Sanford while she ran a student government initiative encouraging more women to run for office.
“Having those applicable skills with policy was helpful in navigating those spaces,” Simpson said. “It was really this very symbiotic relationship where I was able to gain this curricular experience around how decisions are made, how institutions make decisions, how they weigh pros and cons, costs, benefit analysis, all those things.”
Simpson made her first contact with the Girls Club during her sophomore year when she was awarded an internship through the Moxie Project at the Women’s Center.
“They [the Girls Club] were really small at the time, they were a little storefront, like gallery space, maybe 3,000 square feet with the basement, if that,” Simpson said.
The Girls Club was founded in 1996. The struggling Lower Eastside neighborhood had experienced wide social divestment, and most of the nonprofits left for children in the neighborhood were boys-only clubs. A group of community mothers recognized the gap and decided to bridge it.
The Club primarily serves girls of color. Not only does it seek to find solutions for community issues, but they make sure the girls are the center of those solutions. It also offers a variety of programming, including STEM classes, wellness workshops, business training and mentoring. All programs are provided at no cost to the participants and families.
“I fell in love with everything Girls Club was up to,” Simpson said. “There was so much they were doing in that little space.”
Simpson left her 2010 internship feeling inspired. Upon returning to New York as an Urban Fellow, she started volunteering at the Club. After a stint in the Mayor’s Office, she was offered the chance to run Girls Club’s government relations efforts in 2017.
“(The job) merged my passion for policy, with my passion for social justice, and for girls and women, and communities of color,” Simpson said. “So it was like, wow, I get to do that.”
Since her internship, the growing organization had moved into a much larger 35,000 square foot space.
A staffing change immediately broadened Simpson’s initial government relations position, which a year later turned into a managing director position. In May 2020 she received an unexpected promotion: co-executive director.
“I did not expect to be named,” Simpson said. “I'm happy to be in a position to build on the momentum that Girls Club has always had, but also to make us stronger and more efficient and more clarified in our approach.”
The promotion arrived during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, Girls Club was forced to cancel in-person offerings, which resumed off-and-on in a much smaller capacity later in the year.
The organization shifted to providing the Lower East Side’s more basic needs, such as partnering with city food pantries. After many organizations started to experience supply issues, Girls Club started its own community pantry and meal delivery and pick-up service. The Club has served more than 50,000 meals with this new program.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of an emerging project Simpson is managing — the Club’s new Center for Wellbeing & Happiness.
“That's been a really amazing project because of how relevant it is to this current moment,” Simpson said.
The Center will take a social, emotional, physical, mental and economic look at wellness issues. Its 5,000 square foot facility, adjacent to the Club’s current home, will offer spaces for the girls and their community to take in holistic health classes, programming, and resources.
It’s a natural extension of the Club’s new theory of change: successful girls must have supportive and strong communities behind them.
“The goal of the Wellness Center is to be a community-facing space,” Simpson said. “It's not just for the girls and young women we serve, but for her entire family, for the entire community.”
Simpson’s passion project (if you can just pick one) is the New Girl City initiative. The program seeks to do what Girls State did for Simpson: Motivate the participants to get involved in policy and politics.
“It's been inspiring to see the change in them, to see them go from I don't care about policy, I don't care about politics to I can see myself running for office.”
It’s a program that’s near and dear to Simpson’s heart, as she has eyes on running for office one day — though she wouldn’t dream of getting in the way of any of her political mentees.
“If one of these girls runs for office before I do, I would feel complete.”
Simpson is excited to lead the Girls Club into their 25th anniversary, and for the Center for Wellbeing & Happiness to open. She hopes one day the Lower Eastside Girls Club can grow and become the New York City Girls Club.
“The drive goes back to the girls, it goes back to who we are really working for.”