Tactics: Cyreena Boston Ashby Steers Girls Inc. PNW Through Uncharted Waters

Ashby talks about leading the organization through a challenging time for youth services.

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Cyreena Boston Ashby grew up in Portland and left to pursue an education — she holds a history degree from Spelman College and has gone through executive training at the European Institute of Business Administration and the Harvard Business, as part of the International Women’s Forum Leadership Fellows Program. Now she’s back in the Portland metro area and leading one of the country’s oldest youth-services organizations. 

Girls Inc. was founded in 1864 in Connecticut to support young women who had emigrated from rural communities to cities in search of work amid the upheaval of the Civil War. Today the organization has 77 affiliates across the country; Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest has been operating in Portland since 1998, in Southwest Washington since 2017 and in Seattle since 2018. Funded primarily by grants and donations, the organization partners with schools and community centers to offer curricula focused on social and emotional development, but also on career building and financial literacy. In recent years the organization has also expanded its focus from cisgender girls to LGBTQ+ youth. 

Ashby stepped into her permanent role as CEO in March 2021 but had served as interim executive director since June 2020. Her prior experience includes roles at Hilltop Public Solutions, a public relations and campaign-advising firm; the Oregon Public Health Institute; and with Sen. Jeff Merkley’s Multnomah County field office and as deputy director of Obama for America’s Oregon field office. She also serves as the board chair of the Northwest Health Foundation. 

Ashby spoke with Oregon Business about how her organization adapted to school closures during COVID, why it’s committed to responding to youth needs and how it’s committed to serving queer youth amid a heightening cultural backlash.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Can you describe Girls Inc. for readers who might not have heard of the organization, or have only heard the name?

Girls Inc. is a programmatic and advocacy organization. We support girls and youth to be strong, smart and bold, and that is through a curriculum that’s centered around social and emotional learning and emotional regulation. That’s conflict management, healthy friendships, healthy relationships, how to advocate for oneself in the classroom — and understanding mental health and that feelings related to stress or identity are normal. Eighty-nine percent of our youth who are enrolled in our programs are low-income; over 51% of them identify as non-white. Two-thirds of the schools that we have relationships with are Title I schools, meaning that the majority of the students are on free and reduced lunch. So we also have a financial-literacy curriculum as well as media literacy. We really want our youth to be very self-determined and able to advocate for themselves and advocate for other people. The other work that we do is provide advocacy training, speaker training, and then we have a premier program that’s STEAM-focused: It focuses on career and college readiness for eighth to 12th grade. We are the Girls Inc. for Oregon and Washington state. We are in five school districts in the Portland metro area, two school districts in Southwest Washington, and then we are in Seattle schools as well. We operate year-round in after-school settings, and then we have summer camps. And we rely on paid professional staff that are trained on our curriculum and mentor protocols to be, you know, positive influences in the lives of our girls and youth, and to be resources for their families as well.

Girls Inc. CEO Cyreena Boston Ashby in her office in South Portland. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

How has the pandemic affected the work you do? Schools were remote-only for a long time. How did that affect your ability to deliver those services and that curriculum?

It was a very complicated, very scary time. Historically, our relationships have been school building-based. When schools closed down, we lost immediate contact with our youth and families, and really became a digital organization in the matter of one short month. Instead of trying to adapt our curriculum to Zoom or any sort of virtual platform, we did a survey at the top of the pandemic and asked our youth: What did they really need? What they really needed was support for online learning. So instead of focusing on our Girls Inc. curriculum, we just started bringing in professional volunteers for tutoring. We did homework help, subject-matter support, things like that. I think, through that, we became much more nimble in terms of understanding that digital is the way to connect with youth today, and then also just focusing more and more on what they really need to be successful. We call that youth-led programming and youth-led advocacy. You know, adultism is very real. Youth-development organizations think that they know what youth need, but it’s important to be receptive. We had some positive outcomes out of the pandemic; we connected with our girls in a much more direct way, and we adjusted the types of programs and services that we offered. 

Before the pandemic, we knew that stress, mental health, suicidal ideation, depression, difficulty maintaining friendships and feeling alienated at school were core issues that young people were confronted with. But that became so much more apparent during the pandemic, and especially with return to school. So what we’ve done is we’ve really readjusted how we’re talking about and advocating for our youth. We’re bolder around things like teen depression, disordered eating, suicidal ideation, and then offering resources. Fortunately for us, we continued with uninterrupted programming and operations. As a result, today we have more revenue and even more youth served, and more staff on our team to be responsive. I think the truth that every nonprofit has to figure out is who they are, every step of the way. You might have a mission, but your ability to meet that mission cannot be fixed. 

What does service delivery look like now that schools are open?

Our core program is called Girls Groups. These are safe spaces where girls and youth come together with one of our staffers around a curriculum module. It could be social-emotional learning, it could be how to interrupt an oppressive moment, how to advocate for yourself to a teacher. Those happen in our after-school settings, or they may happen in community centers, like Boys and Girls Clubs. We still continue to have those traditional relationships with school buildings and community centers. We also have a virtual program that’s called Girls thINC Outside the Box, and four times a year, a subscription box is sent to your home with 15 hours of independent programming. That is to really support youth who are not in our primary service locations. We don’t have relationships in the Medford-Grants Pass area. We are not in Spokane, we are not in Prineville. But we are seeing that that is where our youth are getting their boxes. Then quarterly, we host a big, big Zoom party where they work on the boxes together. And it’s so much fun. I think one quarter alone, we sent out 700 boxes. Then we also have Leadership Council. That is our preteens and teens, who are our budding advocates from all over Oregon and Washington, and they meet virtually quarterly as well. That’s advocacy training, media literacy, writing letters to the editor. 

You mentioned earlier that you are an organization that serves LGBTQ youth. Right now schools and youth organizations that talk about queer issues at all are really kind of in the crosshairs and, in some places, facing state censorship. Have you seen any pushback on that in this region?

We are a pro-choice organization at the national level; we are a gender-affirming organization. It has posed some complications, because not all Girls Inc.’s are operating in the same environment. One of our affiliates in Texas just lost two-thirds of their funding because they’ve been teaching reproductive health. In Oregon and Washington, we have some protections against that, but we also know that that can change in the blink of an eye. What we’ve decided to do is to be gender-affirming no matter what. At each of our Girls’ Groups, because we have gender nonconforming youth and gender-fluid youth who find our programs very empowering, we do gender pronouns; we don’t assume gender identity. We’ve had some times where some schools have heard that that’s what we’ve done, and we’ve been told we’re not allowed to do that. That’s actually not the case, but the fact that that’s been said to us by some school officials, and we’ve had to get that verified at the top — it means a couple of things. One, we have to just make sure that we stay very determined; there are youth that really do need us. This is also about being strong and well operated, so that if I do have to have a conversation with the school district, that I’m not feeling like we need to cower down. We have our own policies and procedures and we know the law, and I feel very comfortable speaking up about it.

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