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Why This Fashion Entrepreneur Works With Homeless Girl Scouts

People

In March of this year, The ANDI Brand donated over 100 bags in an effort to support survivors of domestic violence. It wasn’t simply a donation, but actually a coordinated effort between additional sponsors (who provided goods such as feminine hygiene products, notebooks, health and beauty products and water bottles) and volunteers who helped us actually prep the bags to be sent to Sanctuary for Families. The warehouse that we used to gather all of the supplies and prep the donations was a dark dingy place, but there, we had the team’s best day of 2017; it was our chance to use our own resources to help others. We felt great. I felt great. Everyone who participated walked out of the dingy warehouse glowing and with an extra pep in our step.


Shortly after our initiative with Sanctuary for Families, I read about the formation of Troop 6000; comprised of homeless girls in Queens. I teared up reading the article, moved by the potential of these young women coming together around the values of scouting. I immediately wanted to help, and not long after, Alexandra Ostrow of WhyWhisper Collective put me in touch with the Girl Scouts of New York City.

A month later, I sat down with troop leader Giselle (who also works at headquarters for Girl Scouts of NYC) and we came up with a plan – I would help the girls get their “Innovation Badge”, and in the process of doing so, I would gift them my invention (an ANDI bag) which seemed like a great fit for their upcoming adventures at camp. To help them earn their badge, we would engage around the process of innovation, using my personal experience with ANDI to touch on the Innovation badge requirements for the various Girl Scout levels; “Inventor” for Daisies, “Product Designer” for Brownies, “Entrepreneur” for Juniors and “Social Innovator” for Cadets. I was to meet them at their usual Friday evening meeting spot, a hotel in Queens.

Girl Scouts, Queens

On the day of my session with Troop 6000, I was so nervous. I unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to spend much time with young women under the age of 18, and I was so scared that they wouldn’t think I was cool. I prepped the bags (The ANDI Small for the girls and The ANDI for the troop leaders) with a notebook, pen and pencil (an innovator’s necessities) and headed to Queens where several members of the ANDI Team including our photographer, our head of design and director of customer experience joined me. Everyone was unbelievably excited to be a part of this.

The girls began to trickle into the meeting room slowly and eventually they gathered around me. They seemed genuinely excited for me to be there. They seemed very excited to be there themselves. There was immediate evidence of the bonds they had built with each other, as girls aged 5 to 16 came in with massive smiles and hugs for each other. One of the girls even brought cookies to share with her fellow troop members. These girls very much reminded me of myself in my young scouting days; bubbly and goofy with my friends.

As I began to talk through invention and product design, I was shocked at how well behaved the girls were; everyone was completely silent with a sharp focus on myself and the story that I was telling. They were very engaged, with many questions and ideas, which came in the form of rocket-fast hands in the air. After each section (inventor, product designer, entrepreneur), I handed each group of girls (sectioned by age range) their ANDI and their notebook. The girls got started right away with very creative ideas around inventions, many of which followed my initial inspiration; a hands-free alternative to the umbrella which also protected one’s handbag.

Girl Scouts, Queens

I was most moved by an idea that came about during our discussion of social innovation (i.e. ideas that help communities). Earlier in the year, I ended up in conversation with a man named Paul after buying him some food to help with his frighteningly low blood sugar from being a diabetic. We talked about his situation for a bit, and Paul asked me “Do you know where I could get a shower?” Paul explained to me that he felt he was truly unfit to be around other people because he was afraid that he smelled, as he did not have access to a shower. He told me it made him feel like an outcast. I didn’t know the answer to his question, and so I quickly searched Google to find something along the lines of public showers. I found nothing. Moved by my conversation with Paul, I volunteered for an hour the next day at a St. Luke’s soup kitchen (an easy and wonderful experience which I would recommend!!).

There is a woman named Anne who always works there along with a shelter in the Bronx. She is an amazing woman who has dedicated her life to helping New York’s homeless population. I asked her about the shower situation.

She told me that there used to be a shower near St. Luke’s but it was closed down several years ago, and that truly, there isn’t an option for public showers. I followed up on this inquiry with an old friend’s husband who was the commissioner of homeless services under Mayor Bloomberg. We actually had dinner the night before I met with Troop 6000 and he explained to me that there are only showers at the shelters, an OK situation for homeless families (i.e. those with children), but a much more nuanced situation for those on their own.

When I explained the idea behind social innovators, one of the brownies sprang out of her seat on the floor and began her diagram in a frenzy. As soon as she finished, about five minutes later, she got up to show me; it said, “We need more water” and had a picture of showers. Showers at schools, showers at parks, showers at daycare, hotels and the Grocery store. She came up with a truly brilliant idea to address a need in our community.

Girl Scouts, Queens

Every single one of the girls was very engaged with the activity. They were so excited to show the ANDI team the ideas that they came up with. They really grasped the concepts of innovation.

Our session concluded with a fashion show whereby the girls modeling various ways-to-wear their new ANDIs. ANDIs fashion photographer and Art Director directed it.

They also showed us some of their best dance moves. I shared with them how nervous I was to come and talk to them, fearing that they wouldn’t think I was cool. They then piled on top of me with the most massive hug and told me they thought I was totally cool!! I took some selfies with the amazing troop leaders (shout out to @GSTroop6000 and @Jamalphillydc) and then I gave the girls their well-deserved badges.

Girl Scouts, Queens

My Friday evening with Troop 6000 was such an incredible experience for me and for the ANDI team. I loved being with these vibrant young girls. I believe that an opportunity to help someone else is actually a gift to ourselves. I believe that we find meaning in our own lives by positively affecting the lives of others. Along these lines, the ANDI team is in discussions with Troop 6000 for follow-up programming. Troop 6000 is expanding – earlier this year they started with 6.

When I worked with them last month they were at 32 and by the end of this year, they will top 200! We are going to continue to help the new girls with their innovation badges and we also aim to help with their “Stay Fit” badges. If you are an entrepreneur yourself or if you are a trainer and are interested in participating, please reach out to us. Additionally, Giselle and I are putting together a mentorship program. Stay tuned on this!

Photo credit: Alessandro Russino

Culture

A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.


Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.