Creating Unstoppable Girls


By Nona Phinn

Nonprofit organization She’s the First harnesses the power of networking to help girls all over the world gain access to education.

Mercy shows us her favorite running route by her home in the Bududa District.

Equality—equal rights, equal freedoms, and equal opportunities—means to be seen as an equal. What makes us think otherwise? What about the world around us makes us think that equality is not a normal state of mind, a normal way of life? In the last year, I have found myself asking these questions more and more. The current climate of a country I thought I knew has left me in a position of perplexity, to ask, “Why would any person, community, or government think that a particular group of people or gender, race, religion, and/or culture may be less significant than another?”

She’s the First scholars in Kenya gather outside of their school. Makesh, Mbithe, Sumaya, and Vianca are primary students with a passion for learning!

In keeping these questions to myself, I have realized that no impact can be made. Instead of swirling thoughts through my mind, I can actually use my voice to begin to cultivate change. I love to tell stories, and I have decided that the best way to make waves on the things I don’t understand or deem right is to educate or make them known through the stories I tell.

This one begins with a young lady who also could not sit back and be comfortable living in an unbalanced world. Tammy Tibbetts has gone beyond the protest lines (don’t get me wrong—protest lines are great; I’m lacing up my most comfortable sneaks as we speak) to bring to our attention the truths behind education inequality across the globe, and she has created a vehicle for helping us all drive change. That vehicle is She’s the First (STF), of which Tibbetts is CEO and Co-founder. STF is a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers girls all around the world. The organization’s signature program provides scholarships to girls in low-income countries who will be the first in their families to attend and complete school—hence the name She’s the First. Girls who would not otherwise be able to afford an education are given the opportunity to do so through the organization’s programs.

Leticia and Lissette joke in the town square after a mentorship session. The girls are She’s the First scholars at Starfish One by One School in Guatemala.

As a senior journalism major in college, Tibbetts reported on girls’ education in Liberia. During her research, she uncovered an article on teen pregnancy occurring in Liberia that placed the blame on the girls who found themselves young, pregnant, and without an education. Later, as a Web Editor for Hearst Magazines, Tibbetts became well-connected to millennials and teenage girls who had incredible networks and followings. Recognizing the power of her networks, Tibbetts had a lightbulb moment. “What if we use the networks we have for the purpose of giving girls around the world a shot at achieving their dreams?” she wondered. From there, Tibbetts began a social media campaign to crowdsource funds for scholarships, which she planned to give to nonprofit organizations that help girls attend school. Tibbetts called this campaign She’s the First.

She’s the First scholars Rasiga and S.P. show off their STF graduation cords on their graduation day in India in 2016.

STF has morphed into the million-dollar nonprofit organization that Tibbetts leads with her Co-founder and Chief Programs Officer, Christen Brandt. What is even more astonishing about STF is that 100 percent of all donations earmarked for the scholarship fund go directly to the awarded scholars. These donations are largely funded by individuals through grassroots campaigns and the organization’s campus chapters. Since 2010, STF has raised about $3.8 million to support 881 scholars, equating to 2,674 scholarships (scholars receive annual scholarships for each year they are in school). The organization has helped girls in 11 countries, including India, Ethiopia, Peru, Nepal, and Tanzania. What is even more thrilling is that STF is just getting started.

“Year after year, our networks continue to grow,” Tibbetts explains. Over the last few years, STF networks have taken on new meaning for the organization. Today, those networks include campus chapters, international partners, alumni, scholars, and of course, donors, all of whom are extensions of this amazing nonprofit organization.

STF campus chapters have been there from the beginning. The first chapter was created at Syracuse University when Brandt was a senior there. A few of her peers and friends got wind of the STF campaign that Brandt was working with Tibbetts to develop. They immediately raised their hands to become involved. Encouraged by Brandt to create their own path for involvement, they rounded up students and began fundraising right there on campus. This notion took off, and soon other college campuses began to develop chapters that worked to raise funds for future STF scholars. There are now over 200 campus chapters with a faculty adviser from their high school or college to help support the efforts of the chapter, an executive board—president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer—and a mission that goes beyond bake sales and other fundraising.

She’s the First scholars Jharana and Bipana pose with She’s the First ones in Nepal. Jharana dreams of being an engineer, and Bipana wants to be a doctor when she graduates.

The organization’s international partners, which are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are run locally in the communities where the scholars live, are another important extension of the STF network that continues to grow. STF has 12 international partners in 11 countries that assist with identifying the families and girls in need, selecting the scholars, and supervising the programming the scholars receive—programming that goes beyond the classroom and includes mentorship groups for the scholars. These groups meet to offer the girls training in skills including negotiation and how to protect themselves against violence, to name a couple of examples. It is through the NGOs that scholars receive an education and a support network.

Mariama, a She’s the First scholar in Sierra Leone, poses in her classroom.

STF created a ripple effect, its own circle of life, by getting all these networks to come together to grow and spread its message. While campus chapters meet via their Facebook group called the Global Awareness Program, they also are brought together at an annual two-day conference and leadership summit to discuss global gender issues and learn from one another; international partners meet as well to share best practices. Currently, STF is working on hosting the first conference for the NGOs in Kenya. Bringing these networks together allows learning to occur. “There is so much learning that happens when you put these people together who have this same goal of seeing girls succeed,” Tibbetts exclaims.

The sharing of knowledge doesn’t end there. The alumni from campus chapters and graduated scholars continue to spread the word about STF and global education inequality. Additionally, current scholars are dusting off their sneakers and raising awareness in their local communities about the effects of girls not attending school. For example, a scholar from Sierra Leone goes to her local radio station after her classes and homework to host her own radio program where she talks about why educating girls is important. She helps share the message of the 62 million girls around the world who are not enrolled in school (Walker, 2017), how education is the key to a better life not just for her but for her community, and the need for equality and social change.

She’s the First scholars Sumaya, Janet, Makesh, and Vianca attend the Kibera School for Girls in Nairobi, Kenya. The school is run by STF’s Kenyan partner, Shining Hope for Communities.

I’ll end this story by passing on a simple reminder: Knowledge is power. Education is power. When we are all given the power to succeed, that power impacts every single living, breathing life walking the face of this earth. Opening our minds to what we once never knew aids in unlocking the doors we never knew existed within us—doors to hope, doors to a future that looks nothing like our present, and doors to the impossible that now seems possible.  All this magic aids in reducing poverty and crime, boosting economies and household incomes, and most importantly, creating a new sense of basic human decency. That is why STF ensures that education goes beyond the scholars and trickles into the communities in which they live, the networks they have aided in creating, and the world that is our oyster.

Reflecting on the future of STF, Tibbetts says, “That is what excites me about the future: to see these students who have been trained so well on how to be global citizens and activists and what they will be capable of as they rise to power as leaders.”

I look forward to watching it as well.

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Walker, S. (2017). Get involved! Four seasons of social change to help you make a difference in 2017. Walden Alumni Magazine, 12(1), 22-38.

Nona Phinn is the Director of Marketing at Council of Better Business Bureaus, where she focuses on growth of the brand and consumer engagement. She has a diverse background in marketing that provides her the skills necessary to develop and drive integrated marketing programs and strategy.

*All photography by Kate Lord