‘Girls Inc. Is Alive and Well in Santa Barbara,’ Says CEO Jen Faust

Following Closure of Eastside Center, Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara CEO Shares Plans to Restructure Organization’s Outreach and Bring Programs Directly to Schools

Credit: Courtesy

On this episode of The Indy: A Podcast, we sit down with Jen Faust, CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, to discuss the future of their community programs as well as to clear up any confusion about the recent closure of their Eastside center. Faust shares Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara’s plan to restructure their outreach and bring long-time favorites as well as new specialized programs directly to schools in the district.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of this week’s episode, which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Hello, and welcome back to The Indy: A Podcast from the newsroom of the Santa Barbara Independent. I’m your host, Molly McAnany. And this week, I’m here with Jen Faust, CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, to talk about the future of their community programs, as well as to clear up any confusion about the recent closure of their Eastside center. Jen, thank you for joining me on the show.  I’m thrilled to be here, Molly. Thanks to the Independent for hosting a conversation with Girls Inc.

Yeah. So Jen, first things first, there’s been quite a bit of uproar over your Eastside center closure. Now, can you clarify what this means for Girls Inc., and how Girls Inc. is actually not closing in Santa Barbara? Girls Inc. is alive and well in Santa Barbara, and the move to transition out of on-site programming at our center on the Eastside actually enables us to modernize our programs and to reach into schools and community centers and actually be more relevant now and going into the future forever. So we have a firm commitment to serve Santa Barbara, greater Santa Barbara, all the way through the county from now into the century to come.

I mean, it must be nice that the community was so up in arms about Girls Inc. potentially closing down. I was hearing about it from everyone. And it shows how much the community loves your programs. So now, how is Girls Inc. restructuring the way it provides programs to the community? Right. So we are doing the same programs we’ve always done. We’ve been in the community here since 1958. And we’ve been in the whole community as a network since 1864. So our programming has not changed. We offer strong, smart, bold programming to enable girls, youth, teens to move into their full potential. And we do this by offering evidence-based programming that’s designed from curriculum from our national hub organization. 

What is changing is the structure of how we deliver that programming, not the programming itself, and not the commitment, certainly to serve all girls and teens and youth who want to be part of the efforts that we have in the Girls Inc. commission. So rather than commuting girls into our centers, as we have been for the past 65 years or so, what we’re looking at is how do we push into the community itself and become more embedded in the community environment around us? And what that means is that you’ll see us over at Santa Barbara Junior High; we have a team program there right now; it’s been in operation since 2021. This is an intentional effort to expand our reach within Santa Barbara, the Eastside, downtown, and all the way through the work that we do in Goleta, and do it in a more innovative way that meets the needs of our audiences and our teams and our families right now.

And I would love to hear more about that, and especially about how by expanding your school outreach, how do you think this will aid accessibility to the girls and community? So a week ago, on Thursday, [July 28], I sat down with our board of directors, and we approved a strategic direction for the next two years, which actually answers all these questions that you’re asking in a clear and well-defined way that’s aligned with our board of directors, our staff, our families, and the community. 

So the past six or seven months or so since I joined as the CEO in January of 2022, I’ve been doing all the work I can to get out there in the community to talk to families, to talk to the kids and youth who come through our programs, to talk to our staff, any stakeholders who really care about Girls Inc. in Santa Barbara, which we know there are many, to find out what their needs are currently so that we can best align our strategic direction around fulfilling the core target need of girls and youth and teens in the modern age coming off of the pandemic. 

So we’re piloting several programs in several schools, several junior highs and high schools, right now. within this strategic plan, we have a targeted effort to pilot one to two schools in the next 24 months. One will be probably an elementary school here in downtown Santa Barbara, and another school that might focus on some of the areas of need that we’re seeing the most in terms of what girls and teens are facing right now. The other big part of our strategic plan is to look at how we elevate the voices of girls and teens in the society right now. Who is speaking for girls if it’s not Girls Inc. and the girls themselves, right? 

So we’re looking at how the systems around us in our community are either helping advance and propel girls and teens forward into their careers and their college lives, or how it’s holding them back and what we could do about that.  So structurally, what do we have to say to share with the community the needs that these teens and girls have right now so that the community can rally around it? Because it’s going to take all of us. It’s not just Girls Inc. It’s not just any individual participant who comes through our program or their families. It’s the whole community that’s going to make change for the better so that these girls and teens can fulfill their highest and best potential that’s possible. And right now, look around, we don’t see that that’s the reality. So there’s a lot of work to do.

Definitely. And because you’ve had to reshape — you know, instead of it being in a big center, it’s going to be siphoned out to different schools — are there any new programs, more specialized programs, that Girls Inc. is beginning to develop right now?  Yes, you’ve pinpointed exactly what we’re doing. So rather than infusing a lot of resources into overhead costs of a facility, we’re taking those resources and innovating new programs. For example, on Friday, last week [July 29], we had the culmination ceremony of our teen mentorship program, and that’s brand-new this year. If you’ve been following Girls Inc., you would have seen us make the announcement that we’re piloting a program to connect professional mentors in the community to teens who wants to explore what’s possible for them when it comes to career and college and what comes after high school. It was such a beautiful ceremony: There were lots of tears shared, as the girls told their stories about how they grew through that program and how the mentors even grew by having that connection to a mentee to learn from that individual teen. So that’s one example of a new program.  

We’re also looking at how in the sports work that we do around the gymnasium, how can we increase access to other people in the community who might want to get engaged in fitness and sports programs? So that’s, that’s underway right now.  

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And as I said, advocacy is a big part of our work, now and going forward. We’ve always been a social justice organization since the 1860s, when the organization was formed, when the mill girls left their farms and went into the towns and needed support and [were] sort of looking around and saying, we need to make some changes because we don’t like the way the world is working. It’s not serving our needs. So that’s when we were founded as an organization. And we see right now, in this era, there’s even more need for girls to have their voices heard. And so that’s one of the new programs that we have underway in collaboration with Girls Inc. of Carpinteria and the other regional affiliates in in California, which we’re going to be launching: a group teen advocacy council. And that’s brand-new.  

We’ve, all of the Girls Inc. here, have been working with teens. But for us to as a region, look at how we can be serving teens from greater Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego — we know, together, we can have a stronger voice and have more of an impact in the world and help these girls and teens feel less powerless over what’s happening about the direction of the world that they need to live in, because they are the future leaders. They’re the rising generation. We just need to get out of their way and make things happen so that they can assume that role and that leadership when they’re ready.

Yeah, and meeting with other girls from around Santa Barbara and even Southern California definitely helps to strengthen that community. So along with the Children’s Fiesta Parade, which is happening this Saturday, August 6, what are some other events that Girls Inc. is planning to help inspire young girls in Santa Barbara?  Yes, so we’ve got the Fiesta event where we’ve been invited by Senator [Monique] Limón. It’s such a thrill to have the girls see an elected official and engage with them in person and to be part of a big community event like that.  

The next thing that everybody should mark on their calendar, and I mean everyone, is September 17, the She Is Beautiful 5k/10k Run/Walk is happening, and we’ve been the charity partner for the last 10 years for that run/walk. It’s the biggest run in Santa Barbara. It’s an opportunity for everyone who feels like they want to have a voice or an activity or a way to say that they support uplifting girls and teens to be strong, smart, and bold. Come out for this. Come out and cheer us on. Enroll, participate, run, form a team — we would love that. So that’s another way that the whole community can see what’s happening with Girls, Inc, and see the girls and the teens in the community and get inspired by that.  

Additionally, I know in the past Girls Inc. has always featured some ways for communities to come together over at our Goleta Valley center. So we’re looking at whether something around Thanksgiving or celebratory times around the holidays might make sense for the community to engage and see what Girls Inc. is up to.

Yeah, and I mean, as for the future of Girls Inc., are you going to have to give out these big event updates so that the community doesn’t think that you’re closing down for the future? I mean, what’s the new mission your team is pursuing in terms of education and self-expression as you embark on this new restructuring?  Yes. So we have six major goals that we’re looking at. And I would love to engage with anybody who wants to know more about this. And we do plan to publish these goals as part of our organizational strategy. As I said, it’s brand-new; it’s fresh. We approved it on Thursday last week. One of the major goals is to engage with community and partnerships; there are so many wonderful partners who work with Girls Inc. already from A to Z Cooking to the sisters who run the She Is Beautiful race to CALM to you name it. So what we’re doing, as part of our strategic, forward-looking approach is to make sure that we’re engaging with all the community partners who can add more value to the experience that the girls and teens are having with Girls Inc., in addition to the core evidence-based programming that we do on a day-to-day basis.  

Five of the other goals, you know, some of them are not as engaging as like community partnerships. But we are looking at how, like I said, how to answer this question about schools outreach, how to really understand, “What is the core, core need of girls in the community right now?” and making sure that we’re hitting that that target zone. But I’ve been on podcasts, I’ve been writing in articles — I’m always happy to share what we’re doing. And I think the more that the community knows about what Girls Inc. aspires to do, the more they can participate. And I’m a firm believer in having community connection, as we do our work, especially since we’ve been here for 65 years.

Of course, and that’s what’s great about community programming is the community speaks, and you listen, and you’re there for them, and you are receptive to their needs and what they’re asking for. So I know you touched on this slightly earlier, but to leave off, why do you feel organizations like Girls Inc. are essential to nurturing the next generation?  Yeah. So I think about my own experience, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place where nobody said that anything I wanted to accomplish wasn’t possible for me. But I know that’s not the case for every young person right now. I think about that question all the time. Like, what is it like growing up right now for our youth? I don’t think anybody has that answer. And that’s why organizations like ours, which offer a safe place to convene for girls to talk through what they’re facing, are so important because the world around us is changing. And there are people out there saying, just because you have a goal or an ambition doesn’t mean that you can accomplish it, because we see you a certain way in a certain kind of stereotype.  

And that’s not the kind of conversation you have at an organization like Girls Inc. You have connection to a mentor, and an instructor and other peers around you, who are confronting the same kinds of issues or similar issues. And as a girl in our program, you feel open to talk about things that are wonderful for you, but also things that are troubling for you. And so you have shared sisterhood and camaraderie with others who are going through these same phases in their lives.  

I do not think that the work of Girls Inc. is over or will be over anytime soon. I wish it were. I wish that I could say that. That would be wonderful. Put me out of a job. It would be wonderful. Because that would mean that every girl growing up would be able to chart her path forward and know that the world around her, whether Girls Inc. is here or not, is supporting her and helping her get to the best place possible.

Definitely. And it’s an interesting wish to have because you would inherently be out of a job. But hopefully your work is never done with girls. And I think that community building and community outreach will always be something that is important, and especially to Santa Barbara. So is there anything else you’d like to add not only about Girls Inc., but about the future of community outreach in Santa Barbara and these organizations?  Sure, I have to say, when I meet with people, I tell them I wake up every day with a smile on my face, because I get to live in Santa Barbara in a community that cares so much and to run an organization like Girls Inc. with the incredible dedicated staff that we have, many of them who I’m sure you’ve known, and that you can walk down the street and run into somebody and say, “Oh, I was a Girls Inc. girl, or my cousin was or my niece was.” That just tells me that the community is really embedded in the work that we do. And we’re here for the community. 

And so when I look toward the future of Santa Barbara and say, “Oh, you know, there’s been some bumps along the road.” I have my kids enrolled in public schools here. I see that the schools need some help. And I offer it up from Girls Inc. I have this feeling of possibility because it is Santa Barbara, because the community cares so much about making things better within our local setting, and because there’s so much goodwill out there. Even though the world around us feels like there’s a lot of news headlines that will bring us down, and I see it in the faces of the girls that I interact with, for them to have the hope that something fresh could happen and for them to be here in this environment that feels safe at Girls Inc. and sometimes not so safe, you know, out there walking down the street, but that they can be a part of making a difference there. It feels like together with the girls and the teens and the community and the schools and the partners, that we can accomplish almost anything in Santa Barbara.

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For more information on Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara:

Strategic Direction & Ortega Property Sale

Fall Programs

School Outreach Programs

She.Is.Beautiful Race, September 17th

This podcast was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud and innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution, go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund. To sponsor The Indy, contact advertising@independent.com.


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