Club aims to transform Tacoma teens into confident young women

What’s it mean when somebody tells you that you “throw like a girl?” Or fight like one?

For 85 young women in Tacoma schools who are part of a club called Ladies First, the cliche is as much a challenge as it is an insult.

“When guys say it, they don’t say it to girls, but they say it around girls,” observes Stadium High School sophomore Asha Leuellyn. It makes it sound like girls are weaker, she adds.

But Asha and other Ladies First members at Stadium are learning to rise above such put-downs and become self-confident young women. They give up one lunch period a week to gather in a classroom, eat their lunch and learn about the challenges of growing up female.

Ladies First, now in its third year, began at First Creek Middle School, then spread to Lincoln High School, Stadium and Stewart Middle School.

It’s the brainchild and business venture of two women: 31-year-old Tasha Ina Church, who works for “School’s Out Washington,” which promotes effective after-school programming; and 32-year-old T’wina Franklin, who also teaches an elective course at Stadium called College Bound.

Both women were recently named finalists in a Tacoma City Club leadership award competition.

Franklin said Ladies First was born out of a conversation between both women, and a request from a former First Creek principal for a way to address issues that were cropping up with young women at his school.

Ladies First began as a volunteer effort, but Church and Franklin decided to turn it into a business once it began expanding to multiple schools.

The Tacoma School District uses grant funding to pay for the program, at a cost of about $2,700, Franklin said. Church said the program is scheduled to run through the current school year, and that organizers are looking at funding options for the future.

In adolescence, Franklin said, girls often look to each other to affirm who they are. She said the mission of Ladies First is to help them see themselves as confident young women.

“It’s important for girls to understand that they can do anything, that they are strong and powerful,” Church said.

Even in an era of raised consciousness about gender roles, it can sometimes be difficult for girls’ voices to be heard in a co-ed environment, she said. She cites research that shows that male students speak more often in classrooms.

Church said that media — both social media and mass media — can magnify negative messages for girls. And those attitudes can rise to the surface at school.

“It is brutal in middle school and high school,” said Church, who acknowledges being bullied when she was in school.

Ladies First meetings begin with students taking turns as they relate high points and low points from the previous week. Presentations range from career talks by local women professionals to self-defense lessons taught by Church, who has studied martial arts for more than a decade.

On Wednesday, the lesson at Stadium was on body image, and it featured two popular videos. One used time-lapse photography to illustrate how an ordinary-looking woman can be transformed into a supermodel through the use of makeup, hair styling and photo editing software. Another showed boys and girls of various ages acting out how they would throw, run or fight “like a girl.”

Listening to the discussion after each video, it’s clear that the students have absorbed the Ladies First message of female empowerment.

“She’s really pretty,” said Edoukou Assouan, a Stadium junior, after watching the supermodel video. “Why did they change her?”

“I’d be offended,” added Stadium junior Jada Shepherd.

Stadium junior Beatrice Gibbs says weekly meetings with Ladies First help her to be more independent — and besides that, it’s fun.

“It’s a blast being around people who feel the same way about issues as you do,” Stadium senior Pelumi Ajibade said. “I’m learning to be a better, stronger girl.”