Today the Venice Paparazzi spotlight shines on Michelle Shegda, founder of Girl PACT.
Tell us about the work your organization does and the programs you run:
Girls PACT delivers innovative curriculum that connects the dots from self-worth to healthy relationships. Our comprehensive sex education programs help young guys and girls, ages 15-24: Define personal values, identify expectations in dating, set personal boundaries in relationships, practice assertive communication, define consent, examine gender stereotypes, and practice safer sex. Girls PACT is offered to high schools, colleges and youth-serving organizations via our Clubs on Campus and Workshop Series platforms.
How did the organization start? Where did the idea or inspiration come from?
Girls PACT was founded in 2010 with the help of students from Venice High School and a one-time grant from AT&T and America’s Promise. The first program began at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice, serving 25 teenage girls ages 15-17. The intention was to facilitate a one-year program, but there was a demand for more! Today, we continue to find innovative ways to educate the future generation. Our thriving, community-based nonprofit organization serves 200 young people annually on the west-side of Los Angeles. I was inspired by my personal experiences and my involvement with young people. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I attended Catholic schools and did not receive any practical information for navigating intimate relationships. After I graduated college, I worked with young people ages 16-24 in a variety of capacities for many years. They shared my same struggles with compromising values, asserting boundaries, communicating effectively, and making poor choices in relationships. In 2007, I arrived in Venice and continued my career in youth development. West coast youth battle the same relationship struggles as their east coast peers. After further research, observation, conversations, and self-reflection, I concluded that these difficulties were rooted in diminished self-worth and lack of relationship building skills. Plenty of agencies focused on self-confidence development, leadership, and work readiness, but these are not synonymous with a strong sense of self-worth and healthy relationships. I was motivated to create Girls PACT to fill a void in our community, and ultimately, the nation.
How did you come up with the name of your nonprofit?
Originally, in 2010, the intention was to work with young women; hence, “Girls”. PACT (Power, Advocate. Choice. Triumph). The name is two-fold. First, it represents the values of the organization. Next, it signifies that our young people are making a “PACT” to support one another in honoring their self-worth. Girls PACT gives young people a sense of power, the courage to advocate for their sexual health and the confidence to make an informed choice, so they can triumph in maintaining healthy relationships.
What would you say is the best thing about your organization?
The best thing about Girls PACT is our unique approach to presenting sex education. We link healthy relationships to personal choice and acknowledge that healthy relationships begin with a strong sense of self-worth and personal values. Our strategy is to address the current dating culture and its surrounding issues of communication, gender, power and consent in an effort to lessen the burden on agencies committed to intervention and trauma. Girls PACT believes that educating young people is empowering. We are candid about the insecurities and “gender norms” that often negatively impact intimate relationships and we emphasize maintaining self-worth in making personal choices. Amid our current climate of #MeToo, sexual assault accusations, and the increasing animosity between men and women, our work is becoming more critical.
What has been your greatest reward of running your nonprofit?
The biggest reward of running my nonprofit is having young people return to me years later expressing their gratitude for the support, guidance and education they received from Girls PACT. These young people pay it forward by joining our Youth Leadership Team, Advisory Council, and Board of Directors. It is difficult to measure immediate program outcomes, but the return of our young people proves that our work is effective and valuable when they need it the most.
What have been your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge has been replicating our work to bring our services to more young people, both locally and nationally. It seems that this challenge is connected to personal assumptions and traditional viewpoints regarding sex education. For example, many people erroneously believe that we advocate abstinence, urge abortions, and/or encourage sexual activity. On the contrary, we are not in the business of dictating opinions and actions. Our comprehensive sexual health curriculum is designed to clarify positive personal values, teach sexual health and develop assertive communication skills so young people are empowered to make choices for themselves. We are living in a time where sex is no longer taboo. Prime time television, music, streaming services, movies, memes, social media and the like, are saturated with sex. We are constantly receiving conflicting messages about gender, relationships, love, break-ups, consent, and assault from the media. Our young people are looking for trusted adults to help them with their personal compass. Girls PACT reminds them it is rooted in their self-worth. We’d like to overcome the hurtle of erroneous assumptions so more young people could benefit from our curriculum.
What do you personally spend most of your time on?
We are happy to have recently announced Carly Peterson-Loth as Executive Director for Girls PACT. So, now, as the Chief Operating Officer, I am able to spend my time and energy on the tasks I enjoy the most! The majority of my time is spent on curriculum research, program development, program outreach and recruitment, and facilitation. I meet weekly with the Girls PACT Youth Leadership Team, comprised of alumni and Clubs on Campus Presidents, to stay current on dating trends, culture and behaviors to design fun, interactive workshops that best help our audience navigate the good, the bad, the ugly, the confusing, the exciting, and the loving world of relationships.
How long have you been in business, and how has your organization changed or grown over time?
Girls PACT has been providing services since 2010, but June marked two years as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Since our inception, we have grown organically to meet the needs of young people, which includes launching our Guys for Girls PACT initiative and adding new curriculum.
What are your goals for the next three to five years?
Our goals for the next three to five years are as follows: 1. Develop board and donor relations to sustain organizational growth 2. Replicate our programming to be offered nationally 3. Partner with colleges to complement orientation and resident advisor trainings 4. Develop a college scholarship program for active participants 5. Secure a permanent location to work, host meetings and events and facilitate workshops.
What support do you need? How can one help your organization?
Girls PACT would love more volunteers, board members, businesses, and organizations that value our message of self-worth and healthy relationships! Monetary or in-kind donations are extremely critical for sustaining our Clubs on Campus, Workshop Series, Youth Leadership Team and special events that support programming goals, as well as organizational goals. Volunteers with expertise in social media content management, event planning, graphic design and fundraising are always welcome!
What advice would you give someone starting their own non profit?
Starting a nonprofit has been extremely fulfilling and rewarding, but also the most challenging endeavor that I have ever tackled! My advice for someone starting their own nonprofit is to be mentally and physically prepared to devote oneself to an uphill effort. Starting a nonprofit requires an immense amount of time, energy, learning, passion, and sacrifice, as well as a large amount of community support. And, like any business, nonprofit organizations require funds and resources to execute its vision. Be sure you have enthusiasm for the cause, the human and financial resources to execute, the willingness to learn new skills, and a lot of patience and perseverance. We have been very fortunate to find extremely generous volunteers, donors, and foundations that believe in us and our mission. They have made our work possible and been pivotal in our growth.
A few get to know you questions:
For me, success is doing one thing every day that scares me. It is not important how well I do the particular task or activity; the success is simply taking the risk to step out of my comfort zone.
List 1-2 things on your bucket list, and 1-2 things on your Venice bucket list.
- Personal Bucket List: Go on a solo travel adventure out of the country and to get my PhD.
- Venice Bucket List: Do stand up paddle boarding and learn to surf
Favorite affirmation, mantra, or quote?
In Girls PACT, we like to say, “Don’t Waste the Pretty.” This statement is not about looks, but serves as a reminder not to compromise personal values, interests, viewpoints, talents, goals, expectations and ideals in relationships. If someone doesn’t appreciate your worth, then, “don’t waste the pretty” on an ill-fitted match. My personal mantra is, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” ~ Maya Angelou
Favorite book, band or movie?
Favorite Book: She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb Favorite Movie: Amelie Favorite Band: A favorite band is too hard to narrow down! However, in the interest of the Girls PACT spirit, I admire Pink and her music. I find her songs to loudly echo our message. Plus, I respect her as a role model. She is a strong, smart, goal-oriented, independent woman, partner and mother. In the public view, Pink and her husband demonstrate a strong sense of self-worth and a happy, healthy relationship. It is refreshing to see her set new standards for the younger generation.
What other causes do you support?
Education reform, homeless services re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated, and mental health advocacy
What’s one thing we can do to make the world a better place?
Be empathetic! In the words of Arundhati Roy, author and political activist, “Empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured to give peace a fighting chance.”.
Who should Venice Paparazzi cast the spotlight on next?
- Lalo Marquez, Founder, and Pieces’
- Alison Hurst, Executive Director, Safe Place for Youth.
Any shoutouts or thank you’s?
- Shout out to Joelle Dumas, Owner & Founder of Ecole Claire Fontaine, for her constant generosity and support. Joelle has been one of Girls PACT’s biggest fans and we are very grateful!
- Thank you to the Abbot Kinney Festival Association for naming us grant recipient two years in a row!
How does one find you?
- Website: girlspact.org
- Twitter: twitter.com/girlspactorg
- Instagram: instagram.com/girlspact
- Facebook: facebook.com/GirlsPACT/
- LinkedIn: linkedin.com/company/girlspact
- Email: [email protected]