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Washtenaw United: 'Girls Group' inspires and supports young women in reaching their potential

Sue Schooner
School of Social Work
University of Michigan
Sue Schooner


Sue Schooner is the founder of Girls Group and has served as the Executive Director for the last 19 years. She holds a BS in Accounting from Ithaca College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Sue is a retired automotive executive and developed mentoring programming at both the Chrysler Corporation and Textron Automotive. Sue’s experience in networking, strategy, business development, management, finance, and budgeting has helped Girls Group to grow into a well-respected, low-overhead organization with enviable success. Sue is proud of the excellent staff and Board of Directors at Girls Group.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and with the new school year now underway, it's a good time to talk about education in a couple of different ways. For many, a primary challenge to getting a college education is a matter of finances. But there are a good number of other barriers as well. And the earlier those issues are addressed, the better. I'm David Fair, and this is WEMU's Washtenaw United. Each week, we explore issues of equity and opportunity in our community. And today, the focus is on supporting young girls and young women as they work to overcome challenges that often stand in the way of creating a better future. Our guest is Sue Schooner, and she is the founder and executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Girls Group. And I'm so glad you could join us again today, Sue.

Sue Schooner: Yeah. Thank you so much for this opportunity.

David Fair: You know, I was talking with a colleague recently and telling him I was going to be talking with you today, and he noted that boys often need a hand-up, too. And why wouldn't the group be more inclusive to all youngsters? The first thing that came to my mind was that we still haven't passed the ERA. Women still earn less than 80% of the wages men do. There's still an astounding amount of gender bias. I'm curious as to what was behind your decision to focus on females when you founded Girls Group back in 2003.

Sue Schooner: I'm in total agreement that boys and young men need as much support as young women do. This group focuses on girls and young women because they have their own specific needs and often, they don't have a voice. So, that is our focus, which we're proud of. But I shout out everyone in the community that supports boys and young men.

David Fair: You earned your undergraduate degree from Ithaca College, got a masters from the Harvard Business School, went on to a great career as an automotive executive. Did you face some of the challenges that you're now encountering with those you serve?

Sue Schooner: I feel that I had a somewhat different upbringing. My father was in the Army, and I moved around every single year of my life. And so, very early on, I had to advocate on my own behalf. I had a network for what I wanted. I had to talk to strangers. I had to pick myself up and start all over again. So, I think that I developed a toughness and resilience that has served me well, and therefore, I may have had a more privileged upbringing. And, you know, it may make me a little rough around the edges at times, but it was a very unique way to grow up.

David Fair: We all need a hand-up at some point. So, as much as you kind of were forced into a situation of doing for yourself, were you able to create that network that further empowered you?

Sue Schooner: Yes, absolutely. And particularly, it started in undergraduate school where I had a mentor named Melva Slocombe Burns, who changed my life forever. And when I went to Chrysler Corporation, the amount of people there that changed my life was significant. And I think what I've become aware of is, like, everybody else there can teach us, everybody we can learn from, and it's just about, you know, being open and asking for help and admitting that we don't know.

David Fair: We're talking with the founder of Girls Group, Sue Schooner, on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. So, with all of that background, what systems have you developed and since employed to build that foundation of empowerment for girls and young women to move beyond the barriers?

Sue Schooner: Yeah. So, Girls Group is a very effective and very structured organization at this point. We serve over 700 girls and young women in Ann Arbor and in Ypsilanti. We run 20 programs every single week within the public schools. We do one-on-one and group college and career prep for 11th graders and 12th graders. We run nonstop summer programming. And then, when the young women graduate from our high school programs, we have a program called Women of Purpose where we help them with college and careers. So, that is a basic foundation of the services that we provide.

David Fair: You know, in the sporting world, they often say practice makes perfect. Is that why you start girls in the sixth grade to allow for creation of routine expectation of excellence that leads to success and creates that foundation?

Sue Schooner: That's part of it. And the other part is what we call developing a college mindset. So, sixth grade is sort of a foundation where things are either going to start going right or going wrong for young people. And for many of the young people we serve, even though their families care deeply about them, even though every educator cares deeply about the students, they're often receiving messages that they aren't smart, they aren't good enough, they don't have potential. So, developing a college mindset in sixth grade is all about, "You can do it. You're smart. We can teach you how to study. We can teach you how to network. We can teach you how to be organized. We can go talk to the teacher with you. You're beautiful." I mean, "You know how to build relationships." And we're here to help you build these skills. So, positive reinforcement may sound fluffy, but it's a huge part in any of our bits of success. So, we start giving them both the positive affirmation and the specific skills and toolsets that they need to succeed as early as sixth grade. And then, it just builds on that year after year.

David Fair: So, you mentioned that you are present in more than 20 school locations in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and around the county. How did you go about building a relationship with the academic community?

Sue Schooner: I think we pretty much had to earn it. So, in the beginning, the schools, you know, weren't necessarily sure like why we were in there or why we were advocating for kids, why we had so much, you know, faith in these young people. But, you know, we've been here for 19 years now. So, at this point, we've had 250 young women graduate from high school, some of whom statistically would not have. We've already had 54 young women earn college degrees. And the young women, they have, you know, more positive attitudes because they feel so much better about themselves. They get better grades. And so, you know, the schools learn from watching us. And, you know, we have, you know, more resources than sometimes schools may have when they're under a lot of stress.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United continues with the executive director of Girls Group, Sue Schooner. You touched on it. There's plenty of evidence that shows the stronger the family support, the better chances of success. There is a universal element to that. But for those that have experienced trauma, may be experiencing some level of financial distress or other hardship, it's all the more difficult. You are now launching a family engagement program. How is that going to work?

Sue Schooner: The family engagement program will play really nicely off of one of our core beliefs, which is that we work very closely with schools and with families. So, between Girls Group, schools, and families, we've always tried to provide a wraparound approach around girls and young women. On this program, we work with parents to try to figure out how can we break down barriers. And for different parents, you know, there's different types of barriers. You know, one parent may not really know how did they get their kids into college. How do they fill out scholarship applications? How do they set healthy boundaries? How do they bring down the tone of a dispute? How do they find other parents that have like interests? What did they do about the teacher that just doesn't seem to listen? So, our approach throughout Girls Group is, you know, meet the girls where they're at or meet the families where they're at. So, we'll take tremendous input from the families. We'll have regular monthly sessions. They'll be invited to a whole series of programs that Girls Group puts together. They'll be actively involved in what we call transition programs, such as moving kids from middle school to high school. And we'll continue to provide the type of wraparound support and mentoring which they feel would be most effective for them.

David Fair: Sometimes, it's harder to teach and inform adults than it is children and younger minds. Do you have to, in any way, shape or form, alter the method in which Girls Group mentors will engage with the entire family unit towards this end?

Sue Schooner: We are bringing in some extra older help, since our staff--many of us--are not parents, so we have lined up skilled parents in the community to help us with some of the things that we may or may not be our field of expertise.

David Fair: Based on all you told me today, while there has to be some immediacy in the work, it all trends toward creating not only individual but generational change. 19 years of Girls Group may constitute a generation. Are you seeing that kind of change with some of those you began working with nearly two decades ago?

Sue Schooner: Yeah. I think one of the really powerful things about Girls Group is that there are these long-term relationships. So, the girls that I met when they were 12 years old are now 31 years old, and we're still in close contact with them. And so, Girls Group is a continuous feedback organization. So, the girls that are in their thirties, they can say, "Hey, this was great!" or "Why didn't you tell me this?" or "Why did you tell me that?" And they can mentor the younger girls and just, like, tie these different components together. In addition to this large program that we're doing for the family of participants, so many of these original girls who are in their thirties now have children. And so, we're also starting a parent program for the original Girls Group parents. So, all of these things are just coming together beautifully.

David Fair: Well, thank you for sharing the story, and thank you for making time for us today, Sue. I appreciate that.

Sue Schooner: All right. We appreciate you so very much. Thank you.

David Fair: And thank you. That is Sue Schooner. She is founder of the Ann Arbor-based Girls Group and has been our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on our conversation on the work Girls Group is doing, take a peek at our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti, your community NPR station.


Girls Group

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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