Refugee Girls Lobby
This is a story about opening doors into politics for young girls. Not just any girls, but girls who face some of the highest barriers to civic and political engagement. It’s about giving some of Utah’s young refugee women a chance to take a stand and represent their communities.
In this episode, we hear from Girls Lobby founder Olivia Whiteley. We also hear from Flora Sasa, a Girls Lobby teacher and Sudanese refugee. As the first Girls Lobby cohort facilitator for refugee girls, Flora speaks about how the program has inspired them to get involved in politics. We also hear firsthand how the Girls Lobby program fosters confidence from Paulla, a 16-year-old student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Subscribe to Podcast
ANDREA SMARDON: This is More Than Half, a podcast that uncovers some serious challenges facing Utah women and why it’s going to take all of us to overcome them. I’m Andrea Smardon.
Today’s episode is about opening doors into politics for young girls. Not just any girls, but girls who face some of the highest barriers to civic and political engagement. It’s about giving some of Utah’s young refugee women a chance to take a stand and represent their communities.
It’s also about building confidence and trust, knowing what you want and how to ask for change. Our story starts with Flora Sasa, a refugee woman who joined forces with a local non profit that teaches girls how to lobby the state legislature.
FLORA SASA: Our Representatives don’t understand what we’re going through and our stories are extremely important for them to know.
ANDREA: Flora Sasa was just five years old when she came to the United States as a refugee from Sudan. It was 2003, and her family was placed in the city of South Salt Lake.
FLORA: I grew up in the South Park apartments. It was all refugees. So people from Somalia, we had people from Bosnia, Nepal, um, which is like a bunch of families.
ANDREA: In 2008, tragedy struck the South Park apartment community when a seven-year-old refugee girl from Burma was murdered.
FLORA: Like I didn't even know English. And the cops were knocking on our door with their dogs. And I'm just like, why is there a dog in here? They got a whole, a warrant to search every single apartment in this complex.
ANDREA: This tragic event shook up many of the refugees, including Flora and her family. In response, the apartment managers and other community organizers built a center for the refugees directly in the apartment complex.
FLORA: We had volunteers coming in, teaching us English, doing crafts with us, and we got to like play outside. So that's where I actually got to like better my English. And that's where I was able to see different communities come together. That’s where I learned, that's where my love for the community actually grew. That's where I was like, I need to give back as much as I can.
ANDREA: Today Flora is a US citizen and studies Criminal Justice at a local university. She spends nearly all of her free time teaching classes at the Refugee Education and Training Center in Salt Lake City. Teaching at the center she’s seen the struggles of refugee women and girls. And she knows firsthand the barriers they face.
FLORA: We can compare a girl that's a refugee, and a girl that's born here. And the girl that is a refugee can have a higher GPA, higher act score. But because there's certain scholarships that are only offered to us citizens, she's completely disqualified. It's, it's, it's discriminating. And I feel like that's one aspect that makes her really hard. I can write an essay and probably win, but because of my status, I'm disqualified.
ANDREA: Last year, Flora’s supervisor at the refugee center told her about an opportunity to work with a program called Girls Lobby. It was started by a college student, and it trains girls how to lobby the state legislature. The founder - Olivia Whiteley - was a sophomore when she had her first experience testifying at the Utah Capitol. She spoke against a bill that would have limited legal options for sexual assault surivors. The bill did not pass, and Olivia had her first taste of political influence.
OLIVIA WHITELEY: And for the next week I was just on a legislative high. I was like, "This is it. This is the greatest thing. I feel like I have taken a concrete action and seen the results of what using your voice can do to help your community." And I was trying to think of a way that other girls could have this experience as well.
ANDREA: She thought that in Utah, many young women don’t have the education or confidence to get politically involved. So she started Girl’s Lobby. The program runs from January to March alongside the Utah legislative session. Participants learn how to read and track bills. And they partner with non governmental organizations to get an inside view of how lobbying works.
OLIVIA: During the eight weeks girls meet once a week and then they go through our curriculum and they'll go through the lessons together and they'll do that activities where they're practicing giving testimony or they're revising each other's op-eds, or they're discussing this really hot button issue, but learning how to do it in a way that's respectful, no matter what your position is or what you agree with.
ANDREA: One of the core values of Girls Lobby is ensuring their program is reaching those who have some of the highest barriers to civic and political representation. They began partnering with the Refugee Education and Training Center last year. But when Olivia and her team went to the center, many of the women and girls didn't see a point in getting politically active. Not being US citizens and not being able to vote yet, it was hard for them to see the point in lobbying or that there were any political avenues even open to them.
OLIVIA: So the first barrier I think, is are we opening our idea of what it means to be a Utahn, in a broader sense, what it means to be an American that welcomes these women to participate in their communities. Some of the bills in the legislature this session were actually about funding the center that the refugee girls were attending class. Um, and there is no way for a legislator to make an informed decision about a policy that is going to impact a refugee community without working directly with refugees.
ANDREA: Olivia argued that refugee women and girls are the perfect advocates for lobbying because they understand the needs and wants of both their younger siblings and their older parents and grandparents.
OLIVIA: So us having to explain, even if you can't vote, your input can still influence laws and it can still be really useful and beneficial for your community and also for your development, um, was one of the first steps. And then I think that also translates over to, we want you to be here and we want you to be involved.
ANDREA: After learning more about the program, Flora was convinced. She went through the required training, and then started teaching the Girls Lobby class to 18 refugee women and girls. But, she quickly realized it was going to be a challenge.
FLORA: The thing is about refugees is that they don’t really depend on the state a lot. They come here in survival mode. So they're ready to just work and you know, provide for their family. So oftentimes they feel like just because they are, had that refugee status is that they can't really voice their opinions or they can't go to city council meetings or anything that's going on.
ANDREA: And because these girls were coming from countries where men were in control, the first step was convincing them their voices mattered.
FLORA: Where they're basically told that whatever the man says goes and that they shouldn't be able to make change within their society. So it's like trying to talk to them. Like, we need to tell your story. We need to write to your representative. It's like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, are you sure you want me to do that? Because where I come from, like, we don't speak at all. So basically educating these girls, basically telling them, like, if you don't step, someone will come into your life and they are going to control it. And you're just going to have to accept it. So I feel like, that’s where they’re kinda like, they’re like no, like I’m not going to allow that to happen at all.
ANDREA: But Flora worked hard to convince them that they can have a say in how their lives are governed here.
FLORA: Well, I want them to know that they have power, they have powers and their experience. They have powers in the stories that they're able to tell. Um, although they may struggle to speak, that it's better for them to go out and use the little English that they know to actually make a difference. Because nobody at the Capitol has been through what we've been through and what the new people are going to come here and they're going to have to suffer because I didn't choose to speak up. It’s kind of like when you’re actually up there and able to speak and tell them like hey, this is for me. Giving them the strength like hey, you belong here, this is your new home. And then seeing them come back with a different attitude.
ANDREA: As they got deeper into the program, Flora saw the girls come alive once they saw the connection between their personal experiences and the laws being made.
FLORA: Once you're reading them, because you can say like House Bill 160, House Bill 250, but it really doesn't matter unless you really go into details about the bill and why the bill is really going to impact their life or their family's life or their siblings life, um, and generations to come. And then that's when she said, Oh yeah, yeah, that's me. And you know, and just like, uh, like this it's just like the best feeling in the wild when they like, actually, when it makes sense to them, it's like, they're ready to like march up there and make change.
PAULLA: She is like a mentor to us, not only a mentor but like a friend as well.
ANDREA: That’s Paulla, one of Flora's Girls Lobby students - a 16 year old refugee from Congo. She first got involved in the program because she saw that Flora was going to be the teacher, someone she trusted and looked up to.
PAULLA: We could talk to her about anything and like she would understand and she would help us solve the problem that we have, maybe like school, work, anything.
ANDREA: At the start, Paulla wasn’t sure what the Girls Lobby program was about, but she and the other girls appreciated having a space where they could talk with other refugee women and girls.
PAULLA: You know, there's like a couple of things that you can't really talk about when you're around other people where you just feel like people are like, people will like judge you when you talk about that. When it was just us girls and woman, we could connect, everybody else has also has something to say. So it was just a safe space for us to like, just bring out our feelings.
ANDREA: Flora, Olivia, and the rest of the Girls Lobby team hope that by getting girls civically and politically engaged at a young age, they will have more opportunities for leadership in their future
OLIVIA: I focus on girls also because I think that this type of experiential learning on the Hill does a lot for confidence building. It does a lot for networking with professional women. It does a lot for teaching basic professional skills, like how to introduce yourself, how to have a strong handshake, how to write persuasively, um, how to ask for something that you want. Um, which I think particularly in Utah, um, women, and I've noticed myself often times struggle with those types of behaviors. I think administratively decisions are still being made primarily by men, um, to the exclusion of women, not in support of women. But I also say that like, these things are true to a different degree, no matter where you are in the United States, simply because this is how history has worked for us. And this is where it has left us. And it is more severe for women of color or LGBTQ women than it is for white women.
ANDREA: After going through the Girls Lobby program, Paulla is convinced of the need to have more women in leadership positions.
PAULLA: There's like a lot of things that men don't know about us as women. So, you know, they take decisions that just for us, that is just like, it doesn't make any sense. We need more women in politics because then we know that we know we have someone that understands our, you know, our vision of the future that understands, you know, what we're going through. That understands wat we have to say, you know, we can go to her and just be like, you know, this is what we want. This is what we want with happened in the community. We can talk to her about anything and she understands our point of view.
For Paulla, the impact of the program goes beyond her experience at the state capitol.
PAULLA: It gave me confidence because before that, like I said, I'm like this shy girl person.
So it boost my confidence that I can be like a leader and that I can use my voice and use it for the good.
ANDREA: Watching these refugee girls grow in confidence, Flora feels like she is giving back just as she vowed she would when she was a child. It’s why she dedicates her Saturdays to teaching the Girls Lobby course, sometimes staying after class, into the evening, for as long as the girls want to spend with her.
FLORA: When it comes to working with certain people, it just doesn’t stop because the class is done, like they’re hungry they want more, and your there might as well dedicate your time and I feel like being a part of Girls Lobby was definitely something like, I wouldn't even be able to put a price tag on it. Like the feeling you get teaching these girls and educating them and answering their questions. What more support can we offer you? So that way, like when you're in the real world, like you're able to succeed and you're able to thrive.
ANDREA: This cohort of refugee girls - who started out with some pretty big barriers - have demonstrated the power of the Girls Lobby approach. But it’s limited in numbers. Olivia and the team believe all young people would benefit from this kind of hands-on training in schools.
OLIVIA: Experiential learning is kind of a buzzword, but the more students are actually doing in participating in processes, I think the more they're going to learn in terms of content, the more they're going to develop in terms of skills and the more diverse and interesting our democracy is going to be. Um, so I really hope in the future that civics classes teach from a citizen's perspective and are less oriented towards AP test scores and are more oriented towards- am I giving this person the skills they need to build the communities that they want to live in.
ANDREA: In the meantime, the Girls Lobby team is pioneering the way toward civic engagement and political empowerment one cohort at a time… and giving future leaders the tools to shape their own communities.
ANDREA: To learn more about Girl’s Lobby or the Refugee Education and Training Center, visit pbsutah.org/morethanhalf
This is a PBS Utah Production. Subscribe to More Than Half wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please rate and review, and don’t forget to like and follow PBS Utah on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Research, interviews, and production for this podcast by Ashley Swansong and Alicia Rice, audio mixing by Will Montoya. I’m Andrea Smardon.
Next time on More Than Half, we’ll hear from a former candidate for the state legislature about what it’s like to run for office as a single mom in Utah… and why it was worth it even when she lost.
CELINA MILNER: “There were things that were happening at the legislature, things happening in our community, that didn’t represent me as a mother, as a women of color, as a latina, as a single mom, and I thought, if we're not up there, we’re on the menu, so I had to jump into both of my races because I thought -- if not me, who?”