On a cold day in December 1871, Virginia “Sadie” Nash was riding a crowded trolley car in Omaha, Nebraska, where she was a community leader when she noticed a freezing infant. Nash rose from her seat, stripped off her petticoat, and wrapped it around the baby, saving the child’s life. Newspapers around the country reported the shocking public act she performed to save a stranger.
So goes the legend by which the Sadie Nash Leadership Project was founded in 2001. Cecilia Clarke, Sadie Nash’s great granddaughter, wanted to channel Nash’s spirit and willingness to take action, ignore convention, and lead by example and use those traits to find more leadership opportunities for young women in New York City, where she lived. She named the organization after her great grandmother and launched its first Summer Institute in 2002 with 16 students. It began operations in Newark, New Jersey in 2008. The goal was simple: transform the idea of leadership among young women, especially those from poor or underserved communities.
Today, Sadie Nash is a multifaceted leadership organization with intensive, immersive programs designed for racially, experientially, and academically diverse young women. Chitra Aiyar, who took over as executive director after Clarke stepped down in 2013, describes an organization that differs from many leadership programs not only in its structure, but in its philosophy and frankness about the world. They discuss the realities of oppression, economic and other forms of inequality, not as a means of discouraging young women, but to show them what they’re up against.
“We’re not just saying, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ We want to be like, ‘Here are all of the forces aligned against you and you aren’t imagining it,” Aiyar explains. The challenge to the young women, once they understand the reality, becomes what they’re going to do about it, she says.
And action is a key component of the process. “Nashers,” as the young women are called, are expected to participate in Sadie Nash’s rigorous programs and then take what they’ve learned and put it to work in their own lives and communities. The Summer Institute introduces 150 young women to leadership principles and action through college-level courses, workshops and trips, as well as being paired with strong women role models.
Community Action Placement gives roughly 35 young women hands-on, paid internships at progressive, community-based organizations. Forty young women go through eight months of educational enrichment through the Leadership Institute while the ELLA (engage, learn, lead, act) Fellowship Program includes a monthly stipend and project allowance for 12 fellows to conduct community projects. There are also a number of other programs that collectively work with roughly 700 women each year.
Sade Swift, a student at the New School in New York City, has been part of “just about every Sadie Nash program possible” since she was a sophomore in high school, and now works as an intern at the organization. She started with the Summer Institute and says that being a Nasher changed her–a change that was almost immediately noticeable to her family and friends.
“After Sadie Nash, I was on fire. My family and friends didn’t know what had gotten into me. I was able to express myself to tell them, ‘This is how I feel when I walk into a room and I feel like I can’t talk, because you instilled in me can’t-speak-until-spoken-to.’ Sadie Nash was the reason I was able to express myself,” she says.
Swift and her fellow program participants took action on issues that meant something to them. They created a poster campaign in Washington Square Park to draw awareness to how women of color are portrayed in the media. They also took on police brutality in a work they submitted to the Tribeca Film Festival and others. But what she brings back home is just as important, she says.
“It’s about how we go back and talk to our brothers and sisters. How do I train my 2-year-old and 4-year-old to not be sexist? How can you be a leader among your friends and in your community?” she says.
Sadie Nash’s results are impressive. Between 2001 and 2011 when compared to a demographically similar control group from New York City public schools, more than 80% of Nashers had earned at least a four-year degree, compared to 69% of the control group. Unemployment among the Nashers was roughly 4.8% while their cohorts averaged 14.3%. In general, Nashers were more likely to become involved in activism, volunteerism and political action and support social justice, interpersonal tolerance, and compassion.
The organization has received a number of honors, including the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, which was bestowed by First Lady Michelle Obama in November 2013. Sadie Nash was chosen from a pool of more than 350 organizations to receive the U.S.’s highest honor for youth programs.
And while awards are nice, Aiyar is more interested in talking about how Sadie Nash changes lives. Young women who traditionally have been left out of leadership roles and decision-making opportunities find themselves able to speak up and take a seat at the table, she says.
“What we’re saying is, in fact, you are the center of the conversation–that we are centering you, and not just saying that you are always marginalized, there is no space for you,” Aiyar says. “What changes when you see yourself as the center of the conversation?”
Correction: A previous version of this story cited The Summer Institute’s membership as 75; they have 150 young women in membership.