In September 2016, Alliance for Girls released the report, Valuing Girls’ Voices: Lived Experiences of Girls of Color in Oakland Unified School District. In response to needs girls identified during the research process about their experiences with school pushout, Alliance for Girls worked with Oakland Unified Schools District and girls in Oakland to design a new student-driven sexual harassment policy that was approved in June of 2017.

 We spoke to Emma Mayerson at Alliance for Girls about their partnership with Oakland Unified School District as a model of innovation and lessons for the field from the process. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why This Project?

The need in the field we were responding to was a recognition that, with girls as the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system, largely for nonviolent offenses that are often cries for help, there was a negligence happening in the social service sector. Answering girls’ cries for help is not the role of juvenile justice. If juvenile justice is the first system girls are coming across for these needs, we’re failing.

We wanted to knit together existing resources and leverage best practices for community organizations to ensure that girls continue to have the resources, supports, and opportunities they need. For example, if a girl graduates from one program, where does she go next? How do we create a continuum of care? If the needs of a girl are greater than the services of one organization, how do we create a referral system that’s strong enough to connect her to all the resources, service, systems that she needs, instead of trying to find that in a single organization?

Those are the questions we were answering: recognizing we needed a stronger and more continuous network of organizations, so girls don’t get lost, needs continue to get met, and girls are supported in the complexity of what they’re experiencing.

We began to realize a big missing piece of the girl-serving sector was school districts. They, too, have the obligation to meet girls’ cries for help. That’s a government system that is supposed to be there for that reason. We set out to bring all that we had learned from creating a coordinated alliance of girls organizations that was championing best practices, enabling collaboration, amplifying girl voice, and bringing all that to school districts. Bringing them into the networks, and bringing all that we do to the schools. So we started a partnership with Oakland Unified School District.

Lessons for the Field

Young Women Define the Problems and Design the Solutions

Our process started with research, giving girls space to voice what they see as their greatest barriers to success in the district: what’s pushing them out and why they don’t feel connected to school.

Where we started was asking young women: why do you not want to come to school, what’s making you not want to show up? The young women themselves made the connection between school pushout and sexual harassment. This was not a sexual harassment policy project. We started trying to understand what was causing pushout. We ended up creating a sexual harassment policy. That was an amazing result, and it was in response to girls saying what their greatest needs are.

We had restorative justice experts participate as well in the process to figure out what a policy should look like in collaboration with school departments. And we did a focus group with boys. We tried to integrate a lot of voices around what a balanced sexual assault policy would look like that centers student safety. I think the policy is highly replicable, but so is the process through which it was created. The process itself could lead to a totally different result.

We had a young women’s leadership team of community experts and school district representatives. Those groups worked together to co-design a solution. I recommend creating a collaborative approach to co-designing solutions. When you do the process this way, the ability to get it implemented long-term is much more powerful, because the school district has much more buy-in; they were part of designing the process.

Creating a Girls Leadership Team

The centering of girls’ voices throughout the process was so critical. We had a firm we contracted with to do the research and then we created the girl leadership team after the research was produced to help design solutions. We realized their voice and experience in the process was so powerful and impactful to the success of the project, both in terms of creating intervention strategies, and because policy and system change is so long-term.

We had some immediate successes in terms of these women having transformative experiences and being trained to be leaders of this initiative; having their voices make a difference for thousands of students in the school district they attend.

In our work with San Francisco Unified School District now we’re starting with Youth Participatory Action Research methodology, so that from the jump it’s a girl-led process. They’re having the experience of creating this change. We are around them and supporting them and providing the expertise and unique knowledge, but they are at the center. We’re really trying to track their individual experiences in addition to the systemic outcomes. We have a dual success metric: individual outcomes and system outcomes.

A Coordinated, Collaborative Approach to Systems Change

We worked to create collaborative approaches to meeting girls’ needs that centers girl leadership and voices, and engages community and community expertise, but operates truly in collaboration with school districts.

Oftentimes we find the advocacy that happens from community organizations to systems can be adversarial, but this one was truly about partnership and collaboration. I think the step-by-step process through which we were able to co-design solutions to girls’ expressed needs, especially those most marginalized by the system, with community experts, girls, and school districts, is a truly unique model.

Deep Community Leadership

The leadership of the project has to be from the community where it’s based. The face of the project has to be those from the area where the work is happening.

Sustainable Relationships with Partners

Having diverse points of contact with the school district was critical in project continuity. There’s a lot of turnover. As the turnover happened this allowed us to keep our project going. We had district representatives who could keep us in the loop and keep the project going, ranging from superintendent to community school managers.

What’s Next?

We created a toolkit for initiatives focused on meeting girls’ needs. Now we want to replicate this process in other school districts. In Oakland Unified School District we’re working closely with the Title IX coordinator. We’ve translated the policy into six different languages, created “sexual harassment: not in our schools” postcards, and revamped the website. Because we were in partnership with the district, the district staff themselves are doing a lot of the “what’s next” which is ideal. We want to have two to three pilot sites where we can do a process evaluation of implementation.

How to Learn More

Read the policy guidance here.

Download the toolkit here.

Visit the Alliance for Girls website.

To contact Alliance for Girls about this work, email: