In 1998, Maya Nussbaum was a senior at Columbia University, finishing up her degree at one of the most prestigious writing programs in the country. But as a young woman in a city with a seemingly infinite number of aspiring writers and a literary legacy largely populated by pensive, brooding, Scotch-swilling white dudes, Nussbaum sensed a void. Where was the sense of community among budding writers as they struggled to navigate a complex publishing scene? And more specifically, where was the sense of community among young women writers, for whom statistics demonstrate even greater obstacles in getting published than their male counterparts? Nussbaum thus set out to create Girls Write Now, a mentoring program that pairs high-school aged girls with professional women writers. Now, nearly two decades later, more than 5,000 girls have passed through the program, 90% of whom have been high-need, and 95% of whom are girls of color. More impressive still, every high-school senior that has completed the program at Girls Write Now has gone on to attend college, and for many, they are the first in their families to do so.
GWN has been distinguished twice by the White House and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as one of the nation's top after school programs, and last year, Nussbaum was named a People’s Choice nominee by none other than Diane von Furstenberg. Most recently, Lena Dunham released Is It Evil Not to be Sure?, a super-limited-edition chapbook of her college diary entries, to benefit the organization (and it sold out almost immediately!) Nussbaum sat down with Girlboss to talk about how she got her start, what it’s like to be at the helm of a non-profit for two decades straight out of college, the two-way street of mentorship, and what’s in store for the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you were at that moment in your life and what inspired you to start GWN?
I founded Girls Write Now when I was not much older than the teenage girls we serve. I made it my mission to break down the myth of the “isolated writer” and to build an organization based on the guiding principle that writing is actually a communal enterprise. I focused on teens because I remember ninth and tenth grade as a time when I was trying to find my voice and my “value” or purpose in the world. I’ve found over the years that other women feel the same way about their own development and need for community.
Your stats on college acceptance is such an incredible achievement, and you’ve received so much impressive recognition for supporting a demographic not many people invest their time and energy in. What has the process of growing and expanding to this point been like over the years?
Girls Write Now is New York's first and only writing and mentoring organization for girls. We've been strengthening this model and building this organization for almost two decades. We've become a leader in the girls’ education space, distinguished twice by the White House and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as one of the nation's top after school programs, twice in the last two years by the Nonprofit Excellence Awards as one of New York's top ten nonprofits, and twice by the New York City Council as one of the city's top girl-focused initiatives. Yet, we're in a moment of change, evolution—dare we say "revolution," which this year's theme—and this guides our curriculum and programs.
Our girls sensed this change in their own lives and the world around them when they dreamed up our most activist theme to date, and ushered it in for us all, about a year ago. At the time, of course none of us had an inkling of how the political season would unfold...But on a personal and social level, our girls knew that what they had at Girls Write Now was rare, special, and important. They’re growing up in a time when they feel the voices of girls, and girls of color in particular, aren't heard, that they lack the adult networks to which other teens have access, that they must rise above the race and income-based inequalities of their neighborhoods and school system. And these feelings of revolution have surfaced in many of our girls’ stories, portfolios, readings, and publications, including the Girls Write Now 2016 Anthology: (R)evolution.
This is a movement to which I have personally dedicated my life —as a girl right out of college, as a writer struggling to find her voice, as someone who saw a need and met that demand by building a community of mentors. We are committed to each and every girl who puts pen to paper at Girls Write Now. Coming of age as a girl demands compassion and guidance from those who have struggled and succeeded ahead of you. Bringing an organization to the next level requires the drive of hundreds and thousands of supporters. Whether growing up as a girl, a writer, or as an organization—taking the risk to evolve at each new stage—all of these are revolutionary acts of courage and imagination fueled by the power of community.
You’ve had the support of many prominent writers and artists. What advice would you pass along as far as reaching out for support from women who may be more established in their careers?
Mentoring is the heart of our operation and the value of seeking out a mentor is powerful. We see the rewards of women helping the next generation every day in our work. Professional women writers from every discipline join us as mentors to pass on the specifics of their craft. But as they work with their mentees, something magical begins. The rigor and flexibility of our structure turns a one-on-one relationship into a two-way street, where the teachers learn as much as they teach. Mentees and mentors become crit partners, collaborators, and lifelong friends. And as our programs foster our mentees’ development in everything from writing in the digital age to applying for college, they become mentors to each other, exchanging new skills, demonstrating creative leadership in our workshops, winning national writing awards, and engaging more fully with their own communities.
What have been some of the most challenging moments as founder and executive director?
As we approach almost two decades and embrace a new vision for growth, we want to make sure to maintain the high quality of our robust and customized deep-touch programming as we also build our economy of scale, exponentially increasing the number of girls we serve over the next three years. Achieving the right balance can be tough, but we stay focused on creating the space for women to take creative risks, and the pathway for authentic relationships between writers to form.
GWN has plans in the works this year to double the number of girls you’re serving. How are you going about such an ambitious task?
In the past year, Girls Write Now has undergone our most intensive strategic planning process to date, with support from over 100 community stakeholders and external evaluators from Harvard Business School and NYU Wagner. Together, we refreshed our mission statement and creating seven combined strategic priorities and organizational commitments necessary to scale our proven service model and sustain the organization long-term. The strategic plan outlines our innovative initiatives to double the number of girls we serve, to deepen our programming through integration of college readiness, curricula choice, and digital access into our flagship writing and mentoring program, and to expand our alumnae services, supporting mentees in the transition to college and career.
And are you totally exhausted all the time?! How do you wind down at the end of a long day?
Girls Write Now's energy buoys me every day. I can't say I get much down time, since I have a two-year-old daughter, Leda, and another child on the way in July, but I wouldn't trade it for the world!
*Check out Maya’s speech at the Girls Write Now Awards honoring Jenni Konner of Girls and LennyLetter.com; Janet Mock; and John Osborn, CEO of BBDO NY, for his work on the new Barbie campaign.