As Working On Womanhood’s Program Director, Gail Day is responsible for its curriculum, implementation, and growth. Besides handling its program implementation, she is also responsible for hiring and managing WOW’s amazing counselors and supervisors — ensuring that WOW’s youth receive the support they need.
In 2010, Gail and six Youth Guidance counselors came together to create a sister program to Becoming A Man. Together, they shaped the female-centric, trauma-informed curriculum that would become WOW – a program for women, by women, who understood the specific, overlooked experience faced by young girls in disadvantaged communities. In the context of gun and gang violence, young women often process trauma differently than their male peers, and as such, suffer different consequences such as self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, and dropping out of school. With 84% of WOW students reporting five or more lifetime exposures to trauma, the program was desperately needed for an ignored demographic.
“Girls often suffer in silence,” she says. “[This program] is an intervention to help girls work through traumatic events and become empowered young women who are no longer ‘at risk’ but ‘at promise.’ WOW provides a safe space where they can process the feelings and emotions connected with trauma, which then empowers them to rewrite their own narrative that will propel them into a bigger and brighter future.”
What makes WOW successful among its youth is the recognition that their emotions and experiences are validated. The presence of a group immediately affirms that they are not alone in their journey forward to heal. Growing up in Englewood, on the south side of Chicago, Gail’s own teenaged years parallel the life situations of today’s WOW participants. “If I had WOW then, I would have had a counselor help me work through negative life situations, which impacted how I viewed myself, my self-confidence, and my self-esteem. Working through some of those distorted thoughts would have helped me realize my true potential earlier,” she says. Instead of trauma becoming a setback, WOW’s roots in cognitive-behavioral therapy transform that trauma into positive behaviors, allowing its participants to reclaim their lives.
“Today, WOW is that empowering force that help our girls reflect, reset, and re-engage into what they envision for themselves: promising, bright, articulate professionals who will reshape the world into a better place,” she says. After a year in the program, 67% of its participants report a significant decrease in depression, with many noting progress in interpersonal relationships and academic improvement.
Even though she has been with Youth Guidance since 1997, sitting in on WOW circles never fails to inspire her. Witnessing the metamorphosis of pain, grief, and anger into positive emotions unfold, she continues to be “inspired by their resiliency,” Gail says. Where girls might think their future is limited, or their dreams impossible, the WOW circle has been able to subvert that self-perception into something greater. “Engaging with the girls through the curriculum and hearing their stories of hurt, empowerment, future goals, and aspirations shows the promise of the program.”
That promise has led the program to be evaluated by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab in an extensive, two-year randomized-controlled trial. As Becoming A Man has not only helped young men, but reduced violent crime arrests by 50% and overall arrests by 35%, there is similar hope for Chicago’s young women. “What keeps me motivated are the new narratives our girls are sharing, the many supporters that are stepping up to advocate for the program, and the pure dedication of my staff and agency who are instrumental in making this program be the driver of our girls success,” Gail says.