Among the young women of the Ladies First Club, the most popular future profession is president of the United States, followed closely by a job in fashion. During a career-focused community-building exercise, one scholar announces her intention to become a lawyer, doctor, and dancer. “I can do them all!” she exclaims.
Every Tuesday at 4:00PM, the scholars of the Ladies First Club put on their signature hair bows, personalized with their names, and gather in room 344. The Executive Board—President Najiba, Vice President Neriah, Secretary Amina, and Treasurer Makela—kicks off the meeting, leading the group through a welcome exercise, shout-outs, roll call, announcements, and check distribution. (Members are awarded “scholar dollars” for exemplary behavior and leadership throughout the week.)
At SA Harlem 1, being selected for the Ladies First club is an honor that scholars look forward to for years. “It’s like when you’re in high school,” club advisor Ms. Cousins explains, “and everybody’s looking forward to prom. To the fourth grade, this is the prom.” Scholars become eligible for the club during the first month of fourth grade. They submit resumes, personal statements, and teacher recommendations before being invited for interviews and ultimately selected by club advisors Ms. Cousins and Ms. Fox to participate. This year, the club has 25 members. “There’s this hype about getting into the club. The little ones see the Ladies and know they need to start being role models now, so that they have a chance to join. It creates a positive atmosphere in the school.”
The Ladies are each other’s loudest cheerleaders. “I know it’s a hard job,” one scholar says during shout-outs, “and I’m proud of you for being such a good president.” Najiba beams. Scholars praise each other for having integrity, showing respect, being kind, and asking for help when they’re struggling with hard math problems.
“All the ladies in this club work together to make sure that this community is good—in school and out of school,” one scholar tells me. In school, Ladies First members help younger scholars improve their reading during DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), and outside of SA Harlem 1, they do community service projects such as visiting homeless shelters. “I like that I can be around other ladies who want to become leaders,” one scholar explains. “We’re showing the little ones how to lead.”
“They take what they learn in here and they use it in their classrooms and outside,” Ms. Cousins tells me. “They don’t have to be watched to know to do the right thing. They’re automatically doing it because of the conversations they have in here. They truly want to be good people and be leaders.”
During a break, scholars talk to me about what they’ve learned in Ladies First. “In Ladies First, you learn how to be a very independent woman—proving that women don’t only cook and clean and take care of kids. You can also become a mathematician, an astronomer, a paleontologist.”
“I’m learning how to be more independent,” another scholar echoes, “how to be stronger, so if someone tells me I can’t do something, I think, ‘You don’t know what I can do. I’m a woman. I can do anything.’”
As fourth grade graduation approaches and the women of Ladies First get ready to start middle school, they sit down to write letters to their future selves—they’ll get the letters back on the first day of eighth grade. Before sealing their envelopes, they gather on the rug to share what they’ve written. “This is what you’re going to do as a leader,” one scholar reads. “You’re going to get good grades, follow through, and be responsible and mature—not only in school, but outside of school too, girl. By the way, what’s there to be nervous about? You already have friends beside you.”