HOPKINS — The first thing leaders in Girls United MN will say about their group is that they get it done by working together.
“If everything was on one person, that would be very impossible for someone to do,” Girls United MN President Jessica Melnik said. “And I think it also shows our mission, you know, we’re an organization that was built by girls, for girls.”
The nonprofit, envisioned by students in Hopkins High School, is lifting up young women through legislation, STEM activities, speakers and motivational messaging.
Two parallel boards run the nonprofit, one comprising adults and the other made up of the original crowd in Girls United MN — the club before it became a nonprofit.
After Melnik observed one of their classmates being trafficked, the students launched their latest endeavor: passing anti-sex trafficking legislation. She approached lawmakers with ideas for cutting sex trafficking in schools. The bipartisan bill was authored by District 48A Rep. Laurie Pryor and District 48 Sen. Steve Cwodzinski.
“Jessica and her Girls United colleagues have worked tirelessly to bring legislators together and move this initiative forward,” said Pryor.
Girls United MN hosted an event on Feb. 15 called, “Not For Sale: Standing Up to Sex Trafficking.” Sex trafficking survivors spoke among a panel at an event at the high school and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke on the issue via video call.
The nonprofit began as a book club in 2014. Teacher Lauren Wester at Hopkins West Junior High was teaching a seventh-grade class and split the students into groups of boys and girls for a learning activity. Names were chosen for each team, and when choosing a name for the girls, one boy said: “The sandwich makers.”
The next day in class, Wester spoke with the students, explaining why it was inappropriate to suggest a name that would perpetuate tired, inaccurate labels.
“I think that it was really eye-opening for a lot of us,” Melnik said, “because it wasn’t something we were thinking about or thought still existed.”
Wester decided to form a before-school book club with several of the students. They read books on gender inequality, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Girl Boss” and “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.”
Sometimes, she said, she thinks that it’s regrettable that the book club’s beginnings go back to the comment. However, it was a springboard in exploring how gender affects girls in school.
From the before school meetings, shapes of what would become Girls United MN began to form. Melnik organized speakers to come talk with the book club at the Ridgedale Library.
Two years ago, the students said they wanted to act on what some of the speakers were sharing. They planned a job fair at the Ridgedale Library, where 50 Hopkins High School girls heard professionals speak about their respective fields. Activities on STEM followed.
A junior Girls United MN group started after parents reached out to the ninth-graders. Once a month, they met with elementary and middle-school students to discuss body image and self-esteem.
The student leaders painted motivational messages on canvases with elementary students at two schools. The art was installed in the bathrooms.
Lizzy Sirianni, the youth advisory board director of girls united said elementary students were giddy with happiness at seeing their paintings up on the wall.
“It just draws more girls in and it spreads inspiration for the future women of tomorrow,” she said.
The next group
of Girls United
There’s one trip-up to having a nonprofit with high school students at the heart of the activity: Graduation lies ahead for its leaders.
After becoming a nonprofit last year with the aid of law school students, the student board said they would kick off training the next student board members.
“I think when people hear of student-led groups, they think of cutesy groups,” Wester said. “I’m excited for the community to be more aware of the serious work they’re getting done, and doing, in a really professional way.”
Either by messaging to coordinate responsibilities or by checking in with one another, Melnik said no one is spreading themselves too thin.
“People always ask who inspires you the most,” Melnik said. “And honestly a lot of the girls in the group, and especially the girls on this core planning group are probably the biggest inspiration.”
The adults on the nonprofit board and teachers throughout the Hopkins School District advocate the projects on their own time.
“It’s the perfect balance of them letting us do what we want to do,” said Programming Coordinator Emma Rock. “But also providing support when we need it and providing ideas when we think something we thought of might not be as successful as it could be.”
Wester said that if teachers inspire their students enough, they get to a point where they don’t need their leaders’ guidance, and they’ll keep doing the work.
“I think other people should give it a shot at their school,” Wester said. “You never know where a conversation is going to go with your kids, so be brave to have that conversation.”
Melnik said she’s optimistically eager for the work students in Girls United MN will get done, before graduation and moving on after.
“I think that through this group, through our discussions and just our regular meetings,” she said, “different conversations I’ve had with different women have really shaped what I think needs to change and what I think collectively needs to change.”