Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Angela Patton captured the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of thousands of online viewers with a TED talk describing an unusual (and uplifting) father-daughter dance—between incarcerated dads and their young daughters. The dance was the fruit of a girl-led social-change project convened by a grassroots organization Patton began in Richmond, Va.

In every setting, Patton brings a palpable enthusiasm, a drive to connect and uplift that I wish I could bottle up and spread around. She’s not “busy,” she’s driven–and I love it. I admire her ability to be an engaged, attentive mom, even as she expands her own capacity and power to lead on a national scale as executive director of Girls for a Change. She illustrates daily that womanhood and motherhood aren’t impediments to leadership and in fact can be powerful catalysts for it.

A mother of two, Patton founded Camp Diva in Richmond, Va., in 2004 to honor Diva Mstadi Smith-Roane, a five-year-old who died in a firearm accident earlier that year. That summer, Patton planned a two-week retreat that gave Diva’s mother, Clover, space to share her motherly love with other girls in need of a support system. The program grew and went national in October 2013, when Camp Diva merged with California-based Girls for a Change, a nonprofit that trains girls to foster social change through small action teams. Patton was named CEO of the merged organization.

Today, Camp Diva operates as a program of Girls for a Change and offers a month-long experience in which pre-teen and teen girls venture onto the campuses of women’s colleges or historically black colleges and universities. Next summer, girls will gather at Mills College in Oakland and Virginia Union University in Richmond to participate in a range of activities from swimming and yoga to journaling and social-change projects–all designed to build life-changing confidence, friendships and memories.

Beyond camp, other GFC programs include more than 100 Girl Action Teams worldwide, groups of 5-15 girls working together to envision and execute lasting change in their neighborhoods, cities or schools. Date with Dad, another GFC program and the topic of Patton’s TED Talk, helps girls forge mutually nurturing relationships with imprisoned fathers. Diva-Preneurship gives entrepreneurial high schoolers a boost into the work world, through a college-level Business 101 course, mentorship, vocational training and financial management instruction to help them on their way.

Read on to learn more of Patton’s impassioned efforts to empower girls in Richmond–and around the world. I asked and she answered.

How did you grow into this national role?

I didn’t know it was going to come to this. I didn’t start Camp Diva as a nonprofit that I thought needed to serve this many girls. I truly had a very grassroots idea of serving girls one time, one year, for two weeks.

We would just use my friend’s bed and breakfast, and we had a program for girls for two weeks. We would see in the community where people would complain about what’s wrong with the girls and nobody would step in and do anything about it.

We worked with organizations that were serving girls, but none of the organizations that I was working with were giving the girls specifically what I thought was needed, like cultural enrichment, sisterhood building, real conversations around colorism, information about eating healthy and giving them access.

We want our girls to eat healthier, but they don’t have access. What are we going to do? Are we just going to keep putting them in a raggedy community center and not give them access?

I exposed girls to things that I knew worked for me as an African-American woman going into her womanhood. I say that literally. I’m always going into that. I had friends, colleagues and resources that were doing the same. I thought they should know about someone who teaches yoga and massage therapy in a clean, quality, nice environment.

Our girls don’t get to meet sisters like you on a daily basis that would keep them motivated and feeling as though the possibilities for them are limitless. It’s always, “I can’t go any further than here,” because they’re not exposed.

Then it ended up that in order to get some financial assistance, I had to make it a nonprofit because people don’t give to you if they can’t get a tax write-off.

What has allowed you to grow into this bigger position so quickly?

I think my open mind and understanding that opportunities are limitless helped me get to where I am today. I never close a door that is halfway open or that has a little crack in that door. I bust them open. I do that because I want my girls to model that same behavior.

A woman [contacted me] that I probably would have never talked to because we would have never been in the same restaurant or coffee shop or thought there was anything we had in common. That was Whitney Smith, the CEO and co-founder of Girls For A Change.

She basically said, “Angela, we heard about Camp Diva. We’re from Virginia. Everybody says if we want to start a program that we need to have the conversation with you.” They asked me about implementing a girl-action team in Camp Diva.

When the women came to meet me, I saw absolutely nothing in common. They had that valley girl accent. They were all white women. They were talking about how their founder was raising chickens and slaughtering them so she could eat healthier.

We didn’t really have too much in common. I had to dig deeper. I said, “How can we partner?” Once I looked at that curriculum, I realized where we were in partnership was we both had a love and passion to serve girls. I also realized we both were into home birth. I had one too. That was a common thread that we had. We both were having very similar conversations about what was happening with girls, but at different tables.

I opened my mind to the opportunity and said, “How can I implement this work with a curriculum I’m already implementing that I know works for the girls that I’m serving?” I did that and figured out a way to make it stick. From there, our partnership continued to grow. Our respect for each other grew even more.

It was funny. I had a doula service called Safe and Sound. I was sharing it with her because we both were into home birth. Her children go to Montessori too. We found that we both love Montessori, so that was funny. When we were talking, she was saying, “Are you for real that your doula service is named Safe and Sound?” I said yes and she said, “I’m going to show you something. Don’t freak out.”

She pulled up her sleeve and her tattoo had Safe and Sound on it. I said, “Oh my god! Why do you have that?” She said she tattooed that on her so when she leaves, her daughter always knows that she’s safe and sound. She wanted her and her children to know that when she’s traveling they are safe and sound. I said, “I do that because I want mothers to feel comfortable with a home birth. It is all safe and sound.”

That’s when I knew that this was going to be a great partnership. We have grown. She has stepped down as CEO. She wanted to think about a person to merge with and a person who could take over the organization. She came back to me, a person she probably would have never had a conversation with because I’m Afrocentric and she’s a natural girl.

I started grassroots and was working with girls without even a license and a 501(c)(3). I am not political. She probably wouldn’t have thought about me, the black girl that I am, for real. My vision was for black girls. I wanted to get a group of girls that nobody paid attention to and give them something that I knew they were missing because I too grew up as a black girl.

Now I serve all girls. I’m excited about that.

What advice do you have for women who, like you, see a need in their community and want to do something about it? What advice do you have for them to find the time, support and resources they need to get going?

Do your research. Find out if someone else is already addressing the need. It’s always good to know. It’s just like any other business. If you want to do a burger, who does it well? Why do people like that burger? Who’s already doing this work?

Then find out if there are some missing parts. How can you partner with them? I think you should first go to an organization that’s already doing the work and try to figure out how you can support what they’re doing, learn, and then give them something else. If you still see a need to start another organization, do that.

Don’t do it alone. Do it with a partner that you’ve already worked with. Do it with a new partner and give other people opportunities to tell you that they see some missing parts. There are a lot of moving parts to this [work]. Sometimes when you go all in, it can be exhausting and challenging. A lot of doors are going to be slammed in your face. A lot of funders already know what they want to do and who they want to do it with.

Collaborations and partnerships are the first way to go. Then you build on top of that. You fill in the holes, but you have to know what they are. Just searching the internet doesn’t tell you where the holes are. You have to get out there and meet people. You have to network and ask questions. You have to talk to the community that you want to serve.

I have conversations with girls, not grown people writing checks. It’s with girls that are saying, “Sister Angela, this is a problem.” I listen to what they say, and then I respond to that. If you choose to work in a homeless community, you have to talk to the homeless people. If you want to work with boys, you have to talk to the young men. Together, you start to pull in the puzzle of the funders that want you and the parents that are saying this is what they need.

The community as a whole is what you serve even when you serve one group. When I serve girls, I’m still serving the community. That’s why I had to include their dads, moms, the community and women in order for me to get the work done for the girls. They’re just the root cause, but the whole community is going to be the support to make it happen. That’s the advice I give because I see a lot of people try to do it on their own.

Do something without worrying about a paycheck first. Everybody says, “I have an idea. This is how much it costs.” A lot of times I’m already doing it or already have a resource or funding for someone else do it. I understand everybody wants to eat, but you have to figure out who is willing to feed you first before you just pitch some of these ideas.

A lot of people in the nonprofit world, if they see you coming to them first with the money pitch, they don’t think that your heart is in it. People feel your heart. They know your heart is in it.

If I lose every dime in my budget today, do you think Camp Diva would still exist next summer? Absolutely. I know how to get out there and fry some fish and sell it. I know how to do a car wash and a bake sale because I started grimy. I’m willing to go back to the grime and start all over. I’m willing to take a budget that was once $1 million and pull it back to $500,000 and try for $2 million, because that means my heart is in it.

I know that if I don’t do it, it’s not going to get done. I have to figure out a way with $50 in my pocket to make it work just because it’s necessary. That’s the advice I give to people.

That’s what has gotten me this far. I’m okay with sacrificing for the better. If I have something that I can give, then I’m not sacrificing much. I don’t have as much as maybe the next man, but I have more than the other man. I’m trying to help the other man get a little bit more.

I have to sacrifice something. I’ve sacrificed family time and sleep. I don’t advise everybody to do that unless you know how to balance it, but I’ve done it and I’m okay with that, because it helped me get to another level.

Question: What did you learn from Angela’s story?  What pieces of her advice can you apply in your own work? Please scroll down to post your comments below.