Girls at Willard Elementary School learn about how positive affirmations can help improve their perception and boost confidence. | Provided.

Navigating middle school can be a challenge for anyone, but the struggles girls of color encounter are not like those of their white classmates.

 That is what “Girls on the Rise,” an Oak Park Township program, is trying to address. It creates a safe space for girls of color to speak openly about issues they face and attempts to create a sense of community among peers who look like them. 

Started in 2017, “Girls on the Rise” was founded by Dominique Hickman, assistant director of youth and family services at Oak Park Township. Hickman, after working a summer camp program, noticed there was a need to provide girls of color with additional support they might not necessarily receive at school. 

“I think just having a safe space where they can feel supported and have girls that look like them in a classroom,” Hickman said. “It also was just a space to talk about things that in middle school students may be struggling with, such as building friendships and maintaining friendships.”

It piloted at Oak Park Elementary School District 97’s Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School as an afterschool program. It also offers training, such as communication and leadership skills through a curriculum Hickman created. 

Hickman grew up in an Austin neighborhood, but attended schools up north where she often was one of two Black students in her classes growing up. Being one of the only Black students in her classes created a feeling of loneliness and often left Hickman feeling there was no one who could relate to her and her struggles. When she saw the same need from girls of color today, she knew she wanted to create a space for them.

“When I brought this program to the girls, some of their same struggles are identical to my struggles,” Hickman said. “Just to hear them, we get emotional in that group. To know that girls are dealing with their skin complexion, colorism is a topic we talk about, girls deal with their hair…we talk about a lot and it is rewarding to know I can have those conversations with them at a young age because I didn’t get those conversations when I was younger.” 

While the topics vary depending on the participants grade level, they can include a wide range of topics, including how to style and take care of hair, as Hickman pointed out is an important part of the Black community and a source of identity and pride for many women of color. 

Part of what makes the program successful is the coordinators’ ability to relate to the girls who are participating, as the program is run by women of color. 

“That is the whole basis of Girls on the Rise, is that our facilitators look like the girls that are in the program so they can be more comfortable and have the sense that someone knows what they are going through,” Hickman said. “To have adult facilitators in the room who once were in their shoes, we know how hard it may be.” 

According to Hickman, the program is growing each year. Last year, they had 124 girls enrolled throughout the four participating schools.

The program received great feedback from the school and it then expanded to D97’s Percy Julian Middle School and River Forest District 90’s Roosevelt Middle School.

 “Girls on the Rise” then became part of students’ school day with participating students attending during their lunch or their advisory period. It has since launched in D90’s Willard Elementary School.

By bringing the program to a younger audience, Hickman said, it helps provide support quicker and build self-love and empowerment at a younger age, so it has the potential to ease the transition into middle school. 

“We have seen changes in them feeling more aware, their confidence levels boosting,” Hickman said, adding parents and teachers have also expressed praises in the growth students are showing.  

The program is accepting more participants. Parents who are interested in enrolling their daughters can reach out to Hickman at

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