Miss Illinois Teen USA, Gissell Bahena, told the young girls, "I want you to be yourself, boldly yourself, what you have in you right now - no one can take that away from you." Credit: Sam Stroozas

“No Scrubs” by TLC and “Déjà vu” by Olivia Rodrigo echoed through a speaker as dozens of young girls sang along at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center. 

Nearly 100 girls from around Illinois participated Saturday in Girls Who Lead, a day of empowering workshops hosted by the founder of the Her Rising nonprofit, Cherie Animashaun, who is a junior at Niles West High School.

Animashaun has been hard at work distributing her workbooks – Compass: Her Steps in the Right Direction – to assist young girls and women with self-help materials at an affordable price, and leading on the Girls Play Sports board.

Girls raise their bouquets to win at “Guess that Song.” Credit: Sam Stroozas

But Animashaun wanted to do more, so she launched Girls Who Lead, a statewide leadership event that connects young girls to STEM, dance, arts and culinary workshops. Animashaun applied for a community grant through Evanston’s Cradle to Career organization and was able to host the event in conjunction with the Hershey Company.

Kim Holmes-Ross, community engagement specialist for Cradle to Career, said when she saw Animashaun’s application cross her desk, she knew Cradle to Career had to be a supporter.

“Today has just been beautiful,” Holmes-Ross said, describing the event. “It is a safe space for girls, and we need more of these in the cruel world we live in. This feels kind and caring, it feels good.”

Animashaun enlisted the help of many of her friends and local young activists, including Evanston Township High School sophomore Olivia Ohlson, founder of Diversify Golf and Evanston Hygiene Kits, to lead the day of events. The girls were split into different workshops: screenwriting, dance, computer science, engineering, cooking and community leadership. The day ended with a keynote speaker, Gissell Bahena, Miss Illinois Teen USA.

Chef Debbie Gold teaches the young girls how to perfectly slice tomatoes. Credit: Sam Stroozas

Evelyn Herbert, a friend of Animashaun’s and a fellow junior at Niles West High School, helped organize the event and took photos. Herbert said she enjoyed seeing the girls participate in STEM workshops and be able to ask questions without being “overshadowed” by young boys.

“I think it is really important for young girls to have an outlet and learn stuff they don’t typically learn in school,” she said. “They can’t be overshadowed here.”

Kemone Hendricks, founder of Evanston Present and Future and Evanston’s annual Juneteenth parade, hosted the community leadership workshop. She said Animashaun reached out to her to lend her expertise and she “immediately said yes.”

“I admire all that Cherie has done at the age of 17 to put this whole event together,” she said. “It has been amazing, these young girls are all extremely educated and they have blown me away. It has been a very insightful time for me.”

Kate Compton leads a computer science workshop. Credit: Sam Stroozas

Many of the attendees at Girls Who Lead said they appreciated the event because they feel like there aren’t many spaces dedicated solely to young girls.

Ten-year-old best friends, Jailyn Davis and Noelle Chaney, said their moms signed them up to go together.

“We are having lots of fun, the food was amazing,”  Jailyn said. “Girls rule, and without women, there wouldn’t even be any boys.”

“Or hair products and women’s rights,” added Noelle.

Animashaun said the event exceeded her expectations but “this is just the beginning,” adding that it will continue twice a year, with the next one planned for August.

Jailyn Davis (left) and Noelle Chaney pose for a photo. Credit: Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...

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