Averil Spencer MPA 2017 is giving girls a voice.
By Sarah Abrams
June 8, 2017
In 2010, Averil Spencer MPA 2017, a recent Dartmouth College graduate, arrived in Hyderabad, India, on a social enterprise fellowship, ready to spend a few months working with low-income adolescent girls. But, to her surprise, the months turned into years, and four years later Spencer had built a successful program—VOICE 4 Girls—that is empowering adolescent girls in India.
The reality for many girls in India is harsh, with young women having little control over their lives. Almost 50 percent are married before age 18, just 30 percent graduate from 10th grade, and less than 40 percent work for pay. What’s more, only 15 percent of both girls and boys receive sex education.
“You have these bright, passionate girls with very limited options after school and limited knowledge about the challenges they’re going to imminently face,” Spencer says. Based on their preliminary research, Spencer, with co-founders Allie Gross and Ilana Shushansky, proposed developing a program for adolescents that offered information on basic health and safety rights, leadership skills, problem solving, advocacy, and spoken English.
“When we started, we wanted to focus on their rights, on higher education, and on career ladders and things they could do in and outside the home and a little bit about health safety and hygiene,” Spencer explains. Beginning as a two-week, half-day program, VOICE 4 Girls eventually evolved into a residential program, where girls come from across the state to learn the curriculum, returning after two weeks to their schools to impart the skills they’ve learned to their peers.
“It’s incredible. You see girls come in, for lack of a better term, afraid of their own shadows,” Spencer says. “They don’t speak up and have very little confidence and knowledge. Just being in an environment where they’re celebrated and championed is empowering for them. There are portions of the curriculum that bolster them, especially activity-based learning, but I think the all-female environment also makes a big difference.”
After four years, Spencer, who was by then executive director of VOICE 4 Girls, saw that the program needed new leadership. “There’s an incredible part of adolescence for girls that’s universal,” Spencer says, “but I wasn’t Indian.” In 2014, she stepped down as executive director, continuing to act as an advisor and sit on the program’s board. Today, VOICE 4 Girls is fully staffed by Indian women. Operating in three states, the program has served more than 38,000 girls in 200 schools and has developed strong partnerships through the government.
Arriving back in the U.S. in 2014, Spencer began a concurrent degree program, enrolling in Harvard Kennedy School’s Master in Public Administration (MPA) program and the Sloan School of Management at MIT. The Kennedy School, she says, has helped her develop a more nuanced approach to tackling problems. “You’re always going to be coming in somewhat from the outside because you see a problem in ways that people from the inside can’t see," she says. "But how do you really leverage the people with the problems to create that solution? How do you act more as a catalyst to find out what that solution can be and implement that, as opposed to coming in and saying, ‘I have a solution and I have all the answers?’”
In her final year at the Kennedy School, Spencer has turned her attention to a new initiative for women—this time in the United States. Still in the research phase, she has been working with VOICE’s co-founder, Allie Gross, to develop a program supporting college-age women around issues of independence, sexuality, and financial competency.
“Over the past 10 years, college enrollment rates, whether community or four-year institutions, have continued to grow,” says Spencer. “Over 50 percent of students enroll in college within a year of graduating from high school, but less than 30 percent actually graduate, so what are those barriers along the way that these marginalized populations—specifically women—are facing? You hear so much about girls having to do things they’re not prepared for, in an environment where they’re largely taking care of themselves and are responsible for themselves. We want to create a holistic program that meets a range of needs to make these young women successful.”