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‘Trust is critical in a gender-responsive approach’: A Q&A with Mary Marx, President and CEO, Pace Center for Girls

January 27, 2022

Headshot_Mary Marx_Pace_Center_for_GirlsFounded in 1985 in Jacksonville, Florida, Pace Center for Girls works to provide girls and young women who are experiencing challenges in their home or school environment with opportunities for a better future through education, counseling, training, and advocacy. Today the organization’s twenty-two locations in Florida and Georgia provide more than three thousand girls with academic instruction, life skills, coaching, and counseling to help them face their past and prepare for their future. In addition, over the past decade, Pace’s public policy advocacy work has helped reduce the number of girls who are referred to Florida’s juvenile justice system by more than 60 percent.

Mary Marx joined Pace as vice president of external affairs in 2007 and has served as president and CEO since 2010. PND asked her about Pace’s advocacy efforts around juvenile justice reform, its national expansion strategy, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on needs and programs.

Philanthropy News Digest: What does the “gender-responsive” framework that Pace Center for Girls uses in its academic and social services entail, in concrete terms?

Mary Marx: I’d like to start by explaining why we’re using the gender-responsive framework and why it’s one of Pace’s foundational pillars. Pace Center for Girls was founded because a growing number of girls were entering Florida’s juvenile justice system, largely driven by experiences of trauma and the impact that trauma had on their behavior and physical, emotional, and mental health. Trauma places girls at significant risk for poor life outcomes, including dropping out of school, poor physical and mental health, long-term economic dependency, and involvement in human trafficking or the delinquency or dependency systems.

In 1985, there was no research on girls and delinquency, so our approach intuitively was centered on girls’ unique needs. Then, as the research findings came to light, we were able to validate that the gender-responsive model was the correct approach. Of course, then the question becomes, “What does that mean? What is a gender-responsive approach?” First, it means that you create an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for girls. For example, each Pace center has an enrollment of about sixty to eighty girls, by design. Rather than attending a school with three thousand students, you’re getting more individualized attention at Pace and access to wraparound services such as counseling, leadership skills development, and workforce training.

A gender-responsive model also entails that we take a holistic approach when we look at someone’s treatment strategies. This means taking into account all areas of development, such as physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional health. Another really important facet of a gender-responsive approach is that it’s relationship-based; meaningful connections fuel healthy development, and that is particularly important for young people who may have experienced abuse or neglect early in life. Healthy relationships are modeled by the staff and include helping girls develop healthy peer-to-peer relationships. We do a lot of peer mediation, peer mentoring, and group work so the girls are developing healthy relationships among themselves and with staff.

Another facet of the gender-responsive model is taking a strength-based approach, meaning that we focus on the strengths of each girl rather than her shortcomings. This also has to be based in health. At Pace, each girl has her own counselor, whom she can see at any time. There’s a minimum requirement that each girl be seen at least twice a month, but most, especially when they come to us in the beginning, are seen almost every day. In terms of physical health, we have our own health clinic in the Pace Center. We also have a relationship with the county department of health, where we take the girls for wellness checks, as oftentimes trauma is written on the body, for example, in the form of self-harming and eating disorders.

Trust is critical in a gender-responsive approach, as is ensuring that each girl has choice and control. One of the most important facets of our model is that we’re a voluntary program; no one is court-ordered to be here, and girls can leave of their own volition. That’s a really important piece, because they haven’t had mastery or control over their lives for a long period of time. We are very collaborative in how we make decisions with them and share power with them. And finally, we consistently prioritize empowerment and skill building for our girls....

Read the full Q&A with Mary Marx.

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