Angela Patton sits behind a nameplate that is as powerful as it is simple: GRL BOSS.
The title is both a reflection of who she is and, more notably, what she envisions for others. Patton is devoted to lifting up unseen, unheard and devalued black girls – and imbuing them with the confidence and skills they need to win the future, to be the boss.
“I try to make sure that they understand that the future of work does include you – that the future of work is robust – so you have to continue to educate yourself and train yourself," she said.
Patton is CEO of Girls for a Change, and in 2019, she marks the 15th year of the nonprofit Camp Diva that she founded. Girls for a Change, founded in California in 2000, operates in five to seven cities each year and has served an estimated 40,000 children through its programs. Patton collaborated with its co-founders before it merged with Camp Diva, and she ultimately took charge of the merged organization.
Patton directs the local branch of Girls for a Change from a former 7-Eleven storefront near Buford Road and Midlothian Turnpike. Before- and after-school programs during the school year target first- through eighth-grade girls, and a summer session of Camp Diva can last for two months. Girls receive computer coding instruction and other STEM education. They engage in social and emotional learning and gain life skills. They work with Richmond muralist Hamilton Glass on art projects.
The girls also embrace their heritage and the modern challenges of colorism and implicit bias. They visit black-owned businesses and museums. Every few years, Patton leads an international trip – in 2020, the destination is Ghana. Notably, she takes girls on tours of local colleges to plant the seeds of possibility, and college students mentor each girl.
"I just want her to see it and know she can achieve it," she said.
Veronica Fleming has observed Patton's work for two decades. She also is past president of SisterFund, a giving circle of African American women that awarded Girls for a Change a $40,000 grant in 2018.
"Angie has always been just unapologetically passionate about supporting African American girls," Fleming said. That's crucial, she added, "because our girls are, in many ways, invisible when they are young."
"You find the boys being lifted because of sports or something like that," Fleming said. Black girls, though, "are often seen in very negative ways. If they are outspoken and intelligent, they’re seen as aggressive and all that other stuff. What they need is an environment where their natural desire to achieve and be creative is affirmed."
Girls for a Change is a hub for such programs. They include Girl Action Teams, in which middle and high school girls are coached to address problems in their community, and the Girl Ambassador Program, an initiative for high schoolers to bridge the digital divide and prepare them for employment.
"Mainly, it's just access, you know?" Patton said. "I can expose them, but if they still go home without the tools, then that’s a problem."
Patton, who grew up in North Chesterfield, studied to be a nurse but discovered her knack for program management. She was working in such roles at Tuckahoe YMCA and Art 180, where she used two weeks of vacation to conduct her first Camp Diva. She was hooked.
Girls for a Change promotes how its participants graduate from high school and pursue higher education, but the mission goes deeper. In ways big and small, the program offers emotional support for the girls, including organizing dances for daughters and incarcerated fathers.
“It's really a movement to advance black girls," Patton said. "It’s really to get people to see their worth. The movement is preparing them for the world – and the world for them.”
IN HER WORDS: ANGELA PATTON
CEO, Girls for a Change
Hometown: Chesterfield County
Family: husband Raymond, two children
Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value.
My mother passed along photos, death certificates, birth certificates and some items of my great-grandparents, who were slaves. I cherish these because they represent the stories and history of my family. They give me hope.
I see how hard they worked and things they had to sacrifice – the movements they were a part of. It brings me joy that I come from amazing people.
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
Mary McLeod Bethune. She had a girls school, and she knew girls needed an education and a space of their own.
Her resources were more limited than mine. I never had anyone to give me advice on starting something for a community of people nobody cared about it. Having a conversation with someone like that could have prevented me from some of the struggles I went through.
If you had to pick a different profession, what would you choose?
I am a doula and originally aspired to be a midwife. It is in me to be a giving and helpful person, and I am fascinated by the female body and what it can do. Giving birth is one of the most empowering things a woman can do, and home births with a midwife can create better outcomes.
Who is your role model?
I have many, but Harriet Tubman is the biggest role model for me. She made do and impacted so many people with very limited resources. Regardless, she pushed through. She fought for an underserved community who did not know their worth.
The work I do with girls in my community is similar, in that they are underserved and don’t realize their worth and potential. They don’t understand this movement, so they don’t fully embrace it at first. When I get discouraged, I think about Ms. Tubman and her struggles.
Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it.
I strive to have a culture of family in my organization, but one thing I have to remind myself is that it is still a business. When you run a nonprofit that deals with families, one of the hardest lessons to learn is that you have to have a disconnect.
When you see these people all of the time, they almost become family. Because of that, I have been burned. You want to help and save everybody, but you cannot allow personal things to get in the way of the work that needs to be done.
What is something about you that might surprise others?
That I do relax! People constantly tell me that I need to take care of myself, but all they see is me working. I go to the spa; I have nail, hair and pedicure appointments; and I go to therapy. I make those appointments to take care of myself. When I’m doing those things, I am not working!
How would you spend a great day in Richmond with a close friend?
I would take them to black-owned businesses that are thriving. Croaker's Spot, Adiva Naturals, Bateau – places that would change their perception of black people and black businesses in Richmond.
Most people ask to see the things they heard about in the news, like the Monument Avenue statues. Outsiders wonder why we would live here. I would strive to change the news by letting them see another side of Richmond.
If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?
To make a big impact, you can’t play small. A lot of times I’m told: “You can’t do that now. Take your time.” Small endeavors don’t lead to big change. And what we need right now is massive change.
We’ve got to stop having these small, tiny conversations. We are in a state of urgency. The time is now. The race gap, the gender gap, the state of our environment – we need big change, and we need it now. But if we want to make a big impact, we’ve got to do something different.
What is something you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?
Raise a million dollars. It’s a milestone very few girl programs have been able to reach. There are no blueprints for my work. If I make that happen, I could not only serve more girls but show other black women who run girl programs that they can, too. A million dollars would help expand my work and close gaps that desperately need filling.
What is your favorite book?
"The Coldest Winter Ever," by Sister Souljah. It’s not a true story, but it’s based on truth and does a great job portraying the experiences of black people. The girls in my program read it, my son has read it – it’s a great learning tool.
Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you.
I have been in positions where sometimes I get tired and weary. One day, I was questioning my girl programs. There was no funding or support. People in and out of my city were telling me to get a white woman to be the CEO while I take the back seat and help with programs. Some advisers felt that the organization had a greater chance of survival and raising more money faster.
I was convinced this wasn’t the answer. However, I doubted if Richmond and the world would ever see how amazing black women and girls are to our nation.
That’s when I received an invitation to New York from the NoVo Foundation. They were looking for girl programs run by black women in order to understand the inspiration for the work and the barriers we face. Finally, an untapped resource in our country would have an opportunity to have a voice and support – and be celebrated for their contributions.
I was sitting in the audience with some of my girls listening to a panel, and this woman was talking about lack of research for black girls. She was explaining how no one has done research on girls and was urging people to do so.
And then she said: “If anyone wants to do research on a girl program, you should look up this program in Richmond, Virginia. This program allowed girls to go to jail and dance with their dad.”
I was sitting in the audience, sweating, because she was talking about my program, Date with Dad! The girls were so excited, they were poking me.
But as much as I wanted to jump up and yell “That’s me!” I kept my composure and listened. This woman, whom I had never met, told the entire story of the TED Talk, the dance, Sheriff C.T. Woody. It made me realize that people see us. That’s when I got the funding from NoVo.
I know what I signed up for – a hard road with lots of pushback. But at that moment – feeling seen, celebrated and heard – had a huge impact on me.