Tianisha Payne started Girls Emerging into Maturity in 2017 while working in banking. In 2021, she went all in.
A young Black woman has traded in her lucrative job for an office in one of the poorest zip codes in one of the country’s poorest cities to pursue what she loves — mentoring Black girls.
Tianisha Payne, 32, quit her banking position that she said would have paid her as much as $75,000 in base salary and commissions. Now, she spends her time as the founding director and CEO of Girls Emerging into Maturity, a nonprofit based in Dayton, Ohio, that helps girls, most of them Black, prepare for life.
“It’s been challenging yet great,” she told theGrio. “I’m thankful for where I was in my past as a banker, but now as a CEO, as a founder, as a program director, as the mover and shaker, I love it.”
On Tuesdays, Payne meets with girls ages 10 to 13. Each Thursday, she holds sessions with teens 14 to 18 years old. Both groups get information about life, including sexuality, finance, navigating the job market, personal hygiene, and more. All of those topics are part of Payne’s mentoring curriculum, which she based on what she wished she knew growing up.
Payne, who graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in psychology, has a small operation that makes a big impact. She has four volunteers who help her when she meets with the girls — she’s the only paid staffer right now — and a board with seven members.
There are 25 girls in her program and she has a waiting list. But she can’t take on any more participants until she can get additional funding to grow her staff. She hopes to do that by the end of 2022.
One of the volunteers, Cynthia Ubaike, said she heard Payne talk at her church and was so impressed that she introduced herself and asked to work with the program.
The program gives girls “confidence because they know that they have somebody that believes in them,” Ubaike said. “And it’s a place where they can ask questions and have space. Over time you see growth in children. They do things that they didn’t think that they could do.”
Nearly 30% of all Dayton residents live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the poorest cities in the country. That figure represents more than 41,000 of the city’s roughly 138,000 residents.
Payne has an office at McKinley United Methodist Church, in zip code 45402. That zip code has the highest poverty rate (34%) of any in Dayton, according to Towncharts, which crunches data from publicly available sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau. Not all of the participants in Payne’s program are from the immediate area, but for those who are, coming up with the small amount of money Payne charges can be a struggle.
Payne charges $15 per four-month session to slightly help defray the cost of food and program essentials such as yoga mats. That’s less than $1 a week. For girls who can’t afford that fee, the program pays it.
Payne began the group in 2017, when she still worked full time in banking. But she quickly found out she couldn’t do both effectively. There weren’t enough hours in the day for two demanding positions.
In 2021, she followed her heart and quit her well-paying job for something she loved — and quickly wondered if there was something wrong with her head.
After leaving banking, she initially used her savings to fund Girls Emerging into Maturity. She began stressing about raising money, and when she finally received grants, she fretted about how much she should pay herself. She wondered whether there would be enough funds to give the girls everything she thought they deserved.
While she’ll talk about the hardships and stress she faced and still confronts, she always steers the conversation back to the girls.
“I’m most proud of the girls who have not quit,” she said. “When talking about sociology, you start learning about yourself. You’re experiencing at-home troubles or at-home barriers, friendship barriers, and they’re able to still to come here, make their 75% attendance, keep up with their GPA, and come again in another four months. So, I’m proud of the girls who have not quit.”
Payne says the program has a 97% retention rate. Girls must attend 75% of all sessions and maintain a 2.6 GPA to remain in the program.
When Payne looks at a young woman like Jhelin Allen, she knows she made the right choice.
Allen, 18, has been with the program since it started, and it has helped her through some terrible times in her young life. A year ago, her mother died unexpectedly after a short illness. She said Girls Emerging into Maturity gave her a safe place to learn and set goals for the future. For example, she hopes to go to Fisk University this fall.
She quickly rattled off all the different ways the program helped her. “Teaching us about financial aid, how to control our credit, what not to do when getting a good credit score, and (for) myself, college.”
She added, “And it gives me something to do instead of me being on the streets and ending up pregnant. And just being dumb, being a young teenager. I can be who I am in the group and be a role model for young girls in the group.”
Payne now goes through the daily steps of transitioning to a CEO. She goes to local business meetings and notes, “I don’t see a lot of me there. Not a lot of Black men, either.
“It makes me feel like I need to hold the door open,” she said.
Whether helping participants gain financial literacy, understand their history, or learn about the job market and how to write a resume, Girls Emerging into Maturity reinforces confidence and helps Black girls maximize their potential to be whatever they want to be.
“I’m very proud of how hard my team has worked to get us this far,” Payne said. “I can’t go back.”
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