Leading Lady Saun Green: Transforming Tomorrow’s Leaders Today
Teen Voices’ own Saun Green is a professional when it comes to empowering teen girls—literally. As the director of transformational leadership at Teen Voices, Green is the heart and soul of the office, as well as the driving force behind the SHOUT! (Sisters Helping Other Unheard Teens) journalism, mentoring, and leadership program. She works closely with the teen editors who make the magazine possible. Green’s greatest passion is helping teen girls grow, change, and accept themselves for who they are. After twelve years of working with teens and eight years of striving to make the SHOUT! program the best it can be, she’s sure her hard work has been well worth the effort. Teen Voices peer leaders Bria Gadsden and Joi Kelley spoke with Green about motivation, inspiration, and the true potential of girls to create change in the world.
Teen Voices (TV): What or who inspired you to pursue a career in helping the lives of teen girls?
Saun Green (SG): I would say that my own life was an inspiration to do this work with teen girls. As a teen girl myself, growing up in Boston, I faced a lot of challenges and tough times. I was kind of living crazy there for a little while. It was always stuff like wanting to fit in and have friends, and stuff with boys, and school drama, girl drama, drama drama. I was also a teen mom, and so a lot of things were very difficult, and very hard for me as a teenage girl. As I got older and thought back to those times in my life, I remembered that there was always some woman—always some really strong, amazing woman who was there to give me advice… Those [women] were so significant in my life, and how no matter what I did, or where I was going, or what I was doing, there was always something to bring them back to my mind. So at some point, I was like, “Wow, I want to be that to somebody else.” I want to be that influential person; I want to be that person to help a teen girl when she’s down.
In terms of my other career options or paths, I was completely convinced, by the time I was a junior in college, that I was going to be a Latin teacher. I went to Boston Latin School and I loved Latin. I was in Latin AP, and it was a class that I was very drawn to. Other students, such as my friends, always hated it; but I loved it. So, I was like, “Well, I want to make Latin the class that everybody wants to take.” But the constraints of the classroom got in the way—you can’t always be as creative as you want to be, and you can’t affect lives in the way that we do here in our after-school program. That’s what drew me away from teaching Latin. And here I am, not being a Latin teacher, but loving my job more than anything in the world.
TV: We know that you have worked at Teen Voices for about eight years now. What is one thing about Teen Voices that motivates you to come to work every day?
SG: A big part of it is the creativity that I get to have in the programming. My supervisors and the Board of Directors give me a lot of creative freedom to develop and design activities and curriculums that are fun, interesting, and introspective, meaning they allow for a lot of communication, and a lot of learning about each other and about one’s self. I love that freedom; I love being able to implement things the way that I have found works best for teen girls.
One thing that motivates me every day is you girls. Nothing warms my heart more than seeing the smiling faces—and sometimes not-so-smiling faces—of you girls when you walk through the door. After girls graduate high school and they’re long gone from here, I still get phone calls or Facebook messages from girls who were in the program. I love to know that even out in the world, they carried into their lives things that they learned here from the organization or from me, and it’s making a difference.
TV: What is the best part of being the director of transformational leadership at Teen Voices? What is the most challenging part?
SG: When I first started working at Teen Voices, my title was program director. … Over time, we really noticed that along with the writing and the journalism, and the leadership and social justice focus, as well as the girl-power focus, that a lot of the work that I was doing was really changing people’s lives. Girls would come in with one perspective on life, themselves, or even about other girls, and leave completely changed for the better, feeling more optimistic about the world, life, and their own abilities to create change in the world. So my executive director and supervisor at the time, Jenny Amory, suggested my title change. She said, “Because you’re not just directing the program, Saun. The work you’re doing is transformational.” That name stuck. I thought it was hot, and I was very proud to take that title, because I think that it encompasses all that happens here, and I’m glad to be a part of it. You as teen girls have to want the change and to aspire to be better, and that gets me so excited.
There are a lot of challenging parts for me, too. One of the challenges for me is capacity, in terms of space. If I could take 50 girls at a time through this process, that would be amazing. I want to do more, to affect more lives. I think it’s very necessary, and very important in society today, to have these kinds of programs, especially for girls. So, a challenge is that I want to do more. Another challenge is that not only do I want to do more, but I want to go deeper. I want to meet your parents, and I want to go to your school, and I want to understand your life in a better way, to be as much of a help as I possibly can. But we don’t have the resources for that, in terms of capacity and staff and space and time and money, all those things that you need. So, I guess the challenge in one word would be “more.” I want to do more of everything: I want to have more girls, I want to spend more time, I want to do more leadership development. More, more, more.
The best part is you guys—seeing your faces, and seeing those light bulbs turn on your head and those moments of epiphany where it’s like, “Wow, she figured that out!” Or just watching you come to these conclusions about life and yourselves, and watching you share and grow and learn and change. That’s my fuel every morning: coming in, knowing that I’m helping to make a difference in the world and it’s starting with teen girls.
TV: Has Teen Voices impacted your life? If so, in what way?
SG: Teen Voices has definitely impacted my life. I think that I have a bird’s eye view into the life of a teen girl in today’s society, and I think that that puts me in a very special place in the world because everybody doesn’t have this opportunity. And so, while I’m here growing with you, sharing with you, and learning with you, I’m also able, as an adult and as the director of programs here, to advocate for you, and to help amplify your voices. I help make the world pay attention to the things that are important to you guys. And I’m so grateful for that opportunity.
SG: You know, we’re a very media-oriented generation. Between social media and other forms of media—whether it’s newspapers, magazines, the Internet, TV, or movies—too often, women are not portrayed as the “sheroes” they really are. In the program, we have an activity where we ask girls to name movies with a female heroine where she is the one who saves the day, but didn’t have to go through something really bad and terrible first before becoming the heroine. We don’t usually get a lot of answers to this. Somebody might name a movie and say, “But she was in an abusive relationship first!” or, “She was on the brink of death!” …But then there are our male counterparts, where the guy is just “the man,” and he’s doing his thing—he didn’t have a lot of problems before he started doing his thing, he just did it—and the movie’s all about him, and how great he is. There aren’t a lot of movies that reflect that in women.
The portrayal of body image in movies and music videos is also very influential. Music is a world in and of itself. And so, as consumers of music, especially certain genres of music, things can get kind of ugly in terms of how women are portrayed. …This is what’s being pumped in our brains. Whether we know it or not, those things impact us—sometimes very subliminally, but they do impact us and it’s hard to fight those things.
One of my favorite things about this organization is that this is girls generating the media, so it’s not a couple of big wigs in some corporate office deciding what’s going to go in the magazine, or what’s going to go into the newspaper, or what people want to hear about. What can girls do? Girls can do exactly what you guys are doing. Create your own media to reflect and to show the things that are important to you, and not what “Joe Medallion” in the big office is thinking or feeling. And so, this is just another reason why I think Teen Voices is such a powerful organization.
TV: Who is your biggest inspiration, and why?
SG: My biggest inspiration…I’m going to have to say my mom. I was a mommy’s girl. Oh, my mom and I, we were like besties. We did everything together; we looked just like each other—she was amazing. She was an amazing, amazing woman—a very strong woman, very firm in her beliefs. She believed in the power of voice, in education, in real-world experience and in taking those experiences and helping others based on the things that you’ve been through.
… My mom passed away in 2003, but her legacy very much lives on in my life. I feel like she’s always with me, you know, always kind of watching, and nodding her head, and winking her eye, and feeling like I’m doing a good job. And so she inspires me every day.
Teens, you guys, are definitely inspirations to me, because, when I was a teen, there were definitely issues that we were facing back then— but things have become very different. A lot of the hardships and difficulties that you guys today face, we didn’t have some of those problems. We definitely had problems, but they were very different. Knowing the intricate details of your lives, and the things that you struggle with, knowing some of the pain and hurt and, you know, some of the things that you guys go through, but to still see you come every day, wanting to learn, wanting to… get better and grow and learn things despite all that other yucky stuff that might be happening is a definite inspiration to me. It makes me even look at my life at times, like, “Man, I’m going through this thing, but you know what? There are these girls in my program that are going through this, and if they can be this resilient?” It inspires me to do the same in my life, even as an adult, so you guys are definitely an inspiration to me as well.
TV: What is the most valuable lesson teen girls walk away with after being a part of the SHOUT! mentoring program?
SG: In my opinion, I feel like this question could be asked to one of the teen girls—the answer could vary from girl to girl since we teach a lot of powerful lessons here. A girl might say, “I walked away knowing how to create a resume. I have never done that in my life, and I didn’t ever think I’d know how to do it by myself, but because of Teen Voices, I now know how to do it.” That’s a powerful lesson.
Another girl might say, “I’ve never had good relationships with women or other girls my age in my life, and so coming to Teen Voices taught me that I can trust other girls, and that the girl sitting across from me is going through probably the same or very similar issues as I’m going through.”
Another teen girl could say, “I’ve never had a good relationship with an adult who I felt really cared about me, and so when I come in and Saun’s always hugging on me, and loving on me, and making sure that my day was okay, and I can go sit on her lap and just talk about whatever I want to talk about.” That could be a powerful experience for a certain girl. So, I think it can really vary. We give a lot, and we just hope that something that happens in this room can be something that’s taken away and that a girl can hold on to forever.
TV: Do you ever get nervous about meeting the new girls at the start of a new mentoring session?
SG: Every single time. Every time. People would not think so, but it’s nerve wracking. You people are very critical! Sometimes, you know, it’s scary. It’s the first interaction, and like any time you meet someone for the first time, or you do something for the first time, there’s always that little nervous energy, but it’s exciting. I like it; I look forward to it, just to see the realm of faces and experiences, and races, and ethnicities, coming to the room, all coming together for this purpose. It’s like one nation under a groove, you know? Like, we’re all here together to do this powerful work, and all from different walks of life, and it’s just a beautiful thing.
TV: What is one piece of advice you would offer to aspiring “Leading Ladies” who want to help the lives of other teen girls but are unsure of how to start?
SG: I would say let your heart and your experiences guide you. Everything happens for a reason—very cliché, I know, but it’s true in my experience. Sometimes you’re thinking, “Oh my goodness, my life is a mess, how did this happen to me and why is this happening to me?” And you have to think that sometimes, the things that you go through in your own life are not just experiences for you to learn but they can also serve a greater purpose, and that greater purpose could be to help the next person. Dream big, think big, and trust yourself. Don’t be afraid to share your life with others, and the good that you put out into the world will always come back to you.
TV: When you first started working at Teen Voices, did you intend on staying for this long?
SG: I don’t want a different occupation. I want to be doing exactly what I’m doing right now. When I came in, I had no intentions. I was like, “I love this organization and I love this job, and as long as they’re happy with me I’ll be happy with them!” And it’s just worked out. Before I started working at Teen Voices, I was doing all kinds of crazy stuff that I can’t believe that I was doing. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a little while, with companies that make and manufacture prescription medications. I was doing administrative roles with those kinds of organizations and overseeing clinical trials where new medications would be created and they’d be doing tests on people, and crazy things like that. Then I decided the financial industry was the way to go. And so I was working for another company in the mutual fund and annuities department. Imagine that. Me, in that place. And so I look back sometimes, and I can’t believe that I did those things! Because this is where I belong. This is where my passion lies. This is me. This is my life. This is all I want to do.
For more information about the SHOUT program run by Saun Green, see: www.teenvoices.com.
Interview transcribed by Kate Szumita, editorial intern
Top photo by Anh Ðào Kolbe
Bottom photo by Janine Callen Photography
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