Mary Marx, President and CEO, Pace Center for Girls: Meaningful connections fuel healthy development

January 10, 2022

Founded 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.

PND: Pace’s advocacy efforts are centered on juvenile justice reform, access to gender-responsive prevention and mental health services, and education reform including access to in-school suicide prevention and substance abuse services. Can you give an example of a policy or system change that Pace helped bring about that led to a reduction in girls’ involvement with the juvenile justice system?

MM: In addition to our direct service work with girls, we work to influence systems, resources, policies, and practices at the local, state, and federal levels. We’re working to change conditions for girls across communities and reform systems that oftentimes stand in the way of their success. For example, in 2018, a team of girls from the Girls’ Coordinating Council (GCC), a coalition made up of Pace girls and entities that girls may interact with — the school system, Department of Juvenile Justice, Department of Health, Department of Labor, etc. — tackled Broward County, Florida’s rate of detaining girls for failing to appear at their court hearings.

To learn more about this issue, Pace girls conducted community participatory action research in which they interviewed judges, probation officers, and their peers. They found that girls who were arrested often didn’t understand the consequences of the juvenile justice system, and they certainly didn’t understand the system itself. They determined that the causes of the failure to appear were often inadvertent. Many of the girls misplaced their court papers, or they forgot their court dates, or they didn’t have transportation to get to court. The GCC then came up with the mechanism to address this: a public service announcement with avatars of girls to convey what to expect if they are arrested.

They also put hotline numbers for case managers, transportation information, and how to contact the court if you couldn’t appear on your court date on a small card that could fit in the pocket of their cell phone cases. They distributed these information cards in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. The following year, the instances of failure to appear dropped 27 percent. It was a girl-led community participatory action research project that had a significant impact on policy.

We’ve also done a lot of work at the state level. Pace has helped to influence misdemeanor legislation so young people couldn’t be incarcerated for misdemeanor offenses; civil citation legislation so law enforcement could recommend that young people go to a program instead of being arrested for minor offenses; and zero-tolerance legislation so the number of young people arrested as a result of minor behavior issues on a school campus declined. As a result of a lot of that work, as well as Florida significantly increasing the funding for Pace to serve more girls, over the past decade we’ve seen the number of girls arrested in Florida drop by 65 percent.

We’ve also worked at the federal level over the past six or seven years, specifically by authoring legislation that has resulted in more than $20 million being competitively granted to multiple organizations, including Pace, through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, to prevent girls from being involved in human trafficking and in the juvenile justice system.

PND: In 2019, Pace embarked on a national expansion strategy using a community participatory action model grounded in the needs, issues, concerns, and strategies of communities to achieve community transformation and social change. What does community participation look like so far? Can you share an example to illustrate?

MM: Each Pace Center engages with the community in multiple ways and has a local board of directors composed of people who are tasked with community engagement and fundraising. We also engage in community service projects with the girls. For example, at the onset of COVID, girls put together letters and care packages for senior citizens because they understood that they were being isolated and weren’t having regular interactions with family or loved ones.

We also advance workforce development through community partnerships. A strong partner is Starbucks. They have come into our centers and trained our girls on how to go through an interview process and have ended up hiring a number of them to work part-time at their cafés.

We also engage with the community through the GCC, which I mentioned earlier. One of our girls testified before the Children and Youth Cabinet in Florida, which includes the heads of each youth-serving agency and is chaired by the first lady of the state. Using data from a national report, she showed that Florida ranked last in access to children’s mental health services. Her testimony on the importance of access to mental health in schools was a factor that led to a $10 million appropriation for such services in Florida’s 2021 budget, as well as an additional $20 million in 2022.

PND: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the challenges girls face, especially in terms of their or their family members’ mental health? How has Pace adapted its services to respond to evolving needs over the last twenty months?

MM: The pandemic took a significant toll on us. When the stay-at-home orders were first in place in March 2020, we knew it meant many girls potentially were in unsafe environments. It was critically important that we stay engaged with them during this time so we could provide all services virtually — not just academics, but also mental health services. However, that wasn’t an easy task because one in five girls had no Internet access and one in four had no computer at home. And even if they did have a computer, they were often sharing that device with multiple siblings.

To solve this issue, we distributed laptops or wifi-enabled tablets and hotspots to all our girls so we could continue to provide all the mental health services through virtual case management, counseling, and therapy, as well as the full academic school day. But that also meant that our tech team had to go from supporting 527 staff to an additional three thousand girls and implement those services.

As state and federal policies have recently changed, we also began providing COVID testing for all staff and girls and families who chose to test. Once vaccines became available, Pace partnered with Walgreens to use the centers as vaccination sites for those who wanted to be vaccinated. And we’ve maintained that partnership, so any of our staff, girls or families who want to be vaccinated can get an appointment at Walgreens.

Still, the pandemic greatly exacerbated the challenges our girls already faced and has had an impact on their mental health. At Pace, we use the Positive Youth Development Inventory to measure self-efficacy, quantifying how girls manage difficult situations and how they feel that they are managing difficult situations. This year, over the past three quarters, we’ve seen a pretty significant decrease in self-efficacy in our girls related to a lack of control as a result of the pandemic.

PND: January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In what ways is Pace engaged in efforts to prevent the trafficking of girls and young women?

MM: Pace engages in efforts to prevent the trafficking of girls and young women in multiple ways because the population we serve is very vulnerable to human trafficking. There’s a trafficking screening tool we use on intake that was developed by Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice. Each of the communities we operate in also has a local human trafficking task force, which our staff members are members of, in addition to Florida’s human trafficking task force. Most recently, we recognized that we didn’t have a consistent curriculum on this issue, so we partnered with the Foundation United, a national anti-human trafficking organization focused on sex trafficking, and are using their curriculum called Speak Up, which trains team members and girls on how to recognize signs of trafficking.

Our team members are currently being trained to implement this curriculum and using it with the girls, so they can recognize what “grooming” looks like, what the various types of trafficking are, and how to recognize when somebody is beginning to traffic or attempts to traffic you or anyone you know. Finally, we’ve also authored federal legislation to fund prevention programs for human trafficking.

PND: Before you joined Pace, you served as executive director of the Cultural Center of Ponte Vedra Beach (now First Coast Cultural Center) and the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, California. What role do you see arts and culture playing, if any, in helping girls and young women overcome their challenges?

MM: I always say art is a child’s first language. I think it’s fundamental and very important for young people, particularly those from underresourced communities. Often, children and teens are reluctant to engage in talk therapy. It takes a while until they can feel safe and that they trust the person that they’re engaged with. So physically and emotionally, it’s difficult for them to delve deep into some of their emotions and discuss them with another person. But through art, young people can process their trauma in a non-threatening and safe space, which then helps them to apply words to their physical creation. They’re reintegrating the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Most of our centers are using art in some way to engage girls.

After the murder of George Floyd, some our girls created a powerful art piece on the message of unity. Additionally, we have poetry workshops and are starting a spoken word club for girls from all of the Pace Centers. Art is one of the many tools that we encourage girls to use to find their voice and achieve their potential, especially when it comes to processing difficult emotions and trauma.