Give a girl a puppy and she will change the world. At least that’s what Unleashed, a social justice program for middle school girls, believes to be (kind of) true. While the organization does not encourage simply handing out puppies to young girls, they do believe that they have found a powerful, delightfully unique method of using animal welfare as a platform for cultivating female empowerment and leadership.
Eco18 recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Unleashed founder Stacey Radin, whose personal journey led her to create an organization that gives young girls the power to develop a voice, and the tools to use that voice for those who have no voice at all.
Stacey, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today. For someone who has never heard of Unleashed, how would you go about describing the organization?
Unleashed is a social justice program for middle school girls, empowering them to take a stand against an injustice they are passionate about, advocating for animal rights and welfare. Over the course of 12 weeks, the girls develop critical tools they will use to solve complex social issues throughout the course of their lives. The biggest question I get is, “How does rescue fit in?” My model of social justice is that if you are advocating for a population, you have to have some first hand experience with those you are fighting for. With this connection, you can craft powerful personal messages as you engage and educate others.
What led you to develop the concept for Unleashed and how has your background and professional experience been helpful?
I am a clinical psychologist who specialized in women and girls and developed a leadership-consulting firm to advance ethical, powerful leadership, and bring emotional intelligence into business. My passion was working with women in advancing their careers, creating mentoring and leadership initiatives, and helping to design women’s internal corporate affinity and networking groups. Over the years, I found that power was an integral part of the leadership equation. After interviewing 200 women in powerful positions, I used my findings to develop the Unleashed program. Unleashed is an integration of my expertise and based on the model of power I created based on the original research.
Who is exactly is involved in Unleashed, and how do these people become involved?
I am the only staff member employed by Unleashed other than our part time operations manager, Jayme. We rely heavily on our board and advisory board to chair committees (PR, Marketing, Development, Events, Rescue) and volunteers to pitch in and take ownership of various projects. People have become involved after adopting, or word of mouth from other volunteers—or even after reading about us. Similarly, we always need foster families (temporary homes for the puppies) in order to save lives.
Can you describe the after school program in further detail? What is an example of an exercise or activity that you have found particularly successful when working with young girls?
The after school program—whether housed at a middle school or offered in our Chelsea location—is an integration of leadership, social justice, community service, and social and emotional learning. I call it my modern version of a feminist movement because of the sisterhood and camaraderie that forms among a diverse group of girls. All participants enter the program because they are passionate about advocating for animal rights and rescue; that common platform enables them to dismiss stereotypes and barriers they may have had of one another to work collaboratively together. In many ways, an Unleashed team is a microcosm of their social milieu, providing the opportunity to gain insight about themselves and the impact they have on others. The curriculum’s foundation is based on developing personal power (self awareness, insight, articulation of strengths, confidence, mastery). This power includes relational power (empathy, communication, impact on others and how they function in a group setting), and assertive power (social justice, take action, defy status quo, innovate, experiment, project management.). The girls receive similar leadership exercises as the female executives I spoke of earlier as they partake in headlining, learning how to receive and provide feedback, team building, and crafting powerful messages.
Why did you choose to focus the program on middle school girls, and what are some of the takeaways that you hope to instill in each group of girls that complete the program?
My dissertation was titled Adolescent Female Identity and I had worked a lot with teens in private practice, outpatient clinics, and even residential treatment. Adolescence is a pivotal time in a woman’s life as she struggles to experiment with who she is and what her strengths are, as well as being faced with many biological and social changes. My hypothesis was that if you exposed girls to power at an early age by providing them with an opportunity to develop leadership and communication skills, this would be cultivated throughout many other stages in their lives. My hope is that girls leave Unleashed knowing they have a voice and the power to make a difference; I want them to experience what it is like to be part of a supportive female community that is respectful of whom they are and applauds them for being a non-conformist or having differing opinions.
Now let’s talk puppies. For the puppy rescue portion of Unleashed, where do you rescue the puppies from and how do you go about finding them?
We rescue from rural areas all over the country that are faced with overpopulation and therefore have to euthanize healthy, adorable puppies. We are part of many list serves and partner with several shelters who send out their urgent lists and requests for rescue. We partner with rescue organizations in these areas who serve as the “legs,” by physically pulling the puppies, getting them to the vet to start their health care protocol, and then quarantine them before they are transported.
After the puppies arrive in New York City, how do the Unleashed girls become involved?
Each time a pup is scheduled to arrive in the NYC tri state area, I meet the transport at a designated location arranged beforehand. I then go directly to our space in Chelsea where teams of girls are waiting to socialize, observe and feed the puppies. The girls break into small groups to care for one particular puppy. They engage the puppy in play and see how they respond to noise, touch, other puppies, quick movements, etc. When the foster families arrive to pick up their puppies, they are given the information about the puppy from each of the groups that were responsible for it.
Is there anything in particular that you have learned from your experience with Unleashed?
How to adjust and veer from a plan in a moments notice; you never know what to expect in the rescue world. Anything can happen! (The transport can be late or a puppy can get sick and need immediate attention.)
Is there a particular story or moment that you can recall where you felt particularly inspired by this organization?
I feel the most inspired at graduations. Unleashed graduation is when the girls act as expert panelists that speak in front of an audience and share their leadership journeys. It is always moving to hear a girl share the insights she has had and the deep understanding she now has about animal and human rights. That’s when it’s confirmed that I accomplished something that I am passionate about—empowering girls to have a voice, own their ability to speak their minds, and be authentic without fearing judgment or disapproval. Graduation makes me certain that the 90-hour workweeks are well worth it!
Some people call you a “Dog Whisperer” because you seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to finding the perfect match for the puppies and their forever homes. What’s your secret?
The clinical psychology background definitely comes in handy; really listening to what people are looking for without judgment, taking time to get to know each adopter, learning more about their lifestyle and family and then also by being completely transparent about the puppy and its needs. Then beyond that, I typically have a gut reaction and trust my instincts.
What are your short and long term goals for Unleashed?
My short-term goal is to be able to provide girls all over NYC with the opportunity to participate in the program. I would also like to expand to additional schools and community centers; offering innovative alternatives like socially conscious birthday parties, workshops for girls and their parents and even full day vacation programming. I want to continue to build our community of volunteers, adopters and board members, and take trips more frequently to the regions where we rescue puppies. Long term, I would love Unleashed to broaden its reach to the NYC suburbs and then continue to grow nationally. My biggest dream is to have an Unleashed Retreat Center an hour or so out of the city where we could offer people of all ages a chance to come and experience rescue, house rescue animals that are up for adoption, and provide leadership off-sites for professionals.
If someone would like to get involved, where do you suggest they start?
They can go on the website www.unleashedny.org under volunteer and fill out an application. Once we receive the application, someone from the organization will reach out and help he/she figure out what resonates most with them. I truly believe that when you volunteer, you should do what you are most passionate about and get something out of your experience.
And finally, as a puppy expert (yes we’re calling you that!) what is your number one tip for new dog owners?
Let go of the fantasy that you will have your puppy on a schedule. Give yourself permission that for the first few weeks, it is a “getting to know you period” and enjoy your new puppy because they grow up fast! People also often ask me, “When should I start training?” The answer is, “right away!” Puppies get into habits quickly and it is important to keep showing them what they should be doing, repeating it a lot, and rewarding positive behavior.
To learn more about Unleashed and to fill out the volunteer application Stacey spoke of, please visit www.unleashedny.org. If you live in the New York City area and are interested in becoming a puppy foster, please fill out the foster application under ‘Puppy Rescue’ on the website. As Unleashed is a nonprofit organization, any and all financially based encouragement is greatly appreciated and will help to ensure that Stacey’s dream of seeing Unleashed grow into a nationally run program becomes a reality. Visit www.unleashedny.org/get-involved/donate/ to sponsor an Unleashed Girl, Unleashed Site, a puppy, or a puppy rescue. In the words of Marie, an 8th grade Unleashed Girl, “I am only one person, but I can make a difference.”