TUF cookies group

Who runs the world? These Detroit girls plan to someday.

TUF Cookies program empowers fledgling feminists in Detroit to take action, make a difference in their community

Web Editor Kinsey Clarke talked to Danielle Johnson and Silver Moore about how they introduced feminism to the girls in the latest episode of Circumference. Listen to the podcast here.

In the basement of a house in the Five Points neighborhood on a Monday morning this past summer, the room’s walls are covered by several pieces of flip chart paper that has questions and statements such as “I am brave because … ,” “I love being a girl because … ,” “What would you take pictures of?” With markers in hand, the girls in the TUF Cookies program walk around and pause before the various questions to think about their answers before filling them in. 

A few minutes later, they gather in a circle and sit on the floor. In the middle of the circle are a couple of water bottles and a clay figurine shaped into a cookie; the tokens are talking pieces and whoever has one in her hand has the floor.

Danielle Johnson, founder of the TUF — that’s The Underage Feminist — Cookies program, flips through each piece of paper. She turns to the chart that says, “What would you take pictures of … ”

Vakharia Twilley, 8, grabs a talking piece and says, “I would take pictures of homeless people and send it to the news or Donald Trump so he could fix” the problem.

One phrase that stirs the most conversation is: “I believe women should have rights because …”

Vakharia says, “Some people don’t treat women the right way … people keep on saying that girls can’t shoot or play basketball or play soccer, but girls do know how to play just like boys and they should have the same opportunity.”

“Do you think all boys think that about you?” Johnson asks the group.

“Some boys …” one of the girls says.

“Do you think it could be other women too?”

Yes, some of the girls say in unison.

The topics they’re tackling are intense, but it’s just a typical Monday morning for these students. This is not your average girls’ program, but then again these aren’t your average 6- to 10-year-old girls. For four days a week this summer, and sometimes on Saturdays, the participants gathered in the basement of the SDM2 House, a community space for the neighborhood founded by the Moore family. Here, they delved deep into issues affecting their community, working to identify ways to address these problems under Johnson’s guidance. 

The conversations the girls have with each other and with their teacher demonstrate an awareness and maturity beyond their years, and TUF Cookies aims to empower these young women to use their voices to make a difference in their communities. 

TUF Cookies wrapped up their summer session on July 21, but the work isn’t done. Johnson, who is now based in her hometown of Los Angeles where she’s from and teaches, has big plans for the girls as they write letters to each other throughout the year.

“One of my girls said, ‘In Detroit, they’re always killing people. I want to stop that.’ I knew at the moment that 5- and 6-year-olds could articulate some issues that are impacting their community and they wanted to do something about it.”

Role models

2017 was the second year that Johnson facilitated TUF Cookies. Last year she paid for the program out of pocket and held it at Detroit Achievement Academy, where she used to teach kindergarten. This year through a partnership with nonprofits Global G.L.O.W. and LitWorld that provides all of the supplies, books and lunches, she relocated the program to the SDM2 House, a community space founded by the Moore family who hosts an annual back to school event as well as runs a mentoring program and a community garden in the Five Points neighborhood. There were 15 girls in the program this year, and several of them are second-year TUF Cookies. 

Johnson was inspired to start the program while teaching at DAA. She would pose a question to the class during Black History Month: “If you were a great leader, what would you change?”

“One of my girls said, ‘In Detroit, they’re always killing people. I want to stop that.’ I knew at the moment that 5- and 6-year-olds could articulate some issues that are impacting their community and they wanted to do something about it,” Johnson says.

Silver Moore, whose family founded the SDM2 nonprofit that hosts the TUF Cookies, says she loves listening to the girls’ conversations. “They are brilliant … (they’re having) high-level conversations that a lot of adults aren’t even having,” noting that they’ll tackle the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Flint water crisis on the same day. “They’re beginning to think about, ‘How can we change (problems)? ‘How can we change this?’ and that’s such a strength.” 

That strength comes from the leadership that Moore and Johnson models. As the only black female teacher at DAA, which has a predominantly black male student body, Johnson says, she knew the girls looked up to her.

“Everything I say or do, if I wear my hair a certain way they came to school with it that way. Or if I had a certain color shoe they would find it and they'd be like, ‘Ms. Johnson, I have shoes like you.’ ”

Conscious citizens at age 6

The young activists may not have known what the word “feminist” meant before they got to TUF Cookies, but Johnson challenges them every day to have tough conversations and to think about how they’ll advocate for issues important to them. 

Last year, the group addressed littering in the community and this year they are working on their chosen issue that will be the focus of their PSAs. Some of the issues they’ll be tackling include violence in Detroit, animal extinction and hunger and homelessness. They’ll craft the messages, record and edit the video, and upload the final product to YouTube. 

Before wrapping up the summer session, the girls also wrote books of poems and took photos of Detroit, collaborating with a professional photographer with a goal to publish the poems and photos. The book will be completed in September and will be available digitally on the TUF Cookies website. They would also like to print 250-300 hard copies of the book, which they’ll sell at a fundraiser in March with the goal of raising $5,000 to run TUF Cookies next summer.

When asked why she’s in TUF Cookies, DAA fifth-grader Sierra St. John says, “because on the news there’s this woman who worked with a man and the man got paid more than the woman when the woman did most of the work.”

Sierra has already learned at a young age what has been a persistent and systemic inequality in the workplace — something she might have to face herself when she gets older. While it is narrowed since 1980, the pay gap between men and women remains; in a Pew Research analysis of full- and part-time U.S. workers, women earned 83 percent of what men earned. 

Inequity in pay is just one roadblock. Stereotypes and biases can put up barriers to leadership roles for women. It starts at a young age, such as girls being told they can’t be a part of the basketball team, which is what happened to Janiya Tinsley. The 9-year-old says she has many talents, including playing football and basketball. With the new confidence she gained while in TUF Cookies, the admittedly shy student tried out for the team. 

“I didn’t make it because they said I was a girl and there was no girls’ team,” Janiya says. “I felt like I knew what was coming but I didn’t at the same time.”

And while that may have been disappointing, that setback won’t derail her. She’s channeling that energy into her work in TUF Cookies.

In addition to learning communication, teamwork and camera skills, Kamilah Harris, Vakharia’s mother, notes that the supportive environment at TUF Cookies is one of the most important benefits.

As an instructor in women’s fitness, Vakharia is getting something “early that I didn’t get until I was well into my 20s, (which is) a sisterhood, forming an alliance with other women as opposed to a competition and uplifting one another through support and sharing and loving rather than old stereotype of being catty.”

Building that sense of community is another reason why Johnson wanted to found TUF Cookies.

“In the black community, oftentimes the media puts black women against each other or in some way there's always some type of competition,” she says. “So I wanted to create a group of girls that were motivating each other to make change in their community for the benefit of women and girls just like them.”

For more information, visit tufcookies.org.