Sonali Bridges Is a Shero Passionista
Sonali Perera Bridges is an award-winning, dynamic, innovative leader with over 20 years of progressive experience in a wide breadth of educational settings. A lifelong mentor and advocate, particularly for young women, she's the mother of two vibrant young girls and the driving force behind Shero's Rise. The non-profit organization is dedicated to providing young girls and women from underserved communities with the essential skills, experiences, tools and support needed to become empowered agents of change in their world.
We spoke with Sonali about Shero’s Rise. Here is an excerpt from our interview.
Passionistas: What is the one thing you're most passionate about?
Sonali: I think what I'm most passionate about is being a service to us. I felt that way even as a young girl. I was like, I'm going to be a psychology major because I want to help one person. Psychology wasn't for me because I'm not a science and math person in any regard, but I have always been given the opportunity to be of service.
That's what was modeled for me when I was growing up — always be helpful and servicing. To me, that is the rent you pay on this planet. I'm also passionate about girls and girls’ education. I'm a product of a woman's college. I worked at girls’ schools. I've worked at women's colleges and I'm a teacher at heart. That's who I am. The words counselor and teacher are what I hold nearest, dearest to my heart and working with youth is really what I care about.
Passionistas: What inspired you to launch Shero's Rise?
Sonali: It's always been in the back of my head that kids need to know who they are. They need to know who they are before they are applying to college, number one. And then understanding girls' education because I've worked at girls, schools and colleges and having two girls of my own.
When I looked around, everyone has programs for leadership and community service and civic engagement. Nobody has ever focused on the internal discovery of a girl, at least not intentionally. They may have social, emotional curriculums at schools and some schools have it.
They certainly don't have it at public institutions, public school districts. They don't have that. And even some private schools have it but not to this extent. It's what is encompassing for you to understand certain ways of going about the world with respect and kindness towards one another. But it was never about who they are on the inside. And the way that I was raised and the way I raise my children is it's great that you do well in school but if you're unkind to somebody and you don't know who you are, that's not something that is okay with me.
For me, in my culture, my voice was not valued. I may have learned the value of service and things but it was always a girl's places to be quiet and sit down and listen and follow the rules and don't say anything else. And I didn't learn the importance of my voice or that I had one or that I could give my opinion on things until I went to college.
And that all changed for me. And as I became a mom, I realized what was important that I wanted my children to learn. I had to set up their self-esteem and then sort of doing some research and some digging and realize girls' self-esteem peaks at the age of eight — especially today. It's a world that I'm grateful I didn't grow up in. There's social media, there's information coming at them 24/7. It is a lot of noise and a lot of things to filter through. And how do you even know what you think when everybody's telling you what to think in various different mediums and forms?
And so, I sat down in my friend's Margaret’s backyard. We're watching our kids play. Her girls are best friends with my girls and we're having some tea and chatting about what we want. And it's like, this is what we want to build in our kids.
And it was COVID and I’m grateful a lot of people had a lot of time. And so we just started reaching out to people that we know and that we care about to ask, “Hey, let's brainstorm together.” And there's nothing more powerful than a couple of women in a room together because we can solve all the world's problems… that in a bottle of wine and you're good to go.
We came up with the pillars of what do we want to have ourselves? And what do we want girls to have? So our 12 pillars are everything from self-esteem to self-confidence to self-reliance to how do you find your joy all the way up to love and gratitude. It builds upon itself.
Okay, let's try it. Let's try this. Let's see if there's a need for it. We have this great idea but even if we do it for nobody, other than our kids, let's try to instill this in them. Maybe we can do it for our friends and maybe a couple of their friends and maybe we'll have like a group of 12 girls. It'd be great.
But it turned into something. And I gotta be honest, I am overwhelmed with how big it has gotten so fast. And I think it's because there's such a need. The things that we're talking about are lifelong lessons that we as women have to work through. It is not an everyday quick fix. So when I talk to the girls, I always share with them, we're providing you with what you need to keep in your toolbox and use.
This is not the beginning or the end. This is just your foundation. These are things that you're going to have to literally pull out of your toolbox and use at various times of your life.
I still struggle with my self-esteem or my self-confidence or, with me being so busy, how am I taking care of myself? Am I drinking enough water or walking outside? How do I replenish myself after doing so much?
When we started doing that and talking to people, it just sort of grew. We went from having 40 women who volunteered their time to now almost over 100 volunteers that are made of women from every different walk of life, various different professions, various everything to being mentors to these girls because that was the other part that was important.
It wasn't just our curriculum. And our curriculum is based on science, as well as research. We've had pediatricians be a part of it. We've had child psychologists be a part of it. We've had educators be a part of it and developing this curriculum and it's been a journey. It's been a journey and we didn't know if it was going to hit.
And so we did a pilot with about 53 girls and we partnered with a local public school. That is the only public girls school in the greater Los Angeles area. And we said, “Can we do this 12-week pilot, one pillar a week? And we can teach your girls but we'd love their feedback.”
And so every week we tweaked it. We listened to them. We got their feedback and were like, “Okay, what worked? What didn't work? What did you need more of? What questions do you still have?” And it turned into this beautiful reciprocal relationship with the girls because they were invested in it and they wanted more.
Passionistas: What are the challenges of running a non-profit?
Sonali: Running a business is one thing running a non-profit is a whole other thing. So I'm learning as I'm going. I'm constantly learning. That's the fun part for me. I'm learning from these girls as much as they're learning from us. It's heartwarming. I feel like I'm doing my heart work and really fulfilling my purpose, which is to be a service to others and be able to offer these girls things that I didn't personally have myself as I was growing up.
And if I had those tools, I would have probably made different decisions to land here. But I also share with them that you have to trust that process because no matter which path you go on, you're still going to end up exactly where you're supposed to be. And that's the joy and beauty of life. And that's also the joy and beauty of age, I think, because you can kind of see the little moments that, oh, that's why that happened. And this happened because it led me to this. You can see that in perspective. That's the wisdom that comes as you grow.
To learn more about her work visit SherosRise.org.
Listen the the complete interview here.