She Wins, Embraces Sisterhood and Service
By Fern Gillespie
A’Dorian Murray-Thomas; the founder and CEO of SHE Wins, Inc.; turned her childhood grief into grit and changed the lives of hundreds of Newark’s middle and high school girls. When Murray-Thomas was seven years old, her father was murdered by gunfire after leaving his Newark convenience store. The sudden loss of her loving father was traumatizing, and her mother Dana Murray, a social worker, was determined to make life as normal as possible for her. It became a family project to keep Murray-Thomas proactive in school and the community.
By the time Murray-Thomas entered Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, she was on a mission to make an impact through social service and social justice. “I have this incredible support system from my mother, my family, and from my community,” said Murray-Thomas. “The question was how do I re-create this system of support? To help me see my own power and my own worth?” The school combined academics with community service and gave students the opportunity to apply for grants, fellowships, and endowments related to social action.
In 2014, during her sophomore year, Murray-Thomas earned a $10,000 grant to launch her nonprofit SHE Wins. “I wanted to create a system of supports and resources for young women and girls in the city of Newark,” she explained. “I started to see girls who lost their parents and siblings to homicide like I did. Also, there were girls that were affected by other forms of trauma or wanted a safe space to be a girl.”
Today, SHE Wins has served more than 500 girls in the greater Newark area. Beginning in 7th and 8th grade and continuing through high school, the city’s schools, organizations, educators, social workers, guidance counselors, and even the Mayor’s Office are involved.
For two years, SHE Wins scholars have partnered with the United Nations Girl Up Foundation to travel to the Annual Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. to advocate for legislation that improves the outcomes of girls worldwide. As volunteers for Newark’s Celebrity Reading Program, SHE Wins scholars have helped promote early-childhood literacy in Newark by giving out free books and reading to Newark pre-school and elementary school students. SHE Wins scholars spoke before Newark’s City Hall to advocate for youth anti-smoking policies, the impact of violence in their community, and how youth-based service in the community could help find solutions to community issues.
Each year, SHE Wins scholars give back 500 hours in community service. Milestones reached in 2020 include SHE Wins’ first graduating class, 100 percent of eligible students voting in the 2020 election, and graduates being accepted by George Washington University, Boston College, Kean College, St. Mary’s College, and several other institutions. The SHE Wins alumni will continue to pay it forward as peer mentors.
“Young people listen to other young people. At SHE Wins, we strongly believe that young people are not the problem; they are the solution. They are the answer,” said Murray-Thomas. “We want young women to know their power, their brilliance, and that they have the responsibility to pay it forward and to make their world a little more just.”
Murray-Thomas recently made history at 23 years old when she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Board of Education in New Jersey’s largest school district. She has been recognized as a President Obama White House Champion of Change, Glamour Magazine “College Woman of the Year,” one of The Root’s Young Futurists, was featured in ESSENCE magazine’s “Black Girl Magic” docuseries, has been featured in The Positive Community and won the magazine’s 2016 Community Choice Award in Education. Previously, she served at the Newark Opportunity Youth Network where she connected over-aged and under-credited high school students to alternative educational options and helped manage Newark Public School’s restorative justice program. A’Dorian was chosen by Mayor Ras Baraka to introduce him for his virtual 2020 State of the City address in September, is a 2016 graduate of Swarthmore College, and holds a B.A. in Political Science and Educational Studies.
“I believe in success stories, sisterhood, self- actualization, and service,” said Murray-Thomas. “Given the tools and resources, young people will actually save themselves. Our motto at SHE Wins is: “She needed a hero, so she became her own.”