From program participant to F.Y.R.E. manager, TiElla Grimes has seen YW Boston evolve to meet community needs

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TiElla Grimes, M.Ed, YW Boston’s F.Y.R.E. Initiative Program Manager, knows YW Boston like no other current staff member. She has held three different roles with YW Boston over the past twenty years. She first came to know YW Boston as a youth program participant, spending three years during high school as a part of the Youth Voice Collaborative, a former YW Boston program. Following her college graduation, she became a program associate at YW Boston and worked on programs including the former Girls Get Real youth program. After holding that position, she went on to create an expansive resume in education and youth development. She worked with a number of youth programs across Boston, gained her Master’s Degree in Media, Education and Urban Youth Development, served as a professor, and coached spoken word poetry. Ten years following her program associate position at YW Boston, she was hired to develop and lead our current leadership program for girls, the F.Y.R.E. Initiative.  

TiElla has seen YW Boston grow and evolve to meet community needs. In 2017, YW Boston underwent a strategic planning process to assess how to best address the most pressing needs in our community in a way that aligned with our mission. In doing so, the organization created its vision of helping organizations create more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and in particular women of color can succeed at all levels. Creating the F.Y.R.E. Initiative was a large part of this, as it works to empower middle school-aged girls through a curriculum incorporating social justice education, positive identity development, and civic engagement. TiElla returned to YW Boston in 2019 to oversee the planning and implementation of this program. 

We sat down with TiElla to learn about what it is like to be back at YW Boston for the third time! Check out our interview with her: 


Tell us about how you first became acquainted with YW Boston. 

I was a Sophomore at Snowden International School and during that time YW Boston had a youth media literacy program called YVC–Youth Voice Collaborative. The mission was about using media to look at and study it under the lens of race and gender. We looked at different mediums, different platforms, that are being used to tell stories. So the overarching mission of the organization [to eliminate racism and empower women] was in the heart of it, but looked at media as a way to engage young people in a new way–being their own content creators, being their own event planners, being leaders for using media to pilot out different narratives. 

What was it like to decide to return to working at YW Boston as a program associate and then as the F.Y.R.E. Initiative Program Manager? 

I remember being a part of the YVC program and when it ended for me at age 18, I felt like a sense of “What is going to happen next?” Aging out of a program, I was in a limbo state, but I still had my mentors and folks from the programs. When the opportunity opened up, my mentor let me know. I was gung ho. The opportunity was to be the program associate for the entire organization, so that gave me an opportunity to learn more about the organization itself. 

It was my dream come true to come back and give back to YVC, which inspired me to study Communications in college. Coming back as an associate allowed me to see more of the organization and what it did, and not just through the lens of the youth program that I grew up in. Everything my mentor instilled in me, I wanted to pay forward. When I worked as the program associate, I had a vision for myself that I would become a youth program director for YVC and lo and behold here I am leading the F.Y.R.E. program here at YW. It’s a full circle experience that I am so fortunate to have. 

[On the youth manager position TiElla accepted last year]: My mentor that I was doing consulting work with at the time, informed me of the opportunity. I came to learn it was YW Boston’s Girls Leadership program, and I was like ‘WHAT!’ As I learned more, I was like ‘Oh, dang, times have changed!’ When I met with Kemarah [Vice President of Programs] and learned about the program and what the vision was, and I told her what I was thinking, she said ‘Wow, this is really what we need right now.’  

How did your work on the YW Boston former program Girls Get Real prepare you for your career in youth development? 

It is one thing to be a participant in a program and just go through what is given to you. To be on the opposite side, and learning to be a part of a team of creators, the visionaries of building that out for participants, it really shaped my mind in a different way. It inspired me to be like ‘This is work.’ In high school, a lot of people would come to me with a lot of their issues. I would do it informally. Having structure to what you think is so natural. It gave me more roundedness and expanded my mind in thinking about this work as not just an activity.  

I honestly did not know about gender specific programming before Girls Get Real. I remember thinking ‘Why is it just for girls?’ It was a different space to be like ‘Yo, girls need spaces too.’ I did not know that was a thing for programs, but I learned we need to be thinking about programs and spaces particularly for girls because we are seeing different types of dynamics for girls as opposed to boys. The work on GGR definitely opened up my perspective to the type of youth work that I could do. Since GGR, a majority of my work has been on developing programming for girls, particularly Black and Latina girls of African Ascent.  

You have seen YW Boston adjust its programming over the years. How do you believe the organization has adjusted to the needs of the community? 

The organization has done an amazing job getting clear and concise about the services they want to offer that address social issues that are happening in the present time.  

I remember when YW Boston had over 100 programs throughout floor one to floor eight. I remember hearing about all the changes that were happening. In reducing the programs, and really thinking about what you have to let go of, that is strategic. Maybe you cannot fill all of the needs. Thinking about LeadBoston, InclusionBoston, thinking about the mission – it now feels more centered and specific on how we want to eliminate racism and empower women. To come back during a time when the organization is setting itself up as thought leaders. I think it is really dynamic to be in the position right now to know we are thought leaders, and to have the evidence of over a hundred years of doing the work. With F.Y.R.E. and as YW Boston, we are looking at women of color.  

TiElla Grimes with participants of her workshop on self-esteem and self-advocacy for young girls at the 2019 Let Me Lead Girls Conference.
What do you see the role of a mentor? How does F.Y.R.E. serve these needs? 

I have had my very first mentor, Susan X. Jane, since I was 15 [from Youth Voice Collaborative]. She’s still my mentor now. As a young person with an adult – outside of your family, your friends, outside of that dynamic – [she was] catching me in the midst of me thinking about the world. By the time I was in my twenties, when I knew what I wanted to do, it was about learning how do workforce stuff. I had the skills my mentor instilled in me to navigate. That opened the door to other mentors. Having Susan at 15 and Nickey in my late twenties, the role of a mentor, and which period they enter in your life, is a dynamic point.  

My role in doing youth work over the last decade, has always been on mentorship. I have always been the big sister first before the title or the role. I always see people as people first, not necessarily their roles or how we are connected based on a program. The work that Caiana [F.Y.R.E. Initiative Program Coordinator] and I do – she has a group of girls who are like ‘Oh my gosh, I love you!’ That is the kind of vibration, energy, and relationship building [we want]. I am heavy on relationship building as the core of how people are able to communicate and build. 

Why is it crucial for a Greater Boston to have a program such as the F.Y.R.E. Initiative that empowers girls through a curriculum incorporating social justice education, positive identity development, and civic engagement? 

Small context in the back of my head: Did you see the Target commercial with a black woman business owner? She started a company called Honeypot and her products are for everybody, but there is something about being in business as a black woman and having a partnership with a large brand such as Target. She speaks in the commercial about being in a position where other young black girls can look up and see someone like her doing what she loves and putting that out there. Predominantly white women complained saying, “I love your products but I do not know if I will be able to use them anymore because that was a racist comment in your commercial. Why is it just about black girls? What about white girls?” It is the lack of understanding around equity and that historically, the disproportionate opportunities people of color, black women, black girls, have had to be able to showcase their stuff. 

Why is it crucial to have FYRE? It is crucial to have a space in which girls of color, specifically, can talk about issues that are impacting them at disproportionate numbers. The statements made to the owner of Honeypot were telling her to choose gender, not race, and that cannot happen. It is really about being able to provide a space for young ladies to think about their experiences, to think about some of the challenges that they are navigating, that they may not know consciously. I do not know if our young girls understand that these things that are happening to them are based on [their social identities]. The civic engagement piece is really profound and important because that highlights what it looks like to come together when you are not alone in dealing with some of the issues you are dealing with. When you can hear from other people, you may not think about something until you come into a conversation and it opens your eyes to be like ‘Oh, wow, I never thought about that before.’  

FYRE is really about igniting a spark within these young ladies to define who they are, figure out their power, and give them some tools to be able to work collectively among other young ladies who may be dealing with similar or different issues. To be able to listen and hear someone else’s perspectives. The next generations who are coming up are going to need an additional platform or sense of information or a trusted source that can challenge some of the things they hear when they turn on the television.  

'FYRE is really about igniting a spark within these young ladies to define who they are, figure out their power, and give them some tools to be able to work collectively.' -TiElla Grimes Share on X
How can the YW Boston community support the F.Y.R.E. Initiative right now?  

We love sponsorship opportunities! [Learn more below.] 

Share it! Share the information about this program with schools – BPS, METCO, even private schools.  


About the F.Y.R.E. Initiative

With the F.Y.R.E. Program, launched in the Fall of 2019, YW Boston facilitators conduct a 12-15-week leadership development series for girls grades 6th through 9th. The series brings together social justice education, positive identity development, and civic engagement, culminating in small group civics projects. This model takes place in schools or Out of School Time programs, and it is developed to operate in a “girls group” structure rather than a traditional classroom structure. Core to the program is an effort to provide experiential learning opportunities and dialogue to build understanding and increase social-emotional learning.