Don’t be afraid to ask. I had two men hang around Groove With Me until I finally asked them to join the board. They said, “What took you so long?” We think that we’re imposing on others. But they want to be asked. Remember: if someone isn’t interested, they can easily say no.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Abby McCreath.
Abby McCreath is the Founder and Executive Director of Groove With Me, Inc., a youth development organization using free dance classes to attract and engage girls. Abby received a BA in Women’s Health from Brown University in 1994. She started Groove With Me in 1996 at the age of 23. For this, she received the Montblanc International Arts Award, the Ford Blue Oval Commitment to Kids Award, the Eckerd Salute to Women Award, the RCN Cool Classics Award, Glamour Best of You Award, The New York Winter Theater and Arts Festival Award, and the Harlequin More Than Words Award. She has danced with the hip hop troupe KR3T’s and taught dance in an orphanage in Costa Rica.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I grew up in Chappaqua, a comfortable town in Westchester. After moving to Providence, RI for college, my understanding of women’s health, safety, and empowerment grew exponentially. I worked in a women’s health collective, answering phone calls from domestic abuse victims. I also volunteered in a women’s prison. These women wanted to live better lives but felt alone. They didn’t know that there were people who could help them and didn’t know that they weren’t bad people. Keep in mind that around this time, 90% of all women in prison were there for non-violent crimes: holding drugs, prostitution, or fraud.
After college, I applied for jobs in women’s health and youth development on the East and West Coast, eager to continue showing up for women and girls. Two-thirds of the jobs required fluency in Spanish. So, I went to Costa Rica to learn Spanish and found myself training in dance four hours a day. It was an “aha!” moment: I just put the two together! What if I opened a dance studio as a safe haven for girls to feel great about themselves and have extra adults in their life to turn to?
I came back to NY and started studying how to start a non-profit. The first Groove With Me classes took place on the Lower East Side in borrowed spaces like the back of a restaurant, rehearsal spaces, the New York Society for the Deaf, and the cafeteria of a school. My kitchen cabinets were full of tap shoes which I lugged in a bag to class along with a boom box. The first recital was in a garden on 6th St. and Ave. B in June of 1996, 25 years ago.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your nonprofit?
Although I grew up privileged, no teenager is exempt from low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviors. In high school, I only felt happy when doing musical theater or dance. I was a great dancer and choreographer and leaned into these activities as my outlet. I had friends in other crowds, but only felt true belonging and inclusion within the theater company. One day, my acting teacher invited me into his office after reading my acting journal and said, “What’s going on? I can see in your writing that you’re unhappy.” There was an adult who noticed I was in trouble.
It’s because of this experience that I became passionate about helping girls, as I was helped.
My nonprofit found its long-term home in East Harlem, a neighborhood in which parents may not have the means to afford or the ability to bring their children to dance classes. I think back to how fortunate I was to have a mom that could drive me to clarinet, pottery, and dance each week. I believe that every young girl should have the opportunity to express herself and discover her capabilities and that this can be in a creative environment.
As a result, I founded a nonprofit, free dance school for girls in the East Harlem community. It’s a home away from home, right in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a space where girls can feel successful and express themselves honestly. It’s a community where adults can be there for girls and serve as additional eyes and ears, confidantes, and role models. This is Groove With Me.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
Over the last 25 years, Groove With Me has impacted over 3000 girls in a sustained way with weekly dance classes.
At GWM, 25% of participants come 3+ times a week and 42% have been enrolled for more than 4 years. This is especially important given the context that unsupervised youth are at greater risk of pregnancy, truancy, dropping out of school, crime, mental depression, and substance abuse. At Groove With Me, the girls are safe and engaged in a structured activity.
In a survey of our teens, 0 smoked cigarettes and 0 did drugs. 100% of our seniors graduate from high school and get admitted to college as compared to 70% of their peers.
Alumni say that their time at Groove With Me made them more confident, well-rounded, and hardworking. An alumni survey found that 85% of participants have gone on to be involved in a community organization and 47% were a leader in the organization — furthering a positive cycle of community helping community and girls helping girls.
Unique to Groove With Me is its commitment to showing up in a holistic way for every girl. This goes above and beyond dance class. This extends to each girl’s family and their lives outside of the studio. In my mind, this is how true and trustworthy social impact is made.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
I’m super proud of one of our girls who become a journalist, an editor, and a television reporter. At an alumni reunion in 2018, she shared that she was majoring in journalism and wanted to go into magazine writing. A few years later, I heard her call out to me from across the street and then put up her finger to me, requesting a moment while she finished up a phone call. “I’m on the phone with my editor, “ she said. I felt like a piece of me clicked into place to hear that one of my girls had accomplished her dream.
Imani started taking dance classes in 2009, at the age of 11. When she was 14, she joined our Teen Leadership Committee (TLC). TLC is our program where teens assist with classes of younger girls, meet weekly to build achievement skills, and serve as the role models of the studio. At the reunion mentioned above, she said that it was a college admissions counselor’s visit that pushed her to study what she was passionate about. The counselor told her, “No, you should be specific about what you want to study; you seem like you’re more geared towards journalism but you’re scared to do it.”
Imani was quiet for years, really very understated. There are children at Groove With Me who keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves but connect with the staff just by hanging around. You can tell they are gaining something from being here. One time she brought in a mosaic she had made to show the staff. I was crazy about that piece of art and asked her if I could have it. I was so proud and impressed by her. She was coming out of her shell and letting her talent shine.
We have evaluations that were written yearly by TLC staff, the teachers she assisted, and her dance teachers. They show her growth in the areas of responsibility, organization, participation, leadership, listening, priorities, and contributing.
I’d like to think that Groove With Me gave her some confidence, determinism, and belonging. She came to Groove With Me 5 times a week and often went from one class to another. She says it gave her something to look forward to. “It taught me that I can’t just be in my own little bubble. You’re not just in by yourself. If one person doesn’t get it you have to work and help them. “
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Women and girls need to feel safe and justified when asking for help.
1. All people in the United States, regardless of their citizenship, should be protected under the law. When someone is undocumented, they are at greater risk. They can be a victim of any fraud or crime because their perpetrator knows they won’t go to the police. They don’t receive aid during a crisis like COVID-19. I know that politicians are trying to deal with an influx of immigrants that is difficult to support. Simultaneously, it’s not ok to allow people in our country to be victims of crime without recourse.
2. Schools need to address bullying. They need to have programs educating children about inclusion and the dangers of digital bullying. Making room for this in the school environment will go a long way toward eliminating the shame of depression and suicidal thoughts so that girls ask for help.
3. Girls cannot be blamed for their own sexual assault. We have to educate girls not to be ashamed of being a victim of sexual crimes. We need to encourage them to turn to someone.
At Groove With Me, we have had workshops on immigrant rights, bullying, and keeping girls safe. Imagine the positive impact we could make on society if the community, schools, and politicians also intentionally addressed these issues!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is always doing what’s best for the organization no matter how difficult.
Recently I have had to make extremely conflicting decisions.
Groove With Me was invited to be the community space in a new development. We were offered rent at a fraction of the market rate, a 40-year lease, and a contribution from the developer towards construction. It seemed like a no-brainer. The first term sheet was drafted 3 years ago in January 2018.
There have been a lot of complications since then; I’ll give just one example. The space was filed for a 75 person maximum capacity. This would mean that parents couldn’t wait inside the studio for their children. This is not right. We’re a community organization — this includes our girls and their families. I would never send a mom with a stroller and a four-year-old out to walk around in the cold for two hours while her daughter is in class. At our current location, our waiting room is designed so that parents can approach the staff. We give out referrals and resources. We’re an ear when they haven’t spoken to another adult all day. We want to know how their daughter is doing.
I led the decision to walk away from this deal. It was painful to give up the stability of low rent for 40 years. But I will not compromise who we are.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.
1 . Create team! Get great people around you who can contribute more than you ever could have imagined or done on your own. I have been fortunate to work alongside Program Directors and other staff who knew more than me, did things better than I ever could, and brought other great talents to the organizations. Our growth is certainly credited to them.
The teachers bring all the magic, not me. They are creative, loving, patient, diverse, innovative, devoted. One evening I read a teacher’s post on Facebook. It made me catch my breath. I’m awestruck that hundreds of volunteer dance teachers got behind my vision. Here is her story:
Tonight during my “circle time,” I asked my girls to recall a time when they felt really discouraged or unmotivated and share how they overcame it. This prompted a remarkably deep discussion among my Snapchat-crazed teenagers. Some of the gems:
“I write. Even if I don’t want to or am sleepy. It feels good after.”
“I sit down and cry. But then I think of how much better off I’ll be in the future and push through.”
“Never underestimate the power of throwing a volleyball at a wall.”
“I lock myself in my room, sit in front of my mirror and say out loud, ‘Baby Girl — YOU FIIIIINE!’”
The anecdotes continued.
When I called on one of the last girls to share, she scooted over to me and gave me a hug. Another yelled, “You go giving free hugs to make yourself feel better?!” She replied, “No. It makes me feel better when someone gives ME a hug.” She looked at me and said, “I thought you needed one.” She was right.
Lifehack: never underestimate the simple, honest, not-yet-jaded perspective of a child.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask. I had two men hang around Groove With Me until I finally asked them to join the board. They said, “What took you so long?” We think that we’re imposing on others. But they want to be asked. Remember: if someone isn’t interested, they can easily say no.
3. Grant proposals and other requests are like sales — 99 “no’s” before a yes. There is a lot of delay-of-gratification. You work on proposals for weeks just to receive a decline. And sometimes you continue applying year after year to no avail. Don’t worry about these. Find your instant gratification in a hug from a child or a parent’s “thank you.”
4. You are not your job. Very early on a friend gave me a book with this title. Anyone who knows me knows that Groove With Me runs deep in my blood. I love it with all my heart; it’s a reflection of what I believe and what I care about. But you have to be able to fall asleep at night! You have to be able to take criticism. Some people aren’t going to like you, are going to doubt you, or may think you’re not doing enough. I have a family now and I identify first as a great mom. I put my phone aside on weekends. You care about your mission but you can’t be your job. We’re all more than our jobs.
5. Before you start a nonprofit, do your research to see what programs are already serving the need. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look for what’s missing or what you can complement and enhance. When I found space in East Harlem to rent as a dance studio, there was a dance school for girls a few blocks away. I regret that I may have hurt someone else’s enrollment.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would want to meet Kendall Toole, a Peloton instructor. Her philosophy is similar to what I hope GWM does: when you conquer something you thought you couldn’t, that confidence flows out to all areas of your life.
Here’s a quote from one of our alumni: “……[if not for Groove With Me] I feel like I wouldn’t understand that hard work does pay off. GWM taught me that if I put all my hard work and dedication into it from September to June, I get to perform in front of my family members. It showed me that I can do it and that I like to do it.”
Kendall says, “We don’t do perfection here.” I’ve even starting touting Peloton jargon to my kids: “You showed up. It’s progress, not perfection. Tomorrow you’ll be even better than today.”
Another quote from one of our alumni: “I would tell my younger self that practice doesn’t make perfect but being persistent and staying up on it, you will get better. I don’t think that perfection actually exists. I think that you’re always in competition with yourself to make yourself a better version of you. Groove With Me helped me develop that, and notice that I am in a room full of other girls and I’m not competing with them, I’m actually helping them. We all want to look as one and sound as one as in tap dance. I learned that I am a really good team player, and usually I’m ready to take the lead. GWM helped me know how to take the lead.”
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
Treat everyone great. Treat everyone as if they are great. If you treat someone as if they are great, then they will show up as great.
To me, this means things like:
Thank the woman who is cleaning the locker room at the gym. No one has thanked her yet today.
Empathize with your landlord when he calls to tell you there’s a problem. He’s got hard stuff to deal with too.
Apologize to someone — even if you didn’t do what they thought or even if you didn’t mean to do it. Just apologize and let the person know that they matter to you.
At Groove With Me, family members arrive with whatever kind of day they’ve had, upbringing, life circumstances, worries, and protectiveness of their child. We don’t know what adversity they are facing. It’s vital to show respect and empathy for all people. Assume that they are divine and everything else is just noise. We’re there for them. It’s when your assumption about people is positive that you can be of service to others.
How can our readers follow you online?
Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Vimeo: @GrooveWithMeInc
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.