Grant Reader Experience: Jessica Bernard

My recent experience volunteering as a grant reader at The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio has proven to be one of the most surprising experiences of my life. Going into Grant Reading, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the end, I have never participated in anything that was so different from what I had in mind. My mother had encouraged me to be a grant reader, and before that I had never even heard of The Women’s Fund before. Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I impulsively said yes.

On the first night, when I walked into the room with my mom, we got our name tags and our manila folders with the grants inside them, we sat down together at an empty table, far away from the presentation. I looked around me for things I may know, things from my world, but I didn’t see teenagers or cell phones. I saw a hundred and fifty strangers, three hundred eyes I had never seen before, but we all had one thing in common: our purpose. We were there to be grant readers, and after that first meeting, I learned the importance of this task. So many people relied on our work, and I felt that I had an actual purpose beyond going to school and impressing my friends.

Having a purpose was a different feeling for me because I’m not used to having responsibilities that affect other people as much as The Women’s Fund does. I can focus on schoolwork and the SAT’s and my friends, but none of those are a purpose for me. The Women’s Fund provided me with a responsibility that would have a ripple effect on so many women around me. Not only did my actions as a grant reader affect the other grant readers, but they also affect the organizations that applied for grants, and beyond that, they affect the women that will be impacted by the programs described in the grant applications. It honestly made me feel more mature. I wasn’t concerned with gossip or parties or what my friends might be doing. I was responsible for something so much more important, that any high school drama felt so insignificant in comparison. Having this purpose made me feel important and, dare I say, kind of empowered.  I was important because I was given the responsibility of being a part of a social change for women.

That first night, the women at my table asked me why I was there. I wasn’t about to say that the only reason I came was because of my mother, so I told them I wanted to be a part of something remarkable. I didn’t believe myself at the time. I was doing something important, sure, but remarkable? I usually reserve that word for really incredible experiences, and at the time, I had my doubts that being a grant reader would be “my remarkable thing.” Maybe for others, it was, but I didn’t picture it for myself.

I know that I should have been paying more attention to the members of The Women’s Fund as they explained the process and the mission of their organization, but I remember from that night that my mind wasn’t actually there until we opened a practice grant. Being surrounded by people so different from me, almost all of them older than me, made me fear that my opinion would be less valuable. What could a high school student bring to the table that a successful adult with a Ph.D. couldn’t? It made me feel insignificant and small.

The first section we evaluated on the practice grant was the Statement of Need. I had never done anything like it before, and after reading the section, I scored it a 17 out of 20. A previous grant reader stood up and gave it a 3, and everyone agreed with her. You don’t have to understand the scoring system to realize how far off 17 is from a general consensus of 3. I realized I had no idea what I was doing, and I was worried about how badly I was going to misjudge and incorrectly evaluate my grants. And it hit me again how stupid it was to think that a 16 year-old girl could be a grant reader and bring the same level of strength and intelligence that the women around me could bring.  I went home that night full of stress and anxiety. I was going to have to put in some serious time and effort to evaluate these grants with as much quality as they deserved.

Over the next two weeks, I worked on reading my grants and writing good notes. I didn’t want my group to think that I didn’t read them thoroughly or that I didn’t understand the “grown up concepts.” I looked up words I didn’t know – and there were a few. My mom even offered to look at a grant with me for practice. I didn’t want her to because this was something I wanted to do on my own. Evaluating the grants became my opportunity to prove I was capable of the same quality work and commitment.

When I went back two weeks later for our group review and decisions, I was excited to speak and share my thoughts and show everyone how hard I’d worked on evaluating the grants. I know it wasn’t about me, but being a grant reader made me feel important, like I was personally helping affect women’s social change. My group consisted of seven or eight women, almost all older than me. There was one other teenage girl there. When we began discussing the grants, I was worried that my scores would again be outliers compared to the others. I remembered how off base and clueless I’d felt just two weeks before.

When our group leader asked for a volunteer to speak on behalf of our group when we all met at the end of the session, I looked around at the all the equally-capable women at my table, and I raised my hand before my mind knew what I was doing.

As we discussed the grants, I learned that my scores weren’t outliers. My notes were detailed and thought-provoking, as were everyone else’s. I learned that I wasn’t underestimated because I was so young, I was valued for it. What could I bring to the table that these successful adults couldn’t? Perspective. I could bring a new perspective from a new generation of young women that adults couldn’t bring. As we discussed grant after grant, I learned how many issues there are that affect women all around me, sometimes myself included. Reproductive health rights, domestic violence, bullying, and incarceration issues were just a few of the issues that I was blind to before I learned just how many programs and organizations want to make a difference in Ohio. I thought I was too young to affect social change. I can’t vote and I haven’t graduated high school. However, you don’t have to be a powerful person to make a change. What makes you significant isn’t your social or economic class. You are a significant person in this world if you are a part of a change.

When I looked around the room on that night, I still saw so many people I didn’t know. Hundreds of eyes I’d never seen before. But we were all united and significant because we were empowering women of all ages, all social classes, and all economic statuses through our volunteer work at the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio.

When I was handed the microphone, I reminded myself that I knew exactly what I was going to say. All those times I’d rehearsed it in my head weren’t for nothing. I said everything I wanted to say in exactly the way I wanted to say it. When I sat down, I felt relieved and happy. Speaking made me feel like I had a voice even though I was one of the youngest there. The Women’s Fund is an organization that values every woman, and I was surprised that I felt that way.

On the second night before we left, we went around our tables again saying why we had volunteered as grant readers. What was our purpose? I now knew I had been a part of something remarkable, and I have never been happier that something proved me so wrong. The Women’s Fund isn’t remarkable because it gives out financial support. It is remarkable because it will go beyond the distance to achieve social change for women, and I am grateful and lucky to now be a part of that.

Written by Jessica Bernard, Women’s Fund grant reader