New York has many programs and organizations promoting animal welfare. In fact, in the Mayor’s Alliance alone, there are more than 100 groups devoted the well-being of animals.
One of these groups is doing things a little differently, however. They are combining animal rescue with female empowerment. Unleashed is a social justice program that empowers adolescent girls to recognize their power, learn to embrace it, and use it effectively by taking a stand against an injustice they are passionate about, and advocating for animal rights and welfare in the process.
Unleashed was founded in 2010 by Dr. Stacey Radin, a clinical psychologist and leadership consultant. Through her own research, she was able to discover the connection between early life experience and power, stating that regardless of background or environment, exposure at an early age is essential to the development of strong female leaders and change makers. She also discovered that women who were passionate about a cause or felt they could make a difference were more likely to speak up and do so. She knew what resonated with teenagers the most: Animal rights and welfare, so she decided to combine what she knew and form an after-school program for middle school aged girls in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.
Unleashed coaches are professional women with degrees in fields such as counseling, social work, and psychology. They help start the conversation about animal rights, and the girls form discussion groups to develop critical leadership skills. Over the course of the 12-week program, the girls attend panel discussions and hear from expert women in the field of animal welfare. They then vote on the issues their team will focus on. Topics include animal abuse, overpopulation, puppy mills or neglect. The girls work together to formulate a plan to educate the community about those issues.
“Whether they want to set up a booth at a social justice event, a presentation for their school, write an article for us or for their school newspaper or design posters with pictures, it’s all girl driven.”
The girls also volunteer at Unleashed‘s puppy rescue. Once a month they help socialize the dogs, do intake and registration, evaluate temperament for foster home placement, and any graduates of the program who remain involved throughout high school also work at the rescue and volunteer as handlers at adoption events throughout the city.
“It’s a full-blown puppy rescue,” Radin Explains. “Because my model of social change is that if you’re out there advocating for a cause you should have firsthand experience with the population you’re advocating for.”
Impressively, Unleashed has rescued more than 400 puppies from the urgent lists of high-kill shelters around the country since its inception in 2010, and less than 1% of the puppies ever need to be rehomed due the commitment and dedication by these girls.
The girls have also organized fundraisers to help the program succeed and raise awareness where $15 will get you 30 minutes of puppy snuggle time. They also hold events at Doggy daycares promoting the animal rights issues they have studied over the course of their education.
Rescuing puppies is a fantastic source of empowerment for these girls, but it’s not just what Unleashed is all about. Through her research, Radin has uncovered a link between animal abuse and violence towards women and children. Unleashed aims to address this head-on by teaching girls about their ability to affect social change. Radin also states that
“Putting the focus on saving puppies offers the girls a safer means of talking about injustice in society. They learn that when you get down to the core root of things, it’s all connected to us humans, and sometimes it’s connected to issues humans are facing, such as bigotry, bias, stereotypes or violence.”
Taking part in Unleashed gives them the ability to change the way society views teenage girls. They are no longer “moody, boy-crazy teens.” The girls focus on animal rights and rescuing puppies, but they also talk about themselves, their values and what it means to be a powerful woman in our current society.
By the end of the 12-week program, the girls start to understand that it’s not just about the dogs, that it’s about them too. They are learning to speak for those helpless puppies who have no voice, and by doing so, each girl discovers the power behind her own.