Martice Sutton fell in love with travel as a college student, and spent time in Spain, South Africa, and India. She wanted to give other young women of color the same experience; that’s why she started Girls Going Global (GGG), a nonprofit organization that provides teenage girls the opportunity to travel and explore other cultures. “Our mission is to empower girls of color through travel and cultural exchange to become creators and leaders of the world,” according to the GGG website. The organization is just a few years old (it was founded it in 2012) and run mostly by volunteers, but Sutton says it’s growing fast, and far more girls apply for each trip than she is able to accommodate. To date, GGG has taken girls to Belize, Costa Rica, Canada, and Peru. Before they travel, girls raise money for the trip, and participate in service projects in their local communities. On the trips, the girls meet teens from the host country, do service projects, and learn everything from chocolate-making to zip-lining. We talked to Martice Sutton recently to find out more about her background, Girls Going Global, and her hopes for the organization’s future.

How did the idea of Girls Going Global come about?

Girls Going Global came out of my own travel experiences. I was an international studies major at Spelman College [a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia]. My initial goal was to go into global marketing, and I studied abroad in Spain. Then I did service work in South Africa, and I moved abroad and worked in India for a year.

In India, I worked for a girls’ organization and I realized that I wanted other minority girls to have these kinds of experiences. Because when I travelled, I didn’t see other people who look like me. People in other countries aren’t used to seeing black people from the US, either.  There just aren’t out a lot of black people out there traveling. For many minority families, traveling abroad isn’t something they do. It’s not something they’re familiar with and the attitude is, “that sounds good, but uh-uh, not for me”

I grew up in Philadelphia, and I’m a first generation everything: first in my family to go to college, first to travel abroad, first to study abroad. I am an only child, my mother was a teen mom, and I’m the oldest of the cousins, so I was always the one to go first. My family had never heard of the things I came home and said I wanted to do. Where I come from, if you’re a registered nurse, you’ve made it. Nursing is a wonderful profession, but people don’t think beyond that.

When people ask how I got where I am today, I credit my mother. My mother did a good job allowing me to be. If I came to her with an idea, nine times out of 10 she was supportive. If I said I wanted to do drama, she would sign me up for drama camp. When I was interested in modelling, she found a modeling class. When I told her I was going to study abroad in Barcelona, she was, like, what? I think many times she would think, what is this girl up to now? But she never tried to discourage me.

For awhile I had a job with a group called Diversity Abroad—I travelled to different colleges and universities to encourage minority students to travel. We talked about “the three F’s”: family, finances, and fear. These are the factors that often hold people back. We create our own limitations on ourselves.  As a result, many young people don’t even know that these opportunities exist. So I wanted to reach out to minority girls and to educate them about these opportunities.

You said earlier that people in other countries aren’t used to meeting African Americans. How do they respond to you?

People in other countries usually assume I am from Africa. They’ll say, are you Nigerian?  Somalian? They never guess that I am American. In India, people aren’t used to “the other” in general, and a black American is particularly unfamiliar. People would stare at me, come up and take pictures of me, ask if they could touch my hair, ask how I do my braids. I have not met a black person who travels who hasn’t had this experience—especially in Asia. It bothered me at first, but nine times out of 10 people are just reacting out of curiosity. Sometimes it’s out of disgust, but not usually. But even if people are just curious, it can be draining to have them looking at you all the time, and coming up to ask questions.

This is one thing we talk about with the girls before our trips. We tell them that even in America people are going to stare. People aren’t used to seeing groups of young black women at the airport, travelling together. We tell them from the beginning that they are going to experience this, and we prepare them for how to respond.

It happens all the time. During our recent trip to Peru, for example, a little boy came up to us at the food court at the airport and wanted to take selfies with the girls. He was about eight-years- old, and this was such a big moment for him. He had never seen a group of young black women. He wanted all the girls’ phone numbers. And then his mother came up and wanted to take photos with the girls too.The girls enjoyed it, I think; they said they felt like celebrities.

Can you talk about the service projects the girls do on their trips overseas?

We like the girls to meet girls in whatever country we’re visiting, and to do a project with local girls when possible. In Belize, for example, we worked at a health center. We cleaned the center and painted it.  We always do something very hands on—the goal is for the girls to do a project that allows them to see the results of their work. The trips are typically seven days, so we can’t build a well. We want them to see a before and after, to see that they made a difference.

We always partner with other organizations on the ground. When we can, we partner with the Peace Corps; this happened organically through a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize. We definitely want to keep doing projects with the Peace Corps because it gives us the opportunity to visit the Peace Corps headquarters in that country and to hear from other volunteers. This gives our girls a good sense of what it means to have an international fellowship.

During our most recent trip to Peru we didn’t work with the Peace Corps because they weren’t working in our location.  We worked with a group called Peruvian Hearts, an organization  that promotes education for girls.

How do you choose the girls who will participate, and what does the planning and preparation process entail?

Right now we take 20 girls per trip. We’re debating whether or not to increase that number, but I can’t see taking more than 30.  Last year we took two trips, so there were 40 spots available, and we had 150 applications. That makes it really hard, because we want all the girls to be able to go.  

We have an application and interview process, but as we get more applicants, it is getting more and more difficult to select. We don’t have a clear-cut selection criteria, except that the girls have to be age 13 to 17. In the beginning we were only taking girls from Atlanta and Philadelphia, but now we accept girls from anywhere in the US, and we’ve had participants from Florida, Texas, and California.

We want all types of girls to have this experience. We want girls who are into everything at their schools, the head of this and president of that. But often it’s the girls who aren’t so involved in school who are looking for something to be involved in. Some of our girls are star students, but others aren’t at all, and it’s often those girls who really benefit from an experience like this. Of course, the star students benefit too—they sometimes need a break from being a star student for awhile. We like to have a mix of girls on every trip, but it is getting harder and harder to choose. Like I say, we want them all to have this experience.

We take on average a year to prepare for a trip. The  applications for girls to apply go out in November, and they receive their selection notice by Christmas, or by New Years at the latest. Then from January to June they fundraise for their trip. Many do online fundraising campaigns, but they also do merchandise sales, they sell T-Shirts and bracelets. We help them, we provide  a fundraising kit, and organize at least one event that they can sell tickets to. We also have monthly orientation meetings where we provide global education. They learn about the country we’re visiting. We talk to them about what it means to travel, what it mean to travel as a black woman, and they meet each other and the chaperones. They are also required to do a service project in their hometown before their trip.

We aren’t able to offer many scholarships, but in some cases other organizations have pitched in to help. We never want money to be what prevents a girl from going on the trip, so we help as much as we can.

What are your goals for GGG?

We’re a toddler organization—It’s been five years this month—and we’re trying to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. We don’t have any full time staff, the organization is volunteer- based. We started out doing just one expedition a year, then added another, and as we’ve had more interest we’re adding trips so we can accommodate all the girls who want to participate. We’re going to be starting trips during winter and spring breaks, for example. We’re at a stage where there are a lot of different ways we can grow. We want to impact as many girls as possible, and we’re thinking of establishing local chapters in different parts of the country.

In case any of your readers are interested, I’d just like to add that if you’d like to get involved, we’d love to have you. We are recruiting committee members, for example, and we are always looking for chaperones. And if you can’t give your time, we welcome your treasure. We provide passports for the girls, for example, and we are always looking for people to sponsor a girl’s passports. Please check out our website!

Can you talk about the impact of travel on the girls?

We have debriefs every night of the trip, and it’s really inspiring to hear how much the girls are affected by the service projects. It brings out their gratitude to meet girls their age struggling with poverty and other really serious issues. They’ll says things like, “I never realized how trivial my problems are, compared with what many people in the world have to deal with.”

They also learn a lot from the group experience. One girl, for example, doesn’t have many black girls in her school; she was always in spaces and environments that are mostly white. Being around that black girl magic was really powerful for her. Developing friendships with our chaperones is also inspiring for the girls, because these are successful black women who have had a variety of experiences. We don’t allow parents to come on trips with their own daughters, because we want girls to meet and get to know women outside of their families.

For many girls it creates spark of interest in travel. Many of them had never considered travelling, doing a fellowship, or working abroad.

And of course all of the other activities have an impact on the girls. Zip-lining helps them overcome their fears, going to Mayan ruins or making chocolate teaches them about other cultures. The trips impact the girls in different ways. For some girls the highlight experience is going to be the service project, for others it is zip-lining, for others it is the beach. One girl had never been to the beach in her life, so going to the beach in Costa Rica was the first time she ever put her toes the sand.