She’s credited with being a “visionary,” “a role model” and a literal life-saver for some of the most vulnerable girls and young women in Northeast Florida. Now, Lawanda Ravoira will be taking her quest to address the needs of troubled girls to a broader level.
Ravoira is transitioning from president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center to expanding the agency’s public policy work to the rest of the nation as president emeritus starting March 1. The Center, which she founded in 2013, advocates for at-risk girls.
“It became this personal calling to make sure that any young woman I worked with could have a vision of what her life could become. I found that girls who were getting arrested and getting in trouble were the population that were the most judged, the most ostracized, and the most misunderstood. The girls inspired me, and I wanted to use whatever voice I had to lift up their experiences,”
With the support of philanthropist Delores Barr Weaver, a long-time champion for women’s and girls’ rights, Ravoira established the center in 2013 to help Jacksonville advocate for quality mental and behavioral health for the girls whose pain and trauma had been overlooked by their families, friends, teachers and law enforcement.
The center reported then that Jacksonville was incarcerating more girls than any other city in Florida — more than Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale combined. Since then, Jacksonville’s incarceration rate dropped 56%, compared with a 23% decline statewide, the center reported.
Behind those numbers are the stories of countless women whose trajectories have been changed by Ravoira. When Alyssa Beck first met Ravoira, she was a 16-year-old facing 30 years in prison. She was a victim of sex trafficking and was charged with six felonies after retaliating against her trafficker.
“Long after other organizations had given up on me and my situation, Lawanda and the Policy Center team were there for me,” Beck said. “She organized legal help, stood beside me in court and fought for my freedom. That’s what she did to help me but it’s how she does the work that makes her a true leader.”
Other programs made her feel like a “charity case,” while Ravoira made her feel like an equal. Beck now works with Ravoira at the center developing policies and programs that support survivors of sex trafficking.
“Lawanda’s leadership grows leaders like me,” Beck said.
Outgoing chair of the center’s board Audrey Moran credits Ravoira’s leadership and tenacity with passing Florida’s child marriage ban in 2018. The law ended marriage for people under 18 with some exceptions.
“She has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of young girls and young women and is unwavering in her fight to ensure that our elected officials understand the importance of supporting them,” Moran said.
Vicky Basra, now senior vice president, will succeed Ravoira as president and CEO. She aspires to be like Ravoira, she said.
“She’s a visionary, and her passion and her authenticity makes her somebody you want to follow,” Basra said. “She recognizes that this work is so much bigger than her. We will continue the work. This is her legacy.”
Delores Barr Weaver is proud of the organization that bears her name and Ravoira’s accomplishments there. In a written statement, Weaver said she is “… pleased that Lawanda will be sharing her expertise with others throughout the state and nationally … on behalf of girls who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves in the justice system.”
As Ravoria winds down her tenure as president, she reflected on her legacy: “I hope when people think of me, they will think, ‘Lawanda deeply cared about girls in the justice system.’ The girls have such incredible courage. They are the real story. I have just been fortunate enough to walk alongside them.”
This story was produced by Youth Today, the national news source for youth-service professionals, including child welfare and juvenile justice, youth development and out-of-school time programming.