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  • Writer's pictureWoman Up Cleveland

Pearls of Wisdom with Brittney

Updated: Apr 30

Brittney Smith - Founder & Executive Director of Cleveland Pearls

At Cleveland Pearls, Brittney provides fun and engaging opportunities for girls in our community.
At Cleveland Pearls, Brittney provides fun and engaging opportunities for girls in our community.

When we wear clothes, the associations we place on them can alter how we feel and even impact how we act. As women, especially, we understand the importance of how looking our best leads to feeling our best, and ultimately being the best version of ourselves. No one understands the power of positive self-esteem quite like Brittney A. Smith of Cleveland Pearls Inc. We have had the honor of connecting with Brittney and Cleveland Pearls for our Say Yes to the Prom Dress Drive & Shopping Event this spring and it has been nothing short of electrifying to see for ourselves just how much of a difference empowerment can make for young girls in the community.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Brittney is a lover of not only her city but the communities she has found within our little corner of Northeast Ohio. “Being able to grow up on the east side and experiencing this community kind of inspired the love that I have for it.” After graduating from John Hay High School, Brittney found herself beginning her studies at Youngstown State University and ultimately graduating with her bachelor's in social work from Cleveland State University. 

Not many people can pinpoint the exact moment that they knew what their calling was but for Brittney, a story from when she was only five years old became a pivotal experience that dictated the course of her life. “I was watching the commercials of people in Africa who suffered from food insecurities and wanted to do something to help them. I tried to mail an envelope of cornflakes over there. I just wrote ‘Africa’ and put it in the mailbox and it never went anywhere, and I was really upset. And my mother finally was like, you can’t just mail cornflakes to Africa. But what she did do was sign up so we could make payments monthly toward kids in Ethiopia. And so I always tie that back to my love for trying to help people and I think it helps me to connect the dots as to why I even went into social work,” she shared.

Beyond her early definition of helping others, it is still so evident today that Brittney is in the perfect career field and has a true drive to make a difference. She has dedicated her work to changing lives and continues to work toward her goal of making a difference in the community that raised her. As she told us herself, “I always figure, the world is so much bigger than me. And what can I do to impact or leave some type of little footprint in this space to show that I tried to help the best that I can, and social work allowed me the opportunity to do that.”

Cleveland Pearls' mission is to nurture authenticity and self-love within girls throughout urban areas through exposure, education, and engaging practical experiences.
Cleveland Pearls' mission is to nurture authenticity and self-love within girls throughout urban areas through exposure, education, and engaging practical experiences.

Positively Empowering and Restoring Ladies Self-Esteem (PEARLS), Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that serves as a multi-service, community-based organization providing fun and engaging opportunities for girls throughout the city of Cleveland. Founded in 2020 with the mission to nurture authenticity and self-love within girls throughout urban areas through exposure, education, and engaging practical experiences, Cleveland Pearls has become a pillar of the community, especially for young women. 

During her time at Youngstown State, Brittney found it difficult to decide on what she was meant to do. She often received negative feedback when she told people her plans to pursue social work. She told us, “They would always tell me, ‘You’re going to be depressed,’ or ‘You won't make any money,’ and that impacted my decision to continue. I switched from major to major to major. Thinking that I was trying to find something and I didn’t follow my heart.” 

After struggling through her first year, she was assigned to a college advisor who changed everything. Angela Kearns was a professor who became Brittney’s lifeline to get her through this time and point her in the direction of her true dreams. “She told me, ‘Let’s just figure out where you want to go and how to get you there together,’ and it was the safest space for me. It felt so good to have someone who was a cheerleader who was there every step of the way. Showing you all the potential you have and believing in you more than you believed in yourself. She was just a phenomenal support system.”

To this day, Brittney credits her time with Professor Kearns as the eye-opening moment that led to the founding of Cleveland Pearls. The idea of creating a safe place where girls can feel supported and nurtured and love themselves authentically is the driving force behind all of her work. Co-existing with other girls is another pillar of what Cleveland Pearls is all about. Providing encouragement and empowerment to young women is exactly what fuels the work Brittney and her team do in the community every day.

Cleveland Pearls' Community Closet located at The Malachi Center in Cleveland, OH.
Cleveland Pearls' Community Closet located at The Malachi Center in Cleveland, OH.

Unsurprisingly, Brittney embodies the quality we so often see in founders and business owners who strive to make a difference with their work. She asked a question of herself when starting her organization, “How can I use the same opportunity that was given to me as a young girl?” Time and time again we learn from the women around us that they have had similar moments in which taking their past experiences and the lessons learned from them, leads to their journey in paving the way for those who follow their path in the future.

She also credits her work in education due to her social work degree with leading the way to the creation of Cleveland Pearls. Brittney saw firsthand how young women in schools were dealing with self-esteem, outside pressures, and interpersonal challenges and immediately began thinking of ways she could create a space for them to exist freely and show up and their authentic selves. She shared the perfect mantra with us that she hopes young women can adopt themselves, “It’s cool to be yourself, and it’s cool to love other people too. But we know you can’t fully love anyone else until you love yourself first.”

Constantly competing with society's standards for young women, Brittney does her best to instill in them the confidence to not only believe in themselves but to support others as well. She sees the value in young girls building connections over competition. There is a massive importance when it comes to ensuring that girls can love themselves freely and then translate that self-confidence to empowering the ladies around them as well.

After sitting on the idea of Cleveland Pearls for five years being held back by the fear of doing things the right way, Brittney was finally pushed into starting the organization by a friend who provided her with a logo and words of encouragement. She then created a curriculum and fundraising event with the hope that everyone would be on board with the idea. On March 8th, 2020, Cleveland Pearls officially launched with the support of the community and around $2,000 raised from people wanting to see it succeed.

Cleveland Pearls provides group-based sessions, individual sessions, community service projects.
Cleveland Pearls provides group-based sessions, individual sessions, community service projects.

As expected, the pandemic immediately halted the advancement of the organization and threw a wrench in the original plans of providing programming in local schools. Brittney and her team quickly pivoted to provide online mentorship and leadership programs. “ I felt like we could either sit here and do nothing or get creative. And from there we started doing virtual and outdoor activities. We were trying to create these safe spaces, especially in a time of so much uncertainty for young people.”

In 2021, the idea of a community closet became a reality and Cleveland Pearls was able to open a boutique-style pantry closet in the Fleet neighborhood, soon after they transitioned to Gordon Square. Giving young people the access they needed to clothing and hygiene items at no cost was the perfect fit for the organization's mission. Brittney has made sure to create a safe physical space where girls can come to feel good, pick items they need, and be treated with nothing but respect.

In addition to her connection with Professor Kearns, Brittney credits her relationship with both her grandmother and a longtime friend as driving forces behind her work and life mantras. Brittney’s grandmother, Lois Allen, was a kind and gentle individual whom Brittney honors with her work and her dedication to making a difference. She shared with us, “We always had kids over at her house during the summertime. She adopted a few kids as well who we consider cousins to this day. Her love for service definitely was an inspiration to me and it continues to inspire me to stay focused and think ‘What would Lois do?’ in a situation.”

Cleveland Pearls offers numerous volunteer opportunities like their SAY YES TO THE PROM DRESS Event in partnership with Woman Up Cleveland!
Cleveland Pearls offers numerous volunteer opportunities like their SAY YES TO THE PROM DRESS Event in partnership with Woman Up Cleveland!

Additionally, Brittney mentioned another woman who helped to show her what was possible in her own life and inspired her to pursue her work in the community. The late, Honorable Stephanie Tubbs Jones is a former congresswoman who grew up in the inner city of Cleveland and started out as a social worker before becoming one of the first black women from Ohio to serve as part of the U.S. House of Representatives. Brittney said, “Her love for the city and the work and just staying humble has been an inspiration to me. You can still grow and also stay connected to the community. I definitely look up to her.”

No non-profit work is without its challenges and Brittney graciously acknowledged that although she does not often feel there are struggles in her work, she mentioned a barrier that sometimes makes things more difficult for the organization. Beyond the impact that Cleveland Pearls can make, making sure the girls continue to receive support outside of their time with the organization. She told us, “Getting the community at large to understand and work actively to change the narrative and provide the support for our girls. Instead of leaving it to providers to help solve an issue, it takes a village. Getting people to take part in this work. How can we really cultivate this village mindset and get people to play an active role in supporting our girls.”

An example of some ways that Brittney and Cleveland Pearls aim to overcome this roadblock is by providing ‘homework’ to those in attendance at their events to encourage self-reflection and promote action on the community’s behalf. With worksheets, questionnaires, and conversations, she targets those who have an active role in empowering the young women of the program to ensure that beyond the special events and limited hours, the girls still feel love and care from their entire support systems.

Brittney outside of the United States Capitol Building.
Brittney outside of the United States Capitol Building.

From the unique perspective of being a woman herself, Brittney can easily understand the impact that looking your best can have on how you feel. Putting our best face forward can truly dictate the way we take on the world and the boost in self-esteem can propel young women into the lives they dream of. She told us, “As women when we find that right outfit that just works and fits and the color pops, nobody can tell you anything the whole day! You just feel great. You want to show up as the best version of yourself and want to give it the best that you have.”

With the closet, young people are also introduced to the idea of thrifting and the idea that they can look and feel just as beautiful in pieces that aren’t always brand new and instead have some character and self-expression for the girls. The occasional addition of make-up and accessories for some of the older ladies can really help to complete the entire picture for them as to what choices they can make to help their personalities shine through. When it comes to changing appearances, Pearls also keeps in mind the fine line between self-care and the feeling of changing yourself just to fit in. Brittney said, “We don’t want them to feel like they need makeup to feel beautiful. It is so fun to see them use their creativity and individuality to put pieces together and come up with different outfits.Society really gets on my nerves in all honesty because one minute we are promoting individuality and then if someone shows up as an individual then it's the opposite. We want them to feel beautiful because they are beautiful no matter what. It starts from within.”

Lasting impact is the biggest goal that drives Brittney in her work. Her passion for creating a safe space or experience that young women can walk away from with pride and confidence is what makes Cleveland Pearls such a success. It is evident that she is constantly learning from the girls in her programs about how she can best serve them and provide these events and projects that continue to propel them forward in their lives.

Brittney shares with us, “I love to learn from young people. So my vision with Pearls is to partner with the girls that we work with because I can only do so much and I don’t want to pour out what I think they should be learning, I want to hear from them. I want them to be able to lead this work. Making sure that the work is always relevant, effective, and free for young people.” With her background in social work, Brittney takes her work a step further than others often do by focusing on how the community continues to shape the support that the organization is able to show toward these young women. 

Mentoring, education, engagement, and exposure are what Cleveland Pearls is all about!
Mentoring, education, engagement, and exposure are what Cleveland Pearls is all about!

In the future, Brittney hopes to continue their work for the benefit of young women and become a multiservice organization that advocates for change in the community. She will always go above and beyond to be more than just a program for girls to reach beyond the closets, pantries, and resources, and provide well-rounded experiences. Cleveland Pearls desires to combat the idea of competition between organizations by collaborating with other groups that serve young women to help provide a fully transformative experience for young women.

Through the Say Yes to the Prom Dress Fundraiser, we have collected more than 300 gowns, shoes, and accessories to pass on to girls in the community, free of charge at the April shopping event. Cleveland Pearls has been so generous to partner with us on the project and allowed us to utilize their network and new home at The Malachi Center. We are so grateful to have connected with Brittney early on in this idea and are proud to have formed a true partnership in making this event a reality and making a difference for the girls in our community.

Brittney is a powerhouse founder who continues to work towards building a better world, just for the sake of positivity and joy. She exhibits every quality you imagine a non-profit director to have and it is clear that her kindness and care are much deeper than surface level. She strives beyond the now and aims to make lasting differences in not only her local community but in the lives of young women who need it most. Through her work with Cleveland Pearls, Brittney gets to watch young women shine and gain the confidence they need to not only believe in themselves but to support and empower those around them as well. It is such a privilege to not only know Brittney but to work with her in supporting the young women in our community and creating spaces for them to build self-esteem and rise to their full potential as women. Brittney’s lasting impact is undeniable, and we can’t wait to see what the future of Cleveland Pearls can bring to many young women in our city.


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