“Show up and you can make a difference.” 

Reflections on impacting systematic change.

Marissa Escajeda, Managing Director of Pittsburgh

Marissa Escajeda with daughter.Marissa Escajeda has always been drawn to human rights, social justice, and serving others. 

As a young single mother, she focused her studies and work on advancing women and girls. Her deeper socio-political understanding started to gel in college: She joined the campus Amnesty International chapter, and was leading it one year later. Her internships with international nonprofits focused on the impact of war on vulnerable populations. “Everything was coming together for how I wanted to work.” 

At Duquesne University, Marissa’s path became clearer; she found her community and her professional trajectory started to take shape, including graduate school. She has a Master of Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs with a concentration in Gender and Human Rights from American University and a Master of Public Administration with a concentration in Public and Nonprofit Management from the University of Pittsburgh.

A personal move brought her from Washington D.C. back to Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR), grounding her back in the local community. Her educational background and professional skillset were perfect for the role and she was passionate advocating for people who have experienced sexual violence.

A Shift in the Work

And then there came a clear shift in her perspective. While at PAAR, she worked with youth in transitional housing, often sex trafficking victims. One particular direct-service relationship with an adolescent girl clearly revealed the dangerously repetitive cycle of trauma. And it gave Marissa pause: “I have to do something different in how I do this work.”

Now her concerted effort to impact greater systemic change: public administration and prevention work. 

Strong Women, Strong Girls was the right fit, at the right time. In 2019, Marissa started with SWSG in Pittsburgh, primarily in engagement and development before becoming the Managing Director. She believes that mentoring is a powerful tool to support girls in childhood, before adolescence, as a way to show them how they can see their own futures. And, she’s committed to having more conversations with local community leaders, politicians, and administrators while also partnering with other organizations doing similar work. This includes the Women and Girls NonProfit Leadership Forum, which brings together local nonprofits to support each other, collaborate, and impact policy changes.

“SWSG is sometimes overlooked as an expert in this field. We should be at every table. We are working with 600 girls in this city. We know what’s impacting their daily lives. We’re with them every week. We are excited to be part of more conversations.” 

She wants girls to be independent and know their own strength, which is especially important when they experience adversity as teens or young women. 

“Your inner voice says, ‘Yeh, you can do this.’” She confirms. “We’re saying this to these young girls, that your inner voice will speak up for you when you need it most.” 

Finding “Peace”

Given her years and leadership in advocacy spaces, Marissa knows this is very intentional, and often intense, work. Staying grounded and practicing self-care is essential. For her, it’s defined as “peace”. 

“Do I have to give up all of my peace, all of the time? No. As a leader, it is important for me to understand how staff find their own peace, in and out of work. And we help each other to not disrupt that. Asking each other: ‘What’s your peace, how can I help you maintain it?’” 

In this 20th anniversary year, she’s excited for the future of SWSG’s work, and serving girls in new and exciting ways. This includes a lot more engagement: bringing more girls into SWSG programming throughout the city and region; more field trips to see spaces the girls haven’t experienced before; and inviting more professional women to be directly involved.

“At SWSG, we are empowering girls to be leaders in their community. By providing a safe mentorship space to grow and learn, we are helping them see what we already know: they have what it takes to be and do whatever it is they want in this world. Show up and you can make a difference.” 


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