The Chief Dreamer: Meet Damali Elliot

She’s a Dreamer. A person who is idealistic. She possesses a vision created by imagination that has the ability to form in reality. A warrior, an advocate, she protects her vision and labors diligently to bring it to fruition. She is without question, The Chief Dreamer.

Meet Damali Elliott. As the Founder of Petals-N-Belles, a 501(c)(3) organization, Damali caters to the  social development and empowerment of young women. Since its’ establishment in 2010, Petals-N-Belles provides creative workshops, academic coaching and real-life experiences to young women living below or near poverty in the New York City area.

A inspirational and eloquent speaker, Damali is a mentor dedicated to encouraging girls Worldwide to dream bigger, smarter and louder.  Forever on the front-lines for her movement,  Damali is adamant about inspiring the next generation of female leadership.

The New Journalist had the pleasure of talking with Damali Elliott; a conversation filled with laughs, shared life lessons learned (she keeps it real with us!), thoughts on the power of giving back and so much more!


TNJ: I read that you discovered your passion for helping girls and that helped to form Petals-N-Belles. Tell me a bit more about that pivotal moment for you.
Damali: That pivotal moment, I believe was a mixture of two things. I started having these dinners where family members and community members would bring young ladies that they were related to or really close to, that they saw were making poor choices. I also noticed different girls, I didn’t mentor them but I did have close relationships with them and I saw them swaying between their potential and not owning that potential. That was the beginning of it, the recognition that that was occurring.

With having these weekly dinners at my parents’ home, I learned that there is power in the community and all of us getting together. I really began to develop a love for mentoring, the simplicity of getting together and listening and solving problems together. The beautiful part was actually seeing the girls apply and put into affect the change they wanted to in their lives, becoming happier individuals and their confidence increasing.

All of this was very mind blowing for me because I have been very blessed and come from a loving and supportive person. I’ve always been an empathetic person but it never really hit home to me. I became immersed in an environment where I could make a difference and that feels really good. I just started getting a flood of ideas, ways of engagingly connecting with the girls in a very unique way, showing instead of telling.

Lastly, I’ll say growing up I was always very sensitive to my peers and the community I grew up in. I remember seeing girls lose their light, someone just as bright and determined and excited about life and a summer goes by and their priorities have shifted. They’re no longer the same person and they’re more of a taker instead of a giver.  I just want Petals-N-Belles to be a refuge for girls to shoot for their wildest dreams because they’re supported.

TNJ: Tell me, how did you decide on the name Petals-N-Belles?
Damali: When I was doing the dinners, one of the girls I was working with, I was thinking about how impressionable she was. That made me think of petals, she’s so delicate like a petal! The word bells popped up in my head. So then I thought about naming the dinners Petals and Bells and when I told her she said “oh, like b-e-l-l-e-s, right? I wasn’t even thinking of that!

My job is to take girls from being impressionable and on the softer-side to being strong and dynamic women that can enter any room and be a leader. That’s what it means, from taking girls from being young impressionable to the Belles that they are.

TNJ: Would you say that the motivation behind the name ties into the legacy that you want Petals-N-Belles to leave behind?
Damali: Absolutely! I would even say that it’s bigger than that. So yes and no. I recently saw a TedTalk sent to me by Rashi( Damali’s amazing assistant!) that basically said it’s hard for nonprofit leaders to have Google and Apple dreams. I want something bigger than Google! The social work that Petals-N-Belles offers, it encompasses all youth and not just girls, in terms of legacy. [Right now] It’s just the beginning and frame work.

TNJ: Where was Petals-N-Belles when I was growing up? [laughs] How do you select your girls?
Damali: Luckily, we have amazing partner schools that do the selections for us. 95% of the girls that we work with are living near or below poverty and that’s very intentional. So the schools select girls that need social support, which is almost every child within poverty. So we go into the schools and they hand select the different girls for various reasons, the stories range. We then have the opportunity to meet with the girls and share the work of Petals-N-Belles, do a mock workshop and give them an opportunity to do a one-on-one interview and apply online. We assess the interview and the online application and select the girls that we believe are ready for the commitment and will take the opportunity seriously. We submit that back to the schools and the school makes the final decision because ultimately they know these girls. Unfortunately, due to budgets and financial restraints, we cannot take in every girl that applies. It’s a bit of a rigorous application process but it’s a way of making sure that whoever enters is ready.

TNJ: Finish this sentence for me, “Girls need Petals-N-Belles because….”
Damali: Girls need Petals-N-Belles because they deserves love, work and access to incredible opportunities and are not getting it in the way that we are giving it.

 TNJ: Let’s switch gears here and get a bit more personal, who is Damali?
Damali: Ha! That’s a good question. I am a lover of life and I just believe in everyone having a fair chance and access to opportunities. I love my family deeply, I love food deeply [laughs] I love traveling, I love people. I don’t think life has to be as hard as it is. I think everyone is under the assumption that life isn’t fair and I get it, life isn’t fair but I think we have to understand especially in the society and world that we are living in today. What isn’t fair, is the circumstance and situation being imposed by one group of people to the next or being created by one group of people to the next. That deeply disturbs me and I’m just totally against poverty when we have so much wealth. I don’t think children have to die or live in poverty especially in this city.

 TNJ: What motivates Damali to keep going?
Damali: Part of me wants to say first and foremost, the girls. But sometimes, it gets so hard that they aren’t even enough! I just want to keep it real! It’s a combination of things, it is the girls, especially growing so close to them. My parents motivate me, they did not have the upbringing that they were able to give to my brothers and I. When I get down and out, I have to think to myself that, the people that I love made sacrifices for me. On an even deeper level, I look at slavery, I think about what my ancestors went through. When I think about all those things and what the experience would have been like 80, 50, 60 years ago, it would’ve been far much more difficult for me to do anything on an entrepreneurial level, so how can I complain? I have wonderful mentors, beautiful people like Rashi that are excited. Its about surrounding yourself with people that get it and are just as excited as you are so that when you’re down, their energy can push you forward.

 TNJ: Is the struggle worth the reward?
Damali: With Petals-N-Belles, the reward is really long term. I want the girls to live dynamic lives, not working 9-5 or living pay check to pay check. I want them talking about their healthy relationships, being financially free, that reward is worth everything I go through and fight for. They deserve that life and to be a part of them realizing that that is possible, that is a gift that is priceless.

 TNJ: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Damali: A lot of things. One of my mentors told me follow my intuition, I’m great at what I’m doing. Your intuition is your connection to God, so that has touched me. I don’t really like this advice but, focusing on the money. I set out to work with girls and impact them, but the truth of the matter is in order for Petals-N-Belles to survive, I have to be a hell of a fundraiser! I’m transitioning from the leader that knows every girl and their name in the program to funding our work. It’s equivalent to the parent that works very hard to keep a roof over the child’s head and doesn’t see them often but there’s a nanny. That’s hard from me because I love directly working with the girls, but no one can tell the story better than I can and it’s my responsibility to fund it.

 TNJ: Let’s find out Damali’s top three faves! I’ll give you a category and you tell me what’s your favorite. First, what’s your favorite book?
Damali: Can I pick two? [laughs] One for personal, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. Its kinda like the matrix but the book! It’s a series of five and I’ve read two out of five. It’s a very spiritual book so it’s not for everyone. My book for business would be The Art of Uncertainty by Dennis Merit Jones.

 TNJ: Your favorite artist?
Damali: John Legend is my favorite artist! I love his voice. And it’s not one of those “Wow he’s so hot!”, absolutely not. I do think he’s handsome but I love his music, old, current and in-between. On top of that, he’s very much invested in education and that’s the icing and cherry on top.

 TNJ: Your favorite quote?
Damali: “Happiness is not a destination it’s the way you choose to travel.” I probably heard that when I was 16 and it really made an impression on me because it’s true! I’m a true believer that if you can’t be happy in this moment with what you have, then you won’t be happy with all the things that you think you need to make you happy.

Another [quote] I use in my emails, was created by George Santayana, “A child only educated in school is an uneducated child.” I think that speaks to the work that we are doing and it strikes me because this man was born in 1863 and died in 1952, so when he said this quote it was the 1920s and it’s crazy that his quote is still true today. There’s clearly something we are doing wrong!

 TNJ: One word that describes you and why
Damali: Dreamer! The reason why that word describes me is because I believe in possibilities. The girls I work with have infinite possibilities and I believe in dreams. If that was ever taken from me I don’t think I wouldn’t have much existence or anything to give.

TNJ: Damali, thank you so much for sharing your story with me!
Damali: Thank you!

For more information on Damali Elliott’s phenomenal organization Petals-N-Belles, please visit their website.