Photo Note: These girls and close friends came to the Hijas event at the University of Maryland, College Park in September.
Last week, I spoke at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The town is about 45 minutes away from where my childhood best friend’s parents live, but I hadn’t thought to let them know that I would be there. As I was setting up the Power Point, I happened to look up to see Jenny’s parents walking in. Startled and so touched, I ran over to greet them. Turns out they have a friend who works at UNCG who told them about the event. Anyway, I did the presentation (10 Things That Will Make You Think, Speak, and Act) and then fielded questions. One of the questions came from a graduate student (in women’s studies, I believe) who wanted to know what we could do to help young women. I talked about my observations from the research as to what seemed to insulate girls and, finally, I settled on the last point: girls need role models in their lives. They need us— young adult and adult women everywhere—to step up to the plate and engage in their lives. They need their village. As I was talking about the importance of mentors in the lives of girls, I was reminded of my best friend’s mom, sitting there in the audience. Jenny’s parents were incredibly good to me. Jenny and I were inseparable, and I was included in meals, vacations, excursions, and the like. Some of the holiday traditions that I most want to do with my family one day are ones that were executed with great care by Laura Ann, Jenny’s mom. I always ached for Christmas to come once the weather grew cold because I knew it would bring out the candy cane filled advent calendar at Jenny’s house and that her mom would make these to die for mint brownies. Imagine my delight this past year when Jenny sent me all the fixings (including brownie pan) for the mint brownies for my late November birthday. When I whipped them up, I wasn’t just fixing a dessert. I was reconstructing the warmth and compassion I had felt at Jenny’s house growing up. And so thinking about all of this, I told the audience about Laura Ann’s presence in my life and what a difference it had made. And, then, I started to cry—so overwhelmed by the memories of her compassion and embrace of me and so touched by the presence of Laura and Gene there at that moment. If that wasn’t a statement about how important I think it is for girls to have mentors, I am not sure what is. And with the world being what it is today, role models and mentors are all the more important. So when a 6th grade teacher in town asked me to come do something with the Latina girls in her class—and the something was wide open—I jumped. The girls (she calls them her “chiquitas”) are mostly from immigrant families and two of them do not speak English at all. She worries about them. And with the numbers that are out there about Latina girls, I know why. Nearly 25 percent of young Latinos drop out of school. That means that, statistically, 2 of her 8 chiquitas may not graduate. 51% of Latina girls will get pregnant by the age of 20 (4 of her 8 chiquitas). And the alarm here (for a teacher especially) is that not being educated is the surest road to a life of poverty and other disparities and dangers. Education is the best shot these girls have, and they need their proverbial village around them to support them. So on Thursday, I am headed over to the middle school to eat lunch and talk with these chiquitas about their lives and what they want. What are their dreams, their hopes, their fears, their truths. And it is my hope, on the other side, that I can figure out some way for me to champion them in the coming months and years, some way that I can add to their lives. I have a few ideas, but I want your thoughts as well. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, if you are looking for a mentoring opportunity (and I hope you will!), I encourage you to contact your local school about how you can volunteer or visit www.mentoring.org where you can enter your zip code to find an opportunity near you. It takes a village.