By Kody Stoebig. Photos by Victor Aparicio.
FRESNO– Unique Loftis, 16, is an optimistic student at Sunnyside High School. Like most teens her age, she has plans for her future. But she also realizes that there are obstacles to her goals. Loftis joined the new Fresno Young Women’s Mentorship Program because she knows having a mentor will help her achieve her goals.
“I hope to gain a closer relationship with someone I can look up to, a role model,” Loftis explained.
According to a report done by The Nation’s Report Card and the U.S. Department of Education, black and Latina girls rank near the bottom in both reading and math scores and young black women are suspended at higher rates than their peers. For too long, the young women of Fresno have been left without a local support system. Until now.
Encouraged by last summer’s Sisterhood Rising Leadership Retreat, The California Endowment (TCE) paired with Fresno-Building Healthy Communities (BHC) to create their own women’s program that focuses on mentorship and the specific challenges young women face.
With the support and guidance of TCE’s Sarah Reyes and BHC’s Sabina Gonzalez-Erana, Sandra Celdon-Castro and Seng Vang have worked to build this program from the ground up.
Vang grew up in Fresno and returned after graduating from University of California, Berkeley. She currently works as a BHC advocacy specialist, where she focuses on advocating for the Hmong community and working with young women through the mentorship program.
She was personally drawn to this program, she said, because “young women face different issues; perhaps related more closely to bodily issues, health issues, and sexuality, because a lot of time young women misunderstand that. They think that seeking love is a form of being accepted.”
The program’s goal, Celdon-Castro said, is to provide a safe place for Fresno’s young women and provide strong mentors and role models to guide them.
“It was a conscious choice for us to really find diverse mentors,” said Vang.
According to Vang, the organizers have been successful in recruiting mentors ranging from faith-based leaders to community benefit organizers to legal experts. Among the many mentors, they have Socorro Santillian, the Executive Director of Fresno Barrios Unidos, Gillian Sonnad, Supervising Attorney for Central California Legal Services, Laneesha Senegal from Helping Others Pursue Excellence (HOPE), and Ashley Werner from Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
Reyes and Celdon-Castro who are volunteering as mentors as well.
Vang recognizes that the mentors “come with lots and lots of knowledge in terms of youth development that are really useful and, at the same time, necessary to shape this program.”
The program leads mentors and mentees through a year-long curriculum meant to facilitate personal growth, with the goal of participants taking a more active role in their communities. Each month there will be a different theme, such as cultural awareness, financial literacy, and self-identity.
“There may be youth programs that are focused on youth development already for the young women, but I don’t think that there has really been an effort to help them become leaders in terms of championing issues and advocating,” Vang said.
Vang stressed that the entire program is a collaborative effort where organizers have been working closely with the mentors and other organizations to build the best program possible. They are also open to input from the youth mentees. For instance, the young women in the program may vote to change the name of the program.
“We really want to be conscious of the young people,” Vang explained. “Our priority is for them to develop into healthy and strong women.”
Marissa Vang, 15, said she hopes the meetings will teach her “how to be a better daughter, student, leader, and sister.”
Other local and national programs focus on young men of color, from President Obama’s program, My Brother’s Keeper, to Fresno’s local Boys and Men of Color (BMOC) initiative. Young women often attend BMOC meetings as allies, but expressed the need for their own group.
Karisma Senegal, 15, echoed this, saying, “I think this program is important because young women of Fresno, they need help… I feel like everybody needs their own help and that’s what I really want.”
While the Young Women’s Mentorship Program is starting small, with around a dozen youth members, Vang hopes that after this trial year it will be able to grow to support more young women.
The hope is that these separate meetings will allow for the young women to meet other peers and mentors and to make connections that will help them grow personally and also as civic leaders. That’s what Loftis is hoping for.
“I feel like it’s very beneficial for, not only the [young] person, but for our community,” she said.
For more information and to get involved, please contact Seng Vang at firstname.lastname@example.org.