A San Antonio, Texas, program called Girl Zone is responding to turmoil in marginalized communities by empowering young girls. Girl Zone, a program of the Martinez Street Women’s Center, is located in San Antonio's East Side, an area largely inhabited by working-class Latino and Black families. It is an underserved part of the city, and Andrea Figueroa, the program director of Girl Zone, wants to make sure that the young girls living in the area rise up to become amazing community leaders.
Maribel Hermosillo: What is the Girl Zone empowerment program?
Andrea Figueroa: Girl Zone is a year-round, out-of-school-time empowerment program for girls aged nine to 14 on the East and Southeast Sides of San Antonio. Our curriculum includes leadership, healthy relationships, service learning, STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math], arts and culture, comprehensive sex education, and environmental issues. Our entire curriculum is taught with cultural competence and within a social-justice framework.
MH: What are some of the problems young girls face today?
AF: Our students encounter many barriers. 98% of the students we serve are considered economically disadvantaged, and many of them attend schools that are struggling to perform at acceptable levels. Like other girls their age, they face body image issues that stem from negative media stereotypes of women, as well as the patriarchal societal structure we live in. Many of our girls also face issues such as food insecurity, language barriers, access barriers, behavioral issues, and familial instability.
MH: How does the program address issues that young women face in our communities, such as racism, homophobia, and sexism? What can our public schools do to make sure they do not perpetuate these problems within our community?
AF: Our program is unique in that we educate with cultural competence and within a social justice framework. What does that mean? Well, we have intentional conversations about injustice, what it looks like, what it means for our communities. Then we try to imagine what justice for our communities would look like, and we intentionally create spaces that mirror what we have imagined. We teach that justice and change begins with us, and therefore, if we want a just world, we must first learn to honor one another, our differences, and our values. If we take those lessons to heart, then we can transform our communities from the inside out.
It is also imperative that communities of color create media in the form of public art, storytelling, and print, so that the stories of our communities, by our communities, are shown to others and one another. In Girl Zone, we provide the girls with different avenues and mediums to express their feelings, their stories, and their hopes and dreams, while engaging their neighbors and friends in the process. That is how we build community and grow stronger as individuals.
MH: How is Girl Zone engaging students in their community on the East Side of San Antonio?
AF: As a community-based organization, we know that we are each other's best asset. Together, we have the power to facilitate positive change in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our city. Girl Zone teaches the girls that they have the ability, beyond their circumstances, to be leaders and makers of change. It also teaches them they have a responsibility to give back to their community by becoming engaged in improving it.
MH: What is Community Day and how did it impact the girls and their families?
AF: Community Day is part of an annual service-learning project. The girls are asked to identify needs in their community, and then brainstorm ways in which they can help. This year, the girls chose responsible pet care, health and nutrition, food insecurity, and the environment. They also added a rally and altar for Trayvon Martin, because of his significance to our community of color. We guided the girls through planning, outreach, and implementation, and saw them gain skills that will last them a lifetime. Community Day itself is the end result. It is a day where the East Side community can come together for education, food, and fun. Organizations in attendance included the Roots of Change Farmers Market, Spay and Neuter Assistance Program, Martinez Street Women's Center, Neighborhoods First Alliance, San Antonio Immigrant Youth Movement, and others. Students made DIY dog toys, created seed bomb giveaways, managed the food stations, and created fun activities for kids. Free Zumba was also offered by Ms. Fiesta San Antonio, Victoria Flores, who was also a University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Nursing middle school mentor.
This year, we entered our service project into the Silver and Black Give Back Team Up Challenge. We were chosen as one of 10 semifinalists, and received $1000 for our project. We are now in the running for $10,000 to continue our projects throughout the year. You can vote for our service project here.