(Video courtesy of Medha Upadhyay, participant in the 2018 Strong Girls, Strong Women Conference. All photos provided by the Office of Women’s Policy.)
What makes a safe space for young women to grow and voice their ideas? You could describe it as a place where Disney music blasts in the background as a group of 20 high school girls sit together in circles putting together tote bags. The girls sing loudly and chat with each other, reminiscing about their Disney-filled childhoods or excitedly discussing plans for the upcoming year. The girls are creating treasure troves of information addressing vital issues facing women. These bags are for the mothers and daughters attending the Strong Girls, Strong Women Conference.
For the past 20 years, the Office of Women’s Policy has been committed to advancing the success of women in all areas of society, particularly in policy decision-making. The OWP actively creates a world where women and girls can achieve economic, social, and political equity–and thrive. Through collaboration and dedication, the OWP has been able to create programs, systems and services that support women’s impact as leaders in their workplaces, communities and homes.
A World of Possibilities
One of these programs is the Girls Advisory Team, which helps girls develop their extensive abilities and gives them opportunities to be leaders. The primary goal of the team is to embolden a generation to be change-makers in the world–and in local government.
Although the team is only 3 years old, the girls have been able to bring in models of successful women in either STEM (science, tech, engineering or math) or the government. These women illustrate the many opportunities the girls have either in creating difference on an issue they’re passionate about or pursuing a career of their choice. The girls get to meet leaders that may come to their meetings or attend their networking events.
“It’s much easier to be what you can see; it’s easier to think about being a natural scientist if you a see a woman who is a natural scientist,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, a self-professed “fan” of the team since its inception. “The Girls Advisory Team opens the door for [the girls] to meet women like me. While society may act like it doesn’t limit [opportunities], it still does in some ways, so helping young women see the opportunities around every corner is really what the Girls Advisory Team can create.”
The program takes about 20 high schoolers from all districts of the County, a group intentionally chosen to bring together different ages, backgrounds and demographics. The OWP is passionate about the power found in celebrating diversity and building coalitions across intersectional experiences. Consequently, the Girls Advisory Team is a rich representation of County residents from all walks of life.
“We are building a culture to show we have more similarities than differences and that we can all learn from each other,” says Julie Ramirez, OWP management analyst and co-founder of the Girls Advisory Team.
Youth Are the Future, and the Future Is Now
The team meets once a month for the nine months it is active. These meetings incorporate educational opportunities, leadership practice and other skill-building, and open discussion for the girls to work through issues facing youth today. The Girls Advisory Team doesn’t shy away from tough topics just because the participants are young. They confront harmful attitudes such as girl-on-girl hate, as well as critically assessing systemic problems like teen pregnancy and homelessness.
“I appreciate how much and how seriously they take young girls, and really help them understand how important their voice is and how their expectations should be heard,” says Supervisor Chavez. “I think what these young girls bring, in particular, are a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of attitudes and a fresh set of expectations.”
Grounded in a strong understanding of current issues, the Girls Advisory Team brings their conversations outside the meetings. The OWP encourages the girls to be vocal about issues they believe are important. On one occasion, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors held a meeting to hear from different groups and departments, such as LGBTQ Affairs and the Office of Immigrant Relations. A member of the Girls Advisory Team represented the OWP.
“This past year, the Board of Supervisors were open to listening to me speak on certain issues,” said Maya Itzel, a recent high school graduate and a member of the team for the past two years. “It’s just been amazing. I really do love the team, and it’s inspiring to be around these great girls and women.”
“The Office of Women’s Policy is building the pipeline to leadership, and I commend the participants for their dedication to improving their leadership skills and our community,” says Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, a longtime supporter of the OWP and its initiatives. “It is important that we cultivate a generation of leaders with a gender lens, and who also honor our values of inclusion and diversity.”
The team puts special emphasis on developing the skills that will enable girls to be effective leaders in local arenas. A member of the most recent team successfully presented a grant request to the County’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Grace Tian spearheaded a toiletry drive to support survivors of domestic violence in Santa Clara County. “I had to do a lot of research for it (and) I found that a few products can help a family survive about a month; just a few bottles can make a difference,” says Tian. “I was so nervous. It was in front of nine people, and we needed a majority to get the grant.”
The Commission on the Status of Women awarded $750 to the drive, which supported 1,000 additional toiletry items being donated to four shelters in Santa Clara County. On the overwhelming success, Tian says: “Our goal was 500 big family-size items and we doubled it!”
Strong Girls, Strong Women
At the end of the nine-month program, the girls help plan the annual Strong Girls, Strong Women Conference hosted by the OWP in March. They have the opportunity to select a topic they are passionate about, such as eliminating domestic violence or confronting stigmas around being tested for sexually transmitted infections, then work with an expert to understand the topic in its complexities. Those who choose to can present their work at the conference and lead programs to engage other team members, their mothers and participants from the wider community.
“This year I did a workshop on teen relationships and teen dating violence. It was about raising awareness that domestic violence doesn’t just happen to adults, it also happens with teens,” says Maya Itzel, who has been to the conference four times and led a session twice.
“It was so cool to see girls with their moms at a conference for women’s empowerment,” says Sara Black, another recent high school graduate and member of this past year’s team. She attended some sessions as well as coordinating the attendees at lunch.
Apply to Join Next Year’s Cohort
Tian has some helpful advice for future members of the Girls Advisory Team: “Enjoy it and make good bonds with the other girls because those bonds can last forever.”
Applications to join the Girls Advisory Team are due June 30. Final applicants will be selected by August. Sign up here: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/owp/leadership/pages/gat.aspx
Author: Christina Ferrone