Sitting around their conference room table, where many volunteer nights take place, I had the opportunity to talk to the Girls Empowerment Network’s Executive Director, Julia Cuba Lewis, and Development Director, Ami Kane. YWA is so excited to be partnering with GEN this year. Here is what we learned about these amazing women:
Q. Tell me a little bit about yourself and what brought you to GEN
AMI: I was in Indianapolis and had been working with Girls Inc. and through my time in my undergrad, studying gender studies I realized that working with girls was 100% where my heart lies. So when my husband started talking about Austin, I immediately found this agency and was just kind of watching what they had going on and Girls Inc. has a much broader mission – they want to do everything and anything for girls. That can be very STEM focused, self defense classes, it can be some of the more friendship building things – but what I liked about this organization is that it was focused on the self esteem piece, and confidence, and understanding your inner voice and all of that was the things that I needed through my middle school years. So right away I was like “I have to apply!” They had two jobs open and I applied for both of them and fortunately Julia selected me to run our conference for three years and so I just found my home here right away and it just made my transition to Austin just a really beautiful process for me, because I was coming into women who cared about the same things as me, doing the work that fuels my soul, so I actually at this point am the second most senior employee here, but Julia has a much longer history here before me, so I’ll let her talk about her journey.
JULIA: So, I am just about to start my 11th year here. Before I was here, I was at the Girl Scouts. I was there for nearly a decade and was running a department for girls who have really high risk issues. So, it was just a whole plethora of different programs that I was running. And I was going to grad school and getting my Master’s degree and kept thinking that at some point I wanted to go do something that allows for bigger more strategic thinking than a department for an organization. I wanted to challenge myself and so I came to work one day after telling people I was ready to look for something, as I was finishing my degree, and my email was just flooded with emails saying “The Executive Director position at GEN Austin is open!” (We were GEN Austin at the time) and I was like “I love them! They’re right up my alley with the things that I cared about.” Very similar to Ami. When I was a girl, I wanted something that this organization was providing and that I hadn’t had access to.
Q. Which program do you think has the biggest impact in the community?
AMI: That is a hard question. That’s like asking someone to pick their favorite child. I think we might both have the same answer, if pressed to choose. The 180 program is just really special for our community. I think overall as an agency, our direct service staff, they are all from a social work background and they’re excellent at facilitating really important safe spaces for girls to examine what they want in their lives, their values, etc . 180 is probably contributing to the biggest systemic change that we do in Central Texas is because we are working with girls who have the highest needs who are at a really critical part in their life, where they need a support system. They need to develop positive relationships with peers. They need somebody who is their biggest cheerleader and our direct service staff is that for them. We get phone calls from parents saying “your group became the reason my girl is going to school.” Like, she didn’t want to go to school and she wants to go to school now because she knows she has a group. And so, it’s just endless beautiful stories that emerge from that program.
JULIA: I don’t know how to choose either. But I do think that as far as outcomes on really high risk girls, that’s definitely the program. But I would say on the flip side, when we have that really broad reach through programs like our conference – we make a big impact there as well.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge being a nonprofit in Austin?
JULIA: Fundraising. It’s not because we don’t have a giving city or that we don’t have a worthwhile cause to fundraise for. It’s none of that. It’s that we can’t grow our internal capacity fast enough to meet the need that our organization has to grow. And so, we will have a massive achievement in fundraising and be like “Woohoo! Aw… we have to go beyond it now.” Because there’s just no other option but to go beyond it.
Q. We are so excited to be partnering with GEN this year! Tell me about the specific program YWA is going to be helping with.
AMI: We do a special activity called Speed Mentoring and its based on the model of speed dating. I always say that it’s less awkward, more meaningful. We have been piloting this for about a year and a half in all of our programs. So whether it’s ClubGEN with elementary girls, or our Pathfinder Leadership Summit with high school girls, or a breakout at the Conference with middle school girls – We’re trying to do as much as we can to bring women from all different careers, all different backgrounds, to sit in front of a girl (ideally one-on-one) and have a discussion about how they arrived at where they are and what that girl wants and envisions for her future and just answering any questions that emerge. Time after time the feedback from both the girls and the adults is so positive, that we just know we are on to something cool here. So when Lauren Adams reached out to me and asked how we could partner, I was like well, it’s not an official program of its own, but it’s a special thing that we do 5 or 6 times a year that YWA would be such a perfect fit for, because you guys are already from all different backgrounds. You already have a focus on your own mentoring, with older women, but giving back to the community. So, speed mentoring is going to be the focus of the partnership, where we feel YWA will make the biggest direct impact.
Q. If you could go back and give your younger self advice, what would it be?
AMI: Well, it’d be different advice for each milestone in my life – I was a very different girl in elementary, middle, and high school. But Middle School being the hardest. If I could give myself advice to my middle school Ami, I would say try to remember who you really are and stop being distracted by all of the messages around you. I was a very weird student, I was just quirky and kind of an odd ball. I reclaimed that in high school in a really wonderful way, but in middle school I was like how can I be unseen? How can I dress like everyone else? So, that would be my biggest advice – just try to remember who you are, stay in touch with that. Do you. Stop listening to all of the distractions.
JULIA: Mine is remembering that I should be having a good time. Because I have done that my entire life, where I’ve gotten very wound up about trying to be great at something or ensuring that I’m doing what I said I would do for someone. And then the next thing I know, I’m just not having fun and I’ve gotten better and better at it as I’ve grown older. So, I always felt like if I had a child who was in middle school, I’d be really focused on that “having fun” piece.
Q. Do you guys have a motto that you live your life by?
AMI: Just around nerves, and when you’re feeling very unsure of yourself, feeling like you need to fake it til you make it – my mantra that I’ve discovered and honed in on over the last 4 years now is “Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.” So, I think for a lot of people that means not being afraid to be the person who speaks up.
JULIA: It is “going, going beyond, going beyond beyond, hail the goer.” It’s an old zen mantra that my favorite College professor told me and I wrote it down to never forget it. I just was like “ I want that. I want to do that. I’m going to go beyond.”