18 Degrees continues advancing social justice as we wrapped up our first year of running a leadership development program for young women of color in greater Springfield called the Young Women’s Advisory Council (YWAC). The program, funded in partnership with The Women’s Fund of Western MA, and developed through the national Young Women’s Initiative, consisted of up to 20 young women, ages 14-24. Through leadership development and social justice programming, these young leaders investigated barriers, explored solutions, and made recommendations for change in their community. Participants were encouraged to share their knowledge with school and peer communities by launching clubs or hosting workshops. The young woman of YWAC divided themselves into four task force groups to address mental health awareness for girls and women, the school to prison pipeline, feminine health care, and the exploitation of women and girls through sex trafficking. Each of the young women expressed personal knowledge, had experience, or significant interest in the topics, which led to their choice of participation in a task force.
Written by the Feminine Health Task Force:
YWAC creates a safe space for young women and young women of color to speak freely on our thoughts and experiences of living in Springfield. Having conversations with each other and with esteemed women from the community about gender and racial concerns broaden our range of thought, allows us to compare experiences and ideas, and gives an opportunity to network with other women. Our goal is to use resources and discussions to collaborate about an issue within our city that could benefit from more attention.
The young women spent time in sessions, reading articles, and expressing their interest and concern regarding each topic. The last three months were designed for the participants to use their knowledge about grants and giving, philanthropy, and community organizing, however as it came time for them to prepare statements to share with community agencies, COVID-19 interrupted the group’s process.
Nonetheless, they persisted! The women and the facilitators learned to Zoom; text messaging and posting on apps became a regular occurrence. Four of the 18 participants worked at essential businesses, including a grocery store, a bank, and restaurants, while others navigated remote learning. They successfully overcame the challenges of coordinating schedules. The group recognized that most agencies were responding to the pandemic as a priority, leaving little opportunity to discuss their identified social justice issues. It was no longer feasible for the task forces to request a response from agencies. Instead, they learned different grantmaking strategies to choose an agency that best accommodates the needs as identified by their task forces, and that has a significant impact on girls and women in Springfield.
The group collectively showed up during these unprecedented times. Although the processes were not as planned, and not all outcomes were met, the young women expressed that they felt the benefits. They have stated that because of the group, they have grown more observant, that their critical thinking and listening skills have improved and that they appreciate the opportunity to work with people with different perspectives and hearing the stories of successful women.