The Women's Network Looking to Empower Teen Girls

June 28, 2019

Chicago high school student Learesi Montes had never heard of Step Up Women’s Network when she happened to meet the program director at a class picnic. Afterward, she decided to check out a meeting. “It was amazing. I was so inspired,” Montes says. “There were so many women there who were so successful. I wasn’t exposed to that where I grew up.” One woman, a schoolteacher, became her mentor after that first meeting. They talked books, then colleges, application essays and career possibilities.

And that’s precisely how SUWN works: Teen girls in underserved communities connect with professional women mentors and chart new possibilities for their own futures. “When a girl has the opportunity to be mentored by a woman she admires, it is magic,” says SUWN CEO Jenni Luke. “A mentor’s role is to look at a girl and see her potential, not her past or her circumstances. It is life changing.”

SUWN currently partners with schools in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. Any girl enrolled in those school districts can join their mentorship programs that help girls become “confident, college bound and career-ready.”

During 9th and 10th grades, SUWN girls attend weekly afterschool programs that use the arts—collages, music, creative writing—to help them explore their identities, interests and skills. One example: A recent creative writing project had girls start with the words, “Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I…” Each one decided how to fill in that sentence (one wrote “… like to wear skirts”) and illustrated her declaration with photos.

In 11th grade, monthly meetings shift focus to career readiness, and the 12th grade program is all about college preparation, culminating in a paid summer internship.

SUWN is also dedicated to helping its professional mentors, creating an environment where those women can grow and connect with other like-minded women. They have access to networking opportunities, professional development events and power breakfasts. This commitment to the mentors keeps the cycle going. When the mentors advance professionally, they have more to invest and offer the program.

One measure of SUWN’s success: This is the third year in which 100 percent of Step Up seniors have graduated high school and 100 percent have been accepted to college. It is a telling statistic, considering the circumstances in which most of these girls are raised. 

Montes will attend the University of Wisconsin this fall, studying education policy. She still marvels at the power of SUWN, and that women she didn’t know were willing to help her find her way. “Someone I never met…they already believed in me,” she says. “Every girl should have that.” 

Step Up Women’s Network strives to empower teen girls in underserved urban communities. Through weekly activities and consistent mentoring with successful women, the girls benefit from a network of supportive individuals who help them dream—and achieve—big. Learn how you can help at suwn.org.