From the heart: Amanda Villarreal '12's fight for girls' empowerment
October 2013—story by Jenny Morgan, photo courtesy of Amanda Villarreal '12.
When Amanda Villarreal ’12 tells women about the Girls Empowerment Network of Austin (GENaustin), the reaction she gets is almost universal.
“People say to me, ‘I really wish I had something like that when I was younger,’” Villarreal says.
The Austin, Texas native knows exactly where they’re coming from. In high school, Villarreal took her first job as a mentor with GENaustin because she wanted to be the role model she never had. Dedicated to “helping girls navigate the unique pressures of girlhood,” GENaustin works annually with over 6,000 girls from fourth to twelfth grades in the greater Austin area. Today, she is again working with the organization, and for Villarreal, it is the culmination of a deeply personal journey of advocacy and empowerment for girls and women alike.
Growing up, Villarreal witnessed some of her closest friends and family members struggle with dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, and substance abuse. “Most of these friends were girls,” she says. Villarreal was determined to find a career that would enable her to help girls in similar situations. When she arrived at Amherst, she decided to major in psychology. “I thought if I could help people individually, and make them feel better about themselves, they wouldn’t get into [those situations],” she explains.
At Amherst, Villarreal found opportunities to think critically about gender both in and outside the classroom—something she hadn’t expected. “I had never heard of the term ‘feminism’ before I came to Amherst,” she says. “I had sociology classes that touched on gender, and I started to see that the problems my friends and family faced were much bigger than personal decision-making.”
Villarreal found her “home away from home” at Girls Inc. of Holyoke, a non-profit whose motto is “inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.” She began as a volunteer tutor, but quickly moved into a leadership role as a Community Engagement Leader (CEL) in the CCE’s student leadership program. She helped manage all of Amherst’s Girls Inc. volunteers, and it was an easy fit for Villarreal. “I found that I loved motivating people around a central goal,” she says. As a Latina CEL working at Girls Inc., she was deliberate in educating the volunteers about doing work in a context with girls who were, largely, also Latina. “I always wanted the tutors knowing more about Holyoke itself,” she adds.
Villarreal’s four-year transformation at Amherst was profound. By the time she graduated in 2012, she’d crafted a six-chapter special topics paper—Villarreal calls it her "pseudo-thesis"—on the effectiveness of the Girls Inc. curriculum, offering suggestions for how Amherst College can be more active in “creating a strong network of powerful, gender-breaking women” for the girls in the Holyoke program.
After graduating, Villarreal moved from Amherst to Washington, D.C. to try her hand at public policy, working first for Girls Inc. at the national level and later the American Association of University Women and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Villarreal not only found opportunities to research and craft policy, she found something she’d long felt was missing: a strong network of women. “In D.C., I felt a connectedness to the women’s community that I didn’t feel at Amherst,” she says. For Villarreal, accessing this D.C. network of women meant that she could afford working for non-profits in an expensive city: Midwest Academy founder Heather Booth invited Villarreal to live rent-free in Booth’s basement.
Inspired by the success of the D.C. women’s network, Villarreal founded the Amherst Women’s Network (AWN) to give Amherst women, both alumnae and students, structured opportunities for networking, mentorship, and conversation. “How can we create something to facilitate women getting to know each other, supporting each other, and learning from each other?” Villarreal has helped to establish an on-campus mentorship program to connect older and younger students, and she’s created an online community for alumnae. Although it’s just getting off the ground, the AWN has already had quite a bit of success. “One of my friends just got a job through someone she didn’t know except through the Amherst Women’s Network,” Villarreal says. “That’s the network doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Today, Villarreal works as the Outreach Specialist for GENaustin, creating partnerships within the greater Austin community and promoting the organization’s work. She’s hard at work planning the annual We Are Girls statewide conference, where she’ll also lead a body image workshop in Spanish. Villarreal notes that GENaustin puts a strong emphasis on reaching out to Austin’s Latino communities, and this is something she embraces. “Around sixty percent of the girls we work with are Latina. I see myself in a lot of them.” Equally important to Villarreal is that she’s doing this work as a Latina woman. “There are usually less Latinas represented in mainstream girls’ and women’s empowerment initiatives. [This work] is very close to my heart,” she says.
Villarreal’s work has always been close to her heart. “The work I do has never been because I read about it in a book and it sounded interesting. The work I do is very personal. Most people who get involved in this work as deeply as I am in it now, it’s because it’s very personal.”