MANA de San Diego: Empowering Latinas from the Classroom to the Boardroom

Venus Molina is MANA de San Diego’s President of the Board of Directors and has been involved with the organization for the past 30 years. She is currently serving as Chief of Staff to Councilmember Jennifer Campbell. Previously, Venus served as the Chief of Policy for Council President Myrtle Cole handling budget, business and economic development for Council District Four, Director of Community Affairs and Government Relations for the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, and Chief of Policy for Council President Tony Young.

We sat down with Venus to hear how MANA de San Diego had adapted its programming to the needs of the Latina community in different stages of their educational and professional trajectories.

MANA’s mission is to empower Latinas from the classroom to the boardroom through education, leadership, professional development, advocacy, and community service. MANA’s national office is in Washington D.C. and the San Diego chapter is the largest of the 18 chapters throughout the country. Other chapters have 20 to 30 members on average and we have 500 members in addition to an office with 5 staff members who keep all of our programming going.

MANA, short for hermana or “sister,” as an organization has helped us make our place as leaders in our community and society as a whole. Right now I’m the only Latina chief of staff for San Diego’s city council, and Mary Salas (Past-president of MANA de San Diego) is the Mayor of Chula Vista and was previously an assembly member. Our new Executive Director has been involved with MANA for 15 years, many others have been involved for 20 years and I have been involved for 30.

I started working with MANA in 1987 when I was 12-years-old. I was a guinea pig in a new “Hermanitas” program that aimed to support Latinas in finishing high school. A study had shown that over 50 percent of Latinas were dropping out, due to issues like pregnancy, and the main MANA office in DC had communicated to the San Diego chapter that it was necessary that we support young women.

Source: MANA de San Diego Impact Report, July 2019

Members of MANA visited my Pacific Beach High School and picked 12 of the most at-risk girls from tough neighborhoods to be part of this program. We were partnered with professional Latina mentors; Mine was an accountant for the county and very strict. I have always been very bubbly and gregarious and thought we weren’t a good fit, but she was the best thing for me. She was able to reign me in and encourage me to get involved in school politics. My mentor and I are still in touch today and she is exactly the same: very strict and conservative.

There were a lot of activities that the mentees and mentors did together such as monthly workshops and clusters. When Sylvia Chavez, who was a mentor to another girl in the group, passed away from cancer, it was really hard for us. Her family knew that she loved MANA and Hermanistas and they donated money to start a scholarship fund for the Hermanitas. I was one of the first cohorts to receive this scholarship, which supported me in going to college and pursuing my dreams.

Everything that I am and have learned is because of MANA de San Diego, and I’ve gone through every program the organization has to offer. Now that I am the chair and helping to lead the organization that changed my life, I am super passionate in talking about it because I know that if it worked for me, it will work for so many other women at every stage of their education and professional career.

MANA de San Diego provides services for Latina women at all stages in their lives. Hermanitas offers support for 12 to 17 year-old young women so that they reach college.  Our MANA Scholarship program provides funding to Latinas pursuing undergraduate, graduate school, and law degrees and to date, we’ve raised over $500,000 dollars. The number of recipients usually depends on the amount of funding we can raise; this year we were able to support 31 Latinas. Last year, I also began to sponsor a scholarship under my name to a first generation college student.

Source: MANA de San Diego Impact Report, July 2019

When I started as President, I heard that 100% of our Hermanitas were graduating high school and enrolling in higher education, but they weren’t graduating college. The Hermanitas receive so much personalized attention here and then they go off to Harvard, Columbia, and colleges around the country where they don’t have the same socioemotional support. Most of them are first generation college students who miss their families and support systems back home and get depressed in college so they decide to drop out and come home. Our “Tias” program started as a way to provide our Hermanitas alumni skills-building strategies to effectively navigate the worlds of higher education and adulthood after they went off to college. We want them to know that there are a bunch of women rooting for them.

After finishing their education, we’ve seen that many Latinas get stuck in mid-management positions and we wanted to support them in taking it to the next level by getting promoted into leadership positions or running for office. Our biannual Latina Success Conference has been a big hit for our professions and we’ve been able to get super motivating keynote speakers for our four tracks: financial, wellness and health, leadership, and business. We got feedback that our members didn’t want to wait every two years for this conference, but it was a lot of work for our staff with the fundraising, and we realized we needed to create something else.

Source: MANA de San Diego Impact Report, July 2019

This was how the founders of the conference created the Latina Success Leadership Program (LSLP) in 2015 to address the issue of under-representation of Latinas in leadership roles in both business and government through training and coaching. We’ve worked in collaboration with the Center for Creative Leadership to create the curriculum and we’ve been fine tuning the program along the way. We’ve received very positive feedback and our fifth Latina Success Leadership Program cohort started the course in February.

Latina Success Leadership Program Outcomes

Source: MANA de San Diego Impact Report, July 2019

As MANA de San Diego, we also host Lunch and Learn quarterly breakfasts for members to engage in business networking and hear from inspirational speakers like Norma Diaz, CEO of Community Health Group and Starla Lewis to discuss the cross-sectionality between our Latina and African-American sisters.

As a total number nerd, I’ve been very adamant on compiling the statistics and data about our programs in our annual reports. We have warm and fuzzy stories about our members but I need to see the tangible impacts in the lives of participants and for the community as a whole. This also allows us to see what programs are working well and to make necessary improvements. Last year, our first impact report provided an 8-year snapshot of our main programs through program evaluation, community research, and partnerships with stakeholders including the County of San Diego Community Health Statistics Unit and Jason Cardenas Graphic Design.

Thank you Venus for sharing how you and MANA San Diego inspired so many Latina leaders. We look forward to watching MANA expand programs and help our community flourish:

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