This is the first installment of Latinas empowering other Latinas to succeed in honor of Women’s History Month.
Nancy Roldán Johnson always knew she wanted a better life. “In the process of growing up, I just saw a lot of negative behavior around me, and, ironically, I was comforted by shows like the Cosbys and the Brady Bunch. I said ‘that’s the kind of life I want.’”
A defining moment in her life, Johnson says, was when one of her teachers looked at her and said, “’you– you’re going to be somebody one day. I’m going to read about you one day.’”
That interaction sparked something inside of her. “That really made me think ‘what am I supposed to do?’” she says
A daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Johnson was the first in her very large family to attend and graduate college.
“The journey of going to college was very isolating and difficult,” she says, “and my goal was to one day, make the journey for one girl a little bit easier.”
Johnson says that the idea for an organization began when she wrote a letter to her estranged mother who had just had a heart attack.“I realized she did the absolute best job that she knew how to do and that she loved me unconditionally. It was life-changing for me,” she says. “I thought I could help young girls by writing a self-help book.
Though the plan to publish her self-help book didn’t pan out like she expected, this propelled her to create an organization to empower Latinas.
Johnson says that alarming statistics about Latinas also made her want to act. “I was shocked that very, very little people were talking about, especially at a mass level, that young Latinas are struggling– 53 percent become pregnant at least once before they turn 20, the high school drop out rate is incredibly high, and they’re attempting suicide in really high numbers,” she says.
Johnson realized she knew a lot of Latina women who had defied the odds, and that together, they could mobilize. In 2008, Johnson and her friend Carmen R. Marcano-Davis, Ph.D., formed The Latina A.R.M.Y (Accomplished Role-Models Motivating Young Latinas).
“The exposure to everyday Latina role models, not just the Jennifer Lopezes and the celebrities, but everyday, hardworking Latina women that are adding value to society, that’s what I think is important for our young kids,” she says.
The core program of the Latina A.R.M.Y is conducted during the school day with the cooperation of a guidance counselor. Setting goals and identifying the people who could help them are major components of the workshops. The four tools they use are known as J.A.R.S. (journaling, affirmations, rules, and setting goals), and their logo is a butterfly. “Like the butterfly,” she says, “it’s a journey from inside out.”
One success story that stands out for Johnson is of a young girl who had difficulty communicating with her mother. She decided to use the tools she learned in the workshop by using a whiteboard to identify all of her negative thoughts. “As soon as she had a grip on the negative thought,” Johnson says, “she was going to cross it out and replace it with something positive.” Her mother then did the same and both were able to better understand each other.
Another participant told Johnson that the program gave her the courage to tell her family she was gay, and when she did, her mother was joyful and relieved; it was a celebratory moment.
Getting involved in the program is simple, Johnson says. Anyone can go to the website to fill out a volunteer form. Once a volunteer goes through a screening process, she receives materials to learn how to conduct a workshop.
Johnson also urges Latinos to help their communities by serving on nonprofit boards. “It’s a way to build leadership and really make change,” she says.
A small gesture can also make a world of difference, like it did for Johnson when she was a young girl.
“When you see someone, a young girl or a young boy,” she says, “look them in the eye and tell them that you expect great things from them.”
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and a contributor for The Huffington Post and other publications. Her poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Witness, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and many others. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com