By Nancy Flores Austin American-Statesman
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)> Latinitas, the nonprofit group that began as an idea in a University of Texas classroom has blossomed into an ever-evolving organization that offers workshops, camps, after-school programs for Latina youth.
After recently receiving a tech-focused city grant for marginalized communities, Latinitas co-founder and CEO Laura Donnelly looked around her East Austin office and felt proud.
Latinitas, the nonprofit group she started 15 years ago to empower young girls, received the grant recognition alongside some bigger organizations and some of the community's most respected nonprofits.
"I feel like we have arrived as an organization," Donnelly said. Latinitas, which annually provides digital media and technology training to nearly 3,000 girls and teens across Texas, celebrates its 15th anniversary on June 10 with a quinceañera-themed gala. "As an organization, we are ready for our (high) heels," Donnelly said with a laugh.
What began as an idea in a University of Texas classroom along with co-founder Alicia Rascón has blossomed into an ever-evolving organization that offers workshops, camps, after-school programs and an online magazine for Latina youth. The city grant will now also help fund a virtual reality design program.
Since its inception, the board of directors has transitioned from "pretty much your tias (aunts) helping out" to community members representing a variety of fields from media and marketing to engineers and entrepreneurs.
Now, 93 percent of Latinitas alumni graduate from high school. In 2008, Latinitas expanded to El Paso, and Donnelly said she sees potential for expansion to other cities.
Sometimes when students arrive for a Latinitas summer camp, which is open to girls ages 9-14, "you can barely hear them" because they almost speak in a whisper, Donnelly said. Seeing how the girls gain self-confidence is, for Donnelly, among the most rewarding aspects of Latinitas.
"That might be why these girls (eventually) get into tech in the future -- because it was presented in a package that included support, mentoring and camaraderie," she said.
For Latinitas alumna Krista Nesbitt, 24, the experience at the nonprofit helped shape how she saw herself. "I believe discussing the representation of Latinas in the media at such a young age required me to constantly self-reflect," said Nesbitt, who now lives in Fort Worth and teaches art. "I felt compelled to think about what I wanted to represent and stand for. Above all, Latinitas inspired me to be fearless and passionate."
While at a Latinitas after-school program in Martin Middle School, Sara Martinez, now 23, remembers she wrote a poem for a Mother's Day contest that won first place. Donnelly took her to Austin City Hall where she met then-Austin Mayor Will Wynn. It was her first time meeting an elected official and stepping into City Hall. "All I did was write about my mom," she remembers thinking at the time.
That moment has stayed with her: "When you come from a poor family, you tend to feel hopeless. ... That (contest) was important for someone like me."
Martinez, a national sales assistant at Austin's KXAN-TV, said her Latinitas experience helped her realize that not only did she enjoy being creative, but that her creativity could also contribute to society.
Although Donnelly said she sees more portrayals of Latina women in media than when the organization began 15 years ago, "girls are still hard-pressed to see themselves portrayed" in a positive way.
She pointed to students who grew up watching characters like Dora the Explorer who were still wearing Dora attire as high schoolers and trying to make it cool as teenagers because "there still hasn't been anything on that level of validation and celebration of a young character who is Hispanic."
During the past 15 years, the organization has dealt with various obstacles, including overcoming financial challenges after the recession. "We did get to the point where we were like, 'Are we going to make it?'" Donnelly said.
The nonprofit cut back on expenses and staff had to leave, but Donnelly said the community came together to rally around it. "Even if it had died because of financial reasons, I know that so many girls had so many positive experiences and realized that their point of view mattered," she said.
While more than half of Austin school district kindergartners during the 2016-17 school year were Hispanic, according to the district, Donnelly said that when most people think of Austin youths they don't think of Hispanic youths.
"These girls have a powerful influence emerging," she said. "How do we create a better understanding that this is a quantity of talent that we have to protect?"