November 28, 2017

This mentorship program gives a voice to America’s immigrant youth

Founded by the daughter of immigrants, the nonprofit SPEAK Mentorship empowers girls to become leaders in their communities

SPEAK Mentorship High School Ambassadors, Peer Leader Mentees, and volunteers create community through the nonprofit's mentorship programs. Photo courtesy of SPEAK Mentorship

At SPEAK Mentorship, we are committed to providing girls of immigrant backgrounds opportunities of advancement that they otherwise would not have. SPEAK stands for Support, Prepare, Empower Aspiring Kids. We use mentorship as the primary tool to do just that. SPEAK works with young girls who are navigating dual cultures and can often suffer from conflicts that stem from not having the appropriate tools to assimilate within a global context while still having to adhere to more traditional cultural practices. Here in the U.S., we work with girls of immigrant backgrounds; globally, SPEAK works with girls who are in traditional communities situated within or nearby globalizing cities.

We believe in the power of mentoring. Here’s why we believe in mentoring girls who are immigrants and first-generation American citizens:

1. To tackle gender inequity and disparity in education and careers.

A girl of immigrant background in the U.S. may experience many insecurities, especially given the current national rhetoric around immigrants or children of immigrants viewed as “outgroups.” These girls face many limitations from their intersectional identities of being a youth, a youth of color, an immigrant, and gender inequity and disparity. Given the greater number of obstacles girls of immigrant backgrounds face, SPEAK Mentorship primarily works to activate their knowledge and agency so they develop in a way that also ensures they are raising their children and lifting their communities to mitigate the clear systemic bias experienced by the many groups with which they identify.

2. To help immigrant adults secure their futures and the futures of their families in America.

Immigrants come to America with the American Dream and struggle working long hours for little pay while navigating a number of obstacles such as language barriers, financial instability, gaps in knowledge around education, and a lack of a network to help understand what it means to appropriately assimilate into their new culture. So often, we see that this results in immigrants identifying with people of their own background, limiting their network of opportunity, to assume some stability and familiarity in this new world. Immigrants, understandably, are often risk averse, choosing financial stability as a way to “make it” in America. They also steadfastly promote their cultural practices to their children as a way to provide some familiarity amidst all the uncertainty and unknown. Helping the adults assimilate across some contexts is great for diversity and inclusion of all voices that represent America.

3. To help children of immigrant backgrounds identify with their American roots.

The children of immigrants end up assuming an “in-between” identity, neither being fully American nor being a complete representative of the country of origin. This creates many levels of conflicts as they deal with feeling like an outsider in the country they call home. They grow up watching American television, which can have very few references to the cultural practices of their home and may even ostracize a culture for being “exotic.” They may struggle to find a connection with classmates because they don’t eat the same foods, celebrate the same holidays, or even speak the same language. We then see these children often preferring to befriend people who look similar to them—other “in-betweens” who may not need any explanation when talking about injera, bhangra, or qipao. (Injera is a traditional Ethiopian dish, bhangra is a type of traditional Indian dance, and qipao is a type of traditional Chinese dress.) These children need mentors to help them develop a hybrid culture, which allows them to proudly be bicultural across all contexts.

4. To support the health and wellness of our youth.

What results is a variety of conflicts—wondering whether you are entirely American or whether you are of an outsider—from a country you may have no real ties with. These internal conflicts can lead to imposter syndrome, self-esteem and confidence issues, conflicts between generations for raising children within cultural practices that may stand in direct opposition to the mainstream culture. These conflicts lead to youth underestimating and underachieving their true potential and can cause mental health and wellness issues. This impacts so much of our progress in America today given the ever increasing number of individuals who identify as immigrants. According to Migration Policy Institute, 26 percent of the 69.9 million children under the age of 18 in the U.S. identified at least one parent as being immigrant in 2015. Imagine the implication on our future workforce if these children do not get the proper skills, networks, and guidance to truly cultivate their potential and identify the best opportunities to advance.

So what can you do? Get involved with SPEAK Mentorship as a mentor. We are always looking for mentors to work with our youth over the course of one nine-session long Mentoring Round. Committing less than one hour per week for nine weeks can make a lasting positive impact and will result in a multiplier effect as the youth grow to help others.

It is our goal to drive social change by developing girls to pursue careers they are passionate about. As they get older and have families of their own, they will be able to serve as such strong role models for their own children and also to those around them in their communities. This is why, at SPEAK, we’re focusing our efforts to bring more opportunities of leadership, experiences around careers of interest, and overall exposure to real valuable role models to our girls directly within their communities.

Given my background as a daughter of immigrants, I closely understand the conflicts that stem from a loss of control around forming your identity because you are caught in between two worlds. I’ve traveled extensively and lived abroad to better understand what culture really means to individuals and how culture is so closely tied to the community you live in.

The girls of SPEAK are brilliant. At such a young age, they know what they want to do, but, more importantly, they show empathy towards others. We know that they will define success by how many people they help through the careers they pursue and by making themselves the most qualified applicants for jobs of the future. As young women, they can feel the needs of others, and as natural nurturers, they will commit to pulling others up with them as they rise to the top. Let’s give them access to opportunities and help them realize this potential.

Hetal Jani

SPEAK Mentorship

Hetal Jani is a New York City native, which has colored her experience as an educator interested in how culture, society, and inter-personal relationships develop people. This led her to pursue a Master in Psychology from Queens College of New York and a Master in Education from Harvard University. An MBA from IE Business School in Spain and two years in various academic environments in China has given her the insight and passion for developing more culturally aware, empathetic, and capable global citizens. She leads this work through the movement of empowering girls in order to develop communities everywhere.