The program started by Rep. Stephanie Chang is encouraging girls to become active in their communities and inspiring them to run for office.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Erin Kirkland
It’s been a busy school year for Cass Tech High School senior Amina Khalique. The 17-year-old attended the Women’s Convention at Cobo Center, planned an alternative prom when her school’s prom conflicted with Ramadan and helped organize a March for Our Lives event to protest gun violence.
These are things the Detroit resident never thought she would be able to accomplish before participating in Girls Making Change, a fellowship program created by Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who represents Michigan’s 6th House District. During the 10-week summer program, a group of about 10 fellows from Chang’s district, which includes Southwest Detroit as well as the cities of Ecorse and River Rouge, learn about the legislative process, leadership skills and community organizing. They also learn something about themselves — that they have the power to affect change.
Before taking part in the program last year, Khalique was interested in social justice, but says she was “quiet.”
“I wanted to be an activist, but I didn’t know how to do that,” she says.
Now she’s an empowered young woman leader of color who handles media interviews with the savvy of a seasoned politician and has recently become an assistant coordinator for the program that taught her so much.
While she ended up not throwing that alternative prom, she did accomplish something else. Khalique, who is Muslim, lobbied the school to change the date to make prom more inclusive. The date wasn’t changed for this year, but Khalique says her advocacy led to the Detroit school district altering its processes so that in the future, prom will not be scheduled during Ramadan and, in turn, be more inclusive.
“Ultimately, I want Girls Making Change to give these girls the skills and opportunities to improve their communities — just like it did for me,” says Khalique, who is interested in running for office some day.
And that’s exactly the goal of Girls Making Change. Now in its third year, the program aims to cultivate a pipeline of women of color leaders. It’s especially timely in today’s political climate; according to reports, record numbers of women are running for office this year.
Program Director Gabriela Santiago-Romero says at the beginning of last year’s program, none of the girls considered running for office.
“But once we talked about their power and the privilege they have and how they’re able to access resources, they’re like, ‘We can actually do this,’ ” says Santiago-Romero, a master’s student in social work at the University of Michigan and an activist in Southwest Detroit. “They started with, ‘I never really thought about it’ (to seriously considering it as a career). One of the most active girls right now wanted to be a nurse at first, and now she’s completely changed it (to public relations working with politicians and constituents). They have intentions now, and they can do whatever they want and know how to influence policy in whatever aspect they’re in.”
They’re not the only ones who thought they couldn’t do it at first. Before Chang decided to run for office in 2013, it took her a few months to decide if she should go for it, she says.
The then-30-year-old hadn’t held public office, but she had nearly 10 years of experience serving as a community organizer in Detroit, state director for NextGen Climate Michigan, alumni engagement coordinator for the Center for Progressive Leadership in Michigan and the community engagement coordinator for the James and Grace Lee Bogs School.
Eventually, she decided to throw her hat into the ring after she received encouragement from other women.
“Once I got to the point where I was super excited to be running, it was like, ‘Wow, it took me that long to (decide to run),’ ” says Chang, who has served two terms as representative and is running for state Senate this year.
“We should be finding ways to support young women so that they don’t have to take six months to think about running for office, that they will already feel supported and know that it’s something they can do. … It shouldn’t be that hard for young women of color to decide to run for office. It should be something they already know is a possibility and that they already know the skills and how to be a good community leader and have a support system.”
Most importantly, young women need to see a role model who looks like them. As the first Asian-American female representative elected to the state Legislature, Chang has paved the way for them.
“Stephanie is a great leader and role model,” Khalique says. “I remember a few months ago, when I was organizing my alternative prom, Stephanie called me one afternoon and expressed her full support for what I was doing and offered me many resources to help with my plan. I don’t think she realized it then, but she was one of the reasons that I went through with organizing the alternative prom and attempting to change the prom date at my school.” Khalique adds that Chang often visits the Mary Turner Center, where Girls Making Change is facilitated in Detroit.
“I was always amazed at her ability to inspire all of the girls in the room, just by the words she said,” Khalique says. “The fact that she created GMC to get more women of color in office — to me, that says so much about her as a leader.”