Tag Archives: social programs

His Dream is Still Alive

As a young person in 1963, E. onja Brown got on a bus at W. 138th in Harlem bound for Washington, D.C., alone. 

Once there, she pushed her way up into the crowd assembled before the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. 

“People would let me go past them, because I looked like a kid,” Brown Lawson says. She made her way to the edge of the platform where Dr. King would give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She was so close, in fact, that as she heard his words she reached up and held the hem of his coat. 

“I had never heard anyone that close to me speak like that,” Brown Lawson says. And when she, as a young black woman, was initially denied entry to the college of her choice because of the color of her skin, it was Dr. King’s voice that “carried” her “through the racism” she faced. 

Today, Ms. Brown Lawson is the President of Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Santa Barbara, a purely volunteer-run organization dedicated to fostering “positive relationships between the many diverse groups in the Santa Barbara Community and the surrounding areas; to sponsor programs and events which exemplify the teachings of Dr. King; and to observe and celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.”

(January 2017) (l-r) Poetry coordinator Melinda Palacio and Sojourner Kincaid Rolle along with MLKSB Essay and Poetry Contest Winners. MLK Jr holiday, MLKSB Morning Program at the Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA. (Photo by Rod Rolle)

The committee’s primary charge is producing four days of events across Isla Vista, Goleta, Santa Barbara, and the Santa Ynez Valley to celebrate the King holiday in January every year, since 2007. This year’s series of events included a kickoff at the eternal flame at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to celebrate Dr. King; the annual Unity March; and a culminating speech by civil rights icon and King contemporary Dr. James Lawson. 

Throughout the year, the committee works to ensure that Dr. King’s words and actions are known and contemplated by people across the community, particularly the young. For that reason, the MLK committee organizes an annual poetry and essay writing contest where elementary and high school students win cash prizes for poems and essays centered on a theme for the year, along with Dr. King’s life and teachings. 

Ms. Brown Lawson laments that the achievements of the Civil Rights era did not alleviate racism, but sees incredible hope in the young people the committee tries to connect to Dr. King’s legacy every day of the year. 

“Listening to his words that day gave me the courage and strength to persevere despite many obstacles,” Brown Lawson says. “And that is what I believe Dr. King can do for young people today… his voice, his passion, and his resolve is the essence of the kind of person he was and what he stood for. My hope is that the younger generation can understand how he is still relevant today.”

Girls Take the Lead

By her sophomore year of high school, Sarahi Larios Cruz had already experienced family disruption, racism and systemic inequity, but she chose the “path of most resistance” focusing on overcoming these challenges and limitations to create the future she envisions for herself.

Key throughout her journey has been her confidence and resilience, which she cultivated at Girls Inc.’s Goleta Valley Teen Center where she spent almost every weekday from 2:45 – 6:00 PM.

“Girls Inc. is a place of independence, support, respect and opportunity,” Larios Cruz said during the Girls Inc. 2019 Celebration Luncheon. “At Girls Inc. I am at home. It is a place I am excited to go to, and a place I don’t want to leave.”

And while the space itself is “home,” it is the Girls Inc. staff – many of whom are Latina like Sarahi – that serve as her “extended family” and make her experience so transformational.

In fall of 2019, Larios Cruz was selected as one of 12 teens to serve on the National Girls Inc. Teen Advocacy Council where she advises the national organization’s public policy team about the issues facing girls and teens in their respective communities. With the leadership skills she has developed from the experience, attending college is not even a question for Larios Cruz after she graduates in 2021.

For CEO Barbara Ben-Horin, the strength of young women like Larios Cruz is the whole reason why Girls Inc. exists. When girls have tools and opportunities, they change their own circumstances and they also change the circumstances of others around them.

“The girls are not victims, they are powerful,” Ben-Horin says. “We want them to take their power and their voices into the world and make their mark as leaders.”

To do that, Girls Inc. uses its two facilities in downtown Santa Barbara and in Goleta to serve as many as 1,500 girls and teens every year. The programming is developed around the three words that capture the group’s mission: inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.

Strong (healthy) programs are aimed at health and wellness. Smart (educated) programs focus on academic enrichment and literacy and developing girls’ interests in pursuing STEM. Bold (independent) programs cultivate girls’ social and emotional intelligence and teach girls – many of whom grow up in under-resourced communities – to break through gender bias to create their place as powerful leaders as adults. These programs focus on areas such as economic literacy, leadership, civic engagement, and advocacy.

After nine years at Girls Inc., Larios Cruz is the embodiment of Girls Inc.’s mission – confidently shaping her own path forward, and ready to take the lead.