In honor of Women’s History Month, community leader and Girls Inc. Board Member Luz Reyes-Martín talks with Girls Inc. CEO Jen Faust about the future for gender equity. An abbreviated version of their conversation was published in the March 4, 2022 issue of Voice Magazine.
I’m looking forward to the next 50 years because it feels like the moment is now to finally consolidate what we have been inching toward for hundreds of years. Our young people are ready to make it happen.
– CEO Jen Faust
LRM: How were you inspired to become an advocate for women and girls?
JF: My community and family experiences shaped me to be an influential voice for standing up for what’s right and my mother especially demonstrated how to be disruptive for good. She was orphaned as a pre-teen and became an adult very quickly knowing she was responsible for herself. She had to figure out how to make things happen for herself.
Naturally, my mother was a ‘bend the rules’ kind of mom. She did not do this to be provocative but because she had to find a way to make sure our needs were met. I was one of four kids with a mom who was a teacher and a dad in civil service. We did not have means, so creativity and bucking the system (as appropriate) was just what it took to pave the way for me and my siblings to be successful as much as our inherent potential allowed.
So many experiences since then have taught me that many – might I say most – women and girls today do not have that kind of family and community support system. My upbringing allowed me to understand that I could achieve what was inherently possible in me as long as I was committed to hard work and being curious about navigating the systems around me.
I saw female role models rejecting prevailing rules that limited their potential. I learned not to accept anything face value but to be curious and understand the ‘why’ behind the rule. As an adult professional I was still unprepared for the world awaiting me that told me a young woman who had a tremendous sense of self efficacy was unwelcome in current systems.
My mission is to make sure every girl, teen and young woman can be in a position of control of her own destiny. I have always found ways to actively coach, mentor and sponsor individual women and professionals of color in my world who face challenges working their way up. Now I am doing it on a bigger scale – at Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara. We get to tell young people: ‘you choose your future, decide how you want to lead and use your voice, and take care of yourself; we will work to remove the barriers that do not support you.’
LRM: What are the most challenging aspects of being a strong woman leader?
JF: It’s challenging to know that it is still not a fair fight and equity eludes us. If we do not address the problem, we will continue to say to young people – ‘well, here’s what you need because it won’t be a fair fight.’ I grew up in the era of Title IX, which will soon pass it’s 50-year milestone. I’m looking forward to the next 50 years because it feels like the moment is now to finally consolidate what we have been inching toward for hundreds of years. Our young people are ready to make it happen. There is going to be a generational change in our leadership. That’s just a fact. There are a few barriers that stand in the way and it is our jobs to remove them. It’s in our interest to acknowledge and help launch these new leaders.
LRM: In honor of Women’s History Month, which women leaders resonate with you?
JF: It’s the Mill Girls of the post-civil war period who keep me going. Girls Inc. was founded in that era to be a safe place for girls to gather. They boldly and courageously left their family farms to work in industrialized and urban towns. For the Mill Girls, it was not a single leader in that group. It was an unintentional coalition of girls who coalesced around a desire to self-educate in a time when that was not the normal way. They discussed and deliberated rights for women and others in our nation who were marginalized. For the first time, young women gained a sense of financial power and self-determination. I feel just as empowered today by the young women leaders who are making history now and creating the 21st century coalitions of change: Greta Thunberg, Malala Youssefsi, and poet and thought leader Amanda Gorman.
After almost 65 years in Santa Barbara, Girls Inc. is still so desperately needed to help our community continue to discover that half the population has incredible potential.
LRM: What is your vision for Girls Inc.’s role in achieving equity?
JF: There’s such tremendous potential in young people; incredible potential in girls and people are recognizing that. We want to center the thought leadership of girls and teens on the issues facing them in California and beyond. Girls Inc.’s evidence-based programs build capacity of girls and teens to make great things happen for themselves. As the new CEO, I am energized to oversee a rapid evolution of our program model from center-based activity to partnering with other community nonprofits like Peoples’ Self Help Housing, to provide services directly in the community and at Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Lompoc schools. I am excited to conduct a community needs assessment with an advocacy lens to fully understand how the pandemic has impacted the girls and teens as well as the families we serve. We know that there is tremendous need for Girls Inc. in North Santa Barbara County. With support from the community, Girls Inc. will launch a new strategic plan for our 65th Anniversary in 2023.
One of the key ways we will do this is to understand how youth can self-advocate for their own needs. Part of our current community assessment will take on an advocacy lens. Girls Inc. wants to center the thought leadership of girls and teens on the issues facing them in California and beyond. We are in the most inclusive state. As a result of that, many of the issues we feel here are later felt in the rest of the nation. I feel Girls Inc. in Santa Barbara as well as our sister-affiliates in Carpinteria and spanning both south and north have a role in providing this kind of support within our network.
LRM: What can we learn from women’s history to help define our next steps toward gender equity as a society and locally?
JF: Women’s history is a story of a multitude of strong women in coalition to improve community. This approach has been effective in bringing about societal transformations and I take that lesson to heart. We may look at our elected officials and others in the systems who hold decision-making power and wonder why more has not happened. I know that is not enough. It takes community to be making the overwhelming shift in society required to ensure that the systems are moving to a better place for us all.
LRM: Why do you think the arc of progress toward gender equity has been so slow?
JF: It’s hard to comprehend the many ways our systems do not support or promote girls and women. The biggest challenges continue to be the subliminal messages we send to girls about being nice. Standing up for yourself and voicing your opinion is regarded as aggressive or abrasive. In my almost 30-years in the working world I see this is still a thing. I am still so careful. After almost 65 years in Santa Barbara, Girls Inc. is still so desperately needed to help our community continue to discover that half the population has incredible potential. I will be happy when we navigate the next 50 years and can say we have done it. I know with how interconnected the world is today that we are making more rapid progression and things are not as slow as they were before. Just look at the past few decades of technology and innovation – our children and grandchildren are digital natives who have incredible tools to bring about change. I don’t think it’s going to take another half a century.
My mission is to make sure every girl, teen and young woman can be in a position of control of her own destiny.
Jen Faust became CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara in January 2022. A women’s leadership advocate and policy expert, Jen works to ensure girls’ and women’s empowerment and equal participation at both the policy and practice levels. She has worked to secure economic and voting rights for women in Kosovo and served in the Peace Corps organizing economic empowerment movements for women in Haiti. Jen previously served as Executive Director for the Pacific Council on International Policy, University of Southern California.
Luz Reyes-Martín is a Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara board member. She is the vice president of community engagement at Planned Parenthood California Central Coast, and an elected school board member for the Goleta Union School District. As a civic leader, she also sits on the board of CALM.