Lucy Herrera and Karla Ortiz, two young mujeres making a difference in the Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
“When I went to high school I didn’t have a mentor that looked like me, a person of color, a Latina,” says Karla Ortiz, a youth organizer with the East Los Angeles Women’s Center, a nonprofit that works with women affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.
As a sophomore at Bravo Medical Magnet High School, the City Terrace native took a 24-hour training in healthy relationships, social justice and leadership from the same organization where she now helps young women aged 14 to 24 deal with the very same issues.
Ortiz, 19, says many Latinas grow up oppressed by a patriarchal system where they are forced to repress many of their feelings.
“We don’t have spaces for young women to come [be supportive] of one another,” she says. “We need to speak out and say, ‘no, this violence is real and it is happening.’ When you hear that from another Latina, another person of color, you see that you’re not the only one with the struggle.”
Herrera knows that sentiment well. She grew up in Ramona Gardens and found a mentor in Lou Calanche, the founder and executive director of Legacy LA, an organization focused on youth development at that public housing development in Boyle Heights.
After graduating in political science from UC Riverside, she returned to Ramona Gardens and Legacy LA. In her current position as leadership manager, she runs a program that teaches youth about social justice issues and how to advocate for change in their community.
“Despite the fact that I majored in political science, I learned more about navigating through the political system working at Legacy LA,” she says. “I learned that I’m really needed in my community, that it’s important for youth from Ramona Gardens to see a mentor who comes from the exact same community as them, because it helps them truly believe that they can make it out.”
Having gone through the same experience, Herrera is able to prepare her mentees for the challenges most kids who come from underserved neighborhoods face in college.
“We don’t only give them the tools to go to college, but we give them the tools to successfully graduate,” says Herrera, 25.
The East Los Angeles Women’s Center and Legacy LA are nonprofit organizations that are part of the Building Healthy Communities - Boyle Heights initiative funded by The California Endowment. And both Herrera and Ortiz –who are featured in the Dec. 27 episode of Town Hall Los Angeles– were mentors this August in the TCE’s Sisterhood Rising one-week retreat in Portola, a Francisco neighborhood.
“I feel like I made a difference in [the young girls’ lives] by telling them my story,” says Herrera, who says she may be ready to expand her horizons after four years at Legacy. She says she is grateful for the opportunity the organization has given her to financially support her family still living in Ramona Gardens, but that she is encouraged by the very same advice she gives her mentees.
“We don’t want our students to remain stagnant, we want them to keep growing and I want to keep growing,” she says.
Herrera too has long-term plans, but for now is happy balancing her job with her volunteering and her church.
Asked about what makes a leader, Ortiz says it’s about knowing when to speak and when to step back.
“You don’t always have to be in the front,” she says. “A leader can also be in the sidelines. Being a leader is knowing what’s right and also pursuing it. Definitely educating other people and encouraging other people to join the movement.”
This story was previously published on December, 27, 2017.