Young Latinas in the Northeast San Fernando Valley are continuing to receive educational support through DIY Girls, a nonprofit organization that provides free science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education to girls and gender-expansive youth.
“When I was an engineer, I was often the only woman in the room, the only Latina in the room, the only person of color in a meeting room. And I wanted to change that,” said Assemblymember Luz Rivas.
She attributes her start in STEM to a teacher in Pacoima who encouraged her and showed her that this could be a career path. That interaction is what inspired her in 2011 to start DIY Girls in the community she came from.
“I realized that a lot of young people from this community need that same experience that I had, especially the young women from the community. And so I came back and I started the nonprofit at the same elementary school where I learned about STEM” said Rivas.
Only 28% of scientists and engineers in the United States are women, and 5% of those are women of color.
DIY Girls is targeting the heart of this issue by providing programming in an area that is predominantly Latino with a lack of STEM resources.
“We strongly believe that all students should have access to STEM education regardless of their ZIP code, their background or their circumstance,” said Executive Director of DIY Girls, Leticia Rodriguez.
On Oct. 13th Rivas announced that she secured a $1.5 million state grant from the California Commission on Status of Women and Girls (CCSWG) for DIY Girls.
With a five-year strategic growth plan already in place, DIY Girls hopes to double the number of students by expanding to more schools in the region and offering more classes at the schools they already partner with.
Rodriguez said they want to make sure that as they are expanding they are “still providing the same level of program quality for the students.”
This growth requires more resources and staff capacities, which in turn requires funding.
“This grant is basically going to help us expedite [the strategic growth plan],” said Rodriguez.
After 10 years in existence, the program is no stranger to growth.
“We started with 30 girls at one elementary school,” said Rivas, and “now there are hundreds of girls that benefit every year at 17 different schools in this area.”
That scalability Rivas claims was only possible with the support of the parents and schools in the community. This community support is reflected in the staff at DIY Girls – the majority of whom are from northeast San Fernando, and now many are old students of the program.
“I really think that our community is very big on giving back,” said Rodriguez. “We see ourselves in the students. And so I think for our alumni, it’s like they see themselves. They were that little girl as well. And so they want to come back and be able to help another student.”
Patricia Cruz was a student at DIY Girls in high school and continued to study computer engineering at Cal State Northridge. She was invited back to work with the program and is now the Invent Girls Program Instructor.
“I was working with elementary and middle school students, and I really enjoyed it because they really saw me as a role model to them,” said Cruz.
And having a role model of someone who looks like them, from their community, has an impact on the students.
“It’s kind of interesting to see how people in this community are just like me, or they were just like me, and they’ve made it so big in life. So it is very inspiring to kind of see where I could be if I continue with this,” said Lucia Perez, a junior at San Fernando High School and student at DIY Girls since 5th grade.
Although the program focuses on STEM, at its heart DIY Girls is providing young women with a safe community so that they develop the confidence to problem solve, push themselves and not be intimidated to try something new.
“They’re building their confidence,” said Senior Director of Programs & Partnerships at DIY Girls, Cristina Gutierrez. “Ultimately that’s important because we don’t want our students to believe that they can do hard things, we want them to know that they can do hard things.”
Although Perez said she is thinking about pursuing law instead of STEM post-graduation, she recognizes how the program has given her transferable skills.
“If I can tell myself, and I can see for myself, that I can do harder things, then I’ll be able to be motivated and just keep on my path,” said Perez.
The program exposes youth to the possibilities that exist beyond northeast San Fernando, while also being an investment within the local community. As these young women return, often with high-paying jobs, they are reinvesting that knowledge and support back within the community where they are from.
“This is an investment not just in our students, [but also] our families, our community,” said Gutierrez.