May 23, 2022
New graduate takes leadership roles advocating for women and social justice
Stephanie Villanueva-Villar said she will always advocate to ensure that girls and women of color have a seat at the table ‘no matter what career position or job title I may have in the future.’
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Like anyone, Stephanie Villanueva-Villar sometimes struggles with motivation, but her accomplishments tell a different story.
“I have days where I doubt myself, especially when facing barriers that are a direct result of systemic injustices, or when I hear something upsetting in the news,” said Villanueva-Villar, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University this month. “These moments can be difficult, challenging and emotionally painful. However, it’s the future of the communities that I serve that remind me to never give up.”
Villanueva-Villar recently spoke at the grand opening of Vital Voices Global Partnership Embassy for Women in Washington. Vital Voices is a nonprofit founded on the idea that nations and communities cannot move forward without women’s voices in leadership positions. The organization asked Villaneuva-Villar to speak at the event based on her advocacy for women and social justice.
“I was so honored to be selected as a speaker alongside a network of global women change-makers, including Cameroon political leader Kah Walla, Ukrainian human rights activist Oksana Horbunova, former deputy trade minister of Afghanistan Muqaddesa Yourish, and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson,” said Villanueva-Villar, who graduated from VCU with dual bachelor’s degrees in international social justice and gender, sexuality and women’s studies from the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Villanueva-Villar, the first member of her family to graduate from college, created her own nonprofit organization at age 17 called Your Girl for Good, which connects young women of color in the Washington area with successful female mentors in STEM, arts and political sectors.
At the Vital Voices event, Villanueva-Villar was included in a group of female activists and leaders to welcome former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a founder of Vital Voices, and be part of the tribute toast that announced the special dedication of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Atrium.
“I was able to speak with Secretary Clinton and thank her for her advocacy in uplifting the voices of young girls and women,” she said.
Gay Cutchin isn’t surprised by Villaneuva-Villar’s success.
“Stephanie was personable. She was at ease in my class and approached the topics in both an academic and supportive manner, knowing there were survivors [of violence] in class,” said Cutchin, who taught Villaneuva-Villar in the Violence Against Women course. “She is a student who cares about social issues.”
Villaneuva-Villar talked with VCU News about her interests and achievements.
How did you get interested in international social justice and gender, sexuality and women's studies?
When I was in high school, I had made an effort to find youth education programs that were free and accessible for first-generation students like myself. This search led me to be part of the Smithsonian’s YES! [Youth Engagement through Science] internship program . . . and the HERlead fellowship program, which was a mentorship and leadership training program for young girls who wanted to create change within their communities. This program was funded by Vital Voices, founded by Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Melanne Verveer.
As a HERlead fellow (and later grantee and ambassador) I was able to be mentored by and connected with women change-makers from across the world. This exposure to not only being surrounded by women leaders but to the multitude of problems that they and the women and girls in their villages, cities and countries face, made me more aware of the systemic problems that impact women globally. Their determination and resilience to fight for an equitable future inspired me to do what I could to help uplift the voices of marginalized women in my community.
Can you talk about what your nonprofit, Your Girl for Good, offers young women of color?
Your Girl for Good offers summer mentorship programs, summits and workshops designed to help middle and high school-age girls discover new passions and interests in a supportive and encouraging environment.
How did you become a Rajendra Foundation Social Impact Fund grant recipient?
After attending the Women in Consumer Finance conference last December as a guest speaker, and being surrounded by so many amazing women who had shared with me their experiences about how important mentorship was in the early stages of their careers, I realized it was time for me to get back out there after the pandemic and create spaces like that for young girls in my community. After coming back from the conference, I applied to the Rajendra Foundation Social Impact Fund [recipients receive financing for their social impact projects and investment in their leadership growth] and was notified last month that I was selected as a 2022 grant recipient.
You are using the grant to fund a Women in Tech Conference in Washington. Can you talk more about that?
We’re so excited to announce that we will be hosting our Women in Tech Conference at the newly opened Global Embassy for Women in D.C. later this year. The conference will be for middle and high school-age girls who are interested in exploring a career in technology. We will have a panel of successful female leaders in the tech industry talk about the work that they do and another panel of female students from Howard University and Georgetown University to talk about what it’s like to study computer science in college. After that, we plan on hosting a brief coding/robotics workshop. We’re excited to get started on this event and are currently looking for college students who would be interested in serving on our volunteer advisory board.
What impact did the Vital Voices conference have on you?
Not only was the event an incredible experience, but it was also highly needed. Just a few days prior, the leaked news of the Supreme Court’s decision to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade was released. We all realized that this [Vital Voices] event was more than just celebrating the opening of a building but rather a call to action for us all to use this space as not only a resource but as a symbolic reminder that we must mobilize, organize and demand that our humanity be recognized and our rights be respected.
Most of all, this conference served as a reminder to the politicians and legislators who were working just down the street from us [in Washington] that women were not going to sit by and silently accept this backward decision. Aside from that, I was honored to be part of the panel alongside [activist] Cici Battle and talk to an audience of local middle school girls about our leadership journeys, the importance of youth advocacy, and the power of mentorship.
What are your goals going forward?
In the future, I plan to work with innovative tech companies and organizations to help them expand their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts while also building stronger relationships with their local communities through social impact and youth program initiatives. However, I’ll always carry the mission of Your Girl for Good with me wherever I go, and I plan on hosting more mentorship events in the future. Advocating to ensure that young girls of color have a seat at the table will always be a core element of the work that I do no matter what career position or job title I may have in the future.
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