Helping Latina Girls Lead

My name is Anna Maria Chávez and I’m a Latina—and a Girl Scout. Throughout my life, I have been ever so proud to claim both. And in November of last year, those two powerful forces in my life came together when I became the 19th chief executive of Girl Scouts of the USA.

What an incredible opportunity and a dream come true for me after many years in public service. I tell everyone that I have the best job in the world because I work for 2.3 million girls—many of them young Latinas. In fact, one of the great untold stories in Girl Scouts is that Latina girl membership has skyrocketed in recent years--by some 55 percent over the past 11 years, from 175,000 to more than 270,000 today.

Think about that. There are more than a quarter of a million girls in this country who like me can say they are Girl Scouts and Latinas and proud of it. What a wonderful thing. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to travel the country in this our 100th anniversary year and meet these young ladies and hear their stories of leadership and achievement.

I’ve gotten to plant trees with a troop of Latina Girl Scouts in California, take part in a church service with Hispanic girls in Savannah, GA, our movement’s birthplace, and even Rock the Mall in Washington, D.C., with many of them in June. I can’t wait for them and all of our girls to take the world by storm when they grow up. I know what they are capable of, they are already making their communities better places, and I know they have the leadership skills to get the job done.

It’s fascinating. We at Girl Scouts did a study a few years ago on girls and their perceptions of leadership. What we found is that girls aspire to a different kind of leadership than the traditional top-down approach. They aspire to a much more inclusive, collaborative and goal-oriented approach to leadership.

What we also found was this: Latina girls had among the highest levels of self-confidence and aspirations for leadership among any racial or ethnic group. In fact, 70 percent of Hispanic girls said they viewed themselves as leaders. That certainly runs counter to some of the stereotypes and shows quite clearly that our girls have already begun to take up the leadership mantle.

They can’t get there alone, however. This is where you as caring and committed adults come in. Latina girls, as all girls, need role models, mentors and sponsors. My Nana had saying that went “Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres.” (Tell me who you are with and I will tell you who you are.) It’s one of my favorite sayings and I have carried that with me my entire life.

Latina girls need to realize their full potential because, as I say, they represent an incredible talent pool and they have that great leadership foundation forged in their families and communities—and through, I’d like to think, organizations like Girl Scouts. What we do at Girl Scouts and provide a safe and supportive environment for girls and then bring into that setting those role models and mentors. It’s a formula that has worked for a century and for millions of American women.

The reality, however, is that I could hold a membership event next week and have 100 young Latinas ready to join Girl Scouts and gain all of the benefits of our organization, but without adult volunteers ready to support those girls through their journey in Girl Scouting, it won’t work.

We’re certainly not alone in this. The same is true for any number of youth nonprofits. So we at Girl Scouts are doing something about it . We’ve launched a cause campaign know as (o en español Juntos Por Ella). The goal is to bring about balanced leadership in this country within a single generation by supporting girls and their leadership development. And you might imagine what the critical component for getting Latina—and all girls there—is. That’s right, it’s you and people like you.

We need you as Latinos and Latinas to be those role models and mentors for a generation of girls who are poised to do wondrous and wonderful things. Not long ago, I co-authored an article for the Huffington Post with entrepreneur and proud Latina Nina Vaca in which we argued that a central question is whether all of us will help this generation of Hispanic girls—more than 5 million strong--realize their full potential.

Given the optimist that I am, my answer to the question is yes. I say that because I have also met so many amazing Hispanic volunteers who have selflessly given of their time and attention to support that next generation. But we as community can and must do more. Nuestras ninas nos esperan.

Anna Maria Chávez is the first Latina chief executive of Girl Scouts of the USA and the youngest to ever serve as head of the iconic organization.