closing the genderation gap
GENaustin’s Julia Cuba is reshaping female selfesteem, one girl at a time.
When Julia Cuba was seven years old, she was the only girl on her T-ball team—and the fastest runner. At the end-of-season awards ceremony, kids ran down from the bleachers to claim their trophies as their names were called. The players were recognized for their individual talents on the team as they received their trophy, which featured a man in a baseball uniform, swinging a bat. Everyone on the team knew that Julia would be awarded Fastest Runner. But when the coach handed the trophy to the accomplished, expectant young girl, it featured a woman in a tight baseball outfit with giant breasts. “This is for the only girl on the team,” the coach said. “She really hung in there.”
“I was humiliated,” Cuba says today. “The parents and kids all laughed as I held it. My parents took me home, and on the ride, I asked them why I had been made fun of for being the only girl—why they didn’t call me the fastest runner. My mom looked at me knowingly and said, ‘I hope you figure that out someday.’ Her response caused me to begin to notice the endless number of ways girls lose their self-esteem as they approach their teen years. And her response is likely the reason I do what I do today.”
What Cuba does today is lead GENaustin, the Girls Empowerment Network of Austin with a mission to support and guide girls to make wise choices as they navigate the unique pressures of girlhood.
“GENaustin is responding to a national crisis for girls—a systematic decline in self-esteem as they approach their teen years,” Cuba says. “GENaustin is addressing critical issues that girls face today, both locally and nationally. The organization is an amazing catalyst for change because we are educating our community about the unique pressures of growing up female. We serve girls from all backgrounds between the grades of four through 12.”
Cuba says that girls are over-sexualized at a very young age in the media, and that concept is en - grained in our culture, so that they can sometimes be over-sexualized in their personal lives.
“Have you ever walked down the aisle just before Halloween and seen the costume options for little girls? Or looked at the toys for girls versus boys? Almost everything is over-sexualized; girls are trained to believe they need to be sexy, petite, sweet and perfect from a very young age, and it leads to a lot of self-hatred in their futures.”
Cuba is far from the only person with these fears. A national outrage was sparked recently over the Victoria’s Secret line of lingerie called Bright Young Things, which is aimed at young women. Very young women—girls really, and much too young, many say. The underwear, some of it thong style, features printed slogans that say “Call me” and “Dare you.” Although the company claims the line is meant for college-age females, the marketing clearly seems aimed at a far younger crowd.
Justin Bieber, who has a huge audience that starts as young as eight or nine years old, was recently hired to perform at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. And Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer himself said, “They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that’s part of the magic of what we do at Pink.” His words indicate that the line is, in fact, targeted toward girls who are not yet adults.
Growing up female has always been challenging, but the onslaught of the media and Internet in today’s world means a bombardment of messages and images that tell girls they must be beautiful, sexy, look like this, act like that—rather than focusing on their skills, talents, intelligence and abilities. That is why GENaustin’s clubGEN after-school program exists. ClubGEN meets every week after school for girls in fifth to eighth grades all over central Texas, and it exists specifically to build long-term relationships with girls so they have a safe place to go and talk about these types of issues.
“I think it is one of the best services I have ever seen,” Cuba remarks. “While there is not some transformative change for girls each week, there is a life-long impact the program makes for girls as they grow older and remember the issues they discussed, the voices they cultivated there and the goals they set there, all taking them beyond being over-sexualized as young girls. Some girls are dealing with perfectionism, challenges with goal setting or poor body image; other girls are dealing with harsh bullying, depression, self-mutilation, teen pregnancy, dating violence or problems at home. I think it’s the coolest thing that GENaustin has a program that can work with girls who are dealing with any of those issues, and we do it so well.”
Cuba adds that GENaustin is unique as a girl’s organization because they understand girls’ issues and have the core competencies to teach girls in the ways they learn best. The idea of affecting the lives of young girls in such a positive way is something that was instilled in Cuba early on. In high school, she was already asking adults what jobs she could do when she grew up that would better the world for women and girls. She learned that while there were a lot of direct service positions, very few people knew how to raise money for girls’ and women’s issues.
“That idea stuck with me, and I always sort of knew I would end up mobilizing resources for women and girls in my community and hopefully someday on an international level,” she says.
The native Texan—born in San Antonio but living in Austin since 1998—went to college in Wisconsin and then moved to Chicago, where she worked at various grassroots women’s agencies on equal employment opportunities, international women’s issues, mentor programs and emergency rape counseling.
“I pieced together five or six part-time jobs at various organizations so I could learn as much as possible about working on behalf of women and girls,” Cuba says. “Having been away from Texas for six years, I decided to come back, and I selected Austin since it was a great town for a young, single person and just down the road from my family.”
That year, 1998, Cuba went to work for the Girl Scouts of Central Texas. Her role was to help develop a program for girls whose mothers were incarcerated. Prison takes a heavy toll on more than those behind its bars—perhaps none more so than the children of those inmates. The new program, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, was meant to bring these mothers and daughters together, in spite of the prison walls. Cuba’s job was to be a troop leader and help the program evolve into a strong part of the council’s services. She led the troop for eight years, working with more than 100 girls whose mothers were incarcerated.
“It required me to drive a 15-passenger van around central Texas picking up girls and driving them to the prison to be with their moms, and then facilitating activities and discussions between them and their moms,” she says. “I had the great privilege of managing collaboration with several other organizations that brought services to the girls and their families, and managed our relationship with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I developed precious and invaluable relationships with the girls in this troop, and sometimes I felt like a parent figure to them, sometimes a big sister or a teacher. No matter how they saw me, those relationships were long-lasting (in some cases many years), consistent and very rewarding—for me as much as it was for them.”
The first year that Cuba began acting as troop leader for this program, she met a woman who wanted to film a documentary about the troop. Cuba admits she thought it would be an impossible undertaking, but she was persuaded to pursue the opportunity.
“Before I knew it, we were bringing cameras into the prison and the girls were filming their own mothers and interviewing them with hard life questions. The result was an award-winning film, Troop 1500, which aired on PBS and went to national film festivals all throughout the country, and even got purchased by the Al Jazeera Network.”
One of the highlights came during the SXSW Festival, when the documentary enjoyed a special premier at the Paramount Theater with many notable audience members including Ann Richards and her daughter Ellen.
“The families in the film felt famous,” Cuba recalls. “I had the privilege of traveling through the country to deliver Q&A’s with the film and advocate on behalf of children of incarcerated parents at places like the MOMA in New York and The Fine Art Museum in Boston.”
She adds that her days with that Girl Scout troop pretty much taught her everything she knows about human beings.
“It is an amazing experience to see those same girls today and know what powerful, resilient young women they have become out of such challenging lives. I am so proud of the work my colleagues and I did on that program—it makes me cry a little bit!”
While working full-time with the Girl Scouts, Cuba also enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Texas School of Social Work, receiving her degree in 2006. While she was completing the program, she went on an informal tour with some of Austin’s best and brightest leaders to learn about strategies to transition to international social service for girls and women. After eight years working with the Girl Scouts, Cuba was ready for a change. She learned that GENaustin was hiring an executive director, and several people encouraged her to apply.
“[They] felt that I could be a good fit due to my passion for girls’ and women’s issues,” Cuba says. “Before I knew it, I was walking into an interview with the board of directors. I remember I had a terrible cold that day and decided I was going to show up and do my very best despite how bad I felt. Somehow when I walked in the door, my cold just disappeared, and I was on fire! It felt like a great fit to me to be with those progressive women who believed in such a special mission, and I wanted them to pick me.”
As soon as the interview was over, Cuba went out to her car and immediately called her mother to tell her how it went. Then, the call waiting beep informed her there was another call coming in. It was the GENaustin board chair, offering her the position. It had only been 10 minutes since Cuba had left the interview.
“For that moment, I felt like a total superstar.”
Cuba’s experience with the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program helped inform one of GENaustin’s newer programs, 180, which is focused on high-risk and court-involved girls. This program is designed specifically to prevent girls from going into or further into the juvenile justice system, because girls are the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system today. The nonprofit also offers Girl Talk Workshops—one- or two- time workshops that address all of the GENaustin focus issues—and the GirlConnect program, which allows girls to explore these issues through technology.
There is also a huge annual event, the We Are Girls Conference, which takes place at Austin High School and reaches 1,600 people. The conference will happen on November 9 this year, and is also the organization’s major fundraiser. We Are Girls helps girls explore issues of bullying, body image and being a girl, addressing topics such as bullying, self-image, dating, diversity, media literacy, financial literacy, parent-daughter relationships, career exploration, higher education and physical health and wellness. The conference is statewide and offered for girls in grades five through 12, as well as the adults who care about them.
This year’s keynote speaker is Marlen Esparza, who made history at the 2012 London Olympics, where women’s boxing was added as an Olympic sport for the very first time, by becoming the first US female boxer to win a round as well as the first to medal with a bronze. Cuba says that the most rewarding aspect of her work with GENaustin has been expanding the organization’s reach in central Texas, so that they have been able to touch the lives of so many girls, educators and parents.
“When I was hired, I had the opportunity as a full-time executive director to grow us to the next level,” she says. “Now we personally work with almost 5,000 people a year through our unique programs.”
She adds that she is also extremely proud of the team of directors that she had a hand in hiring.
“Our program director, operations director and development director are all people I hand picked out of this world to come aboard our team. Each one is very different, and together we are amazing. I have so much respect for all of them and the amazing impact our organization has on the community because of their vision, good decision-making and commitment to our mission. If I am good at anything, it is at finding the right people for our organization and creating a culture that they want to be a part of.”
The bottom line, for Cuba, is that GENaustin continually strives to be the community expert on programs for girls.
“Our vision for the future is that we are able to reach more girls and their caring adults through all of our customizable programs. Our effort to expand our reach in the Austin/central Texas community will take more dollars, more volunteers and strong leadership on our board and committees. We have an amazing team who is devoted to making it happen, and we would love more people to come aboard our movement to reach more girls. Together, we are committed to being a resource for our community— so that when a parent, educator or girl calls us for help, we have a way. We have been growing as far back as I remember, and that doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon.”
5 ways to help your daughter achieve a healthy outlook
Teach that Beauty Comes From Within When speaking of beauty with your daughter, focus on her personality, strength and compassion.
Discuss Media Influence Help your daughter think critically about the messages and images she sees.
End Negative Self-Talk at Home Examples include “Do I look fat in this?”, “She’s too fat to be wearing that” and “You look so good! Have you lost weight?”
Cultivate Her Authentic Voice Applaud your daughter for being a beautiful person when she speaks positively about herself, when she works toward a goal or tries something new.
Advocate for Healthy Self- Esteem Programming at Her School GENaustin has customizable programs that can be implemented at your daughter’s school, so that she sees herself as beautiful inside and out.
on her family of friends
“The people I love are extremely generous and extremely tender. Those two qualities make them the most wonderful people on earth with which to share life, and I am lucky I have found so many of them right here in Austin. Laura [Smith, above middle] and Lacey [Richter, above right] are a perfect example of that.”
Being single and with her family living close-by but in San Antonio, Julia has created a “family of friends” here in Austin. “My friends have come from all over and settled in Austin. Living alone, I love to spend time with them. They are connected and always have the most interesting things going on. Laura and I went to Paris—we would be sitting in cafés talking and laughing for hours, while the waitstaff would be looking at their watches.”
This year Julia Cuba celebrates 20 years as a vegetarian. “People don’t realize what an easy thing it is to do, and Austin restaurants are very vegetarian friendly.”
Buenos Aires Café Spinach salad dinner entrée and verdura empanadas “Light, delicious and healthy. Wonderful atmosphere, extensive wine list and it’s in my neighborhood.” 1201 E. 6th St., buenosairescafe.com
Violet Crown Cinema Veggie pizza and pear apple poppy seed salad “It’s fun to come downtown. The food is great, and of course there’s always the popcorn.” 434 W. 2nd St., violetcrowncinema.com
Blue Dahlia Brie with walnuts and apricot preserve tartine, and French crêpes with berries, chocolate sauce and maple syrup “I love so many of the things on this menu—the frittatas and the Belgian waffles, and the salads are delicious.” 1115 E. 11th St., bluedahliabistro.com
on life in austin
“I choose to be in Austin. My family is an hour away in San Antonio, but this is a better city for me being a single person. Austin is so open and into social service—I have never been to a town that cares so much about girls, and it is a privilege to be a part of leading that effort.”
On Leadership Austin
“At first I thought a Leadership Austin class was just a good way to network and build my resume. After I participated I realized how lucky I was to have been a part of that group and met accomplished and effective people. You meet people from all different sectors. I was exposed to people with different viewpoints, and I respected them tremendously. It was enlightening and the thing I looked forward to most every month— knowing that I was going to spend the day with people who were going to teach me something.”