Occasionally, a few teenage girls can be spotted around 1st Avenue North and 4th Street in the Warehouse District. They're not trying out fake IDs in the surrounding bars, but their presence has everything to do with identity.
Plunked among restaurants and night spots is an organization called the Young Women's Mentoring Program, located in the Wyman Building, 400 1st Ave. N. For the past 12 years, this program has helped young women find themselves in positive ways as they live in often-negative conditions.
"A lot of young women have potential, and given coaching they can become great leaders," said program director Chue Xiong.
The mentoring program hires ten young women (14 to18 years old) to be mentors to girls (7-13) in three of the poorest communities in the Twin Cities -- McDonough Homes in St. Paul and Little Earth and Glendale Apartments in Minneapolis.
Mentors meet with girls in their communities once a week for activities such as going to the Science Museum, making crafts or doing community service. The mentors also go through job training, leadership training and other classes or discussions to build self-esteem.
The Young Women's Mentoring Program is a subsidiary of the nonprofit organization, YouthCARE (Youth for Cultural Appreciation and Racial Equality). From their Wyman offices, the youth mentors along with Xiong and program coordinator Jenni Zickert plan activities for their girls. The mentors then meet with their assigned girls once a week for about two hours. This once a week meeting is known as Girls Group.
One recent Monday, mentors Yang Mee Vang and KiKi Allibalogun met with their group of about 12 girls to clean up their McDonough neighborhood.
Vang, 16, stood before a mix of Hmong and African American girls in the neighborhood's community center. She announced that they will be picking up trash in the neighborhood. At the announcement, most of the girls moaned in protest. One said she's afraid people will think they're doing community service as restitution for a crime.
But community service is part of being in Girls Group. On a rotating cycle the girls either serve their community, do something educational or cultural, or just have fun.
With poise, Vang demonstrated how the girls should pick up only recyclable garbage with a latex-gloved hand and put it into their plastic bag. "If you find something sharp, like broken glass, ask a mentor to pick that up," she advised.
It's not hard to imagine Vang as a teacher, and it's what she wants to be; the mentoring Program has just reaffirmed that. "One of my dreams is to become a teacher; working with Girls Group gives me a lot of hope," she said. "I've learned how to make everything go well and how to teach."
Fellow McDonough mentor Allibalogun has her sights set elsewhere. "I kind of want to be a surgeon. Or, since I like to talk a lot, maybe a lawyer," Allibalogun said.
Allibalogun isn't kidding when she says she likes to talk. Her words roll out fast and excited and she often punctuates her thoughts with a long "and yeeeaaahh." Girls Grouper Alicia "Cupcake" Thomas laughs as Allibalogun talks, calling her mentor "Crazy Girl."
Thomas said that she got involved with Girls Group because her mom encouraged her to.
"(My mom) thought they was doing a lot of nice things here," Thomas explained, adding that she enjoys the cultural activities they do for Girls Group.
"Now I'm way more positive"
Most of the mentors usually work between five and 16 hours a week, picking up extra hours doing office work at YouthCARE. Mentor Emilia "Millie" Hernandez, however, tries to work more than 16 hours a week. She needs to work in order to stay out of trouble.
When Hernandez talks about her job, her eyes shine. As a former Girls Grouper, Hernandez remembers idolizing her mentors. Now she is a mentor. "(The girls) like me a lot," Hernandez said.
Hernandez's transition from Girls Group participant to Girls Group mentor has not been seamless. Somewhere between going on field trips to the zoo and leading those same field trips, Hernandez took a wrong turn.
"I used to be into gangs and all that," she said. "I thought I could never do anything else."
Then one day, Hernandez ran into Xiong near her Little Earth home. Xiong talked her into applying to be a mentor. Hernandez did and Xiong hired her last October. "My first day was Halloween," Hernandez remembers.
Xiong herself is a product of the Young Women's Mentoring Program. She was a mentor with the program while in high school, then an office assistant, a program coordinator and then became program director in 1998. "Being a mentor was just really helpful, because at that time I was going through a lot of changes," Xiong explained, saying that the program taught her self-confidence.
Hernandez speaks of the Young Women's Mentoring Program in a grateful way. She's both proud and happy as she explains what a mess her life was before she became a mentor.
Hernandez credits Girls Group and the Young Women's Mentoring Program with changing the way she looks at her life. "I failed one grade, but I caught up after I started working here. And I had to enroll in school by myself, because my family wouldn't help me," she said.
Hernandez also realized she had a chemical dependency problem and got help through program coordinator Jenni Zickert. "Jenni took me to get a chemical assessment. Now I'm way more positive," Hernandez said.
And through the Young Women's Mentoring Program, Hernandez has realized that college is a possibility for her.
"At first I didn't want to go to college because I thought it costs too much. But now I've learned that I can get scholarships and stuff," she said.
Occasionally, girls from Somali, Hmong, Native American and African American backgrounds get together to teach each other about their cultures. "I've learned the Chinese language, and Spanish," Thomas said proudly.
But just because they bring girls from different cultures together doesn't mean they automatically get along. "Some girls will say, 'I don't want to hold her hand,'" Xiong said. "I ask why and a lot of times they don't know. It could be based on family experience."
Mentor Tosin Alabi, from the Little Earth community, said that interracial fights have not been so much of a problem for her. Alabi is African American and most of her girls are Native American. "They fight within the races," she said. "But once they get going on an activity they're usually fine."
Recently, the Little Earth girls got to make hats to wear in the annual May Day Parade put on by Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater. About 15 girls show up, led by May Day staff members. Some of the girls enjoy the arts and crafts; others look like they'd rather be outside.
Kalcee Thornton is one who looks like she'd rather be elsewhere. The fidgety 8-year-old does everything possible to avoid the group activity, but explains that Girls Group has taught her a lot. "I play, be nice and share with people, and people treat me nice," Thornton said.
Her only suggestion for Girls Group - boys. "I said, 'How come you guys don't have boys?'" Thornton said. "I would like a little bit of boys."