Chicago-based Latina mentorship group helps empower women

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    As an ambitious Latina, finding someone to help navigate career obstacles and build confidence through Latina mentorship — in an environment where you are twice a minority — isn’t always easy.

    That’s what 32-year-old Lisba Romo-Martinez of Chicago found out when she started asking Latinas she admired to mentor her.

    “It’s really difficult to form that relationship because a lot of these professional women

    Latinas benefit from mentorship

    Latinas benefit from mentorship / Photo: Shutterstock

    are always busy,” said Romo-Martinez, who is a marketing manager at the Kaleidoscope Group, a Chicago-based diversity and inclusion consulting firm.

    Reports have shown that “lack of a mentor is the number one barrier to success for Latinas.” So when Romo-Martinez met Juanita Irizarry at a Latina leadership conference, Romo-Martinez knew she wanted to stay in touch. But, she wasn’t the only one hoping Irizarry could be her mentor.

    Why Latinas need professional mentors

    Known for her candor and warm personality, Irizarry, 43, is a program officer at the Chicago Community Trust, a philanthropic organization, but for years was active in housing advocacy and Chicago politics. She fielded several requests over the last few years to become a professional mentor — and gladly accepted — but last year it got to the point where she just didn’t have time to mentor everyone one-on-one.

    She then decided to start a Latina mentorship group where younger women in leadership roles could seek advice not only from her, but also one another.

    Irizarry’s group was formed in April 2011 and started holding a monthly book club, which has about 10 female participants. Like Romo-Martinez, several of the women in the book club had sought out Latina mentors in the past — comforted by the idea that a Latina would be more honest and culturally sensitive than a man or non-Latina — but found a lack of available Latina mentors.

    Fewer Latinas in professional fields

    Latinas in professional fields are especially in need of mentors, group members say, partly because they face difficulties unique to their gender and ethnicity. There are also just fewer Latinos in these fields.

    Latinas make up about 11 percent of Chicago’s overall workforce, but according to the most recent American Community Survey, Latinas employed in Chicago are less likely than white, black or Asian women to work in “professional” fields such as business, finance, engineering, health care, education, media, law and social services.

    Twenty-two percent of employed Chicago Latinas hold jobs in these fields and just 6 percent hold management jobs. More than one-quarter of Chicago Latinas are in the service industry and one-third hold administrative or sales jobs.

    That’s close to the national averages: 24 percent of employed Latinas work in professional fields, 31 percent in service and 33 percent in sales or administration.

    Lack of formal mentors at nonprofits

    Latina mentorship programs empower Latinas

    Latina mentorship programs empower Latinas / Photo: Shutterstock

    Women of color are often advised to seek out mentors in their teens and college years. But Irizarry’s group is for women in their late 20s to mid-30s, already established in their careers. The group skews toward women who head up nonprofits, though some are from corporate workplaces.

    Some corporations offer formal mentorship programs to their employees, but that’s rare in the nonprofit world, Irizarry says, where organizations are often understaffed and don’t have such programs in place. “You have to make it happen on your own,” she said.

    The book club often gathers at Irizarry’s home on Sundays where Irizarry greets the other women with kisses on the cheek, wine, cookies and coffee. They use the leadership book they’re reading — most recently “Leadership on the Line” — to discuss their own workplace challenges. It’s part support group, part professional development.

    “We become case studies,” Irizarry said.

    Confronting stereotypes

    The women are hyper-aware of stereotypes that might be affecting them in the workplace, and while Irizarry offers the advice: “Don’t assume it’s cultural,” the women do look at issues through a gender, ethnic and personal lens.

    Members of the group hail from diverse backgrounds, with roots in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba and Panama; some were born abroad, others are third-generation Americans.

    Irizarry says while not all Latinas experience things the same way, it helps to have group discussions about how culture, in a broad sense, affects how one responds to workplace issues.

    Over the last year, the group has discussed topics such as the negative perception of laziness in Latino culture, which often encourages Latinas to take on too much responsibility, dealing with machismo from older Latino bosses and frustration at being chosen as the “token” Latina to attend a professional event or sit on a board.

    Analyzing power structures

    Luvia Quinones, 30, who works as a community engagement liaison for City Colleges of Chicago, says the group has helped her step back and analyze how she is perceived at work. When she found out a male supervisor thought her communication style was “abrasive,” she used tips from the group to do a “power analysis.”

    “Is that (opinion) because I’m Latina and the stereotype of Latinas is that we’re quiet and passive?” she asked herself. “Where is he coming from?”

    That careful awareness and subsequent reflection is something Irizarry thinks all Latinas can try.

    Members of the group say it’s rare to find such a cross-section of Latinas working together in a non-competitive atmosphere. No co-workers are allowed in the group, to protect members’ privacy, and work stories are off-the-record. It helps the women give each other big-picture advice and treat each other as peers, instead of carrying over existing hierarchies.

    “No one is superior to the other,” said Ana Guajardo Carrillo, 33, who directs the South Chicago nonprofit Centro de Trabajadores Unidos. “Hearing others say, ‘Yeah I’m going through that too,’ then you realize you’re not alone.”

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