As Renée Richard-Smith chauffeurs a coterie of adolescent girls to a party at a modish West Oakland residence, she casually inquires about how their search for first boyfriends is progressing.
“Well, I like someone,” confides one of the girls, adding that a recent parent-free “Empowerment Dialogue” called “Boys: Love, Sex and Trust,” informed her decisions concerning the object of her affection.
Richard-Smith is not a parent of any of the girls in the car, but is the founder and executor director of Cinna-mongirl, Inc. (CGI), a nonprofit created to balance the playing field for inner-city girls of color by providing them with academic, social, and career guidance. Richard-Smith is taking the group to a home of one of CGI’s mentors, who often run the Empowerment Dialogues on topics such as boys, nutrition and history; help the girls build relationships with peers and professional women; and lead enrichment trips to museums, concerts and festivals. Those activities serve an added purpose: they allow the girls to express themselves in a stress-free setting.
Today Richard-Smith, who in 2004 parlayed her experiences as a women’s activist and corporate manager into Cinnamongirl, Inc., is making use of this time in her car to let the girl share what she learned at the Dialogue about boys and sex.
The Dialogue featured a discussion on the oft-perplexing language of relationships, followed by a Q&A with a female ob/gyn who quashed misconceptions concerning STDs and girls’ sexual rights. Cinnamongirls were allowed to write their questions on index cards to assuage any speaking fears. Later a panel of young men disclosed diverse perspectives on sex, beauty standards, and conflicting male-female relationship expectations. CGI’s mostly 12- to 14-year-old participants are still talking about it several months later.
“It was kind of disturbing to learn what boys really think about us,” shares Bria Dominique, 12, who learned of CGI through its affiliate organization, the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC). “Some boys said the reason they call girls ‘hoes’ and stuff is because they don’t think the girl has a brain.”
Richard-Smith admits that the dialogue was difficult for most of CGI’s two-dozen handpicked members to swallow, but that the information was vital.
“Their feelings were a bit hurt because they thought the fairytale existed,” says Richard-Smith. “And it was like, ‘Sorry, sweetie, it doesn’t.'”
What does exist in this emergent organization are intense relationships between volunteer mentors and girls, both sides of which must commit to at least one year in the program.
High-impact empowerment dialogues, enrichment excursions and academic support provide members with ongoing learning opportunities and interactions with down-to-earth mentors from diverse backgrounds, like Vanessa Donaville.
Donaville, an investment advisor who ceded her stylish home to the year-end Cinnamongirl Party this past June, believes that although she and the other mentors develop close relationships with the girls, it’s still impossible to predict how each girl will fully benefit from the program.
“I absolutely believe that we are touching these girls in some way, shape or form,” says Donaville. “The result may not always be so [immediate] and it may not be what we intended, but it’s definitely happening.”
One need only observe these dynamic young ladies to corroborate the success of Richard-Smith’s vision.
After sixth grader Destiny Brown traipses down Donaville’s spiral staircase and into the sitting room to chat with BABW News, she laughs as she lists avoiding interviews as one of her favorite pastimes, along with dancing, jumping rope, and playing every type of ball game imaginable.
A participant since the program’s 2004 inception, Brown correlates the aforementioned empowerment dialogue with her “raised self-confidence” in relation to boys. “They teach us how to be bold,” says Brown.
But the program’s objectives don’t begin or end with sex education. Its mostly African-American girls are exposed to a vast array of issues and experiences.
“The girls know that they’re getting a lot out of the workshops and events,” explains Richard-Smith. “They enjoy it, but at the same time they’re learning some critical life lessons in a safe environment.”
Might the Cinnamongirl environment be too safe? When asked if opportunities existed for girls to interact with Caucasian and Asian youth, or to learn about other groups, such as the disabled, homosexuals, homeless people, or battered women, Richard-Smith answers, “It’s important that they know how to interact with different people, but we need to overcome some of the barriers they’ve already been faced with.” Richard-Smith contends that April’s Empowerment Dialogue, “The Roots and Effects of Racism,” generated “some pretty heavy stuff.”
Fourteen-year-old Estafany De Santiago, one of the program’s only Latina-Americans, says she feels a sense of sisterhood with fellow participants. “I never feel out of place or awkward,” she says.
“My vision of CGI was not for it to be predominantly African American, but to be designed for girls of color,” clarifies Richard-Smith. “I haven’t given up on the vision of [diversifying] the organization,” saying they need to teach girls of color how to love their skin tone.
Although the majority of CGI’s mentors are African-American, Stacey Frank asserts that being the only white mentor hasn’t marked her bond with the girls. “When I first started, I had no idea if they would be accepting of me,” confides Frank. “But I realized that as long as they can sense that I truly care about them, that’s all that matters.”
As a district attorney, Frank worked a case involving one man who had assaulted numerous young women, some as young as 14. Frank says he would pimp them, force them to sell drugs for him, and subject them to emotional, mental, and sexual abuses. Frank observed a common thread of voicelessness in each of the victims that ultimately inspired her to “find a way to help young girls reach their full potential.”
Cinnamongirl Tory Wilson, 18, will embark on fulfilling her potential as an ingoing freshman at Clark Atlanta University. She plans to study biology and eventually pursue a career in pediatrics.
As CGI’s first Junior Mentor, a position that allows elder members to exercise their leadership skills, Wilson is still able to connect with younger members, despite the maturity gap. She explains, “They’re going through things I’ve already been through.”
Empty pizza boxes and 2-liter soda bottles sit on a table near the front door. And as mentors yawn their goodbyes, a cluster of Cinnamongirls saunter out of Donaville’s fun-castle and into Richard-Smith’s car for safe rides home, although they’ll earn their own driver’s licenses in a few years’ time. “These girls literally grow up between the ages of 12 and 14,” marvels Richard-Smith. “It’s really beautiful to watch them blossom in that two-year span.”
Please visit the website at www.Cinnamongirl.org for info about its July 21 Mega-Fundraiser, with guest speaker San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.
Originally published as a cover story in the July 2006 issue of Bay Area Business Woman News, which went out of business in 2010.