The Sankofa Institute, developed by Union City resident Kristina Hernandez, will offer an alternative to TV time, with workshops in areas such as dance, writing, and speaking. It will also allow teens to explore the history of Latino culture.
"I'm starting a girls' empowerment workshop called Latina Leadership Academy," said Hernandez. "We have four main focuses, including college preparation and job readiness."
The program, which is run through the institute, begins on Sept 8., and classes are free.
Hernandez moved to Union City last November from New York, and was looking for a job in youth development, but couldn't really find one.
With the exception of a youth-based program in Emerson High School, Hernandez came to the conclusion that there is a shortage of youth development programs in the area.
"There are [few] programs for teens, so I decided to start my own," said Hernandez.
Hernandez also hopes to develop the program as a co-ed institution, but for now it's just girls.
What is Sankofa?
The mission of Sankofa Institute of Youth Development, which is a non-profit organization, is to provide young people with the tools to become productive citizens of their local and global communities. Hernandez hopes to instill the values of higher education, social justice, and tolerance in the young people who enroll.
"Sankofa is a West African word that means while moving forward to look back," said Hernandez. "By introducing [Hispanic teens] to their history they understand who they truly are."
"They take a critical look at how they fit into the American society as Latinas," she added.
Learning through the history
According to Hernandez, the program also tackles global awareness, community service, personal development and leadership.
Hernandez hopes to instill pride in the teens' Latino heritage as the focal point in self-development.
"I had my eyes opened to my history in college," said Hernandez. "I had never really known about [important] Hispanic figures, I knew American figures."
Hernandez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, began to take courses in Caribbean and Latino studies in college. "It helped me understand who I am, and who we are [as a community] in America," she said.
Afterwards, Hernandez wanted to inspire other young Hispanic teens, especially those growing up in urban areas, and help them succeed in life.
"This is my passion. I love working with teenagers," said Hernandez. "I think that teenagers are often forgotten about because there is always focus on middle school, but it's just as important to reach out to high school."
Hernandez started working with a group in New York City called GEMS (Girls Empower Meaningful Support), in which she worked with young girls of Latino and Africa American backgrounds on self-development through tutoring and community outreach.
Hernandez believes that with development outreach programs, like the one she created, teens in urban areas will have a better chance at graduation and success, and will be able to break free of the poverty line that many families in urban areas find themselves in.
"Just because English may not be your first language [or you have other barriers] it doesn't mean you are not a valued person, or a beautiful person."
Opening day Sept. 8
Hernandez will run the programming at the institute, but is looking for volunteers, especially certified teachers, to help with the academic tutoring. She is looking for people interested in leading the workshops on dance, public speaking, and poetry.
She is working with students from Rutgers University to act as mentors to local teens.
"The program is youth led," said Hernandez, who just turned 24. "I have a group of people ready to help these kids figure out who they are."
The Latina Leadership Academy, a year-round program, begins on Sept. 8 and will run every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. out of the offices of Save Latin America on Bergenline Avenue.
It is open to any girl of high school age.
Academic tutoring sessions will be held from 11 a.m. to noon, and different workshops will be held until 3 p.m. To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, Hernandez is looking to bring in workshops such as salsa lessons and is planning a day trip to the New Jersey Hispanic Day Parade, which is held in October.
The institute has received a $500 grant from Game Stop, which will be used for a trip to Rutgers University. The Sankofa Institute has also collected $2,000 from private contributions to run programs, and is working on future fundraisers.
Eventually Hernandez also wants to incorporate internship programs, a book club, and a youth-led community service project.
She is also working on establishing her own facility by September of 2008.
"I have seen girls go on to some of the most prestigious colleges [in the nation]," said Hernandez. "My ultimate goal is that they are able to [surpass] the level of poverty and be successful."
"I want them to go forward in life, but never forget where they came from, and be grateful," said Hernandez.
For more information, call (347) 284-7535 or send an email to email@example.com. Jessica Rosero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org