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  • "What if we could reach young girls before they got entangled in attachments that would decrease their chances of success?" Dr. Alicia La Hoz. Tweet This
  • Many young women in these circumstances begin with vocational aspirations, which unfortunately take a back seat against the relational drama. Tweet This

Clinical psychologist Alicia La Hoz says she launched the “Wise Up Girl” program in 2017 as an “upstream solution to a downstream problem” that she was seeing frequently in her practice: young girls derailed in their futures by damaging relationships and traumatic family backgrounds. Dr. La Hoz, the founder and executive director of Family Bridges, was inspired by a desire to answer some important questions: “What if we could get behind the loss and hurt and help young people understand what healthy attachments are vs. toxic ones? What if we could reach young girls before they got entangled in attachments that would decrease their chances of success?” Through “Wise Up Girl,” La Hoz and her colleagues at Family Bridges are seeking to do just that. Dr. La Hoz recently shared more about the program with Family Studies (the following interview has been lightly edited).

Alysse ElHageThe Wise Up Girl program is geared toward at-risk high-school and college-aged girls. Tell us more about what inspired you to start this program. 

Alicia La Hoz: As a clinical psychologist by training, I was invited into the stories of trauma and loss due to relational pain. I will never forget the challenges shared by a sixteen-year-old who had run away from home with her boyfriend. While with him, she was subject to horrific abuse. Months later, she called her parents, who picked her up at the state border after escaping what she described as a terrorist type of experience. Her parents lovingly welcomed her back home along with her newborn baby. She regretted not knowing the warning signs of a toxic relationship, and while she loved her baby, coping with trauma symptoms, juggling a job and school to get ahead filled her days with overwhelming stress. 

Stories like these filled up my clinical practice, and the burden grew. What if the girls could have a north star for their future by creating a vision for themselves? What if they could learn how to establish boundaries and make solid decisions to help them embrace the opportunities ahead? 

It is akin to a first responder who sees a person driving into a river and promptly runs into the river to save him. People keep coming down the river to save them from drowning, many more first responders, clinicians, teachers, advocates spring into action, pulling them from the river. While there are many in the educational, civic, faith-community, private and public sector working very hard to intervene by helping people recover and heal from the relational wounds they have experienced, who is figuring out how to address the root of the problem in the first place? Who is working to keep people from drowning? In 2017, as Family Bridges was one year into expanding our program services in Phoenix, AZ, and seeded by a major donor, we created the “Wise Up Girl” program—as an upstream solution to a downstream problem.

ElHage: Wise Up Girl is centered around four workshops presented over the course of a year. What topics do you cover with the girls, and how do you incorporate the success sequence message? 

La Hoz: The program includes workshops on relationship smarts, why marriage matters, and mindfulness. In interactive workshops, we break down the red flags that can lead to an abusive situation and provide a framework of reliable, dependable, and trustworthy relationships. We hold discussions about their goals and aspirations, the baggage or deterrents that may hold them back, and the value of marriage. Through group coaching, we foster accountability towards pursuing personal, relational, and career goals. And through a sense of community, we break through the isolation and give people a sense of hope and agency.  The success sequence is integrated in the workshops through engaging content that leverages story to enhance awareness and knowledge around core issues central to a healthy transition to adulthood. These include the mini-series A Nice Ring to Ita YouTube series about the beauty and importance of commitment in relationships, and Dating IRL1-minute videos that cover the basics of dating and the success sequence.  

ElHage: I’d love to hear more about the girls in the program. Many young women from lower-income communities come from single-parent families and face issues of both social poverty and economic deprivation. Is this the case for most of the girls in your program, and how do you address issues of family breakdown to help them overcome these obstacles?

La Hoz: These girls are from Maryvale in Maricopa County, AZ. Since the 1980s, violent crime and gang activity have plagued the region. The girls have personal trauma experiences (i.e, divorce/separation, neglect, abuse, parents struggling through substance abuse) or have witnessed violence in the community. 

Our experience has been that Latina girls living in low-income communities, such as the ones we served in Maryvale, are incredibly resilient, pressing forward despite remarkable adversity. Many struggle with deep insecurities and shame, and this may lead them to adopt self-sabotaging behaviors. Their emotional needs make them vulnerable to enter into abusive relationships that initially entice them offering nurturance and attention they otherwise crave. As their home situations can be very stressful due to financial hardship and family instability, running away into the arms of another who initially offers some attention, care, and kindness can be very alluring. Often, though, the girls find that these initial experiences are short-lived and ignore or do not recognize the warning or tell-tell signs of an abusive type of behavior. They end up becoming incredibly attached to boyfriends who can lead them astray or emotionally drained. As Kathy Edin points out in the book Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, the girls slide into relationship decisions that later constrict their choices. They often do not use contraceptives as depending on these is a sign of mistrust within the relationship. 

Many young women in these circumstances begin with vocational aspirations, which unfortunately take a back seat against the relational drama. If they become pregnant, the demands of parenting and all the responsibilities this entails when taken together distract them from their original pursuits. 

Thus, the program’s first goal is to bring self-awareness to the dynamics at play, to draw out how familial or relational baggage from the past influences present experiences, and to differentiate the past from their present and future. The second goal in the programs is to equip them with tools to make decisions thoughtfully instead of sliding into circumstances based on the day’s demand or emotional needs. We teach them a mental framework that they can go to time and time again to help them make sense of the emotional chaos around them. The third goal is to provide them with coping skills to manage the stress and tension they face. 

The young girls are equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to finish their education, start their careers, and form healthy relationships. Avoiding out-of-wedlock births limits the constraints they would otherwise experience.  

ElHageAs I understand it, you reward the girls for their participation in the program with scholarship money. Why is that and how does it affect their motivation to succeed?  

La Hoz: We are strong proponents of tapping into internal motivators to drive behavior. These motivators include: purpose, contribution, encouragement, recognition, experience, and information. Together with the existing discomfort and crisis they may already face, these are formidable agents that can drive change. Our programs are intentionally designed to draw on these key change agents. 

The yearly incentive can be used towards vocational training or higher education, such as college, and this further encourages engagement and retention to the program. The incentive has driven the girls’ engagement in the program over four years. And these have been gratefully received as college tuition rates, books and living expenses all add up.  

A secondary benefit is that it has created processes within our organization that ensure our team continues to be invested in the young girls for the long term. Without the incentive, we may not have created the accountability structure to ensure we frequently stayed in contact with them. Incentives and benchmarks often drive the behaviors of organizations. 

ElHageWhat kind of impact have you had with “Wise Up Girl” so far? 

La Hoz: All of the girls continue following the success sequence path. While the girls’ success has not been linear growth, as they have had multiple challenges and hardships, they have stayed the course and remain committed to their growth journey. One of them has completed her bachelor's and received her nursing degree, and another decided to enter the military, for example. Many in the cohort are within reach of completing their vocational pursuits. COVID slowed down a handful of them, who paused for a semester to work and, in this way, help out their families with the financial burden. The group, though, has remained motivated and engaged by working on a service project, fundraising for a local benefit to serve in the community. They are all planning to return to pursue their educational pursuits and goals.