The National Herstory - Visit the National Website
W.Y.S.E. was initiated by three UCLA students in 1992 who, after working with homeless families and their children, were touched to find that the fastest growing population among the homeless was single mothers and their children. These three students designed the W.Y.S.E. program to prevent teenage pregnancy and single motherhood by providing young women with greater options at earlier ages. As they organized other students to educate young women, the group found that teenage pregnancy was just one of the many issues middle and high school young women faced. Low self-esteem, a lack of awareness of options and violence in their communities were also preventing young women from achieving their greatest potential. Over the next few years the program developed from simple after-school sessions to include a sophisticated year-long curriculum that continues to evolve and serve as the basis for weekly W.Y.S.E. sessions.
In 1994, President Clinton recognized W.Y.S.E. and it is UCLA student founders at a UCLA address. "Service creates heroes," the President said. "Women in Support of Each Other [the organization's first name]… aims to help high school girls pursue their education and not become single mothers. Now let me tell you what that means to me. That is America at its best."
With the graduation of the 3 founding students from UCLA in 1995, W.Y.S.E.'s national expansion began, first to Yale and UC Berkeley, and then to Stanford, the University of Chicago, Harvard, USC, CSUN, and finally to NYU and the movement is still growing! The W.Y.S.E. program uses an intensive middle school and high school curriculum with three major components: Self-Awareness, Self-Determination, and Community Leadership. Throughout the curriculum, college mentors engage middle and high school students in activities, discussion, and community action around these topics. These mentors reinforce session messages through one-on-one mentorship in and outside of the sessions.
Since 1992 W.Y.S.E. has succeeded in providing more than 500 young women with sexual and mental health information, developing leaders, and engaging young women to take action to create change in their communities. Several of the young women who joined the program in middle school are now high school students who continue to participate in the program and have even become involved in decision-making for the organization as a whole. In 1995, the first paid staff member was hired to provide national support to the various local student-run branches. In 1998 W.Y.S.E. received funding from the California Wellness Foundation to hire two staff members, and thus initiated the National Resource Office (www.wyse.org) for branch support and technical assistance. Since then with the help of private foundations and individuals, the W.Y.S.E. national movement continues to grow and expand.
The University of Chicago Herstory
In 1997, a University of Chicago student caught wind of W.Y.S.E. through a newspaper article. She was involved in a Latina discussion group on campus called Comadres. The heads of that RSO, Veronica Gonzales and Haydee Nuñez, decided to start a W.Y.S.E. branch in Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on the west side of the city. This community, while comprised primarily of close-knit families, is overrun with gangs: adolescents as young as 6th grade are jumped into the Latin Kings and Latin Queens. The new mentors chose to work in Francisco I. Madero Middle School, a newer experimental full-year school, located on the corner of 28th Street and Kedzie Avenue. While this school was intended by Mayor Daley to be an example for schools across the city, graduates of Madero have a challenging future as 75% of them go on to Farrugut High School, which only has a 46% graduation rate and has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Illinois.
The University of Chicago W.Y.S.E. branch started with eight mentors and 16 sixth grade girls. They began weekly discussion sessions on topics such as sexual decision making, identity, gangs and membership, and discrimination. In the second year of the program, the original class was followed to 7th grade and the new 6th graders had their own sessions. At the end of the third year of the program, the first class of girls that had been through three years of W.Y.S.E. were honored at the W.Y.S.E. end of the year banquet just before they graduated from eighth grade. Now in its fifth year, the University of Chicago branch of W.Y.S.E. mentors in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades and has grown to include 24 mentors and approximately 40 mentees. This year the curriculum was formally expanded into a three-year curriculum. It is designed so that mentees who enter W.Y.S.E. in 6th grade will build their self-esteem over 3 years through engaging and thought-provoking sessions and graduate 8th grade with leadership skills and confidence. A new addition to the curriculum for eighth graders is the opportunity to exercise their leadership skills by designing and leading a session for 6th graders. The new curriculum stresses the importance of community action projects that occur in conjunction with the sessions and it leaves room for an end of the year project carried out by the 8th graders.
Outside of the curriculum-based weekly sessions, mentors and mentees spend one-on-one time together and the group goes on field trips. This fall we had our third annual Halloween Sleepover. Other group events have included ice-skating; Generic Latina (a play by Teatro Luna), tabling and handing out flyers at a vigil for the Day of the Dead, a trip to the beach, and a trip downtown. Field trips enable the mentees to experience new communities and to get to know their mentors and each other.
The Chicago W.Y.S.E. branch is not only active within Little Village, but has helped the national movement along by introducing curriculum on gangs and membership, providing feedback to new branches, and sharing experiences to strengthen the program. It is also largely unique in that we are comprised of a close-knit group of mentors, who take part in bonding activities outside of the sessions and field trips. We are less of an organization than a sisterhood - a part of a national movement to empower young women through support and education.