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BWF Beginnings: A Look Back at the Young Sisters for Justice Program with Amanda Matos-Gonzalez

Updated: Jun 13

In 1996, The Boston Women’s Fund (BWF) launched a youth initiative that honored the power in young people’s hands in a way no other fund in Boston had before. It was one in only a handful of similar programs across the country, and we called it Young Sisters For Justice. 

Young Sisters For Justice welcomed about 10 girls, aged 14-21, to join a diverse, two-year cohort that met year-round to learn about social justice and philanthropy. But here’s where the program differed from most — the young people joined BWF’s Allocations Committee, working among adults to allocate thousands of grantmaking dollars to grassroots organizations in Greater Boston.

As a 16-year-old, Amanda Matos-Gonzalez (she/her) was a part of the very first cohort running from 1996-1998. Today, she’s Boston Women’s Fund's Board Treasurer. We spoke with Amanda to learn more about her experience, what it was like to have a youth seat at the grantmaking table, and the invaluable lasting impact of feeling genuinely seen and heard as a young person.

Boston Women’s Fund: What inspired you to join Young Sisters For Justice?

Amanda Matos-Gonzalez: The coordinator at that time, Antonieta Gimeno may have been the one who reached out. My mom ran in activist circles as I was growing up here in the Boston area, and Antonieta was very much a part of those circles and well-known by progressive activists. She was very active in the Puerto Rican community. (Antonieta’s not Puerto Rican, but she hung out with and was always around Puerto Rican folks, and her children are part Puerto Rican.) 

This was a new program. She wanted it to be a very diverse cohort of young women, and BWF wanted it to be very much centered on social justice. They had a pretty thorough process where they reached out to young women ages 14 to 21. Antonieta contacted me during that, and I applied.

What were the other girls like in your cohort? Do you remember anything about them?

It was a really formative experience in my life. I remember all of them. It was one of those unusual things where we instantly clicked, and we all were friends. Right away, we were hanging out. We became a really tight group of young women. I am still in close contact with Jennifer Dowdell-Rosario, who is one of my oldest friends now. She's the Development Director at Haymarket People’s Fund. She actually began her journey in what we were calling at that time, progressive philanthropy, at Boston Women's Fund, and is still working in that today. 

So folks from the program are still around and still in contact. 

Had you known anything about philanthropy before joining?

No, I knew nothing about philanthropy. But I was familiar with concepts of social justice, activism and community organizing because it was very much a part of my household and something that I grew up around. 

I think throughout the group, knowledge about philanthropy was varied, which was very intentional. Part of the model was that we would represent all kinds of backgrounds and that there would be differences in our learning around social justice so that we could all grow together, which was an amazing experience. 

We all brought something different to the conversations around philanthropy, but it was very much centered in feminism, social justice, and eliminating injustice, and us learning about the “isms,” homophobia and LGBTQ rights, systemic oppression, how these things impacted us in our communities, and how we could bring that lens to philanthropy. 

So even though I had somewhat of a background in social justice topics, the idea of bringing that understanding to philanthropy was new to all of us. 

Walk me through the kinds of activities you did in the program.

From the beginning, it was very much intended to become youth-led. It started with facilitated trainings, and for about the first year, it was adult-led. Antonieta, our coordinator, was a trainer in anti-racism and anti-sexism, etc., and was experienced in talking about oppression. 

So she would facilitate sessions and also bring in other guest facilitators as we learned about women's history as well as the “isms” I've mentioned. We would do different activities, sometimes incorporating art, and we did quite a bit of reading, as well. It was intense at times. After school a couple of days a week, we would be there for about 2 hours. 

A lot of it was really fun because were a dynamic group, and like I told you, there was a lot of synergy, even in personalities — which, I later worked in youth development for 10 years and I know now that it’s kind of a gift to have this first group of young women where a lot of their skills and attributes, even if they were different, were complementary. 

So we were very engaged from the jump, and Antonieta was also like us, a ball of fire, of energy, even though she was, of course, much older than we were. I stay in contact with her, too. Even though she was much older, she was so youthful and asked questions like, “how can we bring music and theater into this lesson?” She was very open to hearing our suggestions and making it so that didn’t feel like were in school after school. 

But it was quite a time commitment for us because were essentially training to become full members of the allocations committee, and then we were on the allocations committee. 

So you were sitting alongside the adults in BWF’s Allocations Committee for BWF’s full grantmaking roster?

Yes, and it was robust grantmaking. We used to get thick, 30-page packets to read per cycle, and I think there were a couple of grantmaking cycles per year. We were literally doing what the older folks were doing on the allocations committee. 

Oh wow, that’s a lot.

It is a lot. And there were some bumps, for sure. I think whenever you bring in a group of young people into an already established group of adults who are professionals, they could really respect the fact that young people are at the table, but that doesn't mean that they know how to engage with them. So there were some challenges with that, too. And I think in part, that's why having a longer process of two years and the intentionality, flexibility, and adaptability around that was important. There was a lot of adaptation that had to be done along the way. 

We were also well aware that we were one of a handful of youth programs like that in the whole country. There was maybe a handful of young women’s philanthropy groups, one group in Chicago had a similar model to us where the young people were sitting with the adults. Nothing can replace learning as a young person to be at a table with older folks in that way. 

"That's why, in part, this program was such a formative experience for me. I had a voice. Even if there were moments where the adults may have pushed back on our voice, we still had one at that table. And so I think we learned a lot from that, for sure." 

What did it mean to you to have that kind of agency and trust at that age?

I think the sense of power we felt as young women was tremendous. Especially given my school environment — I really didn't enjoy school. I went to Boston Latin School — it's a rigorous exam school. It's considered an elite school, and I was there at an interesting time when affirmative action at the school was eliminated via a court case. I did not feel valued in the school environment. I did not feel smart. And so for me, being at Boston Women's Fund affirmed my intelligence, my ability to analyze, and also my feeling that I was really impacting folks. That makes you feel tremendously good about yourself when you realize, “Oh, I really helped this group of women.” 

We still have amazing women's organizations today — But this was the nineties, and because there was so much going on in the country, in the world, people were really pushing hard against all the systemic oppression or injustice. And so there was a surge of women’s organizations. 

I really felt like I was part of something, a part of a movement. It became my norm. But now when I look back on it, I think, wow, that was amazing that I had that opportunity, and that I was able to stick it through. Because you're right, a two-year commitment for a young person is a long time. But I wanted to be there! It made me feel really good about myself. It gave me tremendous confidence. 

When you think about it now, what stands out to you about your experience in Young Sisters For Justice?

Oh man, I just think it was so unique, the timing of it and the folks that were there. To me, the work was tremendously important, but it was really the relationships and what I gained from engaging with everyone, be it the adults or the other young people, that really impacted me. The work was the cherry on top of me being in this space with all of these powerful women who were affirming their own identities and also giving us permission to do the same thing. And as you well know, there are not that many places for people, in general, to be able to feel that way — much less women, gender-expansive folks, young people, etc. (We could keep going down the line.) So that that space even existed to me was amazing, and that I was able to be part of it for such a long period of time was great. 

And then we sort of passed the torch, so to speak. And there were other groups, maybe three or four cohorts after us, and it felt great it was able to continue for so long. I'm still very proud of what we started. 

Can you see any thread between the work you did in this program as a young person and either the professional or activist work you’d go on to do as an adult?

Young Sisters had a huge influence on me. It very much informed my work in youth development. I ran youth programs for years, mostly at the Boston Public Health Commission, and those were structured much more around academics. The influence of being at Young Sisters for Justice helped me encourage folks to have the spaces be more youth-led, which can be very challenging for us as adults.

I helped coach program managers and other folks working with the youth to include their voices more so it wasn't as top-down, particularly because young people often don't have spaces like that. I think that really contributed to the success of quite a few of the programs. 

In my own personal work and engaging with community organizing at different levels (not as much now but throughout the years), I was definitely heavily influenced by my household because, like I told you, social justice work was part of my household, but also as well from Young Sisters For Justice. And I know that I function with a specific justice lens, to be quite honest. 

Today, I'm a senior director of a group of assessment managers who evaluate a network of community development responsible for creating affordable housing all across the country. Quite often, I am one of the voices in a space that says, “But wait are we really hearing what the issues are in the community, and why is it hard for organizations to meet those issues of the community?” That perspective very much comes from that Young Sisters foundation.  

It's very important that we're not just assessment managers going in and picking these organizations apart — These organizations serve communities in real need. I take that role very seriously. 

Is there anything else you'd like to share about the significance this program held?

"I think the big lesson learned is that We have a tendency to think about youth as vessels that we pour information into, and that's not assets-based. They already come with so many strengths, and we should be as open to learning from them as they are from us and creating spaces where they can really take the reins in a lot of ways." 

Anytime we can do that and get them in decision-making seats of any kind, I really support that. I think that's true to the original concept of Young Sisters for Justice, and I think that’s the justice piece that goes beyond philanthropy. The justice piece should not be understated. It's really important, especially in these times. 

Today, Boston Women's Fund youth initiative is called GROWUP LeadHership. It's facilitated by Jamila Gales and is affiliated with The National Philanthropic Collaborative of Young Women’s Initiatives. Learn more about NPCYWI here.


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