For E. J. Encalarde, mentoring and empowering young girls is a calling
E. J. Encalarde is a busy woman. As president of Festival Productions and associate producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, she helps throw the biggest party in Louisiana. Since 1999, Encalarde has also been the executive director of the Beautiful Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the development and education of teenage girls of color. Through the Beautiful Foundation’s Youth Advisory Council, the girls help design and run forums, after-school workshops and summer programs. The organization seeks to bring these girls together while breaking down stereotypes and empowering them to see their beauty within.
What is the Beautiful Foundation?
We mentor adolescent and teen girls. We provide leadership training to help these young ladies feel empowered and find their authentic voices.
What areas do you focus on?
Mental health and emotional wellness. If they’re not healthy, all the other areas are out of balance. Business skills. There is always something they have a passion for that can be turned into an opportunity for them. Even in middle school, we get them thinking about business plans. Financial literacy. There are practical things that they don’t know: how to write a check; what does FICA mean; reading literacy. We find that when you establish a book club, for example, the girls have an exciting way to engage in reading.
Why did you start the group?
The Beautiful Foundation was a vision that came to me from my daughter, Christina, who at the time was 14. She’s now our program manager. She said, “Mom, I really don’t see any good images for teen girls.” For her, it was specifically girls of color. We started out with a group of girls from various schools and talked about issues that were going on. And then in 2001 we decided to do a forum at Dillard University, because we wanted more girls to be involved in the conversation.
How did your other programs evolve from that first forum?
The girls told me, “We want to do something all the time.” So we started going to schools and talking to girls about particular topics. I brought in community leaders depending on what they wanted to know about. Then we decided to start an after-school program. That was successful, so we carried it over into a summer program.
What kinds of girls participate in your programs?
We actually are not looking for the A student. We want the girl who the counselor, principal or community leader knows has the potential to be a wonderful young lady if we would only let the flower bloom.
Did the needs of the girls change after Katrina?
I would say yes and no. When you’re dealing with adolescents and their behavioral health, they’re already in a transitional time frame. But there was also discussion about girls becoming more aggressive because of emotional stressors. The girls couldn’t really identify some of the changes. They just knew there was more pressure on them, and they needed someone to help them through all of these pressures.
What prepared you to run this group?
All of my skills in business, learning how to produce and organize events have come from my mentor Quint Davis [at Festival Productions]. I’ve been with the company for 20 years. I’ve also been able to do a lot of research into adolescent behavioral health and girls needs. I’m a mother of four children. And having been a girl and a teenager, I remember the struggles of adolescence.
Why is it so important that the girls themselves, through the Youth Advisory Council, shape your programs?
My season, in a certain way, has passed. This is their season. As adults, we have to know when to be open and really let the youth’s voice be heard. I credit this foundation not to myself but to all of the young ladies who are constantly teaching me how to help them become empowered.
How can people help?
We need women in the community who want to offer their time as guest speakers. We also need donations. We may be in tough economic times, but tough economic times do not discount [the fact] that our youth are our future.
For more information about the Beautiful Foundation, visit www.thebeautifulfoundation.org. Applications are due May 15 for the June summer program and June 19 for the July program.