Julia Cuba Lewis


Linda Lorelle: [00:00:01]I’m Linda Lorelle creator and host of Our Voices Matter. Why this podcast and why now? Because it’s time for us all to take a deep breath. And listen. I am a journalist business owner keynote speaker founder of an education nonprofit wife mother daughter sister dancer and lover of life…. And my country. And like so many of you I am deeply distressed at the deteriorating level of discourse in our democracy. This podcast is my humble attempt to do something about it. One story at a time. It is my hope that as you listen to and watch the stories of someone you might consider to be the other that you will somehow see a glimpse of yourself and be reminded of our common humanity. So what do you say? Let’s take this journey together. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:01:04]Welcome to our voices matter. A podcast dedicated to empowering us all to better understand each other. Our goal: to replace fear with knowledge, disdain with respect, and hate with love. One story at a time. So let’s get to it. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:01:27]I’m so excited to have Julia Cuba Lewis here with us today. Julia. I remember when I when I first met you. Julia is the director of this incredible organization. Executive director of this organization called Girls Empowerment Network and your mission resonated with me right away. So please just tell people briefly what GEN is and why it’s so important. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:01:53]Well we believe that girls are powerful and so our entire mission is about helping them to discover that they’re powerful people. We do that by teaching them what’s called self efficacy which is a girl’s belief in her abilities. So if a girl is shooting for an A on a test or she’s trying to overcome a bully or she is maybe experiencing an abusive relationship and trying to bring that to an end maybe she’s the first person to try to go to college and her entire family or you know maybe she’s just trying to take care of herself when she feels like no one else will. When girls go through our self efficacy curriculum they begin to believe that they can do it and they become powerful. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:02:37]What is the curriculum. What happens. What do they go through. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:02:40]It’s a curriculum that we deliver in schools and we also have them in summer camps and then conferences. And so this curriculum is 20 modules. Girls can go through all 20 of them in their schools or they can go through maybe just one in a workshop. But each module focuses on helping girls build their confidence their creativity their critical thinking skills their communication abilities things that will help them feel like they can even raise their skills game just a little bit more every time they go through a module until they get to a point where they feel like hey you know what I can do a lot of things and just that idea that they can do a lot of things start to make them more prepared for the challenges ahead. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:03:23]So the organization is based in Austin. Yeah and you recently expanded to the Houston area. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:03:29]We did. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:03:30]And are those the only two markets that you’re in now. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:03:32]We’re in Dallas too. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:03:34]Awesome. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:03:34]Yeah. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:03:35]Awesome. So what’s your what’s your overall goal? 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:03:39]Well, take over the world of course. You know, we’ve just really begun to learn how to scale our organization. So learning about moving into a new city and then learning about moving into Dallas. So Houston then Dallas. I think those were a lot of big lessons for us. And so we’re looking at the new what other ways we can be scaling. And ideally I’d love for us to be able to do our work nationally. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:04:04]So before Jen and I want to come back and delve into it a little bit because it’s tied together because you’ve spent your life doing this kind of work. This is how long you’ve been with Jen now. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:04:15]I’m in my 13th year. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:04:18]Wow 13th year. OK. But before that you were involved in an amazing film called Troupe Fifteen hundred. Tell people what that is and why it’s it’s so important and how it connects to Jen. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:04:34]Absolutely. So my work with the Girl Scouts was to facilitate this girl scout troop of girls whose mothers are incarcerated and basically our entire focus was how to break the inter-generational cycle of incarceration. There was a judge one day many many years ago who was looking at all the people who are coming through her courtroom and she noticed that she had a grandmother a mother and a daughter from the same family on the same day all for different crimes. And she just said you know there’s something that is intergenerational happening that is specific to women and girls. And so she hypothesized that there would be a way that we could go in and intervene in families to break that cycle of crime. When you look at the statistics for girls whose mothers are incarcerated they are eight times as likely to go to prison than their friends or their peers whose mothers live in the free world. So they have the cards are stacked against them. And so for that program in particular our entire objective was to put those girls with their mothers so that they could become more familiar with who their mothers were and not carry the shame that they had about their mothers being incarcerated and the guilt there was so much guilt for them. So we wanted to break the shame and the guilt for them by putting them with their mothers instead of having them be separate from them especially in critical years from the age of 8 to 16. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:06:07]I was just going to ask you what what what’s the age range of the girls who were involved in this program. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:06:11]Yeah. We had girls who were between eight and actually had some 18 year olds to 18 which was a beautiful model for a Girl Scout troop because it was there were like big sisters and little sisters and they all taught each other something and they all got to know one another’s mothers. We actually would go to the prison and take the girls into the prison and spend eight hours. We would start with you know making some lunch together where we actually food is such a tradition. That’s such an important and family type activities so we would make lunch together. We would have activities where the girls would just get a chance to rule on the floor with their moms and have nap time and talk and tell each other about the things that have been happening in their lives and sometimes there’d be tears and there would be the guilt that they couldn’t be with each other around really important and special occasions. We would do group therapy. We would we would have just group dialogue where we were talking about what our goals are as a group what each other’s individual goals were and then we would do a lot of preparing for what Mom’s coming home next and how do we handle that. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:07:18]What does that look like? 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:07:18]Yeah. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:07:20]So how what would you say your your takeaways were in terms of the transformations. How did you see the girls transform from the time that they began this this program where they were visiting their moms in prison and how long was the program itself when they were doing this. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:07:37]Well they could stay in the program as long as they were a child. So by the time they’re 18 they would graduate. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:07:42]So it could be over a period of years. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:07:45]Absolutely. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:07:45]So Tell us about the transformations that you saw. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:07:46]Yes. So imagine a girl is at home one morning and there’s a knock on the door and she goes to the door and it’s the police and they’re asking for her mother and the mother comes to the door and they arrest her and they take her and put her in handcuffs and put her in the car. And the mother is saying don’t worry I’ll be OK don’t worry I’ll be OK. And there is an aunt or somebody at the house who now takes over the relationship with this child as the guardian. So what happens for that girl at that very moment is that she thinks it was her fault that mom got arrested. She thinks mom was doing something wrong. But she was having to do that in order to protect her child which by and large is true. The average age a woman goes to prison is twenty nine years old. The reasons that women go to prison are specifically around domestic violence. They’re around drug addiction they’re around prostitution. These are oftentimes things that are related to their effort to cope with their situations. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:08:50]And if they have children they are there. You know stealing things to take care of their kids. They’re working to try to find the money to feed their children and pay rent. And so the girls see that they know that their mothers are struggling to make ends meet. And when the mom gets arrested they take this sort of position of feeling guilty as though they were the very reason the mom broke the law. However you want to see that our objective was to help those girls go through a process of letting go of that because that is a big weight for a little girl to carry her whole childhood. So what we saw what happened is our girls would be we’d go to that prison. Week after week after week. And girls were get a chance to be with their moms talk about what’s going on in their lives express their anger. And there would be a point where that child would you know she’d be asking mom about how she felt about everything and when she thought she was going to get out and what it was going to be like when she got out and when they lived together in the same household again or would mom live somewhere else. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:09:49]And so there’s a lot of questions around that and at some point the girl would have a revelation that mom mom also made her own decisions and that it wasn’t all that child’s fault. And that revelation took some time to get to. We sometimes saw that that last two three years for a girl to go through the process of beginning to figure that out. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:10:10]Once you figure it out then she’d become really angry and sometimes want to skip the prison visits would come to our troop meetings that weren’t at the prison but did not want to go to the prison visits or they would go and be really quiet and stiff and unable to communicate with their moms. Moms would want to know how come you haven’t been writing me. I have been sending you all these letters and you’re not writing me letters back and the girls would say that’s not my job to do that for you. And they were right. It wasn’t their job to do that. And so the girls would kind of come to this place of reflecting on their anger at some point and be able to talk about that with a counselor in our group or with me or even with the group as a whole. And at some point just decide that it’s OK what has happened and it doesn’t have to define who she is. She doesn’t have to carry that wait any longer. She can let go of it and forgive her mother. And so the forgiveness stage would happen and that would look a lot like the girl finally writing a letter back or coming to a prison visit and really opening up and asking the mom some more questions but recognizing that her mom might not have all the answers and that life is just really a lot more complicated than she realized. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:11:28]I can’t even imagine how how difficult it must be for a young girl in that situation dealing with a mom in prison and having to navigate just being an adolescent a child in terms of you know sometimes you know obviously we know there’s a there’s a lot of bullying that goes on and I would imagine that the shame that you mentioned that word shame that when a young girl feels that shame that it also carries through every aspect of her life. And she probably feels different than the rest of the girls whose moms aren’t in prison. And how so how did they how did you help them deal with that dynamic. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:12:18]I think just the power of sitting in the room with 15 or 20 other girls who have the same situation was the kind of support that they needed. It wasn’t even anything I would say other than accepting them and loving them for who they were and demonstrating that I cared for their mothers and that I was deeply invested in the outcomes for their mothers. I think that that was there was a lot of power and not just that group support and that the way that older girls would talk about how they felt about it the way that the younger girls would talk about and they would all hear each other and begin to support each other. And when someone would say I feel so ashamed everyone else would step up with all the ideas they had about how to deal with that. I remember we had a little girl who told everybody that her mom was in Las Vegas and she would just say that’s where she was all the time was Las Vegas and nobody would really ask why or what she was doing there. But that’s where she was and she was really in prison. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:13:13]Wow. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:13:13]Yeah. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:13:15]It’s so hard to understand you know how how a young child can deal with something like that. So in your work now with with Jen I’m I’m curious about what kinds of questions and and dialogue you’re having with girls today as it relates to kind of where we are as a nation. I mean the girls are seeing you know this divide and probably witnessing it within their own families within their communities et cetera. I’m curious about the kinds of conversations that you’re having with them and what you’re seeing that might have been a shift over the last couple of years. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:14:00]Definitely the first thing is girls who are from undocumented families. There’s a lot of fear that sometimes said out loud that there’s even a lot of concern about speaking about it out loud. But just so much for you that they’re going to lose the life that they have or that they’re going to lose their parents or they’re going to lose their older brother or you know you name it or even sometimes lose a group member from our groups. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:14:28]Are they voicing this? 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:14:29]Yes they are. They’re scared to say it up front but it’s that if it does come to the surface and there are girls who are afraid that they’re going to be taken out of the United States and the rest of the group is scared they’re going to lose their friends. So that’s something that I’d say in the last couple of years has become a much more emerging topic for them. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:14:50]And how are you. How are you counseling and dealing with them on that. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:14:54]It’s really about being present with them and helping them to. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:14:57]Just having them own their truth, say their Story. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:15:00]To say it and to own it. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:15:01]Yeah. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:15:02]Absolutely. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:15:03]Yeah. Wow when you when you think about these girls becoming well they are the next generation of leaders. What do you think are the qualities that are are going to be most important for them to have As they move into adulthood and are going to inherit you know kind of sadly the mess that we’re leaving them with. I mean until we can kind of get it together. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:15:36]Yeah I mean I think I think we’re we’re building these girls to be people of integrity to have empathy for those around them to to amplify all voices and not just their own to be advocates for one another and not just themselves but also definitely themselves. And I’d say to you know kind of in a timely manner Michelle Obama just recently had her wonderful quote about lean in and how it doesn’t always work. And I think for our girls we we want to we want to build them up so that when it’s not always working that leaning in part isn’t always working that they’re not adversely affected by that but that they can see that as a challenge that they can just step right over and keep going. And so build up that that self efficacy and that belief in their abilities. I want to see girls have the comfort level just believe that they can be the president of the United States because I think if you can’t believe that then it will never happen. And so our goal is to make that belief possible in their minds. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:16:42]Where does this passion that you have for working with young girls come from. You’ve been doing this kind of work your your whole adult life. Why? 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:16:51]So someone asked me about a few years ago and this story popped into my head that I hadn’t ever remembered before. So I only remember this a few years ago but when I was seven years old I was the only girl on my t ball team. And I did not know that because I was seven. So you know I just thought everybody’s a kid here and we went to our end of year ceremony where they were going to be handing out awards for all the kids and my parents. I was lucky enough to have both my parents and they took me and they handed out these trophies and I was the fastest runner on the team. So I just knew that my word would say that and that they would announce that when they handed it to me. So they were handing out these awards to all the kids and it was a trophy that had a man who was in a baseball uniform and he’s in full swing on the trophy. And when it cut to me they said this is for Julia. And she was the only girl and she really hung in there and they handed me this trophy and my trophy was a woman and a tight baseball uniform and she had giant breasts and she was in full swing and everyone just started dying laughing and even the coach was laughing they just thought it was really funny. And and I I thought I was just humiliated. I remember my little tiny hand and this big trophy and I was just shaking trying to figure out how to even get back to my seat. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:18:16]And so when we left you know we got in the car and I jumped in the backseat and I was looking at this trophy and I asked my parents you know why did they make fun of me for being the only girl and why didn’t they say I was the fastest her and my mom turned around and looked at me and she said I hope you figure that out someday. And I thought wow my mom either doesn’t know or or she’s challenging me to go in and find the answer for myself. And either way I’m going to find it. And it started for me. A journey of realizing that there were social issues outside of me that there were issues around gender equity which of course didn’t know those words then but I knew something was going on between girls and boys. I just understood that social justice was suddenly an issue it was a it was a it was a new lens for me at age 7. And so I started really asking questions along the lines of gender equity and made it my way through elementary middle and high school wondering asking questions irritating people you know pushing buttons people didn’t want to have to answer the questions that I had. There wasn’t a place for me to go to say why is it this way. The basic stuff that the kids want to understand like why do I shave my legs and boys don’t do that why can’t I ask them why on a date. But he can why. You know this is endless. And why do I have to wear makeup and boys down. Why do we wear dresses and lie down with these sort of very basic question. Right. And I think today my my goal of course is for girls and boys to have access to the same things to have equity but also for there to be a place where girls can go and ask those questions because they don’t see the equity right around the corner and so I think we’ve got to make a place for them where they can talk. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:20:09]Wow what a story. Yeah. And you had not really thought about that until you’d been asked that question a little while ago a couple years ago. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:20:18]Really it just dawned on me. I I actually really think that that was a transformational moment for me. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:20:24]That was the genesis. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:20:25]And I have the trophy. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:20:28]I bet you do. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:20:28]I do. It’s with my China. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:20:36]I love it. I love it. So did did you ever tell your mom when you figured it out. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:20:41]I did. I did. And you know she saw me figure it out and she saw me go to college and go through my own kind of transformation of understanding what was going on. She she heard me talking about it and I even sat down with her and just said I think maybe you’re a feminist. And I think maybe you taught me to be a feminist. And and she said God and my mom was a feminist too. And she kind of pointed out these things we had around our house that we’re all very celebrating about women and the power and women and I had never really noticed on before. And so I started to realize oh that’s that’s a bit of a legacy in my family. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:21:19]That I just love how she how she did this with you how she ingrained it in you without you even realizing it. and it’s not like she was you know telling you every day. I’m a feminist. You’re going to be a feminist. She just showed you that. And then she challenged you to figure it out for yourself. She I love that. Yes. So she knew exactly what she was doing. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:21:43]She knew exactly what she was doing. And I suspect she still does. So I’m always wondering like what is she. What is she going to do have me do next.

Linda Lorelle: [00:21:50]Okay Mother what’s next on my bucket list. Tell me already. Yeah. Oh my goodness. Well speaking of that what is next on your on your list. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:21:59]Well I you know my my greatest might make my greatest joy in my life and the best and luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me is that I get to wake up every day and be excited about my job. And I know that that’s not true for I don’t know maybe 90 percent of the population I have no idea. But I get excited to go where I’m going every day. And so I think as long as I’m doing this that’s really gonna be my answer. I’ve I’ve had people ask me to try other things and it’s just I can’t I’ve I am working for mobilizing resources for women and girls in whatever capacity that is in Girls Empowerment Network. I think we’ve got some pretty exciting stuff ahead of us. So right now I’m majorly challenged by understanding scalability and how we get there. So I’m I’m very engaged in that. So that’s what I think is next for them for the next years couple of years at least. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:23:00]Well I do have to say that I’m excited to be supporting you as much as I possibly can and excited to be actually chairing the Houston event next spring.

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:23:13]Yes. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:23:14]And I know we’ll have thousands of excited and ambitious beautiful smart girls who are looking for inspiration and guidance and I think you’re remarkable what you’re doing here. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:23:32]I think you’re remarkable and I’m so excited for you to get on in front of those girls for them to see you think you’re going to be the most powerful part of our day. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:23:41]Well I don’t know about that. I will give it my best shot. But I really thought it was important for me to sit down with you for this podcast because. I just think that that what you’re doing is is helping to empower young women and to give them the understanding of what it is to be a good citizen in the world starting with themselves and to develop empathy. And it’s something that we need as you have said so beautifully in this crazy time that we’re living in. If there were one thing that you wanted to leave with with our audience today in terms of just giving us some hope of what’s to come especially since you do so much work with the next generation what would that be. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:24:36]Yeah. It just makes me think of a story right off the bat that question we had a group in a school where a fifth grade girl was undergoing our curriculum and the activity was where they were supposed to draw a comic strip and then the comic strip. They were the superhero and they had to pick what their power was and then tell a story. And so this fifth grade girl said that her power was to be able to control the wind and she would use the wind in certain ways and manipulate it so that she could save people’s lives. And towards the end of her comic strip she woke up one day and her power was gone. Her super power was gone and she had to have a moment where she really thought about well what do I do next. How can I keep moving forward. And what she realized is that she was already powerful without it and that she could keep changing the world and saving people’s lives. And so she did and she was a superhero. Yeah. So I mean that’s a fifth grade girl. And so what I would say to you is you know they’re there they’re gonna be voting and they’re going to be running our institutions and our companies and our schools and they have that kind of outlook. So I feel pretty hopeful. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:25:58]Thank you for sharing that. I could see the tears in your eyes when you… 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:26:01]Special. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:26:02]When you. Yeah. Wow. That makes me feel hopeful. It does make me feel hopeful. Thank you so much for sharing that. And thank you for taking the time to come and share all of these beautiful stories with us. And I hope that our audience feels as inspired and as hopeful as I do after having spoken with you. So good luck. Keep doing this great work with girls empowerment network and we’ll be cheering you on and I’ll be there supporting you as much as I possibly can. Wonderful days and years to come because it’s really really important work. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:26:39]Thank you so much for having me. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:26:41]Thank you Julia. 

Julia Cuba Lewis: [00:26:42]Thank you. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:26:43]Well I really appreciate all of you for tuning in for giving our guests Julia Cuba Lewis the opportunity to speak today to speak her truth and thank you for having the courage to listen with an open mind. My hope is that you will continue to do that as you go about your day. Thanks so much. We’ll see you next time. 

Linda Lorelle: [00:27:04]If the mission of our voices matter resonates with you please like subscribe download and share and then join the conversation because it really is going to take all of us to make a difference.