ACT for Women and Girls member Lourdes Santiago
ACT for Women and Girls member Lourdes Santiago

By all accounts, Lourdes Santiago is valuable to her community. She works as a preschool teacher, domestic violence counselor, part-time college student and volunteer firefighter. Just a few years ago, however, Lourdes would have been ineligible for most of the jobs she now has.

Lourdes was born in Mexico and raised in California, where she spent many of her childhood summers working in the Central Valley fields to help her family. After graduating from high school, she continued working on farms to put herself through community college because her undocumented status meant she couldn’t apply for financial aid. It was at a community college in 2010 that she learned about Ms. Foundation grantee ACT for Women and Girls.

ACT, committed to eradicating oppression and empowering women, was an ideal fit for Lourdes. — She and a friend who joined with her had to spend two hours commuting to ACT each way by bus, but it was well worth it. For Lourdes, the work ACT did for her community and the chance to join the organization’s Female Leadership Academy became a priority, so she would arrange carpools or sleep over at an ACT member’s home to avoid missing a meeting.

“I would always work it out,” she explains. “You know there’s so much to do, and we were like, ‘We can’t miss anything!’”

The organization gave her more than leadership training; it helped her develop close bonds with other young women. “I have a sisterhood with the girls…I’ve met [through ACT]. We are able to rely on each other and help each other through anything in life. From rides to school to being able to stay at someone’s house.”

In her first year, Lourdes helped educate her peers through campaigns like “Don’t Let a Hot Date Turn into a Due Date,” which promotes healthy sexuality on prom night by distributing safety kits including condoms, LGBTQ resources and rape crisis information.

Thanks to ACT, Lourdes became a constant voice to state and local legislators about women’s issues, including reproductive health and justice, immigrant rights and access to education. She visited Sacramento with ACT on five different occasions to represent women. Lourdes remembers when she went to Sacramento for the first time, to advocate for birth control access.

Talking to her legislators, she described what other young women went through in her small community. “I see a lot of pregnant young girls in my town… That’s what I’ve experienced. A lot of these young girls don’t even finish high school. I know my sisters didn’t finish high school. They had kids, and they had to be moms. I see a lot of teenage girls in my town that have not been able to finish school because they’re raising a baby, and they’ll never go back.”

Her passion for ensuring that teenagers have access and information to make choices about their sexuality made her the perfect candidate to spearhead ACT’s Pharmacy Access Project, a campaign that sends teenage “secret shoppers” to pharmacies in their county to ensure that they are teen-friendly. Armed with a questionnaire about the availability of family planning products and emergency contraceptives, the young activists rank pharmacies based on access, helpfulness and willingness to provide reproductive health information. At the end of the project, the pharmacies receive a letter grade. Failing pharmacies are sent letters that explain why they failed and how they can improve. High-scoring pharmacies receive a certificate with their grade.

The Pharmacy Access Project has become a community institution, and today pharmacies display their certificates proudly, boasting about receiving “A” grades from ACT. ACT also creates a report card so teenagers in the area know which pharmacies are available as true health care resources to them.

Lourdes continued working with ACT even after graduating from its Female Leadership Academy and completing her internship with the Pharmacy Access Project. She volunteered to organize ACT alumni and aid in grassroots fundraising efforts from 2011-2012. It was then that ACT Executive Director Erin Garner-Ford encouraged her to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama administration initiative that grants two-year deportation deferrals and work permits to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Through ACT, Lourdes connected with a lawyer who helped her understand and work through the process. Three months after applying, she was approved, but in reality, she had been waiting for this freedom her whole life.

“It opened the doors to a lot of new things for me that I had been waiting to do because I didn’t have that paper to be able to say that I was legally here… I wasn’t able to do the things that I’m doing now.”

Today Lourdes is a preschool teacher by day and a domestic violence counselor by night. On her days off, she is a volunteer firefighter. Even under DACA, she cannot receive financial aid, so Lourdes pays her own way to go to school part-time to study criminology, with a focus on helping victims. She also helps people around her apply for DACA — and she continues to serve as a reproductive justice resource in her community.

Asked why she does all of this, Lourdes explains matter-of-factly, “I see my parents, where they come from, how hard they have worked for me to be where I am today. That’s what motivates me: my family and programs like ACT that I’ve been involved in. They remind me that I can be anything I put my mind to.”

The Ms. Foundation for Women is proud to stand with emerging leaders like Lourdes Santiago, and to support programs, such as ACT for Women and Girls, that empower young women and girls to lead the feminist movement. Help us support more women like Lourdes become leaders in the future.