A back-to-school conference hosted by Girls Inc. of San Antonio on Friday featured a panel of all six city councilwomen seeking to motivate a roomful of middle school girls with messages of positivity on the eve of the new school year.

“This is a historic moment,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) in her opening remarks on the stage at Jubilee Lakeview University Prep on the city’s West Side. The newly elected San Antonio City Council is the second in the city’s history in which women are the majority.

At the event, the women explained where the districts they serve are located and shared personal experiences meant to inspire the next generation of leaders.

Sandoval started by asking the 83 girls who are entering middle school what a council member does.

“Have you heard of a mayor?” she asked the girls who are served by the local nonprofit that helps girls overcome barriers in life.

“Well, he doesn’t do it by himself. There’s a mayor and he sits on a council, and there are 10 people on the City of San Antonio council. We are six of those 10 people.”

During the panel, moderated by Girls Inc. San Antonio President and CEO Lea Rosenauer, the councilwomen spoke of growing up in San Antonio, the various schools they attended, and how they persevered in the face of challenges.

Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who is serving her first term in office, told the audience that her parents spoke only Spanish and attended school up until the first and second grades. But she earned her doctorate.

“One of the things I have to tell you is hard work pays off,” Rocha Garcia said. “Work hard and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It doesn’t matter where your parents ended, you can do it … believe in your dreams.”

Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) also encouraged the girls to work hard toward their goals. “All of us were at one point sitting in your seats. We were middle school girls. We all made it through and we’re here now.”

When Rosenauer asked the panelists to discuss a time in their life when they felt uncomfortable and how they overcame that, Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) spoke about becoming a mother at age 16.

“I thought everything in my life was over,” she said. But with her mother’s encouragement, she graduated from high school, and went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin. “That was one of the most exhilarating things in my life … when I stepped on to that campus, I knew the sky was not the limit, there was so much more I could achieve.”

The Girls Inc. credo that girls have the right to express themselves with originality and enthusiasm was another topic that Rosenauer raised. “What does that right mean to you?” she asked the panelists.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) passes out backpacks to girls and their families.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) also spoke about becoming a mother – at age 40, for the first time during her first term, which was also the first time a San Antonio city councilwoman had ever given birth while serving.

“That was a very unique experience I got to have,” she said. “Whether you’re 16 or 40, being in political office and having that experience can also be very unique and original. You never know what life will bring you at any stage.”

Gonzales also shared the experience of having never spoken to a crowd before running for council, and she encouraged the girls to practice public speaking. “It’s a tool you will need in every aspect of your life,” she said.

But Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) shared the experience early in her career of learning to speak up for herself.

“I was in a meeting of all men and somebody came up behind me and started putting his hands on my shoulders,” she said. “I moved out of the way, looked at him, and said, ‘Please don’t do that again.’ … What also happened is that I found my voice to be strong enough to say that again any other time it happens.”

The fourth annual Back to School Conference and Boutique served as a back-to-school pep rally with the audience clapping excitedly several times during the panel discussion as the councilwomen sought to remind the girls to “be true to yourself.”

“How many of you all have ever heard the phrase, ‘once in a lifetime?’” Viagran asked the audience. “Guess what? You all are ‘once in a lifetime.’ You are unique and we all bring our perspective and our brains and our smarts to whatever situation we have.

“Why is this going to be the best city council term we’ve ever had? It’s because we have a Rebecca, an Adriana, a Shirley, a Melissa, Ana, and Jada. That’s why.”

Established in 2004, Girls Inc. of San Antonio is an affiliate of the national Girls Incorporated organization. Its mission is to inspire girls aged 6 to 18 to overcome barriers that prohibit them from achieving their personal, educational, and career goals. The organization offers numerous school-based and other programs and event meant to address the needs of girls and young women.

Following the event, Girls Inc. and the councilwomen distributed backpacks and school supplies to the girls.

Avatar photo

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.