By Ryan MacDonald
Who runs the world? Girls!
At least that’s what Monika Matthews is hoping to instill in the young women of King County through her non-profit organization, Life Enrichment Group.
Founded in 2003 in response to a disproportionate number of youth of color, particularly African American girls, failing in school, Life Enrichment Group (LEG) mentors young ladies from various central and south Seattle neighborhoods and teaches them to think about their future from an early age.
“We saw a lot of young people coming through our program who simply just needed additional support in the field of education,” said Matthews, who has a background in teaching.
So instead of allowing her community to fall by the wayside, she formed a coalition of volunteers and used her knowledge of community service to get involved and make a difference.
“It’s really important for me because I live in this community, I work in this community, and I hang out in this community, too,” she said.
In the beginning, LEG offered financial literary programs and various cultural activities, like African dance and drumming, but quickly expanded into afterschool tutoring and academic services. All of the programs provided the girls opportunities they weren’t receiving at home.
“Whether it’s coming from a house where there is an incarcerated parent, or a parent is on drugs, or just situations where parents have to work two or three jobs, there’s no kind of additional support,” she said.
Matthews, who was raised in Chicago but moved to the Central District for her senior year of high school in 1996, can relate to most of the young women who come to her non-profit.
“I know what it’s like to be a troubled young person,” she said. ”I know exactly what it takes, in what they need, to overcome some things.”
Today the organization serves between 50-100 young girls and offers a variety of curriculum-based programs that focus on four pillars of learning: self-love, personal development, academic achievement and sisterhood.
It also brings together students from different parts of the city to help combat ongoing gang activity between rival neighborhoods, which was central to the program’s success.
“They’re more likely to not fight each other, or to not have these negative experiences with each other when they interact in the community,” Matthews said.
During each academic year, the girls participate in a variety of activities including local and national college tours, attending corporate events within the community and meeting with business owners who have served their neighborhoods for decades.
These types of experiences, Matthews explained, are crucial in shaping how the young ladies see themselves in the larger community.
“They can get out of their environment and be exposed to a different way of life, different ways of living and be exposed to different people who are being successful in higher education situations.”
One of the most popular curriculums is Young Queens: Youth in Business, which teaches the ladies how to impact their community through entrepreneurship. Here, the girls learn the basics of business concepts, including marketing, packaging materials and how to take an idea to scale.
“They may not start a business, or a million dollar company for another 10 years or so,” Matthews explained. “But there are things they may want to do now. It’s about self-sufficiency.”
With that in mind, the Young Queens created a line of luxury skincare product aptly named Queen Care. The brand features natural and organic lotions, body scrubs and sprays. Sold at local pop up markets and farmers markets, Queen Care was so well received, it surprised everyone.
“It kinda shocked all of us,” Matthews remembered. “The young people were selling things left and right, making money for themselves, and that kind of helped them think outside the box even more.”
Now as Queen Care moves into its second year, the girls are setting their goals even higher. They have plans to incorporate and become an LLC, and recently they were invited to showcase their artisanal products at an Amazon Corporate event, along with 30 other African American business owners.
The event focused on how the community can funnel support to black business owners, which, Matthews said, are at risk as gentrification in communities like Columbia City are causing many long term residents to become displaced. Still, she remains optimistic.
“The good thing about growth is that is brings people into the neighborhood that can afford to buy some of our Queen Care products at a luxury price,” she said, with a laugh.
Through her work, Matthews hopes the community will start paying attention to its youth so they can stay in the communities where they have these roots, even if things around them continue to change.
“What we’re trying to do is just take a stance and say, ‘Hey. You know, we’re here and we need to plug this up, and stand up and put a stop to this.”
And if the young queens can learn anything from Matthews, it’s that she’s not going to give up on them.