Rocío Ortega introduced First Lady Michelle Obama earlier this week at the inaugural Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.
I have a story to share with about a young woman who is a shining example of what’s possible when girls are supported in finding their passions and given the tools and mentorship to live their dreams.
I met Rocío Ortega, a first-generation Mexican American, five years ago when she was a high school student in East Los Angeles. We met through an organization called Global Girl Media, which trains girls from under-served communities around the world to become digital journalists. I was a guest lecturer at their Summer Training Academy.
I found Rocío to be warm, smart, comfortable and competent with her skills, and open to learning. She was not, however, a newbie to digital media. She had attended the Global Girl Media training the previous year, and was now serving as an assistant to the program.
I learned that it was through Global Girl Media that Rocío was first exposed to the concepts of female empowerment and feminism, and she was now hooked. Through the program, she had uncovered her passion for these things and was now receiving opportunities to pursue her passion.
One of the opportunities that came her way was to be a reporter at the 2010 International Women’s Media Conference in Washington, D.C., which gave her, as Rocío puts it, “the biggest exposure of my life.”
At the conference she was paired with a girl from South Africa, who told her about her life. “She wanted to go to school, but couldn’t because of where she lives. I realized I had to do something about this problem, but I didn’t know how,” she recalls.
When she returned to her high school in East Los Angeles, Rocío began researching ways she could make a difference. In her search, she found Girl Up, a campaign by the United Nations Foundation. This initiative gives American girls the opportunity to become global leaders and channel their energy and compassion to help some of the world’s hardest-to-reach adolescent girls.
As a passionate girls and women’s rights advocate, Rocío started a chapter of Girl Up in her high school to raise awareness and funds for girls in Malawi, Ethiopia, Liberia, India and Guatemala. “It was shocking to me, but people in my Latino community had never thought about the need to educate and help women in developing countries,” she recalled.
She said that it was through Girl Up that she introduced the words, ‘female empowerment’ and ‘feminism’ to her community and that’s when people began to get on board.
During her time at Girl Up, Rocío became a Girl Up Teen Advisor, which took her back to Washington, D.C., accompanying girls who were as passionate as her about raising awareness and empowering girls in developing countries.
Back at home in California, Rocío worked for passage of child marriage legislation in California and interned for U.S. Congresswoman Grace Napolitano.
It wasn’t long before Rocío was back in Washington, D.C., serving as a U.S. House of Representatives Page, and leading an advocacy effort to save the 200-year-old Page program that was under threat of termination for budgetary reasons.
“Patriotism was alive there for me. To attend as a resident from 99 percent Latino-populated East Los Angeles and a low-income family, it really opened my eyes and gave me the urge to want to better my community and run for office one day,” she told me in an interview. “It’s just unfair and heartbreaking knowing thousands of kids will not have the opportunity I had,” she said.
In 2013, she spoke at a TEDxYouth about finding your own path, sharing her personal story of fighting the traditional values of her own Latino community and family to be the first one to make it to the steps of the Capitol and to attend a college far from home.
That same year, Rocío was awarded the Teen Nickelodeon HALO (Helping and Leading Others) Award for her outstanding work advocating education as a way to help young women become independent and successful. She, herself, a perfect example of this.
Last month, Rocío and her Girl Up colleagues had a big success when President Obama signed the Girls Count Act into law, which makes getting girls a birth certificate a priority of U.S. foreign policy. Without a birth certificate, millions of girls in developing countries cannot go to school, vote, work, have a passport or access healthcare. Rocío’s advocacy and leadership is now going to change the situation for millions of girls.
Now 21 years old, Rocío is entering her senior year at Wellesley College, the alma mater of one of her role models, Hillary Clinton. She is majoring in political science and Latin American Studies.
Earlier this week, Rocío took the stage to introduce First Lady Michelle Obama at the inaugural Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., where she received a huge hug. “If you think that there is someone or something in your way of achieving your dreams, be persistent,” says Rocío. “Vale la pena. … It’s worth it.”
Tabby Biddle, M.S.Ed., is a women’s rights advocate, writer and leadership coach, specializing in helping women find their voice. She is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller, Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action, now available in paperback. Get your copy here.