“We do everything — we literally do life together,” says Leslie Council Lake, founder of My Sistah Taught Me That. The local developmental and mentoring program works to empower black and brown girls ages 11-19. From creating a safe space to talk about any issues the girls face to esteem building and future planning, MSTMT aims to impact all areas of the journey from childhood to adulthood. Twice-weekly meetings include counseling, social work, lessons on hygiene and setting goals.
“One thing I’m really dedicated to, for our youth, is exposure: getting off this mountain, sometimes, and seeing other people who look like them in positions of leadership,” Lake says. “We’re so used to being the only one — the only one in the classroom, the only one in the boardroom — that we forget that there are other people who look like us who are also successful.” By exposing the girls in MSTMT to women in leadership roles, Lake explains, they can have someone to look up to.
Another confidence builder is MSTMT’s annual fashion show, which also serves as time for budding models to shine on the runway while also raising funds for the program. The 2018 MSTMT Fashion Show will take place at Celine and Company on Sunday, Aug. 26.
“Modeling promotes self-esteem,” says Lake. “You’ve gotta walk with your shoulders back and head held high.” Girls in the program who don’t wish to model can work as a hostess or greeter at the event, or sell merchandise for MSTMT, developing financial and people skills.
Now in its third year, the fashion show didn’t break even on its first go but attracted about 250 viewers and raised around $2,000 after expenses last year. Along with showcasing fashions from Nest Boutique and She Gets Dressed, the event also hosts vendors selling jewelry, offering community services and more.
That money generated from the fashion show funds programming for the 112 teens and preteens currently enrolled. “They all get served in different ways,” Lake explains. For those who, due to involvement with sports and other extracurricular activities, can’t make the after-school meetings, MSTMT goes into Asheville high and middle schools and recently partnered with the Erwin school district to provide the same programming.
Meetings always entail a meal (as some students face the challenge of adequate access to healthy food) and might include a speaker, a discussion of what’s going on at home, progress in school and sometimes “the difficult conversations” about disciplinary problems, Lake says. But there are plenty of opportunities for fun, too: Monthly outings can take the group on a hike at nearby DuPont State Recreational Forest — Lake likes to introduce the girls to sites in their own backyard that tourists pay to visit — or to the urban setting of Atlanta, among other destinations.
This year’s college trip will give students an opportunity to check out Clemson University, Georgia Tech, the University of South Carolina and other institutions. “They have to qualify for that,” Lake says of the tour. “They have to have the grades, write an essay and do research on at least one of the colleges.”
Recently, students from MSTMT and its affiliate program, My Daddy Taught Me That, attended Kids Across America, a summer camp in Branson, Mo. “It was a culture shock for most of our kids,” says Lake. A number of the group members had never traveled that far, “and they had never seen that many kids of color in one place.”
She adds, “They get tucked into their housing communities. It’s one way in, one way out, and the only time they leave is when they’re getting on a bus to go to school. … There’s more to the world than just Asheville.”
MSTMT launched two years ago. MDTMT, which was established in 2010 by Keynon Lake (who is now Leslie’s husband). Keynon had been approached a number of times about doing a girls program, and Leslie was already involved with similar work. It made sense to partner under the MDTMT umbrella.
So why are the program names slightly different? MDTMT works with young men who often grow up without a father figure in the house and, similarly, MSTMT “is specifically for young girls growing up in single-parent homes without a father,” Leslie explains. But the girls do have that female-figure to look up to and learn from. “Mom’s working really, really hard, and we’re not trying to replace her,” Leslie says. She calls her own community-minded, hardworking mother “superdedicated and phenomenal” but remembers as a girl, “I was always longing for a sibling — someone I could spend time with and talk to.”
The mentors of MSTMT aim to be just that: a positive presence, a sympathetic ear and a role model.
WHAT: 2018 MSTMT Fashion Show
WHERE: Celine and Company, 49 Broadway
WHEN: Sunday, Aug. 26, 3 p.m. $12. avl.mx/57g