We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Kayla Mainja. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Kayla below.
Alright, Kayla thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. Any advice for creating a more inclusive workplace?
When starting this journey with Helen’s Project, I was constantly told. You will not get the support you deserve because you do not look the part. Those words rang hard in my ear as I did not understand what “look the part” meant until I went to my first foundation interview. Choosing my best new outfit, killer heels, covering all tattoos and a styled afro on point I walked in with a smile and a sense of security that I had made it this far. Sitting in a waiting room where not a single person looked like me. I asked of their ventures, their successes and what make them apply for the funds we all were fighting for. There was a trend that began to set in with every conversation. As my name was called, I stood with a smile on my face and watched the smile on the interviewer drop as she uttered “Your Kayla” I replied, “yes, ma’am” She continued “oh, you look different than I expected” with a look of utter intrigue I dared to ask with a smile “What did you think I look like.” With confidence in her voice, she stated “You speak so proper, I just didn’t expect.” She paused, looked at me as if I was going to finish her sentence to save her the embarrassment of having to say it. With a smirk she says “young, I didn’t expect you to be so young.” I casually laugh off the non-sense knowing that is clearly not what she meant.
What she does not realize is I have learned very early in life the meaning of Code switching and being the stereotypical, single mother black entrepreneur. My dad would tell me “When you walk in the door it does not matter how great you think you are, the first thing they will see is that you are black and you are a woman. The better question is what are you going to do about it”
The meeting ended and here is to say, I did not get the funding. What I did leave with was a flood of memories from corporate America. Passive statements of “do you think that style is professional for this setting” referring to my gravity defying afro tinted with the same blonde as Becky in the cubicle next to me. Some statements were not as passive, “we would love to give you the promotion, but you just don’t have the look we are seeking right now.” With each memory I told myself I would never create an environment where people had to hide who they are. Tattoos bring them. purple hair — the more colors the better, afro, straight hair, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, questioning. Whatever you identify as and however you are in your true self I wanted to create an environment where you can be just that and succeed at your craft.
Creating this environment was important. Do this we make the choice to employ previous clients with lived experience, we hosted open interviews, we evaluated our interview questions, our application to ensure it is inclusive. All staff are required to complete racial equity, diversity and inclusion training quarterly as well as additional workshops and training to create a continuous learning environment.
Kayla, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?
First and foremost, hello readers I am Kayla, the President, founder and advocate of Helen’s Project. I am a cheer mom, volleyball mom, an Army brat – in all the hats that I wear most importantly I am just me. I grew up in upper middle class of what I believed is/was upper middle class. I worked in my dad’s businesses went to school to hopefully make others proud. Never truly did it for myself, but I did it because I did not want to be another stereotype, I always wanted to be better than the norm. I graduated from William Howard Taft High School in San Antonio Tx. Proceeded to Graduate from the University of North Texas in Denton with a Bachelor’s of Science in Rehabilitative Studies with a concentration on Addiction. Immediately went to University of Southern California and graduated with a Master’s of Social Work. These are all the highlights the good points of life that everyone wants to here. They did not come without their trials and tribulations which led me to this field.
Being drugged and impregnated during your undergrad years really changes your perspective on life and what you have to do and what you have to accomplish. If this would not have happened, I would not have learned how hard and broken the system is for victims who want to finish school and not be abused. I would not have learned of the predators that sit and wait for you be the most broken version of yourself to offer you false hope and protection just to lead you to more personal destruction. This one single incident drove me to create a better way for those, so they would not have to fight, mess up figure it out again and start over 40 times because it just doesn’t make sense.
The model of Helen’s Project is to be a one stop shop for advocacy and success. This agency is designed for a person to come into our doors we complete an intake and we do the hard part of finding the best resource, we take the burdens of the no’s so we can figure out a better way to support our families through their needs. We offer Case Management, Individual and Group therapy, access to resources, and an opportunity to succeed with guided support. We are able to solve the biggest frustration of access to coordinated care. As your reading ask yourself now, how do you get an id with no birth certificate, no previous id in your local state and no social. If you answered I’ll just go to the social security office – they won’t give you anything unless you can prove your identity. If you said go to the DMV they require a Birth Certificate, and if you said go to the office of vital records – they require ID. So again, what do you do? This is the area we thrive in, the complicated systems that require a lot of navigation for our families fleeing domestic violence & human trafficking, for our unsheltered neighbors, and for our friends and family whom are experiencing challenges with mental health and incarceration. While there are several agencies out there that can and do support, we are unlike the others because of the diversity and inclusion in our staff. This spreads far past racial and gender identity but also to lived life experiences. We have staff that has been through situations similar to the clients we work with and they have survived themselves to help others make it through. This diversity sets us one step above the rest because we are able to form true rapport with the clients, we are able to walk in the mud and tree fallen branches of the woods to sit alongside them and call them friend as we aid in navigating what just may be the worst part of their life.
Of the several things that we are proud to accomplish as an agency, the most prideful thing would have to be that we grew from nothing and flourished through relationships. We are not an agency that started with any support. We are an agency that started sitting at the kitchen table over a box of cookies trying to make it work. Granted we had a well-developed outline from my college course work, but it was me my parents and a call to the wild. Since that first day we have continued to grow through the struggle, through the racism, micro aggressions, through the classism and the reality that we are a small agency that is making a substantial impact in the communities we serve through the relationships that we are building.
If you are to remember anything about us, we want everyone to remember us as the agency that brings and restore hope to the communities we serve.
Can you tell us the story behind how you met your business partner?
Newly named the dynamic duo, Anjena and I began to work together back in 2019 we both were in different places in our lives I was working for another company as a supervisor and she was finishing her last year of school looking for an internship. I remember her coming in with this huge smile just ready for what the world had to bring. She carried herself so professionally in comparison to other interviews we had. Unfortunately, I ended up separating from this company. Which turned out to be for the best to focus on the agency. When I let, I had to call the school and let them know that I would no longer be there as her supervisor but if anything were to change, please feel free to reach out to me and she can intern with me under my company. A few months later I received a call and she was my new intern.
What makes us such a great team is our views and vision for Macro Social work, and truly understanding the different levels of social work (micro, mezzo, and macro) knowing this we have been able to work closely to grow our agency truly evaluate the needs of the communities that we serve and do this all from a place of passion and compassion. Honestly, don’t know what I would do without her by my side.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
Most recently there was an email I received asking me to attend a meeting to discuss solutions for the homeless population in the community and how we can all come together to work on this problem. Of course, we want to collaborate and attend. I was so excited for this meeting until I received a call from another partner forewarning me that this meeting was not going to be the celebration that I thought it was going to be but instead it was a set meeting after several complaints were voiced from the party that initiated the meeting and I should bring others with me to support me in the meeting. I called of course Anjena, and a few other individuals that are key employees of the agency. What started off as a peaceful meeting became a war room of insults, accusations, and assumptions. Fingers were pointed, tears were shed and for the first time in a long time I could feel my blood boiling. Not because of the accusations or because of finger pointing but because that person sat across the table insulting my team. The team that has given their all to serve this community. They do not deserve this disrespect. With a hard swallow and a mental check on my tone and body language I firmly without yelling screaming, crying or finger pointing I very clearly told her you should not make assumptions when you have no idea what it is we do here. There were a few other words that were said just to make clear of the point that needed to be made. When we left the meeting, I was pulled aside and told that no one had every stood up to her before in the several years they had been with the company and I handle myself very well. Since that meeting there have been numerous targeted attacks to try and shut us down. We are still standing stronger than ever.
Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape.” This growth and experience, as a single female entrepreneur leading a social services agency to restore hope. Learning each challenge is an opportunity to grow and learn, I have had to develop extended patience when faced with challenges, this extended patience has created opportunities for growth and knowledge on how to overcome and how to continue to succeed. It is important to continue to live as resilient each and every day if not only for myself, but for those who are directly impacted by the work we do.
- Website: hlproject.org
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