This Activist Is Helping Fund a Thriving Future for Women of Color

Lulete Mola is one dynamic person. At her St. Paul, Minnesota, high school, she started a women’s empowerment group, called SHE, whose model was replicated at other schools and continued for years. Now out of college and in the workforce, she’s the vice president of community impact at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, doubling down on the social change work she started as a teenager. And when she’s not officially at work, she’s supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and bringing further awareness to issues impacting women and girls.

Lulete Mola with the Young Women's Cabinet of the Young Women's Initiative of Minnesota. Women of Color pbs rewire
Lulete Mola, right, with the Young Women’s Cabinet of the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota.

But the thing she’s most proud of can’t be found on a list of accomplishments, however long it may be.

“I am who I am wherever I go,” Mola said. “I’m from Addis Ababa, (Ethiopia,) and I was raised in St. Paul. … I’m an immigrant woman and I’m a black woman, and I’m unapologetically committed to true ideas of social justice, whether it be Black Lives Matter (or) a commitment to radical equity.

“I’m really proud to be doing that work as authentically as I can. … What makes me proud is how I do things and how I am bringing my people with me into every room I’m in and how I’m working to hold myself accountable to the very values of equity and justice that I preach.”

Mola’s swift trajectory into the world of social change started at the very beginning of her life. She always looked up to her mom and grandma as role models for being a strong woman, she said. Mola’s family emigrated from Ethiopia to St. Paul in 1999 when Mola was a child.

“My mom raised us by herself, me and my sister,” Mola said. “She is the most incredible human being. She is a caretaker, she has worked in nursing homes all of her working life, she’s always taken care of others. … That is how she lives her life and at the same time she’s a very proud, confident woman.

“(Growing up,) I didn’t know that you couldn’t be confident as a woman, because I saw my grandma and my mom.”

Mola is inspired by her mom’s sense of self and her ability to quickly get to the heart of the matter.

“She has so much wisdom,” Mola said. “She’s really smart… and she just has a way of simply seeing things for what they are and what they’re not and putting things in perspective for me in a way that is very humbling and soothing.”

Sparking a movement

Mola realized her calling when she was high school student. Her group, SHE, came out of a need for culturally appropriate programming for young women of color at her school. Rather than being treated as an “at-risk” group, the women of SHE organized to do activism in their community and to support each other.

A pivotal moment was when Mola and SHE organized a fashion show to promote body positivity and bring awareness to domestic violence. The event raised $1,000 for a local shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“It was dynamic and I remember thinking through it and working toward it,” Mola said. “All of it was very natural to me, it didn’t feel like a stretch. It felt very very natural and like it was what I was supposed to do.

“I thought, ‘Oh, wow, if something so natural doesn’t come as natural to everyone, maybe I have something to offer working with people.'”

After expanding SHE to the University of Minnesota, where she attended school, and several other local high schools, she realized how impactful her work could be.

“You can have an idea, you can bring it to life, you can organize people around an idea and you can really make local impact… and then it becomes a movement.”

Thriving over surviving

In her role at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Mola heads up the organization’s programming and grantmaking. She works with organizations and individuals all over the state to promote the advancement of women and girls, from initiatives to reduce sex trafficking to those meant to increase economic opportunity.

One of the projects most special to her is the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota. The initiative gives grants to organizations benefitting marginalized women in Minnesota—including women of color, Native, immigrant and disabled women and women in the LGBTQ community.

Lulete Mola's professional head shot. Women of Color pbs rewire
Lulete Mola

It also gives grants directly to these women to help them achieve their career goals.

It’s “working to change systems so young women of color and other girls at the margins of our state can thrive and we’re not only asking (the women) to change,” Mola said.

“It has a specific place in my heart because I think of it as SHE scaled. I first started working with 30 girls (with SHE) and we were defining ourselves and our power and learning how to create change, and now I am working with organizations and young women directly all over the state so they can define their power, identify their voice, so that Minnesota can be a state that serves them.”

The initiative is part of a larger goal to diversify the state’s nonprofits. Less than 20 percent of the country’s nonprofit leaders are people of color, and even less of those are women of color, Mola said. Diversity work can’t happen if it’s not coming from the top, she said.

“Here we are giving grants to young women of color… so tomorrow they are the executive directors of the nonprofits we’re trying to diversify,” Mola said. “When I came to the foundation that was something I brought—we need to resource young people directly.”

Something she learned from her mom helps guide her work and pushes her to continue to make change for women. All women deserve more than to simply struggle through life, she said.

“I don’t think we should operate from the frame of surviving, we should operate from the frame of thriving.”

This article is part of  “Living for the City,” a Rewire initiative made possible by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.