Zaniya Lewis ‘16 Inspired to Start Campaign to Empower Young Women
By Burlington County Times staff writer, Danielle DeSisto
Posted Dec 24, 2017 at 5:00 PM
It was Michelle Obama who encouraged then-18-year-old Zaniya Lewis to follow her dream of starting a campaign for young women.
Lewis, of Edgewater Park, was invited to meet the former first lady at the White House after she won an essay contest by Seventeen magazine. She appeared on the cover of the May 2016 issue alongside Obama and shared her dream of inspiring girls around the world.
″(Obama) said, ‘If you’re here with me, you can do that,’ ” Lewis said.
A few months later, she founded Yes She Can, a campaign to empower and deliver educational and career resources to high school and college-age girls using social media. She is in the process of applying for nonprofit status.
Because young people spend a lot of time online — and often view negative or discouraging content — Lewis wanted to use social media as a motivational tool.
“We do it digitally, so we are there for them 24/7,” Lewis said.
For example, as part of the “Spotlight” program, young women submit stories of overcoming adversity that Yes She Can publishes on its website and social media pages. More than 40 stories have been submitted from girls nationwide since the campaign’s inception in December 2016.
“They’re seeing different girls and different stories. They’re seeing that they can do anything they can put their minds to,” said recruitment director Tiahmar Fenelon, 20, of Willingboro.
The campaign also offers an ambassador program to help girls select colleges, apply for scholarships, choose careers, build resumes and enhance their leadership skills. About 30 ambassadors have mentored over 100 girls so far.
In 2018, Yes She Can’s executive team members hope to bring new online programs to their hundreds of social media followers. They recently launched a virtual college tour program, in which ambassadors at colleges record campus tours and post them on Yes She Can platforms for followers who may not be able to take a tour in person.
“We’re showing them that this is possible,” said Lewis’ 22-year-old sister, Jazmine, who is the creative director at Yes She Can.
Locally, the campaign hosts an annual “Sparkle Summit,” bringing together a variety of guest speakers for panel discussions and workshops on female empowerment. The first was held at the Willingboro Public Library in July; the 2018 event will be June 2 at the Joint Military and Family Assistance Center in Bordentown Township.
The Lewis sisters remember being told in high school that their dreams of attending well-respected colleges out of state were far-fetched. Now, as they are on track to graduate from George Washington University and Virginia Tech, respectively, they are on a mission to ensure that no female student is discouraged from pursuing her dreams.
“I believe it’s about giving girls an opportunity, even though they might not think there is one,” Zaniya Lewis said.
She hopes her vision will continue to spread to girls across the country, but she’s proud that her grass-roots effort got its start at home.
“Even though we come from small Burlington County, we can lead the country,” Lewis said.