Last Thursday’s “Girl Talk” event at the Montebello Elks lodge, organized by several current and former PCC students, provided a safe space for women to hold discussion, share their stories and hear from empowering activists, including High School Musical actress Monique Coleman and Assemblymember Cristina Garcia.

Hosted by the Montebello Youth Leadership Club (MYLC), the idea for the event arose out of the desire by female members of the club for a forum where women could engage in open dialogue about their experiences and comfortably discuss topics considered socially taboo, such as female sexuality and menstruation.

“It’s just three girls in the club and we needed a safe space to talk about what we’re going through,” said Jocelyne Flores, current PCC student. “Growing up in today’s society, sometimes you don’t feel like you have a safe space to talk about anything.”

The event didn’t have the typical formalities one may expect. Without any stage, microphones or distinction between celebrity and attendee, the atmosphere of the night was personal and welcoming. Instead, shared tamales and a small intimate circle created something special.

“That’s something that I really stressed,” said Jennifer Gutierrez, former PCC student and the club’s Chief of Staff.

“I didn’t want it to feel like a conference. I wanted us to be at the same level, sitting down, intimate, being in a conversation with one another.”

One of the most anticipated guests of the night, Monique Coleman, shared the challenges and journey that made her into the woman she is today. Coleman, a multi-talented performer most known for her appearances in Dancing with the Stars and Disney’s High School Musical franchise, is also an outspoken activist, youth advocate and philanthropist. In 2010, the United Nations appointed Coleman the year’s Youth Champion.

“When people ask me to come [to an event], I always consider it,” said Coleman. “… there’s a message that is maybe going to come through me or there’s something that I’m going to learn.”

Coleman stressed the importance of self-love and acceptance, stating that nothing will bring you happiness in life – not money, relationships, nor fame –  if you can’t find love for yourself.

“I think every girl or woman needs to know that she has value – wherever she lives, whatever she’s going through,” said Coleman. “I really value girl talk. I value conversation and I think that it’s far more transformative than we give it credit for.”

Cristina Garcia, Assemblymember for California’s 58th Assembly District, also explained her views on women’s issues and encouraged young women to “find their badassery.”

Garcia, a math teacher for over a decade, first began her foray into politics in 2010 when her city of Bell became embroiled in a major political corruption scandal. After the discovery that the small town’s city officials were paying themselves extremely high salaries, Garcia organized the formation of citizens into the Bell Association to Stop Abuse (BASTA). The coalition promoted more transparency in local government and aided in removing the corrupt officials from office.

“I didn’t have a life plan,” said Garcia. “Opportunities came before me and I had to be fearless and have the courage to take advantage of them. Sometimes those opportunities didn’t pan out and I failed, but I still learned from those.”

Since taking office in 2012, Garcia has introduced bills to repeal sales taxes on diapers and menstrual products and redefine California’s legal definition of rape to include “stealthing,” the removal or tampering of condoms without the partner’s knowledge.

“My advice for people who do have some power: be intentional about how you use that power,” said Garcia. “… I think we have a responsibility everyday to lift people up. We didn’t get here by ourselves.”

Garcia doesn’t merely support women in legislative decisions but also makes a conscious effort to hire young women in her office, and believes other female leaders should do the same.

“Sometimes we think we need to compete with other women. That’s a myth,” said Garcia. “… I think we can lift each other up and help each other be successful. We’re going to be better off for it. So, I always say, ‘help a sister out.’”

The night’s conversation centered around women’s issues, particularly those of women of color. Topics included body positivity, sexual assault, menstruation, eating disorders, and family conflict. The intimate atmosphere of the night promoted the sharing of even the most personal of stories and many girls found that they had very similar experiences to one another.

“It’s crazy how we all have similar stories,” said Gutierrez. “We always think that we’re the only ones living that story.”

Though safe spaces have garnered some backlash from those who don’t understand their merits or believe people should simply “toughen up,” Girl Talk was a glowing example of the importance and necessity for safe spaces where women, minorities, LGBTQIA, or sexual abuse survivors can speak openly. The expression of traumatic events can be therapeutic and ensures individuals know they are not alone. The idea for women’s safe spaces is not to bash men but for women to be able to comfortably converse about the unique experiences they face as a gender.

“I think men are an incredibly important part of the feminist and women’s movement but there are things that are unique to women and I think it’s a disservice not to acknowledge those things,” said Coleman.

“I don’t think that being for women means being against men. I’m not against men, I’m married to a lovely man. But I think that these spaces are necessary and they’re sacred and they’re important.”

Towards the end of the night, there was time for girls to socialize with one another and use the photobooth available. A table was also set up in the corner with merchandise by Nalgona Positivity Pride. Available for purchase were t-shirts, posters and buttons emblazoned with empowering slogans like “brown is beautiful,” and “fuck your male gaze.”

Following the positive response and success of Girl Talk, MYLC hopes to hold more similar events in the future.

“The fact that Monique was right here, I think that was the most amazing part about it,” said Flores. “She’s a celebrity but underneath it all we saw her rise up more as a youth activist. It was amazing just to hear her voice and how passionate she was.”

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