Nicole Watkins is always up for a challenge. It should come as no surprise, then, that when her Syracuse University professor presented her class with the option to either take the final exam or create a marketing plan for a nonprofit, she took the path less traveled by rolling out her nonprofit’s mission and vision.
Now, 15 years later, the Image Initiative continues to enhance the lives of young women from underserved populations through mentoring and education.
“I’ve always had a strong, personal affinity for empowering women – that’s just a part of my makeup,” said Watkins.
Image Initiative offers three key programs that focus on relationship violence prevention, teen pregnancy prevention and healthy self-esteem. The CHOICES Experience® allows youth to participate in a bi-weekly series of skills development, educational and life enhancement workshops. The BUILD Mentoring Collective® matches girls up with mentors for one-on-one recreational and group activities. Lastly, the Sisters Empowering Sisters (SES)® annual event is a two-day conference attended by 175 girls from the Syracuse City School District and city-based charter schools.
The majority of the girls live in census tracts with high poverty, low labor force participation and low high school completion rates. The city of Syracuse has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among African Americans and Hispanics out of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.
“The girls we work with often come from either single-parent or economically-challenged backgrounds,” said Watkins.
For Watkins, the growth of the organization was the result of the tireless dedication and commitment of her volunteer Board and support from many donors and community partners. Funding from a Community Foundation grant allowed Watkins to hire a program coordinator who works closely with the Syracuse City School District.
“The support we received from the Community Foundation has been very thoughtful and deliberate,” said Watkins. “I believe that strong relationships have to be relational and not transactional, and that is what we have benefited from over the years.”
While the Image Initiative has impacted countless girls over its 15-year history, Watkins hopes that one day the circumstances that surround the work it does now will no longer be needed.
“I do not see the issues that we are currently addressing going away anytime soon,” said Watkins. “But I believe we are chipping away at some of the cultural and generational curses that got us here and we are setting the stage for the next crop of young women leaders who will take us places we can only imagine.”