Tustin’s Girls in Government summit completes second year, nearly doubles participation


The City of Tustin has a mission to educate and inspire girls about careers in government.

The City’s Girls in Government summit returned for a second year on Sept. 26 to educate and empower young women to consider such careers. The two-hour summit, which was held virtually this year, nearly doubled in participants (with 114 girls) from its inaugural year in 2019.

“I felt really energized by all of the presentations,” said Mayor Pro Tem Letitia Clark, who led the virtual summit discussions. “I’ve been in the public sector since I started my career, and I learned some new things. I know for a lot of the participants, they learned a lot. I received a lot of feedback on social media, particularly from parents of the participants.” 

Tustin Mayor Pro Tem Letitia Clark during the Girls in Government webinar.

Hosted by the City of Tustin, the Girls in Government Virtual Summit 2020 included presentations from Public Works Manager Stacey Cuevas, Deputy Director of Finance Jenny Leisz, Tustin Police Department Lt. Stephanie Nichols, and Acting Director of Community Development Justina Willkom, as well as the CEO of OC Human Relations, elected officials from the City of Costa Mesa and a local housing activist.

The presentations focused on how they entered their fields, their impact on the community, and their roles as leaders and trailblazers. While presentations went on, the student participants — ranging from ninth-graders to college-age — were encouraged to post questions via chat that were answered by chat or during the presentations.

Tustin’s Girls in Government webinar.

Some questions from the student participants included:

“What do you recommend to do to start getting involved in government or law as a 15-year-old?”

“What do you study in college to work in Community Development?”

“What advice do you have if someone wants to get involved in environmental law?”

Cuevas said a lot of good questions came in during the presentations asking about how to pursue specific jobs.

“I got to go first, and then I got to watch all the questions come in,” she said. “And they were really interested in asking great questions on ‘How do I get my foot in the door?’”

Tustin Mayor Pro Tem Letitia Clark, left, with Lt. Stephanie Nichols.

She said she got her start as an intern and has been in Public Works — which she likens to a family — ever since.

“It’s a very male-dominated industry that I’m in,” she said. “And it was like a brotherhood that kind of took me in with them. And it made all the difference. It’s been like that everywhere that I’ve been, where there’s really this family vibe.”

Willkom said a lot of times young women don’t know how to get their start into government.

“A lot of us were interns,” she said. “You can start by volunteering. Sometimes you don’t get paid in the beginning. You get to explore the field and see if this is what you really want to do. Working in government we are here to serve, so you do need to have that passion. … I think this forum gives them a little bit of background, how we got into this, and maybe hoping we can inspire them to get into government.”

Nichols said she thinks it’s important to encourage and mentor young women in these fields.

“I think for me, being here so long — 21 years — I think [the summit is]just a platform for other women to get together and just support and lift each other up,” Nichols said. “For me, there weren’t very many women in law enforcement so I didn’t have the ability to have somebody mentor me. … And so the older I’ve gotten and even the longer I’ve been here, I’ve realized in order for us to move up, we really do need to mentor those under us. This was a great platform.”

Leisz said in the world of finance they have trouble finding qualified job applicants, so she was grateful to be included in the summit to help encourage a new generation.

“We’re out there trying to get people excited about working in the finance department for a government entity,” she said. “It’s challenging and it’s very rewarding because finance touches everything that goes on at this city, and it’s a great place to be.”

Each speaker not only talked about their experience but also provided a face to what government looks like.

“You can see that we’re all very diverse, come from different backgrounds, got into politics or government in a different way,” she said. “I think there were some questions about ‘What if I’m an introvert?’ … We kind of talked about the power of just using whatever your skillset is to make a difference in your community and there’s a space for everyone.”

“It’s not what you see on TV. These are real people from different backgrounds and with different skillsets that all share the same passion to make a difference.”

Clark said other cities have asked about how they can implement a similar summit in their own communities.

“The community only benefits from knowing more about what local city halls do for their community,” she said. “We often take a lot of heat, but there’s a lot of good being done behind the scenes.”

Want to see the summit in action? The full recording of the summit is available on the City of Tustin’s YouTube Channel: https://youtu.be/UEhSpwmriaY.