Growing up on San Antonio’s East Side, Brandi Coleman treasured the support of teachers and community leaders. As an adult, she wanted to recreate that support for today’s generation of African American girls.
That led her to start The Lemonade Circle, a mentorship program serving girls of color in grades 5 through 12.
She created the program while she was an elementary school teacher in 2017. She began meeting with five students at Davis Middle School, planning outings to events, museums and community service activities.
She named the group after the Beyonce album, Lemonade, which reflects on the experiences of Black women. It’s also a reminder of the group’s mission: making lemonade from lemons.
Today approximately 80 girls from all over San Antonio are in the program. Through Lemonade Circle events and programs, girls see women who look like them while learning about opportunities and leadership.
“A lot of our girls come in looking for representation, people that can relate to some of the issues they’re dealing with,” Coleman said. “I might be the only African American in my class or school, but I’m learning about who I am, I see women that look like me, I’m understanding that leadership goes beyond what I see in my immediate view.”
Participants meet throughout the year in three main groups: a STEM Circle that creates exposure to science and technology fields; a literacy circle that sparks discussion through books by and about women of color; and a mental health circle that offers opportunities for girls to relieve stress, from sound baths to hiking.
The girls also serve other students with mental health boxes. With support from Valero, the girls assemble items such as coloring books, crayons, fuzzy socks, journals and little packets of lemonade for middle school students in the San Antonio ISD.
Special events throughout the year expose the girls to new experiences, including programs with the UT Health Science Center, Gardopia Gardens and the San Antonio International Airport.
Coleman also ensures that she brings one of the girls with her whenever she’s invited to an event, whether it’s a gala or a panel discussion. Networking is part of the program’s core values.
“I want them to see that I’m in these spaces. A lot of the time I’m the only one that looks like me in these spaces,” she said.
One measure of the program’s success came when the first five circle members to graduate from high school received a total of $1.4 million in scholarships last year.
Still, the challenges she faces as a lone volunteer managing 80 girls and trying to get her organization on firm footing can be overwhelming, Coleman said. She is currently in the SVPSA Fellowship program, a 7-month program designed to strengthen the skills of nonprofit leaders.
“It’s a huge learning curve and I don’t think people realize the doors that are closed to a lot of people, and that some people have the power to open them and they would gladly open them with you and for you, they just don’t know that you don’t have access to those doors,” Coleman said. “SVP has provided me with people that are willing to hold my hand as I walk through some of those doors, and has led me to doors that I didn’t even know were there.”
Coleman is one of the first beneficiaries of SVPSA’s SPARK Team, a targeted effort to help a growing nonprofit apply lessons learned in the fellowship cohort. The team includes SVP Executive Director Becky Dinnin and Partners Leslie Palmer and Nisi Bennett.
“They’re basically providing me with the coaching that I need,” Coleman said. “They’re allowing me to see what I need to do to create an organization that is sustainable.”
After 11 years of teaching elementary school, Coleman became an assistant principal for two years before moving to the University of the Incarnate Word as a teacher induction coordinator for nine years. She recently became an adjunct professor at Texas A&M San Antonio, teaching incoming students and students pursuing teaching careers. The move to part-time instructing has freed up her schedule to focus on creating sustainability for The Lemonade Circle, including funding beyond individual donations.
“We want to still be here in San Antonio’s landscape years from now as an organization that is acknowledged for their impact in the community,” she said.