Young Women of Color Break the Silence. Now What?

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breaking silence

Credit: GGENYC

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The pain of the grand jury’s decision last week to not charge Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was just compounded by what happened here in New York. Another grand jury decided on Dec. 3 to not bring criminal charges against Daniel Pantaleo, a police officer who used a chokehold to restrain Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after the confrontation. These incidents are tipping points for community organizations such as ours, Girls for Gender Equity.

We have led Brooklyn’s Hands Up solidarity protest for all victims of state sanctioned and gender based violence.

As we demand justice for all, we take a stand for the girls and women overlooked by the media. One recent example: The manslaughter charges against Officer Joseph Weekley from Detroit that were dropped on Nov. 30 for the shooting and killing 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones while she slept. Another: Tanisha Anderson, a mentally ill Cleveland woman was killed on Nov. 13 after police used a takedown move outside her family’s home.

Led by the young people we serve, Girls for Gender Equity, the organization that I founded, felt compelled to answer the urgency of this moment in refusing to do business as usual.

We held a Walk Out on Dec. 1 and convened in front of the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, highlighting the names of cis and trans women, men and genderqueer people who have been killed–and largely overlooked–in recent years.

This is all part and parcel of our work, including our role in monitoring the White House.

In February, when the White House announced its My Brother’s Keeper initiative to address the particular challenges facing young men of color we were among the critics with a swift and obvious question: what about young women?

The report "Women and Girls of Color: Addressing Challenges and Expanding Opportunity," recently released by the White House Council on Women and Girls, could definitely be seen as an effort to fill in the gaps.

It highlights initiatives over the past six years to, as the White House said, "reduce barriers to success for everyone including women and girls of color." Its attention to issues of health, educational and economic disparities is admirable.

However, the White House’s report was little more than a six-year coming out party.

Analysis Lacking

It celebrated almost every community, family and public health policy as though boys and men of color did not benefit from them as well. It lacked the in-depth analysis of the problem, the exploration of intervention and strategies that were a part of My Brother’s Keeper. It lacked a philanthropic strategy and, most importantly, a call to action from the president, who was elected in 2012 with the support of 96 percent of black female voters.

Substantive action would mean gender inclusion in My Brother’s Keeper. A start would be an addendum to My Brother’s Keeper’s own Community Challenge, issued to all the mayors, officials and tribal leaders who have already signed onto the program. It would build comprehensive strategies that explicitly support girls of color and include them in the process.

The Department of Education and all government agencies can use data to develop programs to ensure girls, women and people of trans experience receive interventions they need to reach their potential. We need a vision for racial justice that includes everyone.

I joined others in criticizing My Brother’s Keeper for leaving out "sisters" and reinforcing a patriarchal and hetero-normative framework that would set our nation’s racial and gender justice movements back decades.

Our international collective of activists and scholars organized for the inclusion of girls of color in My Brother’s Keeper. We wrote letters,  hosted webinars and launched a #WhyWeCantWait campaign. We traveled to public and private meetings in Washington, participated in nonprofit round tables, met with equally distressed philanthropic partners and numerous community members. We rallied. We wrote. We charged.

It is not enough to wait for the White House to act with half steps. That is why Girls for Gender Equity joined with the African American Policy Forum to lead New York City’s first ever Town Hall Hearing on Girls of Color this fall.

"Breaking Silence" was symbolically held on the International Day of the Girl, in the National Week of Action to End School Pushout and while protesters in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign kept the events of Ferguson alive. It was followed and complemented by a second New York City town hall, "In Plain Sight: Towards Engendering the Fight for Racial Justice in the 21st Century," with testimony from women and men.

The African American Policy Forum led town halls in cities across the country — Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles — to hear out loud the lived experiences of girls and women of color and the gendered sexism and racism they face on issues of disproportionate disciplinary action in school, foster care abuse and violence and sex trafficking.

Changing Hearts and Minds

In New York, our #WhyWeCantWait community brought nearly 400 young people, educators, parents, activists, Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Member Laurie Cumbo together to listen to public testimony from 20 cisgender, transgender and gender nonconforming girls and women of color who changed hearts and educated minds by generously sharing their experiences with sexual violence, homelessness, discrimination and poverty.

During "Breaking Silence," the stories were as heartbreaking as they were relentless: young women abused in foster care then diagnosed with behavioral disorders when they refused to be silent about the abuse; others recruited into the sex industry when kicked out of their homes. Margaret Gilliam, an 18-year-old high school senior, testified that she was "left to figure it out on my own" when she went to the system for help. She named the invisibility in school and lack of "care" in foster care that greeted her attempts to escape the effects of her mother’s drug addiction.

Woven throughout the stories of these unapologetically, brave young women of color were threads of invisibility, neglect and violence. Both intergenerational poverty and being at risk within the educational and foster-care institutions meant the safety net did not work for them. Whether they were pushed out of homes and schools or pulled into prison, homelessness and sex trafficking, they all were able to identify the points along the way when an intervention by at least one person or institution would have alleviated their suffering and changed the course of their lives.

So yes, we say, it is good that the agitation we led has begun the dialogue at the White House.

"Black women struggle every day with biases that perpetuate oppressive standards for how they’re supposed to look and how they’re supposed to act. Too often, they’re either left under the hard light of scrutiny, or cloaked in a kind of invisibility," President Barack Obama said in remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner in Washington, D.C., in September.

It’s time for him to back up words with action or shut it down.

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