Editor’s Note: The following essay is by Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan, Chief Visionary Officer of the Youth Mentoring Action Network (YMAN) and author of “Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide.”
2021 has already been a traumatic year for Black womxn and girls. On the very day that the Chauvin verdict was announced, news spread like wildfire about 15-year old Ma’Khiah Bryant’s ruthless killing by police in Columbus, Ohio. Ma’Khia’s death followed a series of brutal assaults against young Black girls in the past four months – such as in January when a 16-year old in Florida was victimized by police after a school resource officer body-slammed and knocked her unconscious. Or in Rochester, New York where a nine year old was pepper-sprayed by officers who afterward told her, “You did it to yourself.”
You did it to yourself.
As evidenced by Ma’Kiah’s death and through the menacing words of Rochester police, America continues to refuse Black womxn and girls their full humanity and access to critical care, safety and protection. Rarely are they extended the benefit of the doubt or opportunities for non-aggressive intervention or de-escalation, let alone rehabilitation or transformation. Instead, they are routinely abandoned and forced to shoulder blame and responsibility for their own trauma and victimization.
While more time could be spent citing the numerous studies and data on how Black womxn and girls are harmed by poverty, the education, carceral, healthcare and childcare systems, ultimately this would only reinforce what many in the social impact sector well understand and yet have still do little to rectify. For too long, we have been engaged in surface level conversations meant to check off the right “equity” boxes. Yet, despite all of the grand overtures and branded campaigns championing #BlackGirlMagic, too many programs and institutions claiming to do equity work seldom, if ever, do anything to safeguard or shelter Black womxn and girls.
Last month when announcing the White House’s first Gender Policy Council, President Biden said: “Women have fought for justice, shattered barriers, built and sustained economies, carried communities through times of crisis, and served with dignity and resolve. Too often, they have done so while being denied the freedom, full participation, and equal opportunity all women are due.”
As a Black, queer womxn, it’s impossible to hear these words and not see all the ways in which Black cis and trans womxn and girls embody these attributes and yet are continually deprioritized in both policy and programmatic interventions. Having spent the past decade centering young people through scholarship and mentorship, I have witnessed first-hand the conspicuous absence of girls of color from major mentoring and youth development initiatives in the not-for-profit sectors. While there are many strategies focused on marginalized groups, Black womxn and girls consistently find themselves on the periphery and disproportionately overlooked when it comes to funding and policy-making. The few exceptions to be found are those created and nurtured by – you guessed it – Black womxn.
Black womxn scholars, activists and practitioners have not only paved the way in research on Black womxn and girls, but have been leading incredible funding efforts as well. After joining the Grantmakers for Girls and Women of Color as Executive Director, Monique Morris helped to launch the Black Girl Freedom Fund, urging the field to commit $1 billion dollars to resource Black womxn and girls. Organizations like Girls for Gender Equity, led by activist and social worker Joanne N. Smith, are working to ensure that the voices and needs of Black girls are being brought to the national stage through their campaign A National Agenda for Black Girls. The work is being done in collaboration with the private sector too. Black Girls Ventures recently partnered with Nike to host a pitch competition with the desire to “increase awareness of Black woman-identifying business in wellness sports and tech”.
Realizing this critical gap, the Youth Mentoring Action Network launched its own initiative, Black Girls (EM) Power, to support and allocate resources to Black womxn and girls through education and mentorship. We spent a year listening to their wants, needs, experiences, values, and preferences to improve the ways in which we show up for them. These listening sessions helped us better understand what’s needed not only from us, but from their communities. As a result, we facilitated a number of valuable initiatives to meet these needs. Through partnering with the Self Care Lab, a Black womxn-owned boxing gym in Pomona, California, we were able to afford them a safe space to work out and seek reprieve. In collaboration with Wendy’s Life Wellness Healing House in Upland, California, we’ve provided access to an entire staff of Black womxn professionals, from therapists to doulas.
(EM) Power is also launching a fellowship program for youth ages 15-25 that will center what Black womxn and girls told us they needed the most: rest and resources. The fellowship includes a stipend and access to a multi-generational community of dynamic Black womxn mentors, a mid-year retreat in the beautiful coastal city of Laguna, California, and an international retreat in Ghana, West Africa. These efforts have already attracted partners like Nike and Grantmakers for Girls of Color, partnerships that are helping to scale our impact and capacity to improve quality of life for the Black womxn and girls in our community.
To understand what radical love looks like in action, social impact leaders need only look at, listen to and leverage the experiences and expertise of Black womxn and girls. We are demanding more than just a seat at a table, but a say in how the table gets built. We are calling for transformational solutions that can power transgenerational progress and success. We are urging greater investment in the organizations and projects they’ve founded and are leading in the communities where they live. This is the real work required to set Black womxn and girls up to not only survive, but to thrive. Take it from a Black womxn.
Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan is the Chief Visionary Officer of the Youth Mentoring Action Network (YMAN) and author of “Critical Mentoring: A Practical Guide.” Follow her on Twitter: @tweiston