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Sisters under siege Black girls, young women must not be forgotten

By Starla Muhammad -Assistant Editor- | Last updated: Mar 26, 2014 - 1:18:09 PM

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The plight of Black males was brought back into attention with a presidential declaration and initiative but what about the status of Black girls and young women, are they at risk and what needs to be done about it?

Arrested at age 19 and after serving a one year bid on a weapons charge by 20, Erika Kayne knows all too well the rough, treacherous roads Black girls and young women are too often forced to navigate and how wrong decisions and lack of stable and loving guidance can get them caught up.

“The biggest issues that our girls are facing now and what I was facing was peer pressure and caring too much about what other people thought about me,” said Ms. Kayne.

The Cleveland native struggled to fit in, deal with boys and the various emotions resulting from a fractured relationship with a father who was in and out of jail from the time she was a baby.

Erika Kayne, an R & B and Hip-Hop artist on the set of her video, spent time in prison but now speaks to young people about making better choices.
In a society that paints them as hyper sexual and bad-attitude-having-loudmouths unworthy of sympathy, undeserving of love and compassion, Black girls and teens often struggle to find their way, fighting these stereotypes or tragically, conforming to them. Distorted media images contribute to how Black women and girls are perceived by themselves and others, said activists interviewed by The Final Call.
Now 24, Ms. Kayne, a hip-hop and R&B artist, speaks to middle and high school students about her experiences and how to avoid her mistakes. Her video PSA, “Think Before You Act,” was released at the beginning of the year and is another way Ms. Kayne spreads her message.

She hopes the video can help influence young people to make better choices.

“I have a little sister who’s 16 and she’s dealing and facing the peer pressure as well. I see her and I understand, because I was once that girl. It’s very necessary that these young girls know that you don’t have to dress and act a certain way and meet those standards that everybody else wants you to meet.”

In a society that paints them as hyper sexual and bad-attitude-having-loudmouths unworthy of sympathy, undeserving of love and compassion, Black girls and teens often struggle to find their way, fighting these stereotypes or tragically, conforming to them. Distorted media images contribute to how Black women and girls are perceived by themselves and others, said activists interviewed by The Final Call.

Even the paths travelled by successful sisters like first lady Michelle Obama, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, Olympian Gabrielle Douglas and others were not immune from the stings of racism, sexism or charges they just weren’t as good or pretty enough.

Black women and girls are not immune to violence, frightening encounters with police or questionable criminal justice laws that plague Black boys and men as the experiences of Rekia Boyd, Oriana Ferrell, Hadiya Pendleton, Marissa Alexander and dozens more illustrate. Ms. Boyd was shot to death by a Chicago police officer, while standing unarmed in a park. Ms. Ferrell was pursued by Arizona state troopers for a traffic violation. The troopers bashed in the windows of her van with her children inside and one trooper fired his weapon as she sped away from the assault. Hadiya Pendleton was shot to death by alleged gang members in Chicago a week after performing at the president’s inauguration. Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Florida after firing a warning shot into a ceiling to stop what she called an attack by her abusive husband. Her conviction was overturned but she will be retried this summer.

“We don’t know how to love ourselves because nobody else is loving us,” said Ms. Kayne.

The Girls Like Me Project, based in Chicago was founded by LaKeisha Gray-Sewell. She offers mentoring programs to inspire Black girls and teens to fulfill their potential. Photo: Starla Muhammad

State of emergency

“When I look at our young sisters I think that we’re in trouble,” said Carla Morrison, founder and executive director of Sisters of Today and Tomorrow, a mentoring organization with branches in Atlanta and New Haven, Conn.

When it comes to health, education, income, violence or the criminal justice system, Black females are disproportionately on the negative side of statistics compared to their White counterparts.

The New York City-based African American Policy Forum compiled and published a fact sheet, “Did You Know? The Plight of Black Women and Girls in America,” which states:

  • In 2010 the homicide rates among Black girls and women ages 10-24 was higher than any other group of females and White and Asian men. In 2011, 94 percent of Black women were murdered by someone they knew.

  • Suspension and expulsion rates for Black girls were higher than any other group of girls.

  • Black girls have higher incidents of emotional difficulties and depression.

  • Black females 18-24 have the highest rate of unemployment nationwide.

  • Black women are incarcerated at three times the rate of White women.

Black girls are also disproportionately obese and still experience higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

SOT Founder Carla Morrison (middle) with Sisters of Today and Tomorrow’s College Girls (L-R) Queen (Brandies University) and Courtney (Spelman College) presented during 2013 SOT Leadership Conference. Photo: Courtesy of Sisters of Today and Tomorrow
Active and positive role models with a genuine interest in cultivating Black girls and teens and helping them to reach their God-given potential is what is needed, activists contend.  

“I recognize that they have no idea the power that they hold in themselves and a lot of that comes from lack of self-esteem and lack of leadership,” said Ms. Morrison. Many girls try to emulate the first woman they come in contact with which most times is their mother but if mom lacks self-esteem, many times so does the daughter, she explained. 

There is just as much need for mentors for girls as there are for boys and everyone has a role to play, Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation told The Final Call. She is also president, CEO and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, which is scheduled to host its BWR Women of Power Summit in Washington, D.C. March 27–29. The group is scheduled to release a report that will review the overall status of Black women in areas of economics, criminal justice, education and health and wellness at the summit.

Mentors said it is key for churches, mosques and non-religious groups to engage youth. Sandy Muhammad, National M.G.T. Student Captain of the Nation of Islam with a Chicago-area teen. Photo: Starla Muhammad
“We have women and girls coming so girls will have their own tract, a shadow summit if you will, to really work with some folks to kind of help us think about what they need and what do we need to be doing better,” said Ms. Campbell.

Just as Black boys are victims of “zero tolerance” school policies, so are Black girls, pointed out Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever of Incite Unlimited and former executive director of the National Council of Negro Women. She is a contributor to the scheduled Black Women’s Roundtable report. 

“Our girls as well get long-term suspensions which lead to them getting behind in school which might lead to them dropping out altogether or basically falling behind in their school work and not doing as well. Those things hurt,” Dr. Jones-DeWeever told The Final Call. She also pointed out that over the past couple of decades, pregnancy rates among Black females ages 15-18 have dropped. But Black girls experience heightened exposure to violence which is very much glossed over, she said.  

“When I say violence, I’m talking about sexual violence as well as other forms of physical violence that really make in many ways their space very much unsafe.”

Sex, self-esteem, safety and support

In an address to women only titled, “The Immeasurable, Limitless Value and Beauty of a Woman” Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam asked these questions: Who are you, Black woman? Do you really know how valued you are in the sight of your Creator?

Those questions are relevant as media outlets strongly influence girls to feel like they have to dress and act a certain way, explained Ms. Kayne. “The music is part of the reason that girls do the things they do and the social networks. I can’t blame the social networks, but it’s the people behind the social networks. We’re being pressured to live up to a certain standard,” she added.

Girls as young as 10 years old she engages with are talking about having a boyfriend and relationships, said Ms. Morrison. Body image is also a big issue, she added.

Ms. Morrison commended President Obama on the rollout of My Brother’s Keeper, the initiative for Black and Latino boys and young men, and would welcome a similar initiative from him or even the first lady. Mrs. Obama’s voice could have a positive impact, she said.

However, Ms. Morrison pointed out, there are already many organizations doing work that lack funding and a national voice recognizing these groups for the work they do. These programs provide outlets for young sisters to talk about issues that most affect and concern them especially if they can’t or won’t talk to their parents or guardians.  

Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever
“We also have to deal with the fact that the violence oftentimes does not come from strangers, it comes from people that they trust, from family members or acquaintances. So we have to be very vigilant in terms of protecting our girls and believing them,” said Dr. Jones-DeWeever.

The Black community has a history of being very sensitive to the challenges of Black boys and young men and as a mother of sons Dr. Jones-DeWeever understands that necessity.

But, the community also needs to understand Black girls face similar threats, she said, citing the tragedy of Renisha McBride, gunned down in Dearborn Heights, Mich., seeking help after a traffic accident.

“I think there is great hope, however, we are in peril,” said LaKeisha Gray-Sewell, founder and executive director of the Girls Like Me Project, based in Chicago. Black girls often get “left out of the equation” when talking about concerns in the Black community, she told The Final Call.  

Much of the violence and other behavior being acted out by young females are due to a spiritual unrest they feel from not having a voice and being disregarded by society, said Mrs. Gray-Sewell. Much of that is tied to media images which is why one of the many courses she offers through Girls Like Me Project is media literacy. She helps girls understand and break down images cultivated in them at a young age.

“We easily grasp onto what’s perpetuated in the media which is tough and hard and strong. We see that evolve into the independent strong Black woman that don’t need no man,” she said. 

Mrs. Gray-Sewell agreed problems facing young females and young males are two sides of the same equation. The issues are there, in single and two parent homes, she added.

“I would dare to say that is the reason that the problems that exist among Black boys and men exist is because for so long the Black woman and girl have not been given the support and resources that they need to advance our culture and community. We are the mothers of civilization. Where we go, so goes the world,” Mrs. Grey-Sewell said.

Black girls matter

For Black women on the front lines working with Black girls whether individually or as part of an organized body, it is a calling and true labor of love. These women represent a variety of faiths and work with all age groups. Many host weekly and monthly gatherings, pampering sessions, workshops and forums where Black teens and girls come together in a safe, nurturing environment and feel free to express themselves without being judged. 

Donna Welch began working with Black girls and teens when she was barely an adult herself. She began mentoring and volunteering  with young people in 1981 after she graduated high school. She started My Daughters Keeper of Tampa Bay in 2007.

“Our young girls have no clue that they have purpose and were brought here for a purpose, regardless of how they got here. But once you get here, there’s a purpose for your life,” she told The Final Call.

“What inspired me to do that is I worked and mentored young girls and saw just the need for them to just have a voice, be able to talk about their issues, being able to hear someone without judging them first, by just listening and then responding. I just saw a need in the community.”

Her program had been for girls 12 and up, but last year she lowered the age to 10 because she saw a growing need among younger girls.

“They’re starting early. They see things early. Conversations at just 10 and 11, you know you’re surprised that they would know that but I guess you’ve got T.V., movies, videos, older siblings  so I knew it was time to move it down,” said Ms. Welch. The earlier we start with our girls the better off we will be, she added. Her group’s weekly “Real Talk” meetings are a place where girls can share what is on their minds with older Black women in the community.

Lisa R. Muhammad, executive director of Project Y.O.U. (Youth Organizing for Unity), said there is a disconnect between generations, which led she and her brother to found their organization. The reward that comes from working and mentoring young people comes from watching them grow, mature and overcome difficulties, said the activist and member of the Nation of Islam in Chicago.

Lisa R. Muhammad, executive director of Project Y.O.U.
“That gives me joy … watching them come out of their shell to be goddesses and able to compete with the best of civilized society and stand firm, whether they’re in the Nation or not,” said Mrs. Muhammad.

“Those girls who were told that they were never going to amount to anything or nobody would ever give them an opportunity, letting them know that if it’s God’s will they can do anything and watching them accomplish goals they never thought they could accomplish, just makes me happy.”

The M.G.T. & G.C.C., Muslim women of the Nation of Islam, offer Saturday classes where girls and women of all ages can come for knowledge, support, empowerment and a strong spiritual foundation.

For Ms. Morrison, her work was sparked as a young girl watching her mother mentor girls in the neighborhood. She found herself taking up the mantel. The goal of Sisters of Today and Tomorrow is to work with girls ages 9-18 and develop them into confident leaders with character. 

Among the programs and activities held year round are an annual Sisters of Tomorrow Conference held the second week in July in Atlanta.

Ms. Kayne said having a mentor early in life would have made a difference.

“I definitely think if I had that mentor, that ‘Erika Kayne,’ that spoke out against the wrongdoings, showing me that it’s OK to do 100 percent right and it’s not wrong to always be right. If I had that, I wouldn’t have landed in prison,” she said.