Which Girl Issues Matter?

I hate to call this out, though I won’t apologize for it. Sadly this thing that is pressing me is centuries old. It is the thing that causes many good-hearted, well-intentioned, folks to glaze over and ignore the glaring hardship of others. It was the motivating factor behind the infamous, now known to be falsely attributed, Sojourner Truth quote. And though we are more than a century from the first National Women’s Rights Convention and suffrage movement, there’s still yet another generation who could rightfully beg the question…”Ain’t I a girl?”

Here we are in 2015, in the midst of a swelling, impassioned, global movement for girl empowerment. This movement is an appalled examination of the way girls are treated around the globe. It is a clarion call commanding attention to the majestic & transformational force girls can be in their communities if given the required developmental tools, most important amongst those are demonstrative love and genuine concern. The movement is a celebration of the greatness and resilience inherent in being born a girl.

Which girls matter?

As with most movements, while fueled by thousands, there are always a number of personal narratives held up to advance the cause. There are those whose faces and stories pull at the heartstrings to bring about awareness and connect with stakeholders, and those with the power to bring about the desired change. Oftentimes we find that that power translates into money.

And here is where we find ourselves in a conundrum. This tenuous space where women advocate for Black American girls heartily cheer for girlhood, and enlist their efforts in the fight for the equality and empowerment of all girls; yet the faces and stories of girls they fight for and alongside everyday are seldom, if at all, the ones highlighted or propelled into the public movement discourse. The stories and faces we do get to know seem to make their way to us from far across oceans. We become familiar with those from other continents through very determined and concerted efforts by those coiffed with power and access who are right here stateside along with us.


Somehow those persons of power and access appear oddly unfamiliar with the girls who are standing right on their same continent, in their same country…often in their same cities.  So we become intimately familiar with stories of child marriages in Uganda or sex trafficking in Sri Lanka; not the girls in Chicago and the other 13 American cities listed by the FBI as “high-intensity child prostitution” hubs. We know very well names and faces that connect us in a real way to the lack of access to education in Pakistan; but can’t identify personal stories of girls from the mass school closings in cities like Chicago which impacted mostly Latino and Blacks. The poverty narrative is well pronounced and easily identified with girls in just about any developing country, while muted are those who are living in nine of the worst food deserts. Chicago being chief amongst them cited by the United States Commission on Civil Rights as “
not simply a public health issue, but an urgent civil rights issue.”

blackgirlsmatterSo there remains the experiences of girls who come of age in the urban strangleholds of violence, poverty and systemic injustices within American cities but for whatever reason are left out of this powerful girl movement. They are disconnected from the conversation. The various reasons why that is are burdensome. Some quite suspicious.

We have to ask, is this movement inclusive of Black girls who hail from systematically impoverished American neighborhoods.? And if so, what is their role?  Is it simply to observe and fight for others, or do they get to tell their stories and have others fight for them, too? Perhaps they are to be treated (as we’ve seen) as mere footnotes and asides.

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I personally sought to include their experiences producing the annual Chicago Day of the Girl in observance of International Day of the Girl as designated as October 11 by the United Nations. Since its first declared celebration in 2012, we have connected more than 500 Chicago-area girls to this movement, ensuring activism and global sisterhood was our focus. The goal is to show girls that they are not alone in facing issues that debilitate their quality of life. That they can stand in solidarity with their sisters beyond their blocks and neighborhood, beyond their cities and their own country. This very grassroots effort, and others like it, need to be supported and embraced by all who claim to advocate for “all girls.” We need to provide a pathway for power brokers to look their way. To look and see the girls who have been left out and marginalized, whno are not traditionally associated with the illustrious, well-funded, institutionalized girl organizations.  Fund programs birthed in their communities by women who have found their way out and now selflessly serve on behalf of girls. See their need as a state of emergency and aid in the resolution of their issues.

And the list of needs/issues is long. We can choose from any of the those listed below to begin. Then we can consider the impact of incest/molestation which take on different levels of generational trauma in certain communities.

Finally after that, ask ourselves, is this important to me? How will I help.

The reality is, girls are living in the margins of our society in plain sight of privilege, access, prosperity, and quality living. They can see it, hear it, and smell it. Yet there remains a glass wall blocking them from touching it.

Let’s all break the glass!

  • Disproportionate school disciplinary actions and overcriminalization of Black girls as examined in African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality.
  • According to Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA), “Fifty-two percent of females’ commitments to IDOC youth facilities of 13 to 16 year olds were for offenses against a person and 35 percent were for property offenses.
  • The FBI labeled Chicago as one of 13 locations of “High Intensity Child Prostitution.”
  • Black children are more likely to have an incarcerated parent, and twice as likely to have both parents incarcerated.
  • Mainstream media has placed Black girls outside the realm of standard beauty, describing them as “less classically” beautiful and manly-looking.
  • Black girls are disproportionately dehumanized and otherwise portrayed in media as sassy, hyper-sexualized, and violent.
  • In 2011, the U.S. Commission on Civil rights reported that “the food desert neighborhoods are almost exclusively in African American neighborhoods. Therefore, the problem of food deserts in Chicago is not simply a public health issue, but an urgent civil rights issue.”
  • Based on the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) which monitors six categories of priority health risk behaviors among youth, dating violence is a serious issue for teens.  A staggering 18.5% of Chicago youth surveyed reported that they had been hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Rates are highest for African American girls, with 22.6% reporting that they had experienced dating violence.  Overall, this is a significant increase from the 2007 data.
  • A new report from The World Health Organization (WHO) landmark report, Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative, reveals suicide kills more girls between the ages of 15 and 19 than any other cause—more than pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, road injury and diarrhoeal diseases.
  • Violence and misogyny are tantamount in media influencing and consumed by youth, which includes an overwhelmingly large female population.
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It ain’t college, it’s the real world!

It’s that time of the year… the glimmer and glam pave the way from prom to the pomp and circumstance of graduation as girls are marching beyond high school, off to realize dreams. And as a great number of our girls continue to march their way on to college campuses, far too often they do so guided by the philosophy that a college degree will be their passport to the real world. It’s true, a college degree does afford entry into greater opportunities. However, we have got to halt the perpetuating send off that says personal control over their livelihood is on hold until they return home from a 4 year stint of academic and social revelry.

The truth is,  without getting too deep into the metaphysical, the moment they leave home and have to make choices independent of parental direction or adult dictation, girls (or more appropriately young women) have stepped into their real world.

When I made my transition to college, I remember clinging desperately to lessons from the closest ideal of college life I had, the television hit show, A Different World. That show dealt with almost every possible issue a Black girl could experience on college campus.

Just like then, we should equip girls with a few key beliefs as they make their way in the real world. While A Different World is still a media resource full of lessons for our girls heading off to college campus, they also need a dose of reality. Here is a vital list of mind sets our girls must adopt when heading to college real world:

Be enterprising: tap into an innate gift and skill set to earn supplemental income while away at college. From fashion design, hair and nails, blogging, makeup, tutoring, photography there are tons of ideas for dorm room enterprise. This income can be used at their discretion to fund clothing and personal hygiene expenses; spring/summer break excursions; or general expenses. Furthermore, this is money that can be saved for major investments right after college. Think first home, relocation, car, stocks.

Be a conscious consumer: Never too early to learn this! But college is definitely an opportune time to harness power over the dollars young women spend. Take a critical lens to brands which attempt to influence loyalty without much accountability nor personal return. Look at the brands that support causes and community initiatives that are relevant to you as a consumer. And take special note of brands that offer paid interns to college students like you.

Have an open mind: There are millions of perspectives and viewpoints beyond what you were raised around. Be open to gaining new experiences and getting to know people from various backgrounds whose beliefs and perspectives may be completely different than what you are familiar with. Expand your perception.

Be intentional: There will be plenty competing for your time and attention. Everything from classes to social clubs to campus involvement. Be sure whatever you devote your time to is intentional and aligned with the goals you have set for yourself. Joining organizations, like a sorority, should be given careful consideration so that it is not about popularity or hanging out, but connected to your future career and community service goals. Even your travels and breaks should be intentional. Yes, it would be fun to party in Miami for Spring break, but remember you can gain some international exposure as well. Many universities offer study abroad courses; perfect for those looking to secure a career in foreign relations, global diversity, government, teaching, etc.

Be healthy! Your health is real from the moment you take your first breath, and it becomes all the more important with every new plateau you reach. The “freshman 15” is real…mentally and physically your body must adjust to its new environment. Weight gain, stress, new sleeping patterns all have an impact. Stay fit. Take advantage of your campus recreation and health care facilities.

Be protective…and selective! Take precautions to become familiar with your campus  AND surrounding areas. Being on college campus does not mean young women will be immune to real world risks. From natural disasters to sexual relations, young women MUST be prepared. Become familiar with emergency plan on school’s website. Know safe routes when walking alone or at night. Be aware of areas off campus that may pose risks such as robberies, rape, etc. Observe new acquaintances to see who is trustworthy, as well as to see who exhibits self love. Be wary of those who have destructive tendencies (drinking, drugs, bad study habits). Also, be proactive in your intimate relationships. Protect yourself. Remember STI’s and unplanned pregnancy are most high on college campuses. Dating violence is also a factor, so again be keenly aware of acquaintances and their behaviors. Have your safe stash with emergency money, condoms, up to date prescriptions for medications, emergency contacts and numbers.

A few websites to check out for safety:

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)

The SIWE Project

Planned Parenthood

Black Youth Project

Federal Emergency Management Agency

This list is just a start. What else should be included? What words of wisdom should our girls pack in their luggage heading to their “real world?” Share in the comments below.

Oh and just for fun, here are a few of my favorite “life-lesson” Different World episodes:

 

Institutionalized Orgs must embrace Black Girls Rock movement

Courtesy of Voices of America

Courtesy of Voices of America

It’s been a necessary declaration, yet starkly absent from our association since our ancestors were forcefully brought to these shores more than 300 years ago. It’s been covertly hidden in the white lie to the detriment of a Black truth. But thankfully since 2011, it has made its way to back into the light…a rekindling of a flame of sorts; a national movement and hashtag. Black Girls Rock! This is the mantra that has put a shine back into the smiles of little Black girls and has restored hope in the legacy of Black women. First as a philanthropic endeavor of Model/DJ, Beverly Bonds, it is now a nationally televised awards show which commands full attention on behalf of who? Black Girls!

And while this reclaimed pride has been met with some petty outcries from those who claim it as reverse discrimination and unfair to single Black girls out for affirmation, the movement will not be silenced. Although the outrage garnered its own hashtag, #WhiteGirlsRock, it can’t undo the entitlement Black girls now have to concepts of inspiration and empowerment.

Many have begrudged FLOTUS Michelle Obama, for embracing and yes, promoting the Black Girls Rock sentiment. Even while she is a mother to two Black girls. On the other hand, it was quite fine for Nancy Reagan to categorically single out Black children for her “Just say no” campaign. But that is another blog for another time.

Still, with plenty of cause to explain how ludicrous (and sad) that type of petty Black Girls Rock outrage is, Dr. Stacy Patton has already given thee best read of all time on the subject, so I won’t digress.

However what I am here to say is, it is high time for girl-serving institutions and organizations to do a self assessment and analyze if the execution of their mission has negligently hampered Black Girls’ individuality or ability to fully rock their Blackness. What does that mean? Often times, diversity does not involve intentional inclusion where Black girls are allowed to bring their whole selves into an organization that has traditionally served predominantly White populations.  They must dial back their voices and language. Their creativity is repressed. And it is not uncommon that they be punished (even criminalized) for expressing any range of human emotions that show anger, depression, sadness, or dissatisfaction. This is illustrated in the recent findings of the African American Policy Forum’s report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.

Not sure if this applies to you? Here are a few checkpoints to see if you need an initiation into the Black Girls Rock world…

  • Does your organization use culturally relevant materials, either as learning or marketing tools? Can Black girls of all walks of life relate to your programs? Do you showcase Black girls in ways that make them starkly obtuse
  • Do you provide opportunities for cultural exchanges?
  • Do instances of upliftment outnumber those of admonishment of Black girls?
  • Do you regularly have conversations around race that are neutrally moderated?

If you’ve answered no to any of the above, I offer you a passport into the #BlackGirlsRock world. For a full tour and guide, please follow @MrsgirlsLikeMe on Twitter. Also, check out Voices of Advocacy Radio for more tips and resources from our expert guests. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any successes OR any barriers you have encountered in intentionally engaging Black girls.

Courtesy of BrandNewz.com

Courtesy of BrandNewz.com

La’Keisha Gray-Sewell, is a nationally recognized urban girls inclusion advocate, media literacy expert and speaker, whose transformative programs and trainings empower girls to navigate beyond stereotypes to become global legacy builders.  She is available to facilitate faculty trainings on Diversity and Inclusion. She also facilitates media literacy and empowerment workshops for urban girls as a part of her Girls Like Me Project curriculum.

Hair We Go…Again. Open Letter to our Babygirls

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I’m tired. Sick and tired, really. It is rather exhausting to constantly debate the value and beauty of girls like me, whose very basic existence from our names to our physical traits (hair, skin complexion, facial features, anatomy) deviate from the european standards of beauty and respectability. Whose melanin and pigmentation seem to cast a shadow of doubt about our worth in this society. Every month, it seems we are confronted with yet another viral, insensitive, and highly offensive incidence of degradation aimed at Black girls. From the curious case of Gabrielle Douglas twitter chatter, to the unforgivable Quvenzhane Wallis verbal cuts, to the shaming of Willow Smith, to the sickening Rachel Jeantel reactions. I could go on and on. And these are only the highly visible cases, no way to capture the thousands of shaming episodes Black girls endure in classrooms, doctors’ offices, sports arenas, media messages, and households on a daily. I swear, if we added up all the hours of blogs, commentary,discourse, debates, rationales and confrontations dedicated to fighting misconceptions and narrow perceptions when it comes to our little girls’ hair and image, we’d have a year’s worth of classroom instruction.

In case you need to revisit, here’s how a historic moment became a trigger of pain for an innocent Gabby Douglas

I have devoted a huge chunk of energy doing combat work, trying to get folks to acknowledge our girls. And while I feel strongly about resisting the stereotypes and stigma as I did on CBS Atlanta, d.i.v.a Downloads, Perri Small Show WVON, Lady Dee Mind Magick Radio, it is so draining.

It always makes you wonder how much more we can take, that is until the next time we hear an atrocity such as the recent cases of 7 year old Lamiya Cammon whose teacher had the audacity to cut her braids in class and 12 year old, Vanessa VanDyke who is facing expulsion because she chooses to wear her hair in its natural state.

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How can one even begin to give voice to the anguish and defeat of the young lady who could no longer own her name, because it was not acceptable in her environment. Now one Keisha has become Kylie.

Sigh…

So here’s what time it is.

It is time to stop draining ourselves and fighting a losing battle. No more of the Kanye West outcry for validation in places we will never gain acceptance or respectability. From now on, my energy will be spent affirming our girls. Teaching them and empowering their agency. I will speak to their power, their beauty, their legacy, their heritage and their future…their life.

And so I penned this letter…

Dear Babygirl…

There is so much I want to share with you. So many things I wish you could truly know and believe. All the things us as your mothers and aunts tell you make us sound like we rode dinosaurs to the homecoming dance, and kind of make it hard for you to trust that we understand. I bet you believe we don’t have a clue what your current situation is like.

And you are right. We did not go through puberty last month. We didn’t have our first kiss last week. It wasn’t just yesterday when we were trying to study for the U.S. Constitution or ACT exam. Nope.We didn’t do our homework on a computer while texting our teachers if we had a question. Most of all, we are not sitting in our rooms trying to think of a way to get permission to go hang with our friends without cleaning the dishes.

Still, there are some things that are just the basics. You know, that stuff that never gets old.

The stuff of life that every girl child in your family, dating back to at least 6 generations, has had to navigate her way through.

1. You are the most special, most important person in your life.

You are a gift who was pre-ordered and given a due date much like your favorite album. The universe waited for your arrival on your birthday. That’s right, everything shifted and fell into place just for you to get here. When you were on your way, during your mother’s labor, nobody in that hospital/birthing room mattered as much as YOU. You were the center of attention. The doctors, nurses, midwifes/doulas, your mommy…everyone in that room focused on you, your safety and survival. Listen, honey, Rhianna, Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, and any other famous person you can think of could have been in the hallway outside of that delivery room, and they would have not mattered. So you must remember and hold on to that truth everyday. Remember you were born with a purpose and the older you become, the more power you possess to live on purpose.

2. The media is NOT your mirror

You are bigger than an image. And you are not in competition nor have any need to conform to a standard of beauty which exalts your silky-haired, narrow nosed, purt-lipped, nasal-toned counterparts. There are some forces in the world that would have you turn down so they can turn up trying to BE like you. There is no need to pretend or exaggerate your worst behavior to be recognized. Be your best self. That is what will make a lasting and powerful impression.

3. Love yourself

Take time to pause all the static and noise from your iPod, TV, smartphone, magazines and even your friends. Ask yourself what you enjoy doing and what makes you happy. Write it in a journal.

4. Move beyond the block

Remember your zip code does not define YOU. Even though where you are from, city or neighborhood, can be a simultaneous badge of honor and shame, you must understand what you were born into is not who you were born to BE. Your current situation is just that…At this point, it is more than likely due to your parents choices/decisions. Your future depends on what you see for yourself. Visualize yourself in the space you want to be. Then everyday believe in your heart you are already there. Let every thought and action be considerate of that space. Step into it fully. Set the intention to grow there and blossom to your fullest.

5. Love your sisters.

“Girls keep up too much drama.” Heard it a million times and have to admit I have said it before, too. But that was before I realized what I speak of “girls” is what I am speaking of myself. So no more of that negative talk about other girls. We attract what we give to the universe. Stop the competitive behavior, do not believe that anyone can take any opportunity from you, what is for you, you will receive abundantly. (That goes for the cutie you are dating) Recognize in other girls the same good things you like about you. I promise you will get along much better.

6. Speak your name.

Say it LOUD. Think for a second of how special you were when your mother took the time to think of a phrase/name that would pour all her love into you, her precious gift. And no matter what ANYONE else says or thinks of YOUR name, you own it. It is the first thing you will ever own. Honor and respect why it was chosen for you.

7. Celebrate yourself.

I know you love to talk about your favorite celebrity. You follow them on IG and watch their YouTube channel all the time. You root for them to win all the awards. But it’s time to focus some of that energy on you. Standing in the mirror, honor yourself for all the good choices you made today. Take this moment to clap for yourself.

8. Game recognize game

Adults get it wrong. And we don’t have all the answers. But there are many of us who love and care about you. We want the very best for you and will use all our resources to get what you need. Look for mentors all around you whether it is a teacher, neighbor, librarian, church member, or coach. And when you see an adult who appeals to your ambition, it’s okay to ask questions about their life journey…what were some of their challenges and successes. On the other hand, when you see adults acting the fool, in real life or on TV, find another example to follow.

9. An Educated mind is the key to the world

Inquiring minds want to know! Ask questions about EVERYTHING. Why? How? You can find out anything you want to know just by reading credible and factual sources. (Books, Articles, etc). It’s fun to watch music videos, but look at some documentaries and read some historical fiction, too.

Each day you are alive and breathing the air of this earth you will hear and see messages that take your mind off of celebrating you. From the ads on the public transportation to the sounds coming from your iPods and smartphones, to the images bouncing before your eyes on the screens, it will all try to turn down your applause for that girl in the mirror. But if you practice the above, you are winning the game.

The Red Nose…not quite Rudolph. New X-Rated teen dance

Sitting in my hairstylist’s chair discussing the state of girlhood and the double plight of not only mentoring, but raising adolescent /teen girls, our parenting chat took a left turn that left my mouth hanging wide-open. Simply aghast, I sat listening to her hip me to the latest teen dance craze gone viral. It’s called the “Red Nose.”

Now I thought, surely with a name like that it had to be something innocent…you know considering Rudolph playing reindeer games with his red nose self.

Uhn Uhn. No such luck. This has nothing to do with Rudolph. Think more like a red nosed pit bull which is a breed of a dog, which in turn lends to the “doggy-style” inspired dance.

First of all, the fact that teenage girls as young as 13 know anything about “doggy-style” is just too problematic for words. Secondly, that some would be so bold as to record themselves and post videos on YouTube for the world to see all this stank is further proof of just how influenced they are by the ratchetness they see in music videos and reality TV.

Now, I simply refuse to post the videos…and there are plenty out there. But in my opinion it is child pornography. I ain’t going. You’ll have to find them for yourself.

What I will do is encourage you to have conversations with your girls…constantly. Don’t get caught slipping. Ask questions. Listen to their “girl talk” with their friends when you are around them. Monitor their media intake. And most importantly, talk candidly about media messages, find out why she is interested in certain content and how many of her friends share the same interests.

Just last week I conducted a media literacy workshop during the Girls On Fire 2013 Conference hosted by the SouthSide Coalition on Urban Girls (SSCUG), an alliance of girl-serving organizations on the south side of Chicago convened by Demoiselle 2 Femme. In three classes comprised of 45 mostly Black and Latina girls, they shared their top television programs. They were Bad Girls Club; Love and Hip Hop; Real Housewives of Atlanta; Guy Code; and Spongebob (seriously).

When I asked what were the main themes for each; fighting, sex, alcohol consumption, competition, confrontation, and more violence seemed to be common across the board (not as much with Sponge Bob although they broke it down that he and Patrick have disagreements…I was lost. lol)

Still, I shared with them some findings from Children, Media and Race: Media Use Among White, Black, Hispanic and Asian American Children. They were shocked. they felt cheated and angry. They couldn’t understand why some things so accessible to them are intentionally monitored for their white or higher income counterparts. Why no one is standing vigilant over the messages that influence their development and socialization.

It’s true, no amount of advice, wisdom, parental sentry will keep our girls from being exposed to the red-nose nor all its kindred pop-culture funk. They’ll see videos, hear deplorable and degrading music, pore over high-glossed sexist magazines.

Yet if we equip our girls with the tools they’ll need to critically examine those things, while also providing positive alternatives, they will resist the stereotypes and reject media norms that promote bad, self-desructive behavior. More importantly, if we, adult women, set out to BE who/what we say we want our daughters and the girls in our lives to be, the less likely it is for them to use the media as their mirror.

I know it’s heavy stuff raising our baby girls. Here’s a little help for you:

Bring a Girls Like Me Project media literacy workshop to your girls

Common Sense Media provides tip sheets and latest family media research

Watch this powerful documentary with your girls Missrepresentation the film

Mentor a young girl in your city

So please share, had you heard about this Red Nose? Ask your daughters and share their reaction to this new dance. How do you monitor your child’s media intake?