The discussions began with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Then Christian Cooper. Then George Floyd. I could feel the weight of the grief in my chest, my anger was palpable and I could not ignore my tension headache or the knot in my stomach. It was hard to convince me, a Black woman, that America had not conspired with Amy Cooper to ensure Black people live in fear.
These common occurrences hit me hard—but not as hard as when I was told by the high school girls who participate in we REIGN Inc.’s Friday girls’ group,
“We will never be equal, especially not in the eyes of the law.”
Their words were chilling, but clear and steadfast when they said, “I don’t really have hope for the future…” As the executive director of REIGN, a non-profit organization whose mission is to create spaces for Black girls to live unapologetically, what I heard was terrifying.
The lives of Black girls are complex. They are simultaneously invisible and hypervisible.
Racial discrimination and police brutality are a constant in their lives. Yet, their stories often go untold. Without movements like #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter, state-sanctioned violence against Black women and girls would go unaddressed: No protest, no charges, no justice.
Police brutality is often positioned as a Black male issue, but these acts are a Black community issue. Only 36 percent of Black Americans trust the local police—a fact that is not lost on Black girls. In one of our sessions, girls spoke about being afraid of the system.
The stories they tell underscore their fear:
“I look at officers in a different light. When I was a little girl, I was taught that police officers were protectors, but I don’t feel safe around police anymore. When an officer pulled over [my mom and me], I tensed up.”
Black girls live in the same homes, attend the same schools and are touched by the same experiences as Black boys. Because of the lack of media coverage and community, many do not understand the impact police violence has on the lives of Black women and girls.
When compared to other races, they are disproportionately killed by police and more likely than any other group to be unarmed when killed by police. Black women and girls are also subjected to sexual assault by law enforcement.
In 2016, My Brother’s Keeper focused on the impact of systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence against Black boys. Legislators, activists and philanthropists supported increased visibility for Black boys and access to resources that supported their healthy growth and development. This was, and continues to be, important work.
Black girls require the same level of attention.
The recent murders of Black Americans have been the focus of our weekly groups. “When they kill us…” they say—drawing a direct line between those who have been killed and the pain they feel. The girls share feelings of sadness and depression and talk about feeling disregarded. They understand deeply, but they often do not know who can help them discharge their pain.
One 11th grader told me, “It’s hard to know who the safe people are.”
We Are Not Centering Resilience
Resilience is often cited as a tool for coping with trauma, but Black girls are tired. They have no desire to prove they are resilient. Instead, they need resilient adults, who are safe and “ask-able”—a term typically associated with sexuality education, but could easily be applied to mental health and anti-racist education.
Ask-able adults will use affirming relationships to create the space for girls to ask hard questions, name their experiences and have their feelings validated. Black girls want healing spaces and interaction with people who care for them, where their humanity is centered and affirmed. They recognize when people care.
When discussing how to find a safe person to talk to, one of our girls told us, “Teachers and adults who care reach out to you, not only about your grades but how your day went. They check-up on you—they notice when something is different.”
Culturally Competent Mental Health Support
More mental health support is needed. Still, the standard community-based protocol that requires diagnosis at the first session to justify billing and reimbursement is not what Black girls need. They need culturally competent mental health education in school and community settings, so they can learn about early warning signs, actions they can take and how to access support.
To avoid the over-identification and criminalization of Black girls and their behavior, every person who serves them needs to understand the experiences that make mental distress more likely for them. They must also acknowledge the stigma and systemic obstacles that make Black girls less likely than their white counterparts to have access to mental health services.
The above recommendations are practical and necessary, but Black girls want a space to talk about their issues and tools to act on the injustice they experience. Stepping into their power is an essential component of their healing. Our weekly dialogue made it clear that their hopelessness was rooted in not knowing. Schools and communities have not provided civics education or in-depth studies in civic engagement.
They need strong models for raising their voices in public spaces. The stories of Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer and Angela Davis were familiar, but not part of the fabric of their lives. So, during meet-ups, we share the work of these iconic women.
Our girls were surprised to learn about the Voting Rights Act, the crusade against lynching, prison abolition and frameworks for advancing racial equality.
“It seems so long ago,” they said with hesitation, “but it wasn’t!”
Our healing work focuses on harnessing power. There is power that lives within all of us that is enacted through advocacy, activism and organizing.
After shining the light on Black women activists, it wasn’t long before the girls took the lead. One evening, after we were done a session, a text came to our “Unapologetically Us” group chat:
“You guys, I know it’s late, but did you hear about the Black man in Minneapolis…I was wondering if we could start a petition, or something so the officers could have the officers arrested. That was a hate crime!”
The seeds of healing have been planted, but our work is not done. We will continue to support Black girls by creating space for them to raise their voices and center their experiences, because we understand that Black girls also need keepers.