[Photo credit: You Grow Girl!]
People I meet always want to know how I survived the systems. Until recently, it was a question I dreaded to be asked. I wanted to avoid being retraumatized, looked at differently, or hurt again by sharing my story. Like many young people involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, my traumatic life experiences made me build a wall of protection, so I trusted no one. Now, a little older and wiser, I understand how my story can be the map for other Black girls to not only survive but to thrive. In this case, as we close out National Foster Care and Mental Health Awareness month, today I share my story for her with you.
My childhood was filled with many challenging and traumatic events. I saw my birth mother, dancing with the devil (or you would know him as the dope man) and doing things that no mother would be proud to do. I was literally ripped from the arms of my birth father, who was nearly killed by police right in front of my siblings and me. I was abused and molested by several family members – none of them were disciplined for their activities.
I became a foster child at the age of five. Like many of the adolescents and teens in the foster care system, I experienced the daily emotions of feeling angry, neglected, and worthless. I ran away, contemplated suicide many times; attempted once, became pregnant as a teenager, struggled with the loss of family members and close friends, as well as fought with my personal mental health and substance use demons.
During my young adult years, I suffered in relationships marred by domestic violence. As a young single parent dealing with mental health challenges, domestic violence, and basic needs insecurities, while being in school and working full-time, I struggled. Along this journey, I made some bad choices and had to deal with the consequences of introducing me to the criminal justice system. I knew that I needed to go another path in order to reach sustainable success. I was able to benefit from empowering events in my life and overcome obstacles that could have easily destroyed my future and taken me from my beautiful daughter, Annara.
Following in the footsteps of Ms. Gracie Robinson, my foster mother, a domestic violence counselor, and youth worker for over 35 years, I knew I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector working with youth from vulnerable populations with a focus on supporting the success of my Black and Brown sisters. When I was 17, using a variety of therapeutic expressive modalities and interventions that inspired me to heal, I created a group designed to inspire girls to gain new skills that would enable them to succeed in both education and life.
For about 10 years, I would lead essential life skills and anger management groups in schools, mental health agencies, residential treatment facilities, and community centers throughout Washington and Oregon States, while maintaining various direct service positions in local nonprofit agencies. In 2012, I decided I needed to focus on building a stronger sisterhood for Black girls struggling to see their full potential because of all the roadblocks put in their way by broken institutions at a larger capacity.
The vision of this organization’s framework was to create more opportunities for youth, specifically Black girls and other girls of color, to be surrounded by a sisterhood of not only supportive but inspirational and authentic peers and adults. This sisterhood would be a safe space for a young person to be their authentic selves without judgment so that they can heal, lead, and thrive – not just survive.
You Grow Girl! is a King County-based nonprofit organization that empowers individuals who identify as a girl or young woman through career-focused mentoring, leadership programming, and an array of behavioral health support services, across King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. So far, over 1,500 youth have participated in programs and services through You Grow Girl! Currently, we serve approximately 125 unduplicated youth and their families each month with the creative curriculum developed based on my own experiences; revealed to bring awareness to girls of color — who are considered by society as “at-risk,” “hard-to-serve,” “aggressive” — that mental health is the foundation for their sustainable success. That they are powerful, important, and beautiful. That they too can overcome the obstacles that broken systems place before them.
While I was not a recipient of culturally responsive or trauma-informed mental health services and youth leadership programming growing up, due to the limited resources centering Black girls available to me, I see the benefits our sisters at You Grow Girl! acquire by participating in both culturally enriching and responsive mental health services and youth leadership programming.
To provide 20 hours a month of free comprehensive, wraparound support services to one youth costs at minimum $1,000 a month. If a youth with state-funded insurance is receiving counseling services, Medicaid pays an average of $9.26 per day for counseling only. There are no dedicated resources allocated to cover the case management, and direct support our youth need to thrive.
As a woman in a leadership role, it can be hard trying to get a seat at the table. It is even harder being a Black woman in a leadership position. I am constantly invited to be the “Representative for Black People” or told to act a certain way. “Don’t be too outspoken,” “don’t wear that,” “change your hair,” “smile more so that people see that you’re approachable,” “you talk white” and the list goes on. These types of remarks are why I do this work. My sisters need someone like me to show them how to get their power back. When we take back our crowns, stand in solidarity with each other along with true allies and accomplices, we are powerful enough to disrupt and dismantle broken systems and flawed community norms designed to tear our Black youth and families down and apart.
We strongly believe no girl should be left behind! Our sisters are tired of not being heard and only supported when it is a trending hashtag. Let them know they matter today and every day. Invest in not just mental health services as a temporary Band-Aid to Black girls but commit to ensuring that these youth have access to equitable and flexible resources. Invest in the organizations that represent and are connected to the youth who are being served.
Together, we can inspire all girls and women of color who have been harmed by systems to lead sustainable, successful lives. Together, we will authentically amplify their resilience to heal and natural leadership abilities so that they can lead the charge in dismantling broken systems to advance gender, economic, and racial justice.
She cannot do it alone.
Original contribution by Jamila L. Coleman, Founder and Executive Director of You Grow Girl!
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