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A Mosaic of Expert Voices

Incorrigibles: Expert Voices video series aims to reexamine and challenge language and conceptions used to label, define, and confine girls and women. Discussions revolve around criminalization and incarceration, social services, trauma, and healing practices concerning girls and women in the United States.

Alison Cornyn
Artist, Educator
Founder of Incorrigibles

Ateya Johnson
Communications Director, Mentor at Girls’ Project

Donna Hylton
Author, Activist, Advocate
Founder of A Little Piece of Light

Drew Dixon
Writer, Producer, Activist
Founder, CLAIM

Elisha Fernandes Simpson
LMSW, EMDR Therapist, ERYT
Executive Director, Finding Peace Within

Jasmine Bowie
Social Worker, Organizer
Deputy Director at the Center Court Innovation, Brownsville

Kathleen Husler
Public Historian, Curator, Educator

Nina Bernstein
Author, Journalist
former New York Times reporter on social and legal issues

Rebecca Epstein
Lawyer, Author
Executive Director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Dr. Rita Charon
Physician, Literary Scholar
Founder and Executive Director of the program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University

Shawnda Chapman
Researcher, Social Justice Advocate
Director, Girls Fund Initiative at Ms. Foundation for Women

Topeka Sam
Entrepreneur, Advocate
Founder and Director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries

Rev. Wendy Calderon-Payne
Minister, Advocate
Executive Director at BronxConnect

Michelle Daniel Jones
Scholar, Artist, Organizer and Entrepreneur
Doctoral Student in American Studies at New York University

Shabnam Javdani
Researcher, Advocate
Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University

Alison Cornyn is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and educator whose work often focuses on the criminal justice system. Incorporating oral history, public memory, and archives, her projects have received numerous awards, including the Peabody Award, the Gracie Allen award for Women in Media, Pew's Batten Award for Innovation. She is the founding partner and Creative Director of Picture Projects, a Brooklyn-based studio that produces in-depth new media projects about some of the most pressing social issues of our day through the investigation of complex stories from multiple perspectives. She has worked extensively on large-scale collaborative projects and is Creative Director of States of Incarceration and the Guantanamo Public Memory Project with the Humanities Action Lab, the Prison Public Memory Project (co-founder), and Incorrigibles. She is on the faculty at the School of Visual Arts, Design for Social Innovation MA program.

"As I was looking through documents from the 20s and 30s related to girls who had been sent to this place for crimes such as being “incorrigible,” and “ungovernable,” and “wayward,” I began to wonder how many girls today were being sent away or sentenced or censured for doing some of the same things that these girls had done a hundred years before"
Alison Cornyn

I'm Alison Cornyn, I am an artist, and I've been working around issues of criminal justice and mass incarceration for many years. This project has grown out of another called Incorrigibles about the history of young women's incarceration; to begin to share an understanding of issues surrounding young women’s incarceration, social services and healing practices.


It started with research I was doing about an institution in upstate New York called the New York State Training School for Girls, which was open from 1904 to 1975. In the period that place was open, as many as 20,000 girls did time there.

It opened in the late 1800s as the Women's House of Refuge, as a place for “wayward” women to be kind of held, before it became the New York State Training School and, it is currently a medium-security men's prison.

As I was looking through documents from the 20s and 30s related to girls who had been sent to this place for crimes such as being “incorrigible,” and “ungovernable,” and “wayward,” I began to wonder how many girls today were being sent away or sentenced or censured for doing some of the same things that these girls had done a hundred years before. And, as I was reading through the documents and understanding the stories of the girls who had been sent to the Training School, I realized more and more how many of the young women had been sent away because they were sexually or physically abused or were standing up for themselves as a form of protection and being sent away, instead of the perpetrators of their abuse.

Here we are five years later, I've met incredible women who were incarcerated when they were young at this institution. I've met other women who are looking for family members; grandmothers, aunts, who were incarcerated when they were young. And they are just now finding that they were at these places, through ancestry research and things like that. I've also been going to conferences and meeting organizations that are doing work with girls and women today.


This project is an attempt to bring together some of the people that have been teaching me and the ideas that have really informed me about the things that bring girls into the system and some of the things that cause girls to run away to protect themselves—things like adverse childhood experiences… And with Rebecca Epstein, through her work at Georgetown, I came to understand the sexual abuse to prison pipeline; the deep trauma and the fact that so many girls and women that end up in the system—90% or more— have been sexually or physically abused. It is such a direct line and there's so much work happening now in terms of trauma-informed practices and healing.

I was hoping to bring together experts in various understandings around young women's issues from the past and the present in order to kind of create a central space and a video tapestry of different perspectives.


I'm interested in asking people about voice because, for me, the lack of voice represents powerlessness. I feel that so many of the issues that young women face, and even I faced when I was young, was feelings of other people being more in power. And if you can't speak up for yourself, or if you're silenced, or if you don't know what to say, then you're really at a disadvantage in this society.

So I guess I'm interested in how much value is placed on people speaking for themselves today—but it's not that easy still. So I'm interested in how we nurture that in everybody really and how to bring that about.


I have two books that really influenced the work that I do. One was a book edited by a lawyer named Steven Donziger called The Real War on Crime and that book which saton policy analyst’s shelves (this was back in the late 90s early 2000s), had so many incredible essays and so much research about the growth of the US carceral population: the choices that this country had made—very different those of other countries—that created the mass incarceration system that we have when other places chose very different paths. There were graphs and charts and all kinds of information in the book that when you really sat down to decipher them, it was mind-boggling.

The audience for the book was really policy analysts and policymakers. The general population, like me, wasn't really privy to seeing all of that. So, I was working with a colleague at the time and we wanted to do a web documentary, so we were thinking, well, what's the biggest social justice issue in our country today? This was in 2000 and we were thinking, how can we take this data and these statistics and bring them to life for people?

Then, once I started working on Incorrigibles, it was really Nina Bernstein's book called The Lost Children of Wilder. The research she had done in that book about the history of the foster care system in New York and this ongoing 20-year lawsuit that started with the case of Shirley Wilder who had been at the New York State Training School for Girls. Those accounts resonated with the stories that I was unearthing of girls from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. Again, it deepened the need to delve into this even more for myself and, hopefully, share it with other people.

It was Nina Bernstein, that, in her research for that book, discovered that Ella Fitzgerald the singer, the jazz singer, had been sent to the New York State Training School for Girls for being ungovernable. So I was able to go to the New York State Archives and photograph the intake form and share that with Nina. Ella's intake stated that she was "ungovernable and would not obey the just and lawful commands of her mother – adjudged delinquent."


Incorrigible. It's a word that in this project I'm trying to reclaim because it was, and is being used as a sentence that somebody is convicted of. It means: “unable to be reformed or corrected,” and nobody is unable to change—anybody is able to change—so it's a misnomer. Plus, it's very often used for girls who are strong, standing up for themselves, feisty and, in the same way the Girl Scouts are trying to reclaim the word “bossy”, we want to take it back.

Related Links
IG: @acornyn
Twitter: @acornyn
Ateya Johnson has been a mentor to girls involved with the youth criminal-legal system. She was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in Brooklyn. At age 16, she was arrested and sent to the system for four months. Her involvement in youth justice and her studies in criminal justice have been directly motivated by her personal experience. In 2017, the Center for New York City Affairs launched the Institute for Transformative Mentoring (ITM), where she became a mentee, supported in building her voice by ITM program director Saj Rahman. She has since become a mentor herself for the organization Girls’ Project, which stands for Gathering of Independent Resources for Living Successfully, where she was the Communications Director.

"So that's what being a mentor is: you're there for the person and you just have that love, support, that guidance, everything in a person. Because sometimes people don't have fathers or sometimes people don't have mothers, so that's what they look for in their mentors, and that's what I looked for in my mentors."
Ateya Johnson

My name is Ateya Johnson. I am 21 years old. I am from the Bronx but I was raised in Brooklyn. I was a good kid when I was younger. I went through every rebellious stage that a kid goes through, but I was a pretty good kid. I grew up predominantly with my mom and my brothers.

I am the communications director at The GIRLS' project, which stands for Gathering of Independent Resources for Living Successfully, and it's all centered around being an all-girl credible messengering program, and it focuses on things that women don't talk about, like being incarcerated or being sexually assaulted, foster care, or anything like that.

I have mentees that are in the foster care system. Then I have mentees that have been sexually assaulted. I have mentees that have been arrested or are still continuously being arrested. I have mentees spread throughout the five boroughs.

When I went through these programs, at first I was just looking at it as, ‘I'm getting a check, oh yeah, this is cool,’ but after a while, I was like: 'no, I like the people who I'm here with, I walked away with brothers and sisters, you know, fathers being my mentors, so it was really helpful. The healing process is definitely there for me and what I always think about when I come to programs, or do programs, or facilitate whatever it is, I always think about healing because talking in a weird way is really healing in itself, like right now could be really healing…

The healing happened mainly from the circles. When you're listening to various other people, and they're telling their story, it builds up this… I don't know, this indescribable amount of courage to share yours.


I was labeled in many different ways. I guess you can say bullying ties into a part. I was bullied most of my middle school and high school carSo that was from that, and then what I also faced going to school, and it seems it's uncommon, but it is really common, is racism, and the idea of not knowing enough as other people. eer.

To explain that point, I went to college upstate. Actually, I went to Plattsburgh State; it was about 20 minutes from Canada, so very far from home, it was about eight hours away, and =most of the time I was the only black girl in class. So it wasjust awkward when I raised my hand, I would be like, ‘yeah I know the answer to that,’ and they were like, ‘I'm sure you don’t know the answer to this,’ and it was always the slick remarks that wouldn't usually really affect me, but they would affect my grades because they would only grade on how they viewed me. So this one time I had this English course–I'll never forget this teacher. I had this English course, and he did a lot of readings, so you had to do a lot of critical thinking in his class. And he just always felt that my thinking was not my own; my experiences are not my own, that I could be making this up from TV… and he wrote that on one of my papers. It was a paper that you had to do mainly on yourself. I wrote this paper by myself, and he was just like: ‘This is impossible that she has gone through this, or that she experienced stuff like this, so I think that she’s lying’ and he failed me on that paper and marked it as plagiarism. So, I had to go before a judicial board. It was really depressing, but then it was just really ridiculous how far of a length that this teacher went. It wasn't just like, he would say it to me and be done with it, he went to extreme lengths of trying to destroy me and my character, so to speak.

So going through that little phase was hard, mostly in college, because I had to go through that with most of my teachers. So, it was hard trying to push through college.. I think I got through like my halfway point of college, and I was just like, I don't even want to do it no more and I was really depressed about it. But then my mom, you know, she encouraged me to go back to school, that this was my passion so I shouldn't give it up because of what somebody has to say, but it was just really hard… in high school you can work around it, but when it's college you gotta actually work with the teacher, and when you are accused of plagiarism it's hard to work around that because, when you apply to future schools, it just becomes a little bit more difficult.


My main mentor, who drove me to do this, was Sag. He's the director at ITM. And he always gave me like this push. I was just feeling that ‘I don't think this work is for me’ because you know I took it like, ‘this little, tiny voice and who would listen to me or I'm always shy all the time... They would just be like, 'Ateya, you could do this, you're fine, just talk,' so he always pushed me to do this and just be my true self. So, I always pitch my love and support to them because they pitch their love and support to me.

When I first started meeting my mentors, this was kind of my cooldown phase. I wasn't as rebellious as I was when I was younger, or seeming not to be on the right straight path. I didn't know what I wanted to do as far as college, as far as school, or as far as getting a job. When I reached finishing high school, I was just in this lost phase of not knowing what to do, so they helped me a great deal over the summer before I had to leave for college. They helped me to focus and stay compassionate with what it is that I love doing. So, I do love school. It was just at that time, I was just going through this weird depression where I just didn't know what to do or anything. My mentors helped me with not just the financials. They also helped me with the support that I needed. So they helped me get into school. They helped me through my school years, so when I finally graduated last year, when I walked across the stage, it was a great feeling, a really good feeling. And I always thank them because, without their insight, their inputs, their push—their really hard pushes—I wouldn't have done it without them. So that's what I really pitch being a mentor is: that you're there for the person and you're just, I don't know, you just have that love, support, that guidance everything in a person. Because sometimes people don't have fathers or sometimes people don't have mothers, so that's what they look for in their mentors, and that's what I looked for in my mentors.


Throughout my experiences as a kid, I guess, I wish I knew a little bit more about my rights, especially growing up in a city like New York City. It's just a lot going on most of the time, at all times, so you don't think you're doing something that seems to be so innocent, but then it's actually not, and then when you don't know your rights, you don't know what to do or how to react to it.

When I was 16, when I was arrested, the officer did things essentially that he wasn't supposed to do. When I was requesting to use the bathroom, usually what they're supposed to do is handcuff your arm to the wall and then like your foot to the bottom wall so that way you could still like have an arm and foot free. And that wasn't the case with me, both my arms were behind me to the wall and then only one foot was free, and I’ll never forget, I asked to use the bathroom, and he said ‘no’ so I had to just sit there and it was uncomfortable trying to hold the bathroom with one foot, and both arms behind me.

I was arrested when I was 16. I was in a store, and I picked up these things, and I had put them to the side with my mom, and I didn't want those things, so the lady, the cashier, claimed that I was trying to steal them and that I was trying to put the basket underneath so she didn't notice and clearly I wasn't because it was before you know those long belts, before you get to the cashier lady, and she claimed that I was trying to steal. So a guy pulled me over to the side and brought me into the office, and my mom was yelling and screaming, but I was telling her to calm down because I was telling them it was a misunderstanding. So, they arrested me, and claimed they had me on camera, and that they were gonna get me, and that I'm going to jail for a long time, and I was just like okay. So, they counted up everything in the basket. It was a couple of phone cases, and it was like toys in the basket, whatever for my little brother.

It came up to about like 100 or 200 dollars or something like that. In New York, when it's over a hundred dollars, you go to jail for like a year or something like that, or you could pay a fine as an alternative, depending on if it's up to the judge's discretion. So when I went to court the first time with my mom, it was really awkward because I was just sitting there like I was handcuffed and I was sitting there, and I was just like, ‘this feels really awkward, and I don't know what to do,’ but I knew I wasn't gonna be like reactive or anything like that, but at the time you know… now that I'm looking back as I'm older maybe I should have been a little bit more, not reactive in a negative sense, but more just speaking up for myself. When I got my lawyer, heseemed like he knew everything that was gonna go down, and it seemed like the exact opposite of what he said. So, he's like, "yeah, Ateya, you're gonna pay a fine, you're gonna do this, you're gonna do that, and everything will be fine. You'll be home like next week." And I was like, "Okay, sure, that sounds about right, ok, but what if it doesn't go that way?" He was like, "No, I know it'll go that way. I've been doing this for like two years." And I was like, "Okay, he sounds pretty sure" or whatever. So, my mom is more crucial in asking questions. She wants to know when, why, how, and everything. She wants to know every court detail how it will comb through; she wants everything to go smoothly as possible.
So when I got the judge I got, I told him how apologetic I was and that I didn't mean to do it and I was trying to explain that it was all a form of misunderstanding, and I remember my lawyer looking at me like, "you shouldn't have said that," and I was just like, "well it technically was." But whatever! So when I, when I got the judge I got, he was really harsh; he was just like, "no, you need to do time." And I was like, "oh my God, I didn't… need to do it, so when I got arrested, he sentenced me to a year, one to three years, and I was just like three years of jail. I was like, oh my God, I'm never going back home it's like… I was really nervous at that point, and I was really jittery, so my hands were shaking, and I didn't know what to do because I'd be separated from my mom.


When he gave me the sentence he gave me, they sent me in the back somewhere, and they told me to change my clothes. And it was a really awkward feeling because I only spent four months at Rikers, but it was still really awkward being there because I was uncomfortable most of the time.At that stage in my life, I was really close with most of my family so being away from them was really awkward, so I spent those four months being really depressed.

I would say the experience at Rikers was disgusting and what I went through, but I wouldn't say it was as terrible as what other people have probably gone through. I've gotten the nasty COs (Correction Officers). I've gotten the mean COs, but I never let that bother me because it was just like, ‘it's gotta be some reason you came in here being angry today, but clearly I'm not your reason.’ I was really respectful. I was always abiding by the rules and just trying to stay on the straight and narrow because I remember this one girl I was next door to; she just would always be so angry. So they would always hit her with tickets; and tickets is like essentially they're just hitting you with more time, more time, more time, and they would just keep hitting her with more time, and I remember at one point she was only supposed to be there for like two years or something like that and she ended up, she was like, "Oh I gotta stay for ten years." I was like, "ten years, why do you have to stay here that long?" So, I remember at that point, she had the attitude of just like, "I don't care. At this point, I'm going to do what I want to do." And I always would tell her, "Why do you want to do what you want to do? Clearly, it's not going to get you anywhere." So, I would just say my experience in total wasn't the best, but it was all over a misunderstanding, but it is what it is.


When people don't have bail, they have to go to jail, but when you do have bail, you could just go to another hearing. And I don't fault my mother, I always told her that, she always feltthis unimaginable regret for it, but I don't fault my mom. It was just like a weird high like unusual bill; bail rather. It was like $350 or something like that that she had to pay, and then my mom just really didn't have it at just that instant. It's not like you could pay it; they only give you a certain amount of days to pay it in, and then when you don't have it, in those certain amount of days, they cancel the bail and don't refund you the bail that you've already paid. So that's the issue with the bail bond system.


I didn't know what to do: What do I do next? How do I apply for jobs? I had applied to this one job I won't forget. I was just like yeah, I've never been arrested. I lied on the application. I was just like, no, and I didn't know this job did background checks. So, when they did a background check, they're just like ‘Ateya, why'd you lie to us?’ and then when you have a charge that involves stealing, no job wants to hire you, so it just felt awkward, and I was just like man, I was disappointed all the time because I always had to say on this application: ‘yes I've been accused of stealing something’… they're not allowed to discriminate against you, but nobody wants to hire someone that's been accused of stealing.

So, I remember my last job before this one. When I applied for that job, I was really honest and straightforward with everyone. I explained to the hiring manager the situation that happened, and this, that and… She was like, "Ateya; I don't even care about any of that." And that was a really relieving moment for me, just in a sense, that it felt really good that there are people in the world that'll listen to you and just hear you out or hear your side of the story. I always think back, that if somebody would have heard my side of the story, I think things would have gone a little bit more smoothly.


This is why I kind of, in a weird way, got into criminal justice for my degree is that I would always say that I wish things would have went a little bit differently because I don't just blame the person; I blame all the way down to the person who arrested me, all the way up to the judge. All because if they hadn't failed on their parts or lacked in some of their parts, I wouldn’t even have gone to jail or been arrested. So, if the person who arrested me wasn't so one-sided, or if the judge wasn't so harsh, if my lawyer wasn't so lackadaisical, I just would always say, if everybody played their part correctly, I wouldn't have gone to jail.


I always tell people when they say things like, "oh, this is impossible, or this will never happen because of this" I always tell them that, "when there's a will, there's a way." I was always taught that as a kid, so when you have the drive to do something, and I'm pretty certain that I'm always having the drive and the compassion to do something for someone, and that I usually fulfill it all the way through, and then even if I can't fulfill it I will still try to my dying days to do so. So that's just how my personality is, and most people who are mentors in, you know, around the world, or around the state, whichever way you want to look at it, they have like this unmatched compassion and drive to just do things for people that seems like it can never be done.

Related Links
IG: @thegirlsproject_wins
Donna Hylton is a women’s rights activist, criminal justice reform advocate, author, and accomplished public speaker. Donna spent 27 years behind bars, including two and a half in solitary confinement. After her release from prison, she founded A Little Piece of Light, an organization named after her memoir that advocates for the rights of system-impacted women and helps them re-enter society after incarceration. She is a founding member of The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and an alumna of the first cohort of Leading with Conviction Fellows of JustLeadershipUSA. Donna is an advisor for Incorrigibles.

"What I needed when I was a young girl, a little girl, was an adult that would take care of me like I was a child. What I had were adults around me that were predators and treated me like prey. I needed adults to listen to me and hear me, I needed adults to ask me what I wanted. I needed an adult to care enough to love the child, the little girl, and not want to hurt the little girl."
Donna Hylton

My name is Donna Hilton. I am an author, an activist, and an advocate.

And I fight for women's rights and women's issues especially where they concern being impacted by the criminal injustice system.

And…I am now the founder of my own organization, A Little Piece of Light. Proud!


I spent 27 years in the maximum-security prison for women. And when I went in as a young, very young woman, I was very hurt and broken and had not had any kind of help or support to deal with the abuse and trauma that had riddled my life. And when I went into prison, I met so many women like myself. And throughout the 27 years, throughout the like the first ten years or so, I started becoming active in the work inside.

When the HIV/AIDS epidemic happened in prison and women that I was playing cards with or eating with the day before, whatever we were doing, didn't wake up the next day, or we just didn't see them the next day, and it started happening a lot, and it was ugly it was very hurtful, very ugly, it was scary, and there was a lot of things going on so I became very active in creating the first HIV/AIDS program in prison to respond to what was going on, and from there, it just started happening; it happened organically…


I had a great support system, and the strongest supporter that I had was a woman, a nun Sister Mary Nerney, who helped me; maybe she threw me out there [laugh]. She wanted me to talk about, you know, women and abuse and, you know, what happens to women when we are thrown into prison when we have to do time-based on our abusive past. And so, from there, she just kept grooming me, and it just continued, and I turned into this activist now advocate, and I've become obviously, or not obviously, but a leading voice in the movement the mass incarceration movement and specifically for women who have been impacted by the criminal justice system,who survived trauma, abuse, and violence.


I found my voice throughout different times when I was incarcerated. I started to find my voice when I became even more silent. And what I mean by that is when we created the Family Violence program, and we developed different groups within that program, I started hearing the stories of those women those young women who face so much pain, so much trauma, so much abuse, and I became silent because I wasn't listening to them I was hearing them, and I was angry because I thought that I was alone in my pain in my trauma and the things that happened to me as a child and as a young adult. And I realized that I wasn't. And it started dawning on me: Why are so many of us in prison? How did we get here, what's going on, what's wrong, and at different parts, different stages? I've made it like a vow to myself, and to the women really, that I was going to do something whatever it was. I didn't know how but to bring it out to let the world know, let people know who was incarcerated and why.

I realized I needed to speak up, and the reason I hadn't spoken up before is because the times when I was young, and I did speak up, and I went for help, I was shut down, and I was made out to be a liar, I was told that I was lying, no one believed me and it's like I owned everything that happened to me because the adults around me had basically molded that or informed that and shaped that, and just drilled that into me like it was my fault. And I realized that was it because then I saw so many other women, and I met so many other women just like me. I started using my voice. I started being more active, more, more vocal. I started speaking up and standing up, and it happened, you know, like a progression throughout the years. And I brought that outside with me. I didn't know what it would look like when I got out here, I didn't know it would land in the space that I am today, but I just knew that the world had to know and the only way the world could know was to speak up and to stand in my truth.


Being in DC at the Women's March 2017…hmm! I was the only formerly incarcerated woman speaking at the Women's March and a woman of color. And I spoke up for all the women and girls that were just like me. And even if they were not, they had not faced incarceration, I was speaking for them, and what happened I guess is that I must have hit a nerve somewhere, so next thing I know I started getting death threats, I started being called all kinds of names.

My Related Links sites were getting flooded with the stuff, my website. They created a Wikipedia page for me, not even my publishing team, my agent, no one created that Wikipedia that exists now. And no one can change it every time they try to go in and change it and to correct it because we talk about fake news like really fake news, it would be changed immediately right back and so recognize that it must have been the same group of people that started attacking me, creating memes about me, and saying all kinds of things about me, wanting to torture me. Because I mean they, oh my God, I can't even explain all the things that they said, but it affected me.


When I got home from DC, I curled up in my bed. And it made me feel, I mean, I became a victim again, for a minute. And I just like this can't be, I can't be a victim again. That's not why I'm doing this is, not why I chose to speak at the March and to tell the stories of those women who are not here or cannot tell their stories and not tell their truths. And so, I just shut down for a couple of days, and I was like I'm not gonna look at that stuff anymore I'm not gonna read it, and it doesn't matter like this is bigger than me this is not about me this is about all of us. And I knew that we were facing some very dark times, some very, just really heavy, dark misogynistic, sexist, racist times; the likes that I have not seen, or you know, had to experience. And I just made me even stronger and I vowed to myself, and to those women, to those people that continue to be silenced and marginalized, overlooked and underserved, that I can't let them shut me down. And so I just got up, and I—my voice—got stronger. And I wrote my book. [laugh]


If I could talk to one of those girls–which I do talk to quite a lot of, yes, actually all the time. I tell them that “you're beautiful, you're amazing, you're brilliant, you could be anything that you want to be, you can do anything that you want to do you do not have to believe what others say about you, how others paint you these labels, you don't have to feed into that, you create your own truth you stand in your truth, know that you're beautiful, you're amazing, you're loving. And do whatever it is that you feel that is the right thing for you to do. Only you know what you want to do with your life, only you know what feels good for you, and if someone tries to shut you down, don't be quiet. Speak up. Somebody will listen. At some point, somebody will listen.” And I want to really bring that message out even more into the world, especially right now in these times, we are in some really dark times, heavy times as women no matter our color no matter our socio-economic advantages or not. We are women, and we're facing a very dark, very misogynistic, sexist element–I don't know what else to call it but we just have to really stand and to come together and just rise above and be the maternal nurturing human beings that we are. We are going to be the ones that can change this world, only us.


What really touches me is when a young person like a young girl reaches out, gets in contact with me, and just tells me that because I was able to tell my truth and to say what happened to me that they realized that they weren't alone. And then they are able to speak up and to tell and to take their power back.

But these are also little girls at one time that no one listened to, no one helped, no one valued, that didn't matter, didn't matter enough. And I want us to understand that we can do better as people. We can be better as people. And if those of us that have been labeled and categorized as less than; as criminals, monsters and all these derogatory names if we are capable and able of showing you our humanity and showing you that we can love and we can be just, just like you, then you should be able to see that in us.

What I needed when I was a young girl, a little girl, was an adult that would take care of me like I was a child. What I had were adults around me that were predators and treated me like prey. I needed adults to listen to me and hear me, I needed adults to ask me what I wanted.

I needed an adult to care enough to love the child, the little girl, and not want to hurt the little girl.


I spent 27 years in prison, and I went in as an adolescent. And I came out a grown woman. I had spent almost three decades in prison. So, I had absolutely no clue what I needed. What I did need, though, in hindsight, was an understanding of this century that I was walking into right, so I felt like Rip Van Winkle.

I went in when there were no cell phones. Cell phones I think had just started. Computers were just still this big IBM box thing, or you know. I had no clue really what they were. I mean, we had some programs that had computers. But we didn't have access to the Internet or these apps, all these things that are on computers, that are like Star Trek.

So I think that for those of us who spent decades in prison, really long chunks of time, we need a gradual like you know how you stick your toe into the water to feel the cold and you're like okay, and you keep going back to you've got to get that sense of like okay I can there's some warmth there, I can deal with this now; I can make some further steps. I think we need that. How, what would that look like? I don't know, but we're not even having those discussions. And we need to figure that out because it is cruel and inhumane to throw people out of prison back there, they've served decades inside, and have absolutely no clue on how, what this world looks like out here, how to survive it, what things are. I had no idea what a metro card was. I went in when they were tokens.

For women coming out, a lot of us are looking for our children or our child. Because for the most part, they're not there anymore. Either this system has taken them, or they're left to their own devices because oftentimes, when a woman is incarcerated, the entire family dynamic is broken, her family is torn apart. And so that means that most of the children are taken into state facilities, they're put into foster care, they're adopted without the mother's knowledge or consent, or someone was left to care for the child or a family member, and that relationship has now become a strong substitute like relationship and the mother is now the one left out in, you know, left out basically in the cold and, and the stranger.


My long-term vision is to have a housing structure that has no boundaries. I am disheartened with the housing programs that exist now for women, which is very minuscule, to say the least, and they come with so many conditions. We should not have conditions. If you don't have a child or children, then why is it hard for you to find housing? If you don't have the skills or if you have light skills, why is that a factor into what you're going to do, or why did someone push you into doing something you really don't want to do? A lot of these programs want women to cook, to clean, to be cashiers. I get it. But what's wrong with women that want to dance, women that want to work with computers, design apps? What's wrong with whatever a woman wants to do? Why can't we encourage that in a woman?


There is more than just one prison. They're more. There are many more prisons than the physical prison. I tell people, I was in prison before I even went to prison. I was in prison in an abusive environment around abusive adults. And so, I was never really free, and it took five years after I got out to truly be free of any kind of systems or people. I was finally off parole, and so I embraced that. And I do my best to show, to be an example to others, especially women who've gone through what I've gone through, of what freedom could actually be. Your freedom could be anything you want it to be.

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A Little Piece of Light
IG: @hyltondonna
Twitter: @DonnaHylton
FB: @hyltondonna
Drew Dixon is a music producer, television producer, writer, and #MeToo Silence Breaker. During her career in the music industry, Drew oversaw the recording of hit records like "Maria Maria," "My Love Is Your Love" and "A Rose Is Still A Rose" with artists including Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Monica, Brandy, Deborah Cox, Method Man, Q-Tip, Brand Nubian, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Estelle, Kanye West and more. Additionally, she was a Vice President of A&R at Arista Records, a Director of A&R at Def Jam Recordings, and the General Manager of John Legend's independent record label, Homeschool (Atlantic), where she oversaw the recording of Estelle's Grammy-winning single, American Boy.

In 2017 Drew broke her silence in The New York Times about sexual assault and harassment in the music industry. She is the main subject of the HBO Max documentary, On The Record, directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. She is also an honors graduate of Harvard Business School's MBA program and a graduate of Stanford University.

Drew serves on the Advisory Board of the Clive Davis Institute at NYU (Tisch) and lives with her two children and their two cats, George and Weezie, in Brooklyn, NY, where she is writing a memoir for Harper Collins and producing music and other original content for her new multi-media company, CLAIM.

"I have unwittingly participated in a cover-up, my whole life of various forms of sexual violence that were perpetrated against me and for a variety of reasons, shame, loyalty, love, fear led me to keep the secret of my abusers, and I'm now realizing how corrosive that was for me personally."
Drew Dixon

I'm Drew Dixon. I used to be a music producer, and I'm making records again after a long hiatus. I am creating a television show and writing the pilot script for it. I am writing a book, and I am featured in a documentary about my decision to break my silence as part of the #MeToo movement. So, I guess I'm a silence breaker, among other things, and a survivor, and I'm a mom.


I'm finding that just sort of bearing witness to the experience of other survivors has been hugely helpful, I believe, for other survivors, and also helpful for me to process my own trauma and experience.

And I'm learning now literally in real-time what the feedback loop is between me sharing and then me hearing back from others in ways that in some cases helped others but in other cases helped me understand more about my own experience, specifically in some cases where I've met survivors of the same abuser, and more generally meeting survivors just of the same broader experience of having been a victim of sexual violence.


Honesty is the word that guides me. I have unwittingly participated in a cover-up, my whole life of various forms of sexual violence that were perpetrated against me and for a variety of reasons, shame, loyalty, love, fear led me to keep the secret of my abusers, and I'm now realizing how corrosive that was for me personally and so I took the first step in sharing my experience when I spoke out of The New York Times, and I'm really trying to just lean into honesty and transparency as the guiding principle of my choices going forward, and so yeah if I had to pick one word it would be honesty.


Voice is a powerful word and a powerful instrument, a powerful force. I think for myself, I really began to use my voice more privately but about ten years ago, when I started to process my own trauma, and I used my voice first as a songwriter. I've been a music producer, and I facilitated the voices of so many other artists, and I was no longer working in the music industry, so I started writing my own songs and recording them as a way to really process my own pain and as a way to heal and as a way to sort of examine my own experience and sort of as an alternative to jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge which was problematic for many reasons including the fact that I'm a mother and that would obviously not have been great for my kids. So, I decided instead of doing that to write songs and to really first write lyrics and then ultimately write melodies and then record them, so that was the beginning of using my voice, but that was still fairly private you know I'm not Beyonce. I'm not, you know, twenty-one or any of the things that you need to be to become a professional recording artist which I understand. So that was more for me. And then when the #MeToo Movement started to be sort of the version of that involved public disclosures about the abuse perpetrated by powerful and famous men, I frankly hoped that would never get to me and thought that it wouldn't because I'm a Black woman and I never had any expectation that anyone particularly cared about the safety of Black women as it related to sexual violence because our #MeToo moment began in the Middle Passage, to be clear.

So, I kind of thought I would watch that one from afar and was rooting for those women and was really grateful that they were being believed but also thought that also has nothing to do with me and I am going to just live my life and I'm really gratified that they are being believed, and also like continue to live my life. And then the person who assaulted me, Russell Simmons, was accused by other women, and he called them liars, and he said that it was impossible for him to rape anybody because he was a vegan who did yoga. Okay. And so that was infuriating. So that's when I decided to speak to The New York Times off the record, thinking that I was using my voice but still using it privately to encourage them to research further, knowing that there was more there but also not necessarily being prepared to use my voice publicly. And then when they told me that there were other women they had subsequently spoken to ]with the same experience I had. They told me those women were willing to go on the record if I went on the record, and so then I was confronted with a choice and I decided to be brave, which was the second word I was thinking of right after honesty, bravery, courage, something like that, you know, and so I decided that I didn't want to be the person who tacitly enabled abuse. I wanted to be the person who stepped up.


One thing that I struggle with is that I am still recovering memories of my experience as a child. I believe that in my case, the abuse started very early and that I repressed and frankly dissociated in order to tolerate it when I realized there were no ways out, like every possible door that would have mitigated the experience was closed. And so, I think in order to cope, I just had to find a way to compartmentalize it, so I think it's hard for me to access my experience totally. I'm still unpacking that in therapy. But not unpacking the narratives so much as I'm unpacking the feeling.


So the first thing I would say is that it’s good for her that she's able to articulate it. Like already right there that's something. That's a victory that she is conscious of it, she's conscious that it's wrong, and that it's something that makes her feel uncomfortable, and to know that she is seeking relief. That awareness, that agency is in and of itself like a kernel of something she can use to survive, you know when you lose that’s really going to a deep hole. So let's start with that.

Try really hard, almost impossible, not to internalize it. Try not to take on the shame. If you sprained your ankle hiking in the woods, that is literally as much your fault as this is your fault, also known as not your fault.


If there was a single person, it's my daughter. I wanted her to be safe, and I wanted her to know she is entitled to be safe all the time. And so that was absolutely what propelled me in the beginning, and then my son also deserves to be safe. Boys deserve to be safe.

In really beginning to come to terms with my own experience as a victim and a survivor because I think it's important not to just discard that victim word, I know that we want to be survivors, and I want to be a survivor, but I also am a victim of some really horrible stuff. And I want to make space for that too, you know I'm not just gonna skip past that and be a survivor, you know, I've got to make room for the pain and not be ashamed of that part of it. And so, conversations I had with my daughter are the conversations that really began my journey of anchoring myself in the truth of my own experience and wanting to have intellectual integrity around the conversations I had with my children is the reason that I really sort of quieted myself, to try to really come to terms of my own history of having been a victim of sexual abuse, harassment, and violence. So the people that truly inspired me the most and have inspired me the most on this journey are my children.

I finally had to break up with essentially my entire family of origin. Like finally, I was hanging on to my mom, I was hanging on to my sister, cause gosh like you literally all you got is one family origin. But just the re-injury, just the constant injury, was untenable. And so, not reinjure myself as something that I am also doing to heal. And that's fairly new, that part of it, thinking that I can somehow contort myself, you know subject myself to these sort of age-old arrows and daggers and then like shake it off and go out and compete in a really competitive environment as a Black woman in the world trying to make money, and you know support my family and our ridiculously expensive neighborhood. No, that's not actually gonna work. I have to practice to win if I want to play to win.


Girls need the same thing that boys need, that all children need: to be taken seriously, to be seen. See them for who they are, not who you want them to be, not who you need them to be. They are independent people, spirits, souls on this Earth. See them, empower them, arm them, support them, nurture them, love them unconditionally, protect them, create space for them, believe them, that's what girls need.

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IG: @deardrewdixon
Twitter: @deardrewdixon
Elisha Fernandes Simpson captured the opportunity to transform her own story through trauma-informed yoga. She truly believes in building resilience by providing accessibility to the tools of yoga and creative art expressions. Elisha is a licensed social worker, EMDR therapist, and trauma-informed yoga instructor who has dedicated herself to supporting young women to reclaim their voices, build resilience and thrive. She offers classes to young women in prisons, homeless shelters, and residential treatment facilities to help with emotional regulation, self-control, and self-awareness by gaining insight, skills, and practical tools that help them change their negative behavior to positive. As a result, young women become more accountable for themselves, others, and their communities. In addition, Elisha has facilitated classes with Westchester County’s social workers, the Mt. Vernon Police Department, and women’s and acute medical units in the Westchester County Department of Correction.

"I realized as I worked with more youth, and with other girls. I didn't have a voice when this happened to me, and I never talked to anyone, and this is the opportunity for me to give this moment of empowerment for them to have a voice, for them to talk about what they need, and to find tools that will help them move forward and try to change their lives."
Elisha Fernandes Simpson

My name is Elisha Simpson, and I'm executive director of the Crossover Yoga Project in Westchester, New York.

We go into rehabilitation centers in juvenile detention facilities, shelters, community centers and offer trauma-informed yoga, mindfulness, and creative art therapy, mostly to girls have been sexually trafficked. In our programs we discuss how trauma impacts your body, how it manifests in your behaviors and your decisions, and basically the world that you frame around you.

First, we move into poses or yoga postures, what we call “asanas,” to help bring out some of the emotions or things that have been stuck. We talk about what's happening inside and offer strength-based affirmations and words to help people really tap into their inner power. We then move into a meditation just to come to stillness so we can really feel that energy we have inside. After that, we transition into, usually, some type of art form, either a painting or some type of verbal expression or creative expression so all the things that have come up inside of your body during that process are able to come out. Sometimes words are hard to use when you've been traumatized because our bodies shut down—different parts of our bodies shut down during trauma and we're unable to use words. Through the motions and the movements, through all of the different things we talked about—we offer an opportunity to express [non-verbally] through some type of art form.


What trauma does to you is it has lasting residual effects that kind of debilitate you from being able to be in the present moment to be able to experience and to hear, to see, and to use all of your five senses to really take in and enjoy the moment that you're in.

The first premise with trauma-informed yoga is that we are inviting you to really check-in and become more self-aware. To find out what you're feeling inside, and we do that by offering small movements inviting you to do a pose offering the opportunity to stop, offering the opportunity to see how certain parts of your body feel. As you do that, you're able to build resilience. You're able to build this power to overcome any type of emotions that come up. When somebody's traumatized, what happens is they keep recalling that same incidents over and over again. Say, for example, you are out in the community, and all of a sudden, you hear a sound that brings you back long ago when something hurt you; what you're doing is you're being triggered. So, when we're able to kind of understand that we're being brought back to a moment and we're still in the same place at the same time in this current situation and not letting ourselves go back, we're able to overcome these little instances, these triggers, and able to build resilience so we can move forward with our lives and experience what's going on around us.


I worked with youth whose parents were incarcerated, and the very first child that I worked with was afraid to swim. After I worked with her for a week, she went back home, and her grandmother took her to the pool, and she jumped into the pool, went down to the bottom, touched the bottom, jumped up and started laughing. And the first thing that her grandmother said is, you know what happened to you? How did you do that? And the little girl said, “I remembered Miss Elisha's meditation and I wasn't afraid to swim anymore.”

Originally, I thought that was the work and that was what brought me there. Then over time, over the past ten years of doing this type of work, what I've realized is that I'm doing my own self-work. I'm starting to dig in and see what was happening to me. I am a sexual abuse survivor; I was molested as a child, and I had buried that for years and years.

It was by my uncle, who died prematurely from a drug overdose and through this time, I always thought that I had buried it and I'd worked through it, but I didn't. I realized as I worked with more youth, and with other girls. I didn't have a voice when this happened to me, and I never talked to anyone, and this is the opportunity for me to give this moment of empowerment for them to have a voice, for them to talk about what they need, and to find tools that will help them move forward and try to change their lives.


The beauty of moving through postures is intertwining your movement with your breath as we start to move your breath and your body. It's something they call somatic, this type of connection of bringing the body together with the breath that starts to move around all of the different parts of your body. It moves around things in your mind. There are some studies that demonstrate that when we use our breath, we're able to control our emotions. We're able to also increase the gray matter in our minds, so we're able to increase our memory.

You're also starting to build this idea of reclaiming who you are because you feel more confident about your body and feel more confident about what you're able to withstand perhaps—any types of things that come up, any emotions or tremors, so you're building the strength and resilience to move forward. Once you feel more confident, think about when you do feel confident, you're able to find your voice, you're able to speak to others, you're able to carry yourself high with your shoulders back, and you're not worried about what other people say. When you have that connection, and you feel good about yourself, you're able to speak and to connect with others.


I found my voice recently within the past three years. I thought all along that I had my voice, and I knew what I was doing, but as I continued to move and kind of chisel away these things which I've built, this incredible shield around my heart, I'm noticing more and more I feel stronger about myself. I feel very confident about the work that I'm doing. I'm able to overcome the little things; kind of like these small little, little chisels that come at me from time to time when people say: "Oh yes, you're a yoga teacher, so we don't really need to listen to you." But I know what I'm doing, and I feel really confident, so I can stand up tall and say, "yes! I know what I'm doing, and this is something that I know works with people." I've had a lot of people who've said, ‘thank you for working with me, thank you for being with me, and helping me find my voice.’


If you can't believe in yourself, it's really hard to do anything else, so through our practice and through our work, we really try to find ways to remind yourself that you are the confident, beautiful, amazing person that everybody else sees because we forget who we are sometimes, especially when we've been traumatized and the structure in our society continues to bring us down. So, when you can believe in yourself, and you can continue to find the ways to affirm yourself each day; to move forward and to get up no matter what happened, that's what is really helpful for many of the girls that I work with.


If you would please just start to put your feet on the ground, if they're not already there, and try to find a nice upright seat on your chair and just start to notice your feet on the ground. Are you able to feel the difference in weight? Maybe one foot is heavier than the other? Can you notice the weight in your seat? Is your spine tall? And then are you able to feel the breath move in and out of your body? Just imagine your breath coming into the nose and slowly releasing the best way you see fit. Take as many breaths as you need to. Whenever you're ready, bring yourself back into the space and notice what that felt like.

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Jasmine Bowie is a licensed social worker focused on healing and empowerment for adolescent girls who have experienced complex trauma. As a social worker, she has extensive experience working with youth and families in various settings. In addition, she has a proven track record of successful program development and implementation for "at-promise youth." Jasmine was Deputy Director at the Brownsville Community Justice Center at the Center for Court Innovation in New York.

"I genuinely believe when you create space for girls to heal, then our nation will be healed and whole. We have some of the most smart, dynamic, powerful, brilliant beings—girls that this world has ever seen, and oftentimes, they are just not given the space to shine; the space to be able to allow their ideas and creativity to flow."
Jasmine Bowie

My name is Jasmine Bowie. I am from Youngstown, Ohio. I moved to New York about seven years ago to get my Master's from New York University, and I am a licensed social worker.

I currently serve as the deputy director at a not-for-profit organization in Brownsville, Brooklyn. We work primarily with young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who have had previous justice involvement or who are at risk of becoming involved. A lot of our work is really centered in creating healing spaces for young people that address their trauma and the reason they touch the system in the first place, as well as providing opportunities for economic advancement through interspace internships, educational services, as well as case management and social work services.


I knew that when I was getting my Master's in Social Work that I always wanted to work directly with young people who've touched the system. My passion is really creating space not just for young people but primarily self-identified girls, and so while I started my position in Brownsville about five years ago, I recognized that there really wasn't a space that centered the voices of young girls. And so, I created one. And from that creation, we have a really dynamic program that is particularly for girls 15 to 18, as well as young women 19 to 24, that creates space for healing, connection, and civic engagement.


The Brownsville Girls Collaborative Program takes a group of girls on a sisterhood journey in which they're able to really create space, to create a common narrative of womanhood beyond the social constructions, as well as space for their own individual and collective healing. And so, there are a number of rituals and sacred ceremonies that they go through over the course of the eight months and different rites that they have to achieve together in order to move on to the next phase of the program. The reason we really centered it in our rites of passage model is because historically, many communities of color have really leveraged rites of passage to kind of help usher young people into the next phases of their lives, and it's not as common in America for girls of color, particularly Black girls, to have some sort of guided process that ushers them into a journey of womanhood. But also, just understanding that relationships and community building is extremely important too. Just the sisterhood component of the program has really been powerful, and really the main force of transformation, that has happened with a lot of the girls just being able to be connected to someone, being able to identify actual supports has been really powerful.

The participants of the Brownsville Grows Collaborative Program go through an eight-month journey of sisterhood. And what that typically looks like is in the fall of each year right when the school year is getting ready to start, we are really canvassing the neighborhood, working with local community partners to identify girls who are most in need of the space and so it's really a lot of recruitment efforts that happen during the fall.

During the first phase of the program, the girls are in a what we call a training period, and so during that training period, they're really beginning to dissect what it means to be a sister as well as being part of a sisterhood, really gaining a concrete understanding of rites of passage on why a rite of passage program could be something that is really beneficial to them in their journey. And so, upon the completion of that rites of passage training, all the girls go on a retreat in Upstate, New York, and it's the weekend retreat in which they engage in their first sacred ceremony.


So, the rites of passage program takes them through three distinct phases. The first phase is the caterpillar phase, and so during the caterpillar phase, it really just symbolizes new beginnings and new foundations, and so it's understanding that there are a lot of things that have impacted who we are as young women a lot of experiences that have shaken up into this point but giving them permission to kind of shed all those old narratives in order to emerge into something new and more dynamic also understanding that they are already dynamic beings. So, we do acknowledge power and privilege and systems and how those impact their individual lives. And we are acknowledging that you come from a community that has been disinvested in and how that disinvestment has impacted you as an individual and what that does is it humanizes them a bit and allows them to recognize that 'I'm here and I may have made some mistakes, but it's not only my fault it was designed, it was by design.'

So, the second phase of the program is that they become a pupa. And this is a really, really interesting phase because the pupa doesn't always appear to be doing a lot of work; it's in this cocoon, and it's a very still and quiet moment for the pupa. And that's why a lot of the internal work begins to happen during our rites of passage program. So during the second phase is when we really begin to address trauma, we really begin to create that space for healing we're naming it, we're talking about it. It's a very intense and an emotional segment of the program, and from during the second phase of the that's why we put it as the face too because do we understand that that relationship building and that rapport building is really crucial before you can take anyone through a journey of healing and so we don't want to open up wounds too soon because folks will shut down. And we've experienced that in the past like it trauma is just so, so big well there is lots of family members your experiences in the system, being previously incarcerated, sexual trauma. Most girls in this program are at the intersection of many different types of violence, so community violence is really big where they are from, as well as sexual violence, and so these are the things that we're discussing, and we're healing from during the second phase of the program. And after they go through the pupa journey of the program, they emerge into butterflies. And that's the final immersion of the rites of passage program.

That butterfly it's really symbolic because butterflies get their wings, but they don't fly immediately, and that represents that there's still a lot of work to be done. You've gone through this transition, The Sisterhood journey, you've done a lot of really great work, but it doesn't mean that you're perfect and that there's a complete transformation. There's still work to be done. And just honoring the journey that you've been able to go through and knowing that, in due time, you will be able to fly and be able to overcome some of those things that have challenged you for the duration of your life.


In the current work that I do, the Brownsville Girls Collaborative is one of our most successful programs. The reason that it's as successful as it is because there is so much investment and buy-in for the girls who've gone through this process and so oftentimes we get feedback from the girls that they wish they can go through another sisterhood journey. And so, through that feedback, we've now created a space where we bring in alumni to be able to come back and serve as peer leaders, and they're ushering the next group of girls through the rites of passage process.


We oftentimes think about what models work and what theories are best, when to use them working with young girls. I honestly do think it's just that safe space in that relationship is one of the most important things that can really that supportive environment that can really begin to divert them from the system and keep them engaged in what can be a really intense process of healing.


I genuinely believe when you create space for girls to heal, then our nation will be healed and whole. We have some of the most smart, dynamic, powerful, brilliant beings—girls that this world has ever seen, and oftentimes, they are just not given the space to shine; the space to be able to allow their ideas and creativity to flow. And I generally believe once we create that space for girls to be validated, for girls to be centered in all of our work, that the entire nation will be healed and whole.

I envision a world where girls are genuinely respected, where they have equity, where they are able to live not in fear of safety. I’m talking about physical safety, emotional safety, where they can heal through their trauma and allow them to really immerse into the person that they were always destined to be.

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Kathleen Hulser is a public historian, curator and arts journalist, currently working on several projects. Her background includes writing, teaching, curating, public history, activist art projects, and walking tours. She is public historian for Incorrigibles transmedia project, a consultant to The Village Trip Festival, and consulting historian to Gracie Mansion Conservancy. In previous posts she was a curator at the New York Transit Museum where her last show was Navigating New York: A History of Subway Maps. As public historian at the New-York Historical Society she curated or worked on curatorial teams for “Nueva York: 400 Years of Hispanic History,” El Museo del Barrio & NY Historical Society, “Grant and Lee in War and Peace,” “Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery,” “Petropolis: A Social History of Animal Companions" and “Slavery in New York." Her augmented reality cell phone tour of downtown Manhattan during the War of 1812 featured smugglers in the New York Harbor and counterfeit bills floating along Wall St. Hulser is currently researching the history of the Slaves Burying Ground in Orient, New York. She believes in the power of history to open eyes and change minds and most enjoys serving general audiences, using material culture and innovative platforms.

"Our society has lots of terms that it uses to regulate girls’ and women's behaviors. Terms such as promiscuous, slut, wild, unruly, disobedient, wayward, incorrigible, and bad were terms that were used over and over again to make sure women didn't step out of line. "
Kathleen Husler

My name is Kathleen Hulser. I'm a public historian, and I've worked teaching American History, Women's Studies, and Urban History. I also work with a lot of public projects that are designed for people who are not historians and to engage the general public.


When I was growing up, it was a time that women were redefining their place in the public world and I became very interested in new worlds for women and also in the things that happened to girls on their way to growing up.

Things that happen to girls when they're teens often have a huge influence on their later life.

I indeed was a girl somewhat like the girls that we treat in The Hudson Girls Training School. That is, I was very much of a rule breaker. I was considered wild. I was considered a "bad" girl by some. I was locked up at a certain point, and I also never finished high school.


The New York State Training School for Girls was founded at a time when there was a huge landscape of reform. The landscape of reform in the late 19th century and early 20th century spelled out a lot of changes for women. The first idea that the Training School picked up on was that women who were in trouble with the law somehow should not be confined in the same places with men, that they should be treated in a different way. The landscape of reform that's relevant to the establishment of the New York State Training School for Girls is one of emerging women's activism. Women are agitating for the vote; they're starting to go to college, there's a mass movement of women into the workforce, so there are lots of women and young girls out there, who are living outside the scrutiny of their parents and of the Church.

Young girls are working very frequently at the turn of the century. If you were from a working-class family, you might be working as early as age 12 or 13. For example, the girls at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which burned in a very famous tragedy in the early part of the 20th century, were between the ages of 12 and 16.

The kinds of things that upset people then related to the reform context.

There were big purity campaigns as women moved into the public sphere. There were reformers and campaigners who thought that the morals of women would be endangered by their growing presence in public life. A presence in public life for young women might mean that they were traveling further to go to high school. A presence in public life might mean that young girls were out in the workplace, so they were not with their family and not in the Church and not under the eyes of someone who could supervise them.

The reforms then were targeted frequently to the kinds of behaviors that young women and passionate teens engage in through the ages. Young women without their parents would be more likely to meet young men that their parents didn't know and maybe didn't even approve of. These sorts of things aroused huge public concern along with the idea of public health.

With more mobility and larger cities, there was a great growth in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. At that time, they were called VD. The purity campaigns were closely tied to these campaigns against venereal disease. And they often targeted the women who they thought were spreading it, as opposed to the men who, of course, could as easily be a source of infection.

The Hudson Girls Training School then was often hosting young girls whose offenses were not legal offenses but just status offenses. The young girls who were sent there, their offenses frequently consisted of disobeying their parents, or perhaps staying out at night, or perhaps dating a man their parents didn't approve of. Sometimes the girls who were sent to the Training School had no offenses at all and were the victims of somebody else's sexual predation. So, a girl who was being sexually assaulted by a brother, a cousin, an uncle, a father might well be considered and condemned as somebody who was promiscuous, and sexually active at too young an age, even though in today's terms it's very clear to us, she is a victim, not the perpetrator.

Much of the social reform movements of the turn of the century were aimed at improving both social conditions and people. The Girls Training School and other places like it thought that if they got the girls young enough—that is between the ages of 12 and 16—they could keep them from straying on a bad path and becoming what were called at the time: wayward girls, incorrigible girls, ungovernable girls, or soiled doves. All these terms were used in the institutions of reform to characterize girls who may have in even some tiny way transgressed some of the social rules rather than the actual laws of the country. The Girls Training School and other places like it across the country hoped to get girls that were young and make them into virtuous, marriageable, employable persons who met the standards of what was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture at the time.

The cottages in the Training School were places where girls were supposed to grow up in a home-like environment with a “mother” supervising. Breakfast was regulated. Lunch was regulated. Girls were generally locked in their rooms at night. Punishments for transgressions at the Training School and places like it could be very severe. In the early days of the institution, you can read accounts of girls who used bad language, having their mouths washed out with soap. Using bad language could not only mean getting your mouth washed out with soap. You could even have it stuffed with sickening, nauseating, and disgusting asafetida herbs and a gag taped over your mouth. These sorts of things became less common as the 20th century went on. A punishment that was frequently used in the Training School and other juvenile detention places was solitary. Solitary at the Hudson Girls Training School meant that your clothes usually were taken away, often you had no sheets, you were locked in, not allowed out at all. There are some harrowing accounts of the use of this punishment, and there are girls who talk about still having nightmares about it many, many years later.

The girls at the Training School and other places like it across the country were usually subjected to a gynecological exam. This may have been the first time any girl would have had such a thing in the country in the early years of the 20th century. The girls were inspected, and it was noted on intake forms whether they had been sexually active, whether their hymen was intact, and whether they had signs of VD. It was often common at a Training School to put a new girl into quarantine right before they were admitted.

Girls were supervised closely while they were there. If they were to have children, those children were taken away if they arrived pregnant [to the institution]. And girls who reached the age of 18 or had an exemplary record of behavior could be discharged to a job placement or family placement, which was called parole. They were required to write letters back to the institution to report on their progress.


Our society has lots of terms that it uses to regulate girls’ and women's behaviors. Terms such as promiscuous, slut, wild, unruly, disobedient, wayward, incorrigible, and bad were terms that were used over and over again to make sure women didn't step out of line.

The language used to stigmatize girls is not necessarily the way the girls saw themselves. In the records we've seen from the Girls Training School, we can glimpse moments where the girls say: "I am a good girl: "I love my mother. I only want to do what I'm told." These cries for a positive self-image show us that language that is stigmatizing is not necessarily always internalized by girls who are in confinement. They often speak back. On the subject of sexuality, we can understand some of the ways in which girls took language and turned it around for their own purposes. For example, language at the Girls Training School was often translated into a code so that girls could exercise their romantic fantasies. So, coded language, which was discovered by a sociologist who studied the place in the 1960s, could include things like secret marriages marked by dropping a Bible during chapel. Coded language at the Training School might include little series of letters and numbers that had a meaning. H.O.L.L.A.N.D., an example of coded language, meant “hope our love lasts and never dies.” Taking language back for yourself when you were in an institution that exercised complete control and 24-hour surveillance was an important feature of women seizing the psychological possibilities they could find within dire circumstances.

Studies have shown that many of the girls who are sent to one form of confinement or another have terrible experiences in their background. Experiences girls have before being confined often include sexual assault, beatings, psychological browbeating, family troubles of all sorts, in school and other places.


When I was growing up, my mother considered a lot of my behavior not just outrageous but very likely to ruin her reputation in the community, not just mine. Things have changed a lot. My daughter growing up in New York City was someone who in probably any day and age would have been considered kind of wild. But I always told her, she's a good girl, watch out, call me if you're in trouble, if you need a ride home in the middle of the night, I'm gonna come get you. I think the possibilities today are very different partially because mothers of my generation and younger have realized that they can support their girls who want to break the rules without having it all fall into chaos and disorder.

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Nina Bernstein is best known for her New York Times reporting on social and legal issues, including award-winning coverage of immigration, child welfare, and health care. In 21 years at the Times, from which she retired at the end of 2016, she was a metro reporter, a national correspondent, and an investigative reporter. Her reporting on deaths in immigration detention received numerous awards, including the 2010 Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for courage in journalism awarded by the Columbia School of Journalism, and a 2009 Sidney J. Hillman Award. She is the author of The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care (Pantheon, 2001), which won the Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism given by the New York Public Library, and a 2002 PEN America First Nonfiction award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award. In addition, she has contributed lead chapters to two academic books, "Writing Immigration: Scholars and Journalists in Dialogue (University of California Press, 2011) and "Challenging Immigration Detention: Academics, Activists, and Policy-Makers (Edward Elgar Publishing 2017). She is also the author of a children's book of fiction, Magic by the Book (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2005).

"Shirley Wilder was abused, neglected as a child. She was in a terrible family. She was sexually abused by her father. She was beaten by her stepmother. She ran away. And no private agency at the time was interested in a child like Shirley who was Black and Protestant and from a family that had come in the great migration from the South."
Nina Bernstein

My name is Nina Bernstein. I've been a journalist for more than 45 years, the last 21 years for The New York Times and I'm the author of The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care, which Pantheon published in 2001.


When I was a very young reporter, I was called in by a judge to his chambers to sit in on a hearing about the fate of a 14-year-old girl. There was an older woman in the room. I don't remember if she was a relative or, I think, actually a foster parent, but she complained that this girl was disobedient and, in fact, that she had left the ironing undone to go out with friends. The girl begged in tears for another chance, and the judge who was this grandfatherly old man said no, he was going to have to send her to the State School for Girls, the reformatory for delinquents, miles away. This was in Des Moines, Iowa, my first newspaper job, but it could have been almost any jurisdiction at the time, and I think it sensitized me to the vulnerability of girls facing state power to lock them up. And also, the vulnerability to sexist stereotypes about female virtue.

Years later, after having written about foster care in different states, off and on, I was very frustrated. I was really frustrated at how endemic the problem seemed and how the old solutions that had failed before were revived. In New York City, I was intrigued by a class-action lawsuit whose name I kept hearing, Wilder. I went to the office of a lawyer who had who had waged this class-action lawsuit against the foster care system, Marcia Robinson Lowry, and asked to look at the legal record. The named plaintiff, Shirley Wilder, had given birth to a baby when she was 14, and he had been left in the same system that the lawsuit had been struggling for years to change. It had been filed in 1973, and this was now the 1990s. And I was compelled to find out what happened to that baby. And why? It took quite a long time. Shirley resurfaced occasionally, and Marcia Lowry put me in touch with her. Shirley asked me to find her son, to find the baby she had had to leave behind. Her parental rights were terminated by then and, just as I found him, discovered that he was aging out of foster care, basically into homelessness. I was compelled to write the book about the layers of legal conflict, history and human drama that said so much about what's wrong with our child welfare systems.


In writing The Lost Children of Wilder, Marcia Robinson Lowry was very important to me. She's a controversial figure. She was at the time and, in some ways, she still is. In some ways maybe though she's less known more so among people that I admire. For example I very much admire Martin Guggenheim the professor of law and head of the Family Law Clinic here at NYU, and I know he is very much against the work that Marcia Robinson Lowry has done over all, the class-action lawsuits that she has filed against different jurisdictions, different states. The problem is that for many people, and I really understand this, the real issue is helping poor families keep their children and that anything that gives more power or resources to foster families is therefore a problem. It's actually a negative but I admire the fact that Marcia never gave up. She litigated this case and other cases through thick and thin and I know that her motivation was really to say, “look you can't fix foster care outside of fixing inequality in poverty. You have to address poverty and inequality.” She said, “I can't fix poverty but surely I can make it better for the kids who are in the system,” and I understand that motivation. I just came to the conclusion that as I said in the introduction to the The Lost Children of Wilder, there's an iron law in social welfare in America that things have to be worse for the poor. the who don't work then for the working poor and that includes for their children and you know Back in the 19th century there were complaints that poor people would voluntarily give their children up to orphanages because they had it better in the orphanage than the nice working people could provide at home.


Linda Gordon in Heroes of Their Own Lives shows how long there has been this belief that the children of immigrants, in that case, Jewish and Italian immigrants, were sexually promiscuous or precocious. You know there was an idea that, for instance, that garlic was an aphrodisiac, and Italian mothers were neglectful because they cooked with it.

This book showed very vividly how girls who grew up experiencing sexual abuse in their homes and their neighborhoods, sometimes embraced that as the only power that they had. The powers of the weak, this was the only way they could get love, it was the only way they had power to get money or to change their life circumstances. And that really helped me understand Shirley Wilder and how she, as a runaway, used sex just to get by and ultimately, became a prostitute.


My ambition essentially was to write nonfiction Dickens. I mean, I felt that the situation that I had uncovered, and that I was reading about as I delved into these records about the reformatory for girls at Hudson, where Shirley was sent because no none of the private foster care agencies would take her, I really thought that it was Dickensian. So, I would say Dickensian was the word that stayed with me.


Shirley Wilder was abused, neglected as a child. She was in a terrible family. She was sexually abused by her father. She was beaten by her stepmother. She ran away. And no private agency at the time was interested in a child like Shirley who was Black and Protestant and from a family that had come in the great migration from the South. There was what they called, at the time, 'the paper bag test,' that's what social workers called it, that a child who was darker than a paper bag was very unlikely to be accepted for family placement by one of the private foster care agencies then run by mainly Catholic and Jewish agencies. They didn't want to bother intervening at all. And I wonder now today, what about all the unauthorized immigrant families? There is no federal money that is going to be following them into foster care placements.

There is no way really to demand that mother or father follow, let's say, and get a better apartment or a better job or apply for welfare so that there willl be food in the refrigerator or get rid of the extra tenant who may be as sexually abusing the child there's not that. So I suspect that there are a lot of kids who a lot of families who need help who aren’t getting it and these are some of the cases that the daughters who rebel, who run away, who try to find some way some kind of autonomy in this situation they end up becoming the new incorrigibles.

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Executive Director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, Rebecca Epstein, has dedicated her career to advancing race and gender equity. At the Center, she puts a special focus on policies and practices that support marginalized girls. Rebecca is the lead author of Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girlhood (June 2017); Gender and Trauma: Somatic Interventions for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System and Implications for Policy and Practice (2017); and Blueprint: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Girls (2013). She is also the co-author of Be Her Resource: A Toolkit About School Resource Officers and Girls of Color, as well as a seminal report on the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline for girls.

"We need to look at how to dismantle some of the harmful systems that are operating and reconstruct them as locations of healing and support that are gender-responsive and culturally competent; that reach out to girls and help them thrive instead of punishing them for what's happened to them."
Rebecca Epstein

I'm Rebecca Epstein, and I am the Executive Director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law in Washington DC. I head up our initiative on Gender, Justice, and Opportunity, which focuses on public systems approaches to marginalized girls; we define marginalized girls as low-income girls and girls of color. We try to help people who work in public systems and policymakers do better to support and serve these girls.

We conduct research and author reports that delve into some of the challenges that are presented in public systems for girls–how they may be harming girls and how they could do better to support them. We hold events in which we hope to educate the public and policymakers so that they can make more informed decisions and break some of the harmful patterns toward girls.

We produced a report on adultification bias in 2017, which looked at how adults perceive Black girls as less innocent than their white peers, and then we produced a follow-up report that was based importantly on the words of Black women and girls themselves across the country, where we asked them whether the results of our research aligned with their lived experiences. And overwhelmingly, they replied that they did face adultification bias as girls, were held to more adult-like standards in schools and by the police and even in doctors' offices, and were hyper-sexualized by a lot of the authorities that they came in touch with. One of them most memorably said to us that a white girl's tears are valued more than a Black girl's tears.


If I had to trace the roots of how I got into this work, I would, of course, go back all the way to my parents, who really drove home the value and the importance of contributing to social justice. But it also was the result of growing up in a time in our country when we were going through one of our many cycles of feeling like we were going backwards in terms of our culture and our values. It was the 1980s, and that produced in me a spark to try to fight back and to work toward a solution.


If there's any ray of hope that I would hope to draw from these darker times that we're living in now, it's that some of the young people today similarly find inspiration in those who are acting to help move the arc toward social justice, and an inspiration for themselves to get involved in that same movement.


I guess one of the concepts that guides me is to right some of the invisibility that some of our marginalized populations face in this country. In my case, the focus is on girls of color and low-income girls who often aren't seen and aren't heard and yet have so much to bring to the table in terms of their strengths and their resilience and the power of their voice not only in telling their narratives but in informing solutions.


It's important to never underestimate the power of partnership, both with peers who can serve to broaden your perspective and your insight by providing their own diversity of perspective and with the girls that we're trying to support. It's important not only to view girls as an object to be supported but also as partners in the work going forward as the experts in their own lives, their own needs, and their own assets as well.

During the Obama administration, there was a surge in interest and support for work on race and gender lines. So, we saw streams of girls of color entering the White House during that period for events where they were looked to as the experts in their own lives, and advocates and researchers and activists came together to learn from the girls and from each other to engage in social justice work that could ultimately help support marginalized girls.


I think we need to take a hard look at our public systems and what, ideally, they were created for and how they're working in practice now. Ideally, our systems are put into place to help support and protect youth and, obviously, we've drifted very far from that mission.

We need to look at how to dismantle some of the harmful systems that are operating and reconstruct them as locations of healing and support that are gender-responsive and culturally competent; that reach out to girls and help them thrive instead of punishing them for what's happened to them.

We need to take a harder look, for example, at schools which should be locations where we can build community and serve to heal and help girls thrive, but which currently are punishing behavior being interpreted especially in cases of girls of color as being disrespectful or disruptive or even threatening. We can do this through anti-bias training. We can do this through really restructuring school and how we view discipline and how we carry out discipline to do a better job in supporting girls.


Restorative practices are one example of a way of dealing with discipline but also building community in ways that are constructive instead of destructive, in ways that help heal instead of harm. We also need to look at the juvenile justice system. Girls are there who shouldn't be. Girls are there who don't present any harm to the public but may instead present the greatest risk of harm to themselves. We need to reach out to those girls and support them, help them thrive, help them heal, rather than subjecting them to punitive environments where, if anything, they are more greatly harmed, and when they reenter the community, they don't have the tools or the resources, nor the connection, that they need to thrive.

With one of our senior scholars, Thalia Gonzalez–who's a national expert on restorative justice, we're trying to study how restorative justice practices can do better in rethinking the way schools engage in both discipline and in building community. We're looking at how restorative justice can build health equity in students by providing them with connectedness to schools in ways that help them achieve academically, and that give them the keys that they need to thrive in life, in long-term outcomes.


If I could advise a young woman, I would say be courageous, don't be afraid to be powerful, and know that there are generations of women and girls standing behind you and beside you that can help you along the way.

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Dr. Rita Charon is a general internist and literary scholar at Columbia University who originated the field of narrative medicine. She is Professor of Medicine and Founder and Executive Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia. Her research focuses on the consequences of narrative medicine practice, reflective clinical practice, and health care team effectiveness.

At Columbia, she directs the Foundations of Clinical Practice faculty seminar, the Narrative, and Social Medicine Scholarly Projects Concentration Track, the required Narrative Medicine curriculum for the medical school, and Columbia Commons: Collaborating Across Professions, a medical-center-wide partnership devoted to health care team effectiveness. She has received a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio residency, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and research funding from the NIH, the NEH, the American Board of Integral Medicine, the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, and several additional private foundations. She has published in The New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine, Narrative, Henry James Review, Partial Answers, and Literature and Medicine. She is working on a book about creativity and doubt in the sciences and the arts.

"The imperative parts of narrative medicine are: humility, knowing what you don't know and attention, being able to open the doors of your sight, hearing and interpretation, climate and mood and literally absorb all that is being emitted by a teller. "
Dr. Rita Charon

My name is Rita Charon. I work at Columbia University. I'm in the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics, which is a new department at the Medical School and the Department of Medicine. I run a program bringing arts and humanities into the care of patients.

I created the field that's now called narrative medicine.

I just feel like I was somehow, I don't know, lucky that words come to me. You know, there is nothing I like more than sitting with half a paragraph. And I just look… I have a view towards the West, and I see the Hudson River, and I just kind of gaze, and things come to me. It's really thrilling, so if I weren't a doctor, I'd just have been a writer.


It's been more and more understood that taking care of sick people or helping people stay well requires a lot of understanding and attention to the stories they tell. And that we can't very well take care of bodies without taking care of the lives that live in those bodies, and yet ordinary clinical training to become a nurse or a doctor, even a social worker, doesn't always include like serious attention to what we call radical listening, which is the kind of listening where the listener can really take away as much as they can the judgments, the implicit biases, the ways of deciding something about the person they're listening to.

So, we try to bring unbiased listening to the stories that patients tell. And as we do that, we have been very happy to see that these doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists are able more and more to reduce their judgment and cultural beliefs, whether about persons with obesity or persons with particular illnesses or habits. That's one part of our work. The work we call Narrative Medicine is really equipping clinicians with ways to seriously enter, imagine, and take seriously the narrative worlds that their patients live in.


These efforts to improve our attention to storytelling take on most significance when we're dealing with questions of justice. And a lot of the work in narrative medicine, in Medical Humanities altogether, is focused on racial equity, on gender equity, on disability power, or disability studies, in ways to improve the access that a person who is differently abled has to healthcare. So, it's especially in those efforts that we find the critical nature of the sharing of stories so that the clinician cannot get away with the sense that they know better than the patient. When we’re in particular areas of healthcare justice, we are able to privilege the justice. And to make sure that the kind of access to healthcare, the kind of assumptions that are made about persons who come for healthcare, are not based on bias.

You can imagine that heightened and skilled attention to accounts that people give of themselves is very, very important in areas of trauma. Whether it's long-ago remote trauma–some of our early work was done with Holocaust survivors, or whether it's with very recent trauma, one of our major faculty members has a practice for rape survivors. We've also worked with veterans where the nature of the trauma and the depth of those memories is very critical.

I think probably the biggest contribution that narrative training makes is that we all learn through these methods that each patient is herself. And that there's no general rules for what's needed.

One of the graduates of our master's program in narrative medicine is a social worker. She was the director of the Rape Crisis Center at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital so she was in charge of responses to the emergency room whenever persons came in having been raped. She ended up being hired by the Bronx Courthouse because of her ability to interview the child survivors of sexual violence.

And they asked her to please teach the judges and the lawyers how to interview and listen to children giving their stories of sexual assault. She says that what let her know how to do it was our training in narrative medicine. She is now teaching. She's on my faculty at the Medical School teaching an interprofessional seminar—that means doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, chaplains, dentists, nutritionists, and others together—and she teaches a course in healthcare justice.


I grew up around doctors. My father was one. My grandfather and one of my uncle were too so we had patients calling the house all the time. I knew how to talk to patients when I was a little girl, and we had a big family. I was one of six daughters, and my father, kind of, I don't know exactly how… elected me to follow him into medicine. And so I did, though reluctantly because it wasn't my favorite thing, I much preferred my Shakespeare courses to my biology ones, but I was dutiful.

I came to college in the 60s, I was involved in the movement. I helped stop the draft. My colleagues and I believe we helped stop the Vietnam War. And so that was very much part of my growing up. I taught in grammar school for a long time after I got out of college. I taught kids how to read. It was fantastic; probably the most important thing I've done. But slowly I came to the idea that my father might be right, and I could be a good doctor, so I went to medical school. And I brought to medicine all of this kind of history of activism and the commitment to peace and justice. This was the beginning of the women's movement, so I think from the beginning of my work as a doctor, I had the vision that medicine could contribute to equity, equality, and peace. And I saw that even, even, my love of reading and literature had a part in this work.


There are several words that I have found express some of the deepest parts of what we're doing. One of those words is attention, attention, the kind of attention that can be paid that singles out the subject of that attention, and of course, in my case, I think of patients in the office and how I can so clear my mind and heart and eyes of everything else, so that theperson, the woman who comes in with her recurrence of breast cancer and everything else whatever, the grant is due, You know the kids home with a bellyache, whatever it is, all that recedes, and I am at her service. That's the kind of attention that we hope to train in our students and our trainees. And what I have found, and many of us have found, is that experiencing that kind of attention is itself a very heightened experience. You know when you're there. I use the word donating in the sense of I give myself to you. ‘Use me if you can,’ is kind of the feeling and when that happens persons, patients or students, whoever it may be, are released to tell you what's in their hearts. And it's in those times of attention that we learn, or I learn, those things that are otherwise untellable.

The other words that are very important to me are representation and affiliation. Representation because the only way for me to really achieve this sense of attention and perception is at some point to give it form. And what is it that I'm perceiving about this woman with a recurrence of her breast cancer? How do I know what I'm perceiving? I have to. I can't just be there. I have to, in some way, give it form; write it down. I guess if I were an artist, I could draw something. I'm a writer, so I write.

The other words that I use a lot are recognition and embodiment. What does it mean to live in a body? What does it mean to live in a mortal body, and these words are kind of related, I guess, to health, and I hope you can see that they're related also to, well, the notion of health for all.


A lot of the guidance for my work comes from patients. And you know there are plenty of professors and mentors and beloved novels that have taught me a lot, that have guided me, but it's things that have happened in the act of trying to care for people.


Medicine is a very aggressive sport. And I've always been in academic medicine. I went to Harvard Medical School. I've been at Columbia my whole career, and there's lots of us kind of jostling around, and you’vegot to be heard. Persons who are timid and don't know how to kind of grab the microphone or sit close to the front of the room don't get much done. So, I think I've been grateful that I didn't mind sitting close to the front and asking questions in the Q&A, and kind of, I don't know, making a fuss, and that has helped our work, that the tribe of us are not shy. We are passionate about what we're doing, and we don't mind showing that.


One of our movements… Narrative Medicine has really become a movement here in the states and internationally. There are more and more places looking toward this work as a way forward in effective and just healthcare.

One of the real commitments is to give voice to others. And to give voice to those who are marginalized and silenced, silenced by our institutions. So, persons with dementia, persons with mental illness of some kinds, persons with aphasia who physically have lost their voice are examples of people for whom we really make happen a way for them not to just physically articulate, but to express that which they've been through.

So that we're even starting to develop at Columbia, we don't know quite yet what it's going to be, but it's going to be some kind of narrative storytelling laboratory of some kind because we've worked with patients in many different areas where they simply want their voice heard in the medical record, in the chart, in the electronic records that all the doctors read. And they say, 'how do I get my story into that!' instead of just telling it to you and hoping you understand and value it. So that's what I think of in terms of voice and giving voice.


Some of the work that I feel most worth the time it's taken has been in areas of social justice: in race equity, gender, and weight equity. I want to start with that third one. It's a project we're just finishing now. One of the injustices in healthcare is toward obese people. And persons who are, you know, above the normal weight have demonstrable trouble getting decent health care. Those who are very obese are diminished, they're ridiculed, they're blamed, they're shamed. Surgeons will say: 'I'm not gonna operate on that abdomen.'

The nurses' aides make fun of them when they weigh them at the scale before they even see the doctor. And so, what happens is persons who are obese are less healthy than others not because of their weight, but because they don't get their flu shots, they don't get their pap smears, they don't get their mammograms, you see? So, one thing that we tried with narrative medicine was could we change some of these assumptions about persons who are obese being, being lazy, having no willpower, not caring about their health, being gluttons.

And with a rather simple intervention which was kind of reading things about not even necessarily about obesity, but reading stories looking at images looking at some you know film clips and video clips, we were able to bring students—health care students—rather quickly, I mean within six weeks, to think about ways in which they themselves have been ridiculed; ways in which they have felt shame or felt blame. We helped them to think back about even growing up. What did it mean to be overweight or underweight? We were surprised at how many anorexics were present in those classes of students, for example.

And in only six weeks, there were demonstrable, I mean statistically significant differences, in their empathy toward obese persons, in a reduction in the negative stereotypes of obese persons, and in their kind of interest and willingness and preparedness to care for obese patients.

That's an example of a kind of implicit bias and explicit bias that can be overcome.


On race and justice, we have these narrative medicine workshops routinely, two or three times a year, and they often have particular themes. And this was at a time in response to the early Black Lives Matter and the real horrendous police killings that were going on.
And so, we gathered faculty of our own and colleagues to really teach specifically to questions of white privilege and questions of 400 years.

Around sixty percent were white, forty percent of color, more men than women, and in these small groups, again because of some of the methods we've developed, they were able to, in what felt safe, examine and expose their own histories of privilege if they were white, and experiences of racism, if they were not.

We have an extra commitment, there's a commitment to teach narrative medicine to help clinicians become more effective with patients, but we feel now that we have an additional commitment which is to use these methods toward specific goals in equity.


These are dark times, and it's really, really hard to not be cynical and crushed. My medical students and I discovered, and it was through, of all things, reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest together, all thousand pages of it. We realized that the problem in medicine is not a lack of empathy, that the problem in medicine is an excess of irony, and that sense of ironic cynical detachment leads to superiority, and it leads to hopelessness, and so a wild hope is that we somehow become more earnest. That we become less snarky and cynical and bordering on nihilistic, that we become less indifferent.

The imperative parts of narrative medicine are: humility, knowing what you don't know and attention, being able to open the doors of your sight, hearing and interpretation, climate and mood and literally absorb all that is being emitted by a teller. And then some sense of form… I don't want to say beauty because that's not what I mean, like in you know a perfect short story, or in a bars of color painting by Rothko, or in a partita by Bach; I want you to know what I mean by form. I think we teach people how to appreciate that in what persons tell us.

Related Links
Twitter: @RitaCharon
Shawnda Chapman is the Director of the Girls Fund Initiative at the Ms. Foundation. Prior to joining the organization, Shawnda worked as a lead program specialist on a national initiative to prevent and end girls’ incarceration at the Vera Institute of Justice. She also served as Director of the Beyond the Bars Fellowship program at the Center for Justice at Columbia University. Partially based on her own experiences, her work has focused on racial justice, gender justice, and understanding the ways girls of color get pushed into the criminal justice system. With a particular focus on marginalized and vulnerable populations, Shawnda has broad experience developing and implementing research, monitoring and evaluation materials, both domestically and internationally.

Shawnda sits on the Black Women’s Blueprint board, a transnational organization that works to end all forms of violence against Black women and girls. She also serves on the advisory board of Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Education Movement, which works to increase refugee access to tertiary education. Shawnda earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Master of Science degree in Applied Social Research from The City University of New York, Hunter College.

"The one thing that I will say is I've been the beneficiary of really tremendous mentorship and care. And a lot of that care has come from Black women. People have really held me. People have been able to see me beyond what my imperfections were, beyond whatever circumstances that I was having at the moment, and really did believe in my potential."
Shawnda Chapman

My name is Shawnda Chapman. I am a researcher, I am an activist, I'm an advocate, and I am someone who has gone through the juvenile justice system herself.

I co-direct the Beyond the Bars Fellowship at the Center for Justice at Columbia University. In addition to the fellowship, we really build this kind of intentional learning community of activists, practitioners, and people who have direct experience with the justice system in an effort to build a diverse community of activists and advocates, and people who do work in the Academy with the goal of ending mass incarceration.

My work specifically focuses on girls, oftentimes Black girls in particular, just because that's a part of who I am. That was really my story and I felt like I had something really particular to offer, you know, around perspectives.

I also thought it was important for girls, girls who've had that experience, to be able to see something in the distance, so even if now their lives are complicated, to know that there are endless possibilities available for their lives. One thing that the experience of incarceration does for girls is it really does sort of limit your dreams, and it starts to constrain what you believe the possibilities for life are, so part of it is actually just being visible around what my personal experiences are. Other than that I do lots of work research-wise around Black girls and Black girls’ issues. Most recently, I was at the Vera Institute for Justice, where I was working on an initiative to end the incarceration of girls completely.


In that work, what we did was sort of pull together (in New York City specifically) a really diverse range of people who had contact with child-serving systems and with girls in particular. That included government stakeholders, people who themselves were researchers, basically people who had the ability and sort of capacity to impact the juvenile justice system.

There’s a multi-year initiative that began about two years ago under the leadership of Lindsay Rosenthal at the Vera Institute of Justice and the initiative brings together government stakeholders, community partners, and girls who've been impacted by the juvenile justice system, all toward the goal of understanding the drivers of incarceration in the particular cities. The initiative started in New York City but it's expanded to about five cities in the country, for right now; it brings together those people to examine the drivers that get girls into the system and to develop a plan to stop them, ultimately ending up with no girls in the system.


I'd known, you know, in my heart that I have the experience of incarceration and, for many, many years, it was sort of a liability for me; it was a source of shame. It was the kind of thing that I knew that if I wanted to get ahead, and have people not judge me, that I really had to kind of be in a closet about it you know, to be frank.

So I would do work, and I'd be at the table, I'd be doing research and policy work—often around criminal justice—and I just felt like a fraud, because there were so many times that I could contribute to a conversation but I didn't. And it got to the point that I thought, there are no other voices in the room with the experience that I have that can actually say, "no, the way you're thinking about this is wrong" you know "the way that you're going about solutions is wrong because the questions you're asking are wrong." And so, I found my way to the Beyond the Bars Fellowship at the Center for Justice, and that's really where I developed a community and some language to start to think about my own experiences individually andf then collectively—like how those experiences that I was having, and other people were having, were really shaping our community. So I developed that language there, and some comfort, you know, with just sharing my story.


I would probably say the concept is intersectionality. Like if I were to think of a framework that guides, intersectionality is a sociological concept developed by Black feminists that really describes how multiple forms of oppression kind of work together to create really distinct and overlapping of exacerbated oppressions for some people. I think that the experience of incarceration is its own identity and so mapped onto race and gender. We know that girls of color or Black girls, in particular, are multiple times more likely to be impacted by the justice system and they’re multiple times more likely to be impacted by a lot of the factors that actually push girls into the system like, for one, sexual abuse. As a matter of fact, Black Women's Blueprint did a study a number of years ago that found that at least 60% (because we know this number is underreported), but at least 60% of Black girls will have experienced a coercive sexual contact before the age of 18. So that's six of every ten Black girls that are sitting in your church, are sitting in your school, or sitting in your group, six out of ten of them have had some sort of sexual violence done upon them, and we know that sexual violence then drives girls into the system.

You know, just understanding the ways that race and gender and these different things overlap; how certain girls bear the brunt of that more than others, I think it's just really, really important. The incarceration work is important and the gender work it's really critical.


On a personal level, I don't think people understand how hard it is to actually sit with girls who are experiencing the things that they are experiencing and not have an immediate solution.

I think the other thing is really sitting with the fullness of the fact that it isn't just one thing. It isn't just the juvenile justice system. It's school, it's a child welfare system, it's conflict at home, and these are all things that, you know, girls themselves have so little control over, right? And just to be able to explain that it's gonna get better, you're gonna be in a place where you don't have to have your life controlled and dominated by these systems right, and have to wait to age out of them. It's hard… And it's hard for me, especially because I've had that experience. It took so long to know that even the work that you're doing is important. It may not help the girl who's going through it today, you know, as much as it helps some of the girls that will be going through these things in the future. So sometimes sitting down with them and just kind of sharing, ‘you think you did bad? oh no…’ ‘this is what it looked like for me but also this is what my life looks like now and, not only am I successful in the way that you think about what success means, I also am using tools to kind of dismantle that same pipeline, that same sort of oppressive condition that impacted my life, and you can do that too.’

One of the most insidious things about the experience of incarceration is that it just constrains your dreams. It constrains your dreams for yourself and what you think is possible for the world. And so, it's hard for them, you know, to have to see me in one place and to know that I came from here. It's really important. I think one of the best things I do with myself and with my time is really just to be visible around that experience for girls and to be an example for people who just need a North Star, a place to kind of look and to aim, it's probably the most important thing that I do.


The one thing that I will say is I've been the beneficiary of really tremendous mentorship and care and a lot of that care has come from Black women. People have really held me. People have been able to see me beyond what my imperfections were, beyond whatever circumstances that I was having at the moment, and really did believe in my potential. They've literally grabbed me in the places that I was lost and pushed me forward, like in the places where I wasn't even walking forward, they really did push me forward.

One particular thing that still touches me today, there was a moment, (I talk about this often and I wish I could find this lady) I was in juvenile detention and there was a counselor, she was a counselor at my school and, beyond bringing my assignments from school so that I didn't get behind in my schoolwork, this sister would bring me books. She would bring me books by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, books that were really above my age and probably my reading level at that moment, but she saw that I needed that thing and so she would bring me these books. It allowed me and it taught me how to, like in moments where things were terrible, to just kind of lose myself; to be able to see something different, a kind of imaginative, fanciful world I could go and I could be in there, and I could hide in there. While I was there, I was able to find Black feminism, Black literature and I don't know that I would have gotten that somewhere else. I didn't think reading was for me, I didn't find anything that resonated with me, so that thing, that little seed, really did sort of last my whole life.


I think as a young girl, I always had a voice. I was aware of it. I used it often but something happened, like I lost it along the way and I stopped really believing in myself. I know that you know the experience of sexual abuse, the experience of incarceration, and all the shame that happens as a result of that is something that really did sort of diminish my voice. But over the years, over the last few years in particular, just being in a really rich community of activists, a really rich community of people who care about girls, who care about Black girls, who care about naming the fact that this is a phenomenon that overwhelmingly affects Black girls. It's something that has really given me the courage to talk about these things and to talk about them from a place of power, right, to use those experiences, not as a liability but something that makes me, in fact, an expert. Other people who are seated at the table often don't have, cannot have, and will never understand in a real way, you know, what it means to have that experience.


That's a hard question and I have to explain it so much that it infuriates me. I'm working and mediating on how to answer this question in a way that doesn't convey my ire about that question broadly. Mind you, I care about people, about human beings, so of course… the boys… but there really is something specific about the condition of girlhood, about the condition of womanhood and, back to that theory of intersectionality, that really creates a sort of oppressive condition unique to girls. Even thinking about girls in the juvenile justice system, there is something that happens that's specific to the phenomenon, this specific violence shows up in a very different way for girls than it does for boys. Understanding those things I think is supercritical. And when we ask the question, what about boys? It tells us that the girls don't deserve an understanding of the problem for their own sake. It really does tie their fate to the fate of boys every time we ask that question, and I often get that question from women (probably more than men) and so and in all spaces, there's sort of a, ’well, what are we doing about the men?’ sort of thing. I don't get that, you know… in male-dominated spaces or male-dominated conversations, I wish the men would ask ‘well what about the girls we're doing all this talking… what about the girls?’ So maybe stop asking, you know, what about the boys and start asking what about the girls?


In thinking about the obstacles to ending incarceration for girls, I think that the role of race and structural racism is probably the biggest barrier towards moving forward, in my personal opinion. It's difficult when you think about especially systems change work to really name the role of race because it implicates so many people, it implicates a system, but it also implicates system actors. So, you know it's difficult to move forward without knowing and without really naming the ways that our system is set up to disadvantage, not just girls but girls of color. It's difficult to talk around that problem, to actually try to develop solutions that will serve girls of color without actually naming that it's a problem and thinking about the ways that our bias against girls of color not just pushes them into the system, but sort of pushes them off a cliff once they actually get there.

I really do envision a world where we are not constrained by race, by gender, where people have enough to eat, where girls can go home and be safe in their homes where they can walk outside and not fear that somebody is going to try to assault them or abuse them.
A place where we can find solutions to problems in communities because I really do believe that the solutions that we need don't exist within systems, I think that systems are often inherently harmful, yeah. So, a place where you can go out and, literally, you can dream a dream…where girls are safe, just safe. There are so many problems girls go through because they aren't safe. It's difficult to get to the root of that, they're just not safe in their homes, not safe in their communities, not safe at school. So, just having a place where girls are safe, where kids are safe, where people can be their fullest and their whole selves.

Related Links
Twitter: @ShawndaChapmanB
While incarcerated, Topeka Sam witnessed the epidemic and disparity of incarcerated women of color. She felt the urgency to bring the women's voices to the public to change the criminal legal system. After her release in 2015 and in response to experiences in prison, Topeka created The Ladies of Hope Ministries (The LOHM), an organization focused on helping disenfranchised and marginalized women transition back into society through education, entrepreneurship, spiritual empowerment, and advocacy. With Vanee Sykes, Topeka developed the vision for Hope House NYC while incarcerated. Hope House NYC is a safe house for formerly incarcerated women located in Castle Hill, Bronx. Topeka is a “2015 Beyond the Bars Fellow” and a “2016 Justice in Education Scholar” at Columbia University. Topeka was named as one of eight people to the first cohort of Unlocked Futures, an accelerator for social innovators directly impacted by the criminal justice system. In December 2017, Topeka met with Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Lee, Sheila Jackson Lee, and other members of the Democratic Women's Working Group. She spoke about the realities of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Topeka is consulting with Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren on the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. Topeka, a founding member of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls ("National Council"), has spoken widely about the issues of incarceration, post-incarceration, and the carceral state. In her past role as National Organizer, she created and produced the "Real Women, Real Voices" symposia at eleven law schools nationwide.

"I touched five prisons throughout this country, started in a County Jail in Virginia and went on through federal prison. I saw all the injustices that women and girls face, most of whom were survivors of sexual violence and trauma, whom were abused physically, whom were substance misusers and were criminalized for their addictions."
Topeka Sam

My name is Topeka K. Sam, and I'm from New York, NY.

I am the executive director and founder of the Ladies of Hope Ministries. We focus on women and girls who've been impacted by the criminal legal system by providing access and opportunity through resources for education, entrepreneurship, spiritual empowerment, housing, and also teaching them how to be credible messengers through our Faces of Women in Prison project.


I came to this work from my incarceration.

I touched five prisons throughout this country, started in a County Jail in Virginia and went on through federal prison. I saw all the injustices that women and girls face, most of whom were survivors of sexual violence and trauma, whom were abused physically, whom were substance misusers and were criminalized for their addictions.

I knew that when I came home or actually when I was in prison, I was ‘of privilege.’ I had support; I had visits every week. I had jobs because of either my work experience prior to incarceration or my education. And I knew when I came home I could do anything that I wanted to because I had the same support systems there, but the majority of the women that I met would not. And so, it was placed on my spirit that I needed to start this organization; I dreamt it up and wrote the business plan all while I was incarcerated, and came home and hit the ground running in 2015.


We look at personal advocacy and start with fulfilling human rights and basic needs. So, we provide housing. We have a house in the Bronx called Hope House. It is our first. We are scaling to four different cities and in the Caribbean this year. We would like to have, as we dream big, a house in every single state around the country so that women and girls will always have a safe space to live.

We talk so much about the 2.2 million people who are incarcerated and forget about the 4.7 million people who are under surveillance through probation and parole. Unfortunately, people, women specifically and girls, go back into prison because of technical violations: because they just don't know that they can't work late without permission or the fact that they have to go pick up their children from the babysitter and they miss their curfew and they get violated, so we provide rights. We create grievance processes for both state and federal supervision and also help people with early terminations of sentences.

We've also created a program called the Faces of Women Imprisoned, where we teach women how to use their voice in order, not only to change policy and lend recommendations based on their expertise, but also to become public speakers where they can receive funding and salaries and build a whole career around using their message.

This, in addition to letting women know that 'no' is a complete sentence. Unfortunately, so often, our problem being women is that we are caregivers, we're maternal, we want to help, we're compassionate and, a lot of times, we live in fear, we're vulnerable, and we don't know how to say no.

And our last program is Pipelines for Equity, which is an entrepreneurship training and development program. We're giving women and girls job training, so they don't have to come in just with entry-level jobs, but they can build careers for themselves that they can be proud of.


The guiding principle of my work and my life is hope. Ladies of Hope Ministries is the name of the organization. Hope House is our core housing space. I feel that if you do not have hope, you have nothing. And when you have a glimmer of hope that can change the trajectory of anyone's life.


I've never had a problem with speaking out, and speaking up for myself. Typically, what I realized as I got older—and I was finding or trying to find a level of identity, self-love, or connectedness and belonging—that I wasn't speaking from my true authentic self. So, as I learned through just my journey of life, levels of maturity through incarceration, through all the great experiences: of being an entrepreneur, you know, traveling around the world, just understanding that when you're living in your best and true authentic self that is when you are truly whole.


I think it's important that people know that there are women, and girls, who are disproportionately criminalized and are entering into the system at a severely increased rate right now. The fact is that there has been an eight hundred percent increase in the incarceration of women and girls over the last decade. As we are decarcerating and bringing men out of prison, the numbers for women are still climbing and we need to ask ourselves why? You know, young girls are being criminalized, being kicked out of school, being treated and misused, thrown in the street, are victims of sex trafficking, of human trafficking, are going through tremendous hardships because their family members, their parents even, have been incarcerated. And so, I think that when we're looking at how do we continue to change these systems, we cannot forget about our women and girls.


My vision for the future is that there would be no woman or girl incarcerated anywhere in the world. I feel that there are alternatives to incarceration. There are ways to heal people and make them whole. What we really need is to reinvest money into community, specifically the most vulnerable communities and populations. We need to make sure that people have affordable housing so that they're not subjected to having to practice crimes that are really crimes of survival and are really not causing harm to others just merely needing to be able to eat. I feel like we need to make sure that we're protecting our children, that we're educating them on just needs and giving them opportunities to dream lives and worlds outside of what it is that they see. If all of us take on that responsibility as our own, our world can be a better place.

Related Links
IG: @TopekaKSam
Twitter: @TopekaKSam
FB: @TopekaKSam
Rev. Wendy Calderon-Payne is the executive director of BronxConnect, a New York City-based non-profit that helps at-risk teens. She graduated from Brown with a concentration in Latin American studies and went on to join Urban Youth Alliance International, a Bronx-based cross-denominational ministry which, with support from the National Faith-Based Initiative, later launched BronxConnect. BronxConnect pairs mentors from community churches with children and young adults between the ages of twelve and eighteen who have entered the juvenile or criminal-legal system, focusing on recidivism prevention. Reverend Wendy sees herself as a mother-bear figure for the young adults in the program and dedicates her life’s work to the transformation of individuals who have been beaten down by a cruel and unforgiving system.

"I'm a minister. The first thing God gave Adam and Eve was a job—to take care of the garden. A job affirms someone's humanity. It affirms someone's skill. It affirms someone's ability to provide for their child or for their mother or for themselves."
Rev. Wendy Calderon-Payne

My name is Reverend Wendy Calderon Payne, and I am the executive director of BronxConnect, which is an alternative justice program in the Bronx and Manhattan.

BronxConnect really began as a community's response to the epidemic of youth incarceration; to serve our community by taking young people who some had deemed incorrigible or unredeemable and show them that they could be redeemed with the proper support and community.

We had a lawyer call us from the Supreme Court and say, 'I have a judge who's willing to give a young person a youthful offender status if I can find the mentoring program, will you mentor them?’ And we said absolutely that's exactly who we want and that's how BronxConnect began—by serving our community.

BronxConnect began as a church mentoring program where judges would mandate young people to us and we would connect them to local community mentors. Since the very beginning in 1999, we always utilized mentors from the community with a past because we felt that those who had walked in the same footsteps as our young people, grown up in the same buildings, the same projects and dealt with the same traumas, were the best to show our young people that there was a way out and that there were better choices to be made.

We're all people of color, and we've all been affected by crime, violence, drug addiction—within ourselves or within our families±25% of our full-time staff are incarceration survivors, we've always said that the community knew what to do with the community best.


There were a lot of traumas in our young people's lives that needed to be addressed. There was educational neglect not so much by the parents but by a system that was not supplying the South Bronx with great educational services. We had physical trauma. We had the trauma of drugs in our community and of kids seeing their parents being incarcerated or addicted. So, we brought in a lot of mental health support, educational advocacy and, recently, about four years ago, we decided to significantly pursue employment and workforce development for our young people.

If you see our young people, they have so much potential but they really have been robbed by society of a solid education, of a community without trauma; they've been robbed of safety. What we're seeing in them is the result of the failure of society but I do believe that community can build itself up from within.

In our 20 years of existence, I would say 97% of the young people we interact with are boys or young men, and really they are boys in their heart. We do serve girls and in recent years we have seen an uptick in female arrests in our youngest populations.

I definitely know that a significant portion of our girls have been sexually assaulted, they've been trafficked, they've been brought into “the industry” as children, as 15-year-olds, that's not a choice.


My mom is my hero, and the older she gets, the more I realize she really struggled as a child and yet she never gave up. She really never gave up. From the age of 2 to 5, well, really her whole childhood, her recurring dream would be of eating because there was not enough food in the house. It's still hard for me to conceive that my mother was a maid at the age of seven and that she ate on the kitchen floor whatever scraps were given to her.
And this is in another country.

I am the daughter of two Colombian immigrants. My mom came here, they both came here legally but my mom was an orphan. She lost both her parents at the age of two to pneumonia. They were five girls, ages ten to two weeks, and her grandparents raised the four oldest for five more years, the youngest went to another family member, and then her grandparents died. [My mother] became a maid at the age of seven. At the age of sixteen, by happenstance, she was able to secure a nanny's visa to the United States. She was maybe 16 or 18…

All my life, I understood that not everyone has it easy and that we have a responsibility to help people out and to be kind because I tracked my mother's life and there were instances where people were kind to her and pointed her in the right direction, and gave her shelter and taught her things. So, whether it was the friend who helped her get a visa or the family she was a nanny for, the Pomerantzes, they were just kind people. They were Jewish. They were significantly not of her economic class but they treated her with such respect. And then she got married, she became a superintendent, while my father worked, I think, in a factory. She saved the rent—what she said was gonna be rent to buy a house. So, we bought a house in Sheepshead Bay, and that experience also taught me what it meant to feel discrimination because I was the outsider.

I went to Brown University, my brother went to Yale, my sister went to Baruch, my brother went to Williams. I was exposed to this dynamic education and I felt like I wanted to do something different so I came to the Bronx, and I joined a community-based Christian organization that focused on leadership development in Black and Hispanic young people, primarily in the church context. I think that the experience of going to this top-notch university prepared me for arguing for community-based and people-of-color-run agencies to city government.


I think it's Redemption. We believe everyone and even systems can be redeemed. We look forward to a time when there is no incarceration. We look forward to a time when there is no drug addiction. We look forward to a time when there is no trauma. We work towards it now, acknowledging that it's not here right now, but we do believe that everyone can be redeemed.


I think too many agencies villainize parents.I don't think that is respectful and I don't think it's productive. Many times, it's the love of a mother that will bring a child out of hell; that will be the beacon that makes a child want to change their life. Sometimes parents are abusive but I would say ninety-eight out of a hundred parents I've interacted with were just maybe overwhelmed themselves, desperate for help but not abusive. I think that a lot of agencies kind of exclude a parent like they're going to come in as Tarzan, you know they're going to come in and save the natives. We don't do that. We work with parents. And we affirm a parent, and we affirm that it's rough. It's rough doing this. It's rough getting your kid involved, getting the kid out of a gang. It's rough getting a kid out of addiction.

So that's one of my best practices.; the otheris employment. I'm a minister. The first thing God gave Adam and Eve was a job—to take care of the garden. A job affirms someone's humanity. It affirms someone's skill. It affirms someone's ability to provide for their child or for their mother or for themselves. I mean, I've had young people give up smoking weed partly because "I want to keep my job at Applebee's" but also because "I'm happy now, I'm happy I'm working, I've got a room, I'm independent, my child has diapers, I'm happy." So I mean we have to ask ourselves why are they smoking weed? Well probably because they're not happy with their lives or they're not busy with their lives, so we really focus a lot on employment. We also like to have fun with our young people. I always say if you would have given it to your teenager, let's give it to our teenagers, so we go out of our way to try to get them movie tickets and popcorn coupons and Metrocards, so they don't hop the turnstile going to the movie that we sent them on for the weekend. We always think that this has got to be better than incarceration, you know. Even if it's a lot of work, a lot of running around, a lot of midnight calls, this has got to be better for the child, for the family, for the little siblings that are watching, and for our community. And honestly, I think we please God!

A lot of what our inroads with our kids is because we become not their family because their family is very important, but we become like the aunties and the uncles. We become like the grandmothers who can speak a soft word and calm them down, who can give them good advice. So I've had staff members who are able to work with young people and get them back on their medication. I've had staff advocate to doctors: you know you have to reevaluate the medication if the child is saying that it is not working, you know. Our staff goes well beyond because we feel like this is our community, and if we don't rescue our community, who else will? Yeah, I'm not waiting for Superman.


When I have a young person who is melting down or really upset, I usually lower my voice, and I say, ‘hey dear, I want us to just breathe a little bit. I just want you to close your eyes and think of your grandma, think of your mom and a lot of people rooting for you to get through this phase in your life so that one decision will not ruin the rest of your life. I just want you to breathe, just breathe and take a minute to think about all the good things in your life and all the people who love you and believe that this will just be a blip in your youth, and it will not define you forever.’

Related Links
IG: @bronxconnect
Twitter: @BronxConnect
FB: @BronxConnect
Michelle Daniel Jones, ABD, is a fourth-year doctoral student in American Studies at New York University. Michelle's dissertation focuses on creative liberation strategies of incarcerated people. As an organizer, collaborator, and subject matter expert, she creates opportunities to speak truth to power and serves in the development and operation of task forces and initiatives to reduce harm and end mass incarceration. She has joined Second Chance Educational Alliance as a Senior Research Consultant, the Survivor's Justice Project, and serves on the boards of Worth Rises and Correctional Association of New York and advisory boards of the Jamii Sisterhood, The Education Trust, A Touch of Light, Urban Institute, and ITHAKA's Higher Ed in Prison Project.

She is board president of Constructing Our Future, a housing organization created by incarcerated women in Indiana. Michelle's fellowships include Beyond the Bars, Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University, Ford Foundation Bearing Witness with Art for Justice, SOZE Right of Return, Code for America, and Mural Arts Rendering Justice. Michelle is publishing with The New Press history of Indiana's carceral institutions for women with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated colleagues. As an artist, Michelle finds ways to funnel her research into theater, dance, and photography. Her co-authored play, "The Duchess of Stringtown," was produced in 2017 in Indianapolis and New York. Her artist installation about weaponized stigma, "Point of Triangulation," ran in New York 2019 and 2020 and, with new participants, 2020 to 2021 in Philadelphia with a public mural in October 2021.

"So, there are ways to deal with people who have done harm that don't encompass the intersectionality discrimination of race, sex, gender, and criminality. But in the United States, we don't practice that. Race is critical to the way in which we punish. And criminalization, long perpetual criminalization is key to how formerly incarcerated people remain in as Michelle Alexander said, ‘a perpetual outcast status.’"
Michelle Daniel Jones

I am a doctoral student at NYU and I am a changemaker.

In my studies in the American Studies program, I've had the opportunity to really study the carceral state and a lot of the texts that I have read obviously do not paint a glowing story. A lot of them do give you moments of resistance in which incarcerated people have organized, or families of incarcerated people have organized, you know, stories of jails and prisons closing, cases won, etc., etc. But I'm more interested in the internal processes that people go through emotionally, psychically, to handle the carceral regimes that impede their freedom.

For the formerly enslaved, of course, that was the Black Codes. The institution of Jim Crow laws and of course, just a flagrantly abusive criminal justice system that swept hundreds of thousands of Black people off the street who were freed so that they could labor in convict leasing camps. But they also had practices of Liberation.

What traditional history does is skip the moment of redemption in the history and jump all the way to the 1920s as if the Harlem Renaissance sprung from, I don't know... nothing. And I want to know about those people who were in the deepest transition from slavery to former enslaved status and how did they practice liberation? And I want to compare that to formerly incarcerated people today who are also under a carceral regime of collateral consequences of criminal convictions, right?

So, there are forty-eight thousand laws on the books across the country that bar or hinder access to opportunity for formerly incarcerated people, and each city has around a thousand or more. So how are formerly incarcerated people today achieving any kind of degree of freedom in this state of unfreedom? If they are have they had opportunity to learn from any of the lessons of the past?

I'm interested in those liberatory practices because that is not something investigated in our current carcel state literature. Of course, the American Studies field has a subfield called Critical Prison Studies but currently, there isn't any scholarship that encapsulates that.


What brought me to this work? First of all, I'm directly impacted. I was incarcerated in the state of Indiana for twenty years and some change. But truly, more than that, the cumulative effects of the carceral state on the quality of life for families, children of incarcerated parents, and those directly impacted themselves, simply can't go unexamined anymore. It's too prevalent, it touches too many lives, everyone is less than six degrees away from it, and some of us in multiple ways. It is something that must be examined. It's something that must be challenged, but if we don't understand how it's constructed, we won't dismantle it appropriately. We will tweak, we will tweeze, we will pick at it, we will try to call it by another name.

We are woefully damaged by the lack of our understanding of how these systems came to be. For example, people look at the development of Black Lives Matter and, in their current experience, they think it springs out of nothingness or just a current contemporary experience. But if you look back, if you look back the roots of Black Lives Matter, are as old as slavery itself. A lot of people who do not understand those origin stories, will always look at the present moment uninformed.


So, I'm a fellow from a group called Beyond The Bars, and one of the things that we did was an extensive study on race, criminalization, and the carceral state. We had to come up with one word that encapsulated what we wanted our work to be about. And [laugh] I struggled right, because I'm an abolitionist, so I wanted to dismantle, dismantle, dismantle but it didn't encapsulate the reimagining, because if you just destroy something, then what's in its place, right? So I came up with this phrase, I'm a 'trans-dismantalist.' I want to transform as I dismantle and that is… I want transformation for us while we dismantle and reimagine how we deal with people who harm people (and it's not a word)!


I have learned that the carceral state as we know it today cannot be thought-through, thought-about, or considered without understanding its intersectionality, right?

The carceral state is a place that punishes while it disciplines, but it punishes across race, sex, gender, and criminality. A lot of people look at the individual who's on TV, and they deal with the individual, and they talk about the individual, or they'll focus on an individual case, and they don't pull back and look at main structures that are operating in the system. Whether day or night, left or right, there are fundamental structures of race and criminalization that are fundamental in how we deal with people who have done harm.

So, there are ways to deal with people who have done harm that don't encompass the intersectionality discrimination of race, sex, gender, and criminality. But in the United States, we don't practice that. Race is critical to the way in which we punish. And criminalization, long perpetual criminalization is key to how formerly incarcerated people remain in as Michelle Alexander said, ‘a perpetual outcast status.’

The rhetoric, the axiom that 'you do the crime, you do the time' and that somehow your debt to society is paid as a result of that, is a prevailing myth. It's a myth. It is a complete myth. With 48,000 laws on the books that block or hinder access to opportunity for formerly incarcerated people, the legal arm of civil debt, and then the social consequences of criminal convictions, that social death. For example, the woman who couldn't get a dog from a rescue shelter because she had to check a box. That's social; it's not a law anywhere, but the social is the overarching umbrella that the legal is under. Most people will have an open conversation about the legal, but most people don't want to talk about the social because that gets where they live. That gets to how they enact discrimination at the grocery store, at the dog shelter, at the PTA meeting. I know people who couldn't coach their kids Little League because they had a criminal record 5, 10, 15 years ago. We cannot change the system until we acknowledge the ways in which we weaponize stigma, and how we weaponize social consequences of criminal convictions with one another. We won't get there.


Successes. First of all, there is a cadre of amazing women across the country who are organizing with one another taking the issues that have directly impacted formerly incarcerated women to the state legislatures. They are lobbying but I don't like the word lobbying, so we're calling it educating. We are forming partnerships and relationships on the ground with state legislators that would have been unheard of before. In the state of Indiana, we passed a bill, House bill 1432, which we're very proud of. What it does is it eliminates the mandatory termination of parental rights of men and women who have children in the system fifteen or twenty-two months. It is a Clinton-era throwback on tough-on-crime, punitive positions that got passed in the state of Indiana and it was devastating to families, women and men who were going to prison for short-term incarcerations, were permanently losing the custodial rights of their children. This bill stopped that.

So, things are happening really, really good things are happening, and we're starting to have more collaboration between academia, activists, and directly impacted people. Again these were conversations that weren't being had before. The academic had a tendency to go into the marginalized area, conduct their research, return to their hallowed offices at their universities, type up their wonderful publications and leave, and never return to that community in which they have extracted stories and information from.

That's starting to change. We're starting to put on the forefront that you cannot be extractive, and it be okay anymore. Participatory Action Research [the PAR] is also growing in prevalence where you're bringing the people who are the subject of your studies, into the research process so that they are collaborators with you, with the academic. And so, these kinds of things signal a shift, where we begin to epistemically privilege the experience of the directly impacted and their families.

It's a shift from the past, and of course, we're still dealing with places where we go where we still experience epistemic violence. In other words, we experience the lack of the right to be knowers and someone else dictates what a re-entry program should look like. Someone else dictates where you should be going for services. Someone else dictates what your life after prison should look like.

Those conversations, those realities we're still challenged with, but there's a growing wave of people who are waking up to the value of having directly impacted people and their families at the table, at the public policy table, at the community level table, and that's encouraging for me.


We have to acknowledge the role of the artists in this work as well. I'm an artist, I'm a playwright, and I have an amazing project, a photography project, that I'm working on and bringing all of that together through the lens of the arts. The beautiful thing about the arts is that we're able to approach the concept, approach the challenges from a particular lens that can illuminate the whole thing, the whole structure for others who may not want to sit down and read Golden Gulag or The New Jim Crow or they don't want to watch 13th, or see When They See Us, they don't want to do that. But maybe they'll go to an art exhibit where someone is challenging the stigma of the formerly incarcerated people.


The one that was a game-changer for me was Becoming Miss Burton by Susan Burton. Susan Burton is the founder of A New Way of Life in Los Angeles, and she has five transitional homes for women, but her story about how she came from sexual violence, through multiple levels of incarceration, to drug addiction, through the loss of her son, to the fragmentation of her family, the disintegration of her family, and somehow, got to a point was like ‘I am going to be the creator of my own solution’.

I was sitting in a cell. I had just signed a contract to go to New York University, and it suddenly was very real that a lot was expected of me, and that I had chosen to bet on myself in a big way. At that same moment, I'll never forget it, Kendra Hovey, who runs an amazing program in Ohio, was in Indianapolis at the facility and gave me that book. I realized after I read that book, that if she can come from all that she's come after, come from and been through; if she can come from all of that and then bet on herself and go out and create this amazing opportunity for other women, get what she needed to be stable and then go to do what she needed to do for other people, it was like, “Okay, Michelle, get over yourself, you've got this”. But I had that moment like, can I do it? And reading Susan Burton's book really told me that, “Your circumstances are dire, they are difficult, you've come through a lot, but look at Susan. Her circumstances were difficult and trying, and she's come through a lot, and look what she's doing.”

And then, of course, when I got out, I met other amazing women of color doing very similar things and amazing African American women scholars who didn't have the perfect, perfect, perfect background. And I was like, okay. It took me about a year but I've slowly gotten to the place where I feel like I belong here.

It's a game-changer. I've read other memoirs but what she does is she situates her story inside the structural issues in her city, state, country at the time, which is a critical appointment for a memoir. Because most people just tell their story, and they don't have the deep reflection of the structures that helped create the box that they walked in. You know there is a box, the structures of society in the neighborhood, in the home, in the marriage, it creates these layers that when crime happens, it's not causal, right? When crime happens, it's not causal. When it happens, it is a part of a rippling effect that gets all the way out to structure and frameworks. Her book helped me know that in a real-life scenario.


I was a very rambunctious, active child singing and dancing and moving and not sitting still, so I've always had presence and energy, and enthusiasm. When I realized that what I had to say mattered in a big way, I would say, I was inside, and I had formed a liturgical praise dance group in the facility called LIFTED. Suddenly, I had a lot of young people who were incarcerated in their 20s and who I was responsible for teaching a curriculum and teaching dance and being a mentor for, and I realized then that I had a voice. That I had a voice and also a responsibility. It helped direct how I moved about the facility and, as I developed other programs and moved on and, you know, LIFTED is still in existence right now in its 21st year. I'm proud of having created something that is serving a prison population, and I'm no longer there.

When I began researching and writing the first 15 years of the Indiana women's prison history, and we started writing up our findings and having the audacity to apply at conferences and videoconference into these academic conferences from the prison, I didn't falter because I had already established that I had a right to speak and be and I took that very authoritatively into the history project.

We are rewriting the history of women's carceral institutions in the state of Indiana. That includes homes like the Home for Friendless Women that was run by Quakers, the Magdalene Laundries that was run by Catholic nuns, the Madison Correctional Hospital, a facility that was a prison after being an insane asylum, and of course, the Indiana Women's Prison, which is my primary focus. It was the first separate public institution for women in the country and it opened in 1873.

The facility (now the Indiana Women's Prison) at that time was called The Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls and it was opened primarily to remove women from the co-ed men's facility in Jeffersonville. Those women were being raped. Guards would be charged $10 a month by the warden to have free rein with the women there. There were babies in that department that had been born as a result of being incarcerated and the goal was to remove those women, some of them charged with prostitution, to a separate facility. So that's why it was created, but one of the things that we found is that not a single woman was incarcerated for sex offense in the first quarter of a century. We were like, wait a minute, if this was created for women who were convicted of sex offenses, where were they? And that actually led to the uncovering of an old Indiana history about the Indiana Magdalene laundries that is not a part of our standard history texts. No Indiana historian has written about it so we were able to excavate that research, and now we have an entire section that just kind of deals with the findings that we have found as a result of doing this deep archival research. In addition to that, we learned that the president of the AMA, American Medical Association, Dr. Theophilus Parvin (who is related to the father of eugenics in the city, Amos Butler), examined, experimented, conducted surgeries—clitorectomies and ovariectomies—on women and girls who were incarcerated in this facility. That history was not a part of the traditional canon of Indiana history of carceral institutions so we have excavated the role of eugenics and medicalization in Indiana history for women.


The role of women's prison reform movements in the continuation of a crime and punishment regime in the reformatories in which they created was not an inevitable choice. It wasn't inevitable that they turned to solitary confinement. It wasn't inevitable that they locked women in closets. It wasn't inevitable that some of the Magdalena Laundries have cesspools of dead babies, it's not, and it wasn't inevitable. It was a choice. When women prison reformers had the opportunity to create a different way to deal with women who had committed harm in society, they could have reimagined something beyond replicating the toxicity of men's facilities across the country.

A lot of people would argue that it was inevitable but in my research, I found that it was a choice. It was a choice that set us back in terms of reimagining how people who do harm to each other can be redeemed in society. After they've done whatever time that's been allocated or after they've sought out another way, other ways, other than incarceration, to help someone. Our women prison reformers decided that a woman needed to be incarcerated to be helped. And that meant women, that meant kids, that meant teenagers, that meant us all. And as women, it set us further back to reimagine a society that has a different response, a totally different response, when people fall short.

And that's where we have to get today. We over incarcerate so that people who are actually truly mentally and emotionally broken can't even receive help in most facilities because there isn't any contractual money with the private corporations that provide services in prison to help them. There are simply too many people in the system.

So, the people who could be redeemed, if we focused on them, the people who are really, truly broken and are really, truly harming others from a place of true, true brokenness, if we can't ever, I feel really passionately that if we don't decarcerate, if we don't abolish, if we don't stop overusing prisons, we'll end up producing more brokenness that will continue the system as it is. And it will actually get more deteriorated and sick and cesspool-ish. I've simply watched the difference of one facility in a 20-year incarceration that did not have privatized services, and what it turned into once it did have them, and then what it turned into when it got crowded, and then what it turned into when it got overcrowded, and nothing fundamentally changed about who was incarcerated, how we incarcerate, why we incarcerate and that facility is a cesspool today.

Breaking that down, dismantling that, is going to require all of us to be a part of the conversation. And, you know, we get a choice here. We don't have to continue with things the way they've always been simply because that's the way things have always been.

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IG: @michelle__thetruth
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Shabnam Javdani, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. Her research aims to understand, prevent, and target health and mental health disparities for underserved youth and families, focusing on girls and women involved in the legal system. A central component of this work involves the design, implementation, and development of gender-responsive individual and systems advocacy for girls with attention to reducing racial and ethnic disparities that exist for girls, and particularly girls of color. Javdani completed her doctoral work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012 and completed an APA-approved clinical internship in the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago before coming to Steinhardt.

"So that language of 'incorrigible' that allows us to cast that wide net and bring an offense against a young girl, because we are concerned for her safety, and we want to protect her actually sets her up for potentially being in jail when she's 21 years old, even given no new criminal act in that whole period of time, since she was given that incorrigibility label to begin with"
Shabnam Javdani, Ph.D.

I'm Shabnam Javdani, and I'm a faculty member in New York University in the Department of Applied Psychology, and as part of that work, I work with and teach many students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and I also engage in Applied Research that hopes to address areas of persistent inequality in ways that have impact for policy and institutionalized changes.

I focus on areas that impact persistent inequality in the social world, and a big passion of mine has been to think about children who have been disenfranchised, including those that are involved in multiple systems, child welfare, juvenile justice, and so on.

And thinking about how we can use research as well as leveraging the power of universities and other key private and public institutions to shed light on some important social problems that children and families who have been disenfranchised face. And how we can use research as a tool in order to affect policy change and institutionalize changes in the lives of those children.


What is the ROSES program? ROSES stands for resilience, opportunity, safety, education, and strength. It was named by one of our participants after a poem by Tupac Shakur that talks about the rose that grew from concrete and how we need to think about the thorns of the rose in a very different way than we typically think about thorns, and how even something that seems like a weapon is actually potentially an innate, incredible strength of the rose as a flower.

I think what captures the overall values framework of ROSES very well is to think about how we can engage social justice advocacy in the lives of young women who are often an afterthought in the juvenile legal system. And how we can leverage the incredible science that we know to exist around the importance of relationships, and empathy, and compassion paired with very, very rigorous, very sort of hit-the-pavement kind of advocacy work that supports procuring needed resources for the young women involved in the juvenile legal system in a way that is guided by them and directed by them; that centers their self-determination.

And so, ROSES essentially takes those frameworks and supports young people, typically university students who are highly trained and supervised, to work one-on-one with young people involved in the juvenile legal system, using the self-determination and strength-based framework as a way to support them on their self-determined paths.


Most recently, its largest implementation has been in New York City, where we have received almost 500 referrals of girls to the program in the last three years and have provided thousands of hours of advocacy to those young people learning from their experiences but also evaluating how ROSES can support and benefit young people during a particular moment in their life when they might feel most vulnerable and when they might have particular goals that the legal system might not be best positioned to support them on.


I decided to pursue a degree in research in an area that could impact policy and practice, and that would support bringing visibility to areas that had not been visible in the past; to supporting social changes that maybe were not necessarily part of the dominant conversation. And I've always really enjoyed working with children and have thought that any research in applied psychology needs to center various identities and intersectionality, and in when we think about the identity of just sort of childhood and then we complicate that with what it means to be a girl and so we're thinking about girlhood, and then when we think about what it means to be a girl of color growing up in the United States, and add to that many different potential complexities and amazing beautiful identities, like immigration and language diversity, for instance, we see that a variety of different systems that are supposed to support families and kids who occupy those different identities—especially those intersectional identities—do a disservice to those kids and families.

And so, it was an easy decision to focus on young girls who are not being served well by the juvenile legal system because those are the girls occupying those multiple intersecting identities, who are not being served by systems, and who therefore I think have more constricted, more limited opportunities presented to them, and I would argue have their rights infringed upon for instance through exclusionary school discipline like suspension, and so on.

I see my role in this work as identifying the barriers that they unfairly face and thinking with them about creative ways to remove those barriers.


One of the things that I have learned through, paradoxically, not speaking and being somebody who probably listens more, especially during new situations and new circumstances, is that that kind of observation and not yet voicing allows me to identify what the opportunities are for expression. And allows me to identify who's listening and how does it matter that those folks are listening. And so, with that platform, there's an inherent understanding, I think the more experience I get about where and when and under what circumstances is voice powerful. And then you know the flip side of it: what do you need once voice is expressed? And I think that is where sometimes I get frustrated when young people are told to, you know, use their voice because they're very savvy consumers, and I think that if they are not using their voice, it's probably because they have an understanding that at best it doesn't matter, and at worst it may be a moment of exploitation of their voice.


I grew up for many years in my early childhood in Tehran, Iran, right after the Revolution and right after the Iran/Iraq war, and saw infringements upon the rights and the lives of women who were close to me, who were near and dear to me, and witnessed how in order to, you know slow down social progress, one of the most tried-and-true tactics of social control is to constrain the lives of women and to constrict the choices that women have.

And so that combined with understanding how complex, and chronic structural traumas come to exist in the lives of communities, and the lives of families who experience this kind of oppression, how those oppressions impact them and have ripple effects for them and their immediate and more distant family members for generations, led me to think also then about how those families and those women were able to find the cracks you know, so to speak, in all of those walls that were put up for them and to do amazing community building, phenomenal things that allowed them to continue to create lives.

That sort of left me with a feeling of incredible hope and incredible hopelessness given what the world can do to particular communities and people. And so, I think I have carried that lens in ways that I didn't quite understand early on over the course of my life, and that that has served as a guidepost or a touchstone to choosing where my time and my energy goes especially as I emigrated to the United States and realized that my choice itself was powerful.


I think immediately about my maternal grandmother, who we called Ma Jan. And she, for me, was a symbol of this kind of paradox of incredible hopefulness and incredible hopelessness because of the structural violence that she saw over the course of her life. And growing up as a young person in Iran, she took care of me for many of the years that I was there, and she was a person who, you know, had been married at the age of 13, had five children by the time she was 20, and sort of always knew that she was going to be in this life that was prescribed for her, but she also had a keen awareness that this life was prescribed for her. And that was an incredible thing to witness, and how she kind of raised me and co-raised me with my parents, because it allowed me to see what a critical consciousness, a critical reflection looked like, and how it shaped the way that she lived her life, the wisdoms that she shared. I could see it in how she supported me playing and making friends, allowing me to kind of understand that you can have at the same time compassion and empathy for how somebody else might feel while also standing up for yourself.

And I could see in the way that she approached her life that she engaged in these, you know, daily acts of resistance to those prescriptions that ultimately were very meaningful to her and that ultimately allowed her to raise children, some of whom decided to stay in Iran, some of whom including my mom decided to leave. And what I saw that she had essentially done in her approach was to privilege their choice. And that has been also a touchstone in my life, is to think about how to support people and myself, recognizing where choice exists, and in really thinking intentionally about how to choose.


I have learned that the day-to-day operations of systems, the mundane: how do we document a case? What are the hours that a court is open? What are the questions that a probation officer is required to ask you versus the questions that they are not? I've learned that the big changes in the practices of systems rely on understanding those mundane day-to-day aspects. Of course, the history of how those systems came to be and big innovative ideas about how to change them are incredibly important, but the real institutionalized changes in the system, I think, come from understanding what that system is positioned to do and what it is not on a day-to-day scale, and then making incremental shifts to how that system operates.

When I talk about systems, I am talking about the formal kind of sanctioned institutions of society, so you might think about the child welfare system or the juvenile justice system, within which are multiple subsystems, like the courts versus the system of probation versus the legal system specifically. But when I talk about systems, I am also talking about the less tangible, informal systems that still imbue different powers to different groups of people. So, I'm thinking about systems of oppression. I'm thinking about institutionalized racism across multiple formal and informal systems. I'm thinking about the way that patriarchy might manifest from a very young age in terms of the opportunities that are systematically provided to children or what behaviors kids are reinforced for. I'm thinking about the ways that those informal systems might subjugate particular groups of people over time in ways that have implications for how we might internalize those messages as individuals, but also in ways that clearly have implications for how those formal systems that are in buildings with walls do the work that they do.


I have also learned that when we think about the rights of women and girls, we have to think about how we are upholding the rights of boys and young men, and many people have made this argument, but I think that sometimes people imagine that the leniency with which we treat boys is what we aspire to for the treatment of girls. And I think that's a false assumption. I think that one of the greatest, you know, acts of violence that we can socially kind of engage in for women and girls is to, for instance, forget to teach our sons about consent. And forget to teach men that run amazing community-based organizations and that are at the decision-making table, and so on that what we know about women and girls is simply that they have feelings or that they like relationships. And we're doing them a disservice by not acknowledging the importance of relationships and feelings in the lives of men. And so, I think that the complexity there is to really stop thinking in this binary way about, you know, men and women, boys and girls. And instead thinking with a rights-based perspective for everyone. I think boys have a right to learn about consent. I think girls have a right to express anger, just as much as boys do, and so on.


I think that there is tremendous significance in the use of language and how it impacts young people today. We just finished coding some court petitions, for instance, around language and how it was used to allege particular offenses against young people identified by the courts as boys versus those identified as girls. And we see tremendous differences in how language is used to characterize their behavior, and it betrays the assumptions that we have about what you knowidentified girls are allowed to do socially and what they are not, and I think it betrays our social thresholds, no matter how much we think that we might have equal treatment. Or I hear a lot from young people in the courts for instance how we are more lenient towards girls because they're girls, and we're less threatened by them.

What some of the work that I've done around language actually shows is that there is tremendous social and actual violence being instigated against girls under the guise of protection. And that is betrayed by a bunch of the language that is used in formal and informal documents, whereas that is not happening for boys. And I think that is just the tip of the iceberg when we think about how language is used to betray how we subjectively hold kids who are just children, accountable to different standards based on if we're identifying them as more or less feminine, more or less masculine, and so on.

So, as a concrete example, we see that formal court allegations are being filed against girls for the single reason that an adult is concerned for that young woman's safety. And that might seem like a small thing, but the offender, in this case, is that young person, is that child, whose safety we are concerned about. And I think if we just step back and think about the Family Court and what it is currently positioned to do, it is not positioned to support the safety of that young person except insofar as it detains her or it places her in the confines of walls that then it has control over. This has many, many problems associated with it given the history of women and girls’ incarceration and the fact that we know that many injustices occur against the bodies of young girls when they're in those facilities. We don't see that same language for boys. In fact, in painting their offenses, we see that adults oftentimes are saying that boys' behavior rises to the level of a formal allegation of a crime or a status offense only in moments when boys are a threat to other people or other people's property. And so, I would argue that it is actually what the Family Court was probably better built to handle, given some of its accountability structures and rehabilitation of behavior that might harm others ultimately in one way or the other, as opposed to responding to a young person who is only unsafe because the world is less safe for her.


And the term “Incorrigible” is another very salient example of the way that we use—and have used—language as a way to punish girls and boys differently, I would argue. Even though it has a historical anchor, and we think of it as an outdated word, it is absolutely a word that is still used. And in fact, it is used more often for girls under circumstances when parents or adults are concerned about that girl's safety.

So here is a category that is a catch-all for girls in a way that it is not so for boys. It captures our ability, as a society, to charge a young girl with an offense when we think that she is either not where she is supposed to be (so we're not able to physically take account of her) or we don’t know where her body is when we need it (want it to be at home or at school at a particular moment in time); even if we know that there has been trauma involved in those contexts. And so, we use it exclusively under circumstances where we are saying that she is incorrigible because she is not where she is supposed to be, or she is incorrigible because, because of the fact that she is absent from those places where we can monitor her, she is not safe. With the implication being that she's not safe because the world is less safe for her, and it's under those circumstances that we see the word incorrigible being used for girls in a way that is not used for boys, in order to allege an actual offense against them. Ee know that that is a big deal because 15 percent of youth in New York State are detained right now because of status offenses alone. So that can bring a girl to be incarcerated just out of concern for her safety under the language of incorrigibility.

This is also very problematic because we know that that pathway, of getting that label of incorrigibility, which can result in a formal court petition, can result in non-compliance with the programs of a court that were created not for girls, but more so for boys even though they're not perfect for boys either. This then sets up a girl to fail those programs that were never intended for her to begin with, that can lead to more serious kinds of offenses, including a technical violation of a court order given the original incorrigibility offense. And that can lead on to more serious delinquency-based offenses, and we know that once that pathway is opened up for girls, that those young people have an incredibly high chance of matriculating into the criminal justice system. As young adults under 21 or 22 years old, chances are they will find themselves within the criminal court system.

So that language of incorrigible that allows us to cast that wide net and bring an offense against a young girl, because we are concerned for her safety and we want to protect her, actually sets her up for potentially being in jail when she's 21 years old, even given no new criminal act in that whole period of time, since she was given that incorrigibility label to begin with.


The best work that I have done, or have seen done has been with collaborators coming from multiple different backgrounds and experiences. And that work has been deliberately influenced by the lives or the voices of the young people who have experienced the problems that the work is ultimately trying to address.

Any vision that supports reducing the bureaucracies or increasing the opportunities for this kind of collaboration for innovative collaborations, for supporting work that creates leadership opportunities for young people, for women, for people in institutions that have power, I think that is a broad vision, part of a vision that I would really love to see realized in the future.


I think the thing I end up saying the most to the young people that I work with in one way or the other, not necessarily in using this word, but the message is stay. Stay intentional about the things you do. Stay with your own thoughts and feelings. They are not only worthy and valuable, but you can handle them. Stay in this world. So many young people think about hurting themselves in very real and very serious ways, so stay. ‘Stay with me’ oftentimes, I say instead of ‘trust me’ because that's a tall order, you know just stay with me here a little bit longer and if you feel like saying something more, say more. Stay with the things that you feel stubborn about. Stay with those. It’s okay to be stubborn about those things. Let them stay with you. If they are fleeting, they will flee. If they're not, they will stay, and they will be a part of you.

And I think I use that word a lot because many of these women, these young girls, they run, and that is a survival act, and I completely understand that and our ultimate goal is to support them being in a place that is safe physically, emotionally, and so on. And so once in that moment, right then, I think my message to them is stay that ‘you can handle you’ and that as long as you have your basic needs of safety met, which I know is not the case a lot of time, then ‘stay with your thoughts and stay with your feelings it's okay to have them, they're not wrong you are not wrong.’

The inherent message in that is ‘I'm not going to try to change you,’ and ‘I hope you're not going to try to change you yet either; at least not until you stayed long enough to know who you are and what you think and what you feel and then you can decide to change whatever you want to change or not.’

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Twitter: @DrJavdani

This series is made possible with support from The Made in NY Women’s Film, TV & Theatre Fund by the City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in association with The New York Foundation to the Arts.

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