Editor’s Note: As journalists, we spend a lot of time talking with officials and community members and distilling it into stories that explore important issues of our time. But we realize that sometimes it is just more powerful to hear it straight from the source. This is one of those times.
I knew the purpose of the 3rd Annual Equity Summit, hosted by Gwen’s Girls and the Black Girls Equity Alliance, was a worthy one. It was most certainly an event I wanted to observe as a Masters of Social Work student at the University of Pittsburgh. What I didn’t foresee was how much hearing from the Black girls themselves would affect me and teach me.
I have been eager to focus my social work practice and research on the inequities that Black girls face. Thus, attending the summit was the perfect way for me to learn from community members, researchers, organizations, practitioners and service providers who were actively doing the work that I hope to be doing in the future.
Fifty young Black women were present, all from different high schools in the area. They were given the space and time to share their experiences in group sessions and workshops, where they had a chance to develop a Black Girls’ Equity Agenda on the different issues they face in their schools, homes and communities.
As an intern for Gwen’s Girls, I helped facilitate the workshop sessions and I got the chance to get to know some of the young women. As they discussed issues that ranged from sexual harassment to dress code violations, they spoke with passion, fervency and critical consciousness. As I and other facilitators remarked, we did not recall having this type of awareness growing up. It was always expected that you respected the order of how things were, and you did not question the situations or events that made you uncomfortable.
But the girls I met and heard speak at the summit are not prepared to stand by. They were ready to have their voices heard and they had the words to articulate clearly where efforts should be focused.
Given the space and the tools, youth can be active change agents in society. It is easy to disregard their voice, autonomy, and capabilities because of their age and the negative stereotypes that mark them, especially when it comes to Black female youth. But the best way to address their issues is to listen. They need to be active participants when it comes to program and policy development, as they know what they need best.
I learned a lot from the young Black women who attended the summit. Having the opportunity to listen to their words reminded me of what my job is as an advocate and a social worker. The professional power I have in this role is null and void if it is not used to encourage these girls to use their voices and to create the spaces for them to do so.
Florida A&M University psychology professor Huberta Jackson-Lowman called on us all to love Black girls unconditionally during her presentation at the summit. I think part of doing that is teaching them how to use the power that is associated with claiming their narratives. It also includes helping them build their capacity, so they can engage in their own change efforts.
The purpose of the summit came full circle for me when the information provided by the keynote speakers and breakout workshops complemented the voices of the girls themselves, further confirming why many of us are doing this sacred work. As we move forward, we must continue to create spaces in which the voices of Black girls are encouraged and supported. It was evidenced during the summit that they were more than capable of recognizing the inequities in their lives and figuring out the ways in which we as researchers, practitioners, community members, service providers and other stakeholders can help them address those problems.
Edoukou Aka-Ezoua is an intern with Gwen’s Girls and a Masters of Social Work student at the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at EDA31@pitt.edu.