Girls Recover Their Power


DYVAS pose for the cover of their new zine which launched last week
By guest blogger:  Valerie Kreutzer

          “Girls are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crimes,” says Jamila Taylor of the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.
          Networking from her office at Jackson and 23rd Ave., Taylor has found that 90 percent of the young women at risk are African American. “They shuffle between multiple households couch surfing. They need to earn money to support their families and care for their own expenses. The challenge is to explain to them that making a quick dollar on the street carries risk factors. We’ve got to get them to earn their money legally.”
          Whenever she can, Taylor refers her girls to Powerful Voices, a non-profit that helps middle and high school girls realize their potential, despite difficult circumstances.
          I became aware of the 17-year-old organization on Capitol Hill when my Unitarian church gave grants to Powerful Voices. And when I learned that the girls needed snacks, I began catering casseroles for the group’s afternoon meals. They invited me to stay for the check-in, and so I sat in a circle of 12 high school women in all shades of brown, listening to their highs and lows. One girl reported that her boyfriend had just gotten his driver’s license (I started to worry), another one said that she had handed in her long overdue paper (yeah!).
          And then I was excused because, under the guidance of a young counselor, the girls had to do serious work on who they are and where they’re coming from—these beautiful, spirited young women who’ve seen trouble or been involved in crimes.
          Twice a week for 12 weeks they gathered after school to study themes of oppression, culminating in workshops presented at Girlvolution, a youth-led local conference.
          I sat through a presentation on prostitution and learned that in Seattle between 300 and 500 underage girls work as prostitutes. They are as young as 12, enslaved by pimps who abuse them, threaten their lives, and barely feed them. The presenter, let’s call her Jasmin, knew her statistics, had quotes from the girls who had managed to break away, and showed a tape of two pimps discussing their trade while cursing their girls.
          “In my family,” Jasmin said, “prostitution has been a way for women to make money when they needed it. And when my brother all of a sudden had expensive jewelry, fancy clothes and cars, I realized that he was a pimp.
          “I’ve known about prostitution for as long as I can remember. My best friend in middle school would sometimes say, ‘I need money,’ and make me wait for her in front of a house. When she came out again, her hair all messed up, she had money. I lost touch with her. The last time I saw her she was into drugs.”
          Jasmin is a sophomore at an alternative high school and lives with her 80-year-old great-grandmother in the Central District. She has to take care of her own needs (“I keep my food in my room”). Earning money is a necessity. Luckily, Powerful Voices pays students a stipend, and when Jasmin expressed interest in writing, she joined another Powerful Voices program, DYVAS (Develop Your Voice And Speak).
          Jasmin and other DYVAS recently celebrated the end of their 12-week writing course at Washington Hall on 14th Ave. with readings from their home-grown booklet of art, poems, and essays. “Somehow smiling takes the pain away, at least for that very moment,” wrote 15-year-old Jasmin.
          “I come from heat and poverty where family is valued,” wrote another girl. “I come from a mother that had to be my father too; I’m from many statistics that people use to define my life and predict how far I make it….. But in the end you will have a story… you just read mine.”
          “I am a girl who has dreams in life,” wrote another DYVAS graduate. “I am a girl who sets goals for herself; I am a girl who strives to be successful…I am a girl who loves and believes in herself.”
          Jamila Taylor of the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative is full of praise for the Powerful Voices programs. “Wow, I just wrote this book, the girls can say. They can’t see their full potential until they live it. Too often they suffer alone.” With a passion born of her own experiences of abuse, Taylor adds: “I refuse to give up on our kids, they are ours! You never know where the next president or the next scientist will come from.”

(Valerie Kreutzer is a freelancer and author of A Girl Named Maria.)

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