The Girls I Know… Misconceptions about African American Teens and Young Women

Guest blog by Meridith Gould, Ph.D.

I have spent a lot of my adult life working with and for adolescent girls. I would have never thought when I was a young girl that I would commit my professional life to the empowerment of girls. My passion for working with and writing about girls grew after I spent my first year working as a professor at Spelman College. Spelman is a historically Black Women’s institution. I was always committed to working in inner-city communities and I love to work with under-served girls of color. But, it was after I took my Spelman students to a local boys and girls club to volunteer that I realized that there was a huge gap in the literature, resources and services for inner-city African American girls.

There are many misconceptions about African American girls and young women. Much of the literature and articles written focuses on myths and assumptions about their experience.  And usually the narrative is negative and portrays them as “welfare mom”, “drop out” etc.  It is true that some African American girls in poor communities are negatively impacted by violence and systemic poverty. However, the factors that affect their communities (drug & gang violence, systemic poverty and inadequate schools) is not something that they choose, but rather something they have to deal with. Additionally, challenges like teenage pregnancy and low graduation rates have also plagued many urban communities. But, the girls that I work with and admire have a far more profound experience and identity that is rarely praised and highlighted. I sometimes believe that it is easier for individuals to write about what is not working and to condemn poor girls of color as a way to put blame on them when in actuality it is society’s responsibility to transform the lives of these girls.

The girls I spend time with are resilient. They are profoundly smart and deeply spiritual and wise. African American girls in low-income communities are empowered and believe in themselves despite the fact that many other “groups” tell them they will not succeed. Their self-esteem far surpasses many of their peers from more affluent communities. Their sense of self is strong and their connection to their community is honorable. Yes, many would like to live in a safer community that will afford them more opportunities for success, but they value their connection to their culture and are proud of their racial identity.

They celebrate their body and have a healthy image of who they are. They believe they can succeed. They might not know how they will get out of their neighborhood or afford college but are hopeful they will earn the opportunity to do so. Their experience is multi-dimensional and layered. Like all women and girls, they have dreams and hopes and want the chance to achieve them. The intersection of race, glass and gender and historical forms of oppression has made it more challenging for many girls who live in under-served neighborhoods to carve out a new path.

It has been hugely important for me to advocate for all girls and share their voice. I believe that girls have the right to be valued for the content of their character, measurement of their integrity and their commitment to making a difference.  The girls that I work with are strong, smart and bold and have a resiliency and empowerment that makes me very proud.

Meridith Gould has more than 15 years of experience in training and educational consulting. She has a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.  She has served as a program director, educational consultant, trainer and educator for students in K-12. She is also a certified trainer of diversity, peer-mediation, youth violence, bullying prevention, dating abuse, and girl’s development. Dr. Gould’s “Empower Me: Adolescent Girls” curricula is implemented at many youth serving organizations and schools in the United States and Kenya.

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