Photo: Young Black girls embracing each other. (Taken from https://yeyeolade.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/black-rites-of-passage-for-young-black-girls-from-assatashakur-com/)

Native Washingtonian and community organizer Samantha Master knows firsthand the punitive nature of the D.C. metropolitan area’s school systems, especially when it comes to young Black women who break rules in a desperate attempt to escape life-threatening situations.

More than a decade ago, Master received a two-week suspension after administrators found a knife in her backpack. Then 13 years old, Master said she had to protect herself against an abusive boyfriend. Her story and pleas for leniency however, fell on deaf ears, jumpstarting a period of depression and disdain for school.

Though Master had the fortune of meeting an elder who helped her complete high school and enter college, she stressed that an untold number of young girls of color with similar experiences rarely escape the perils of a violent home life, particularly because school officials overlook their cries for help.

“It’s important that we understand that gender-based violence makes you fear for your safety in your community. As Black women, we have to speak our truth,” said Master, now 28, during the second of three town halls hosted by the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the evening of Aug. 3rd at Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Library in Northwest.

The event, themed “Leaving Girls Behind,” shared the moniker of a May ACLU report that criticized the D.C. Public Schools’ Empowering Males of Color (EMOC) initiative for ignoring the plight of Black and Brown schoolgirls. During the two-hour discussion, more than 20 Black and Latino women, many of whom represent advocacy, community, and legal organizations, watched a short film featuring Master and a bevy of Black girls who explained how their schools failed to address their mental and sexual trauma.

Shortly after, participants discussed what they considered the best means of connecting young women of color to resources that can aid them in safely navigating the school system and having a healthy coming of age. Topics included mentorship opportunities, methods of youth engagement, difficulties in empowering young women in the D.C. public school system, and how to force policy change.

“I’m always grateful to share my experiences but disheartened that they’re so common,” said Master, a member of Black Youth Project 100, an activist member organization comprised of millennials who want to secure justice and freedom for all Black people. “There are deep flaws in the Engaging Males of Color initiative and I’m interested in how divestment from it and investment in opportunities for young, Black people look,” said Master, a Capitol Heights, Maryland resident.

EMOC, the proposal in question, aims to improve the academic performance of boys of color through $5.5 million in funding for school-based and community engagement programs that focus on academic, social, and emotional support. Other plans in the works include the opening of an all-male high school housed within the former Ron Brown Middle School in Southeast and literacy-focused mentorship.

But some people say those moves won’t suffice if it leaves out Black and Brown girls. In its 39-page report, the ACLU concludes that DCPS cannot overlook the need to serve girls of color, citing persistent disparities between them and their white counterparts. Another criticism centered on the notion that single-sex schooling reinforces harmful stereotypes about young women. This document also determined that the D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, despite the prodding of local advocacy organizations and D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), hasn’t considered providing those resources for girls of color.

“We wanted to amplify the need for resources for girls of color. The Empowering Males of Color initiative didn’t address that. It was a missed opportunity; they did all this research about gaps between students of color and whites just to address a segment of that population,” said Kristina Jacobs, ACLU intern and key organizer of the town hall.

“We wanted to hear from our community members, specifically young women of color who’ve been enrolled in DCPS so that we can push an agenda that’s of the community. Our guests brought them full selves and showed how those experiences affected their identities,” Jacobs added.

Students who will attend the new all-male academy are in the midst of a two-week orientation taking place before the school’s Aug 22nd start date. Even so, the ACLU’s collection of data and crafting of a plan will continue, with some consideration of throwing support behind legislation that’s pending in the D.C. Council.

Though she didn’t matriculate through the D.C. public school system, Temi Bennett, a D.C.-based realtor, recounted barriers she encountered as a young woman at an African-centered school in Chicago. She said that though administrators meant well, they provided more enriching activities for the males while relegating the young women to classes that reinforced gender stereotypes. For her, those experiences highlighted institutional inequities at a young age.

“While we didn’t get into strategy, I enjoyed hearing these diverse stories. It’s a great first step and I’m excited to see what happens next,” Bennett said. “The main thing we pointed out was the need for outreach to Black and Brown girls. I think the participation here speaks to that. The main thing is mentoring. Our girls need mentors that look just like them.”

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