One crisp November morning in 2012, a 14-year-old girl named Maia* grabbed her backpack and rushed out of the house to make the morning bell. She took her normal route to school but picked up her pace when a white van began following her. She ran, but couldn’t outpace the 10 teenage boys who grabbed her at gunpoint, forced her inside an abandoned house and repeatedly raped her.
Maia’s story, though tragic, is all too common in the North Lawndale section of Chicago where she lives—the same neighborhood that Ta-Nehisi Coates recently profiled in his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” as being “on the wrong end of every socioeconomic indicator.”
Currently, North Lawndale has a homicide rate triple that of the entire city and a poverty rate that’s double that of Chicago as a whole. In 2011 North Lawndale’s only rape crisis center quietly shut its doors despite the fact that the neighborhood’s rape rate is one of the highest in the state.
The struggles of working-class African-American girls like Maia—almost 60 percent of whom are victims of sexual assault according to an ongoing study by Black Women’s Blueprint—are too often ignored: by the local police officers who initially doubted her story; by her state lawmakers who have yet to make the recommendations of the Ensuring Student Success Act, to help survivors of domestic and sexual violence stay in school, mandatory in Illinois.
And now by the White House’s new My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a $200 million public and private partnership to help young people of color reach their full potential in the United States, and which focuses exclusively on boys and young men. In Chicago, the violence that affects all young people of color—guns, gangs and school suspensions—is frequently framed as one that only impacts boys of color. That those same—and additional—forms of violence affect girls of color rarely makes headlines or pushes funding.
When Maia’s local precinct turned her away, she went back to school and found refuge in A Long Walk Home’s Girl/Friends program, a North Lawndale-based leadership institute which I co-founded and that empowers African American and Latina teen girls to end violence.
In response, our Girl/Friends youth leaders walked her to and from school and sponsored sexual assault awareness trainings for administrators and teachers and male and female students at their school and our host site, North Lawndale College Prep Charter School. Our staff, made up of trained therapists and community organizers, provided individual counseling and family counseling for Maia, her mom and her brothers.
This is why I signed the letter “Why We Can’t Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in My Brother’s Keeper,” to urge President Barack Obama to expand his initiative to include both boys and girls of color. Our perspective is not that there is no value in gender-focused interventions; it is instead that it is wrong to use gender to justify the lack of concern for and attention to girls like Maia, even though she suffers in the same communities that Coates described and confronts similar racial disparities to her male peers.
I signed the letter because like many other signers, I haven’t been waiting for MBK to come along. As a recent Ms. Foundation report found, initiatives to prevent the violence experienced by girls of color are severely underfunded. It is precisely because organizations like A Long Walk Home have been doing the work with small staffs and scarce resources that we know what our communities need and how much in crisis our girls really are. I signed because I know exactly what happens when the life choices and chances of girls of color are left out of the policy and funding equation.
Even though Maia’s friends, teachers and eventually her local police officers believed her story, her assailants were never found and punished. She dropped out of school and became a teenage mother. That same year, another girl was also raped on the way to the school in the same neighborhood.
Sexual violence is a main risk factor for dropping out of school. Unfortunately, the average black girl who drops out will make $7,000 less than a high school graduate and will be more likely to need welfare than both her female and male peers. Additionally, young black women, ages 18-24, have the highest unemployment rate among women nationwide, and have a pregnancy rate twice that of white teens. Though Maia will undoubtedly try to protect her child, there’s also an increased risk that her child will also drop out of school as well, continuing the cycle.
In his recent article in The Root critiquing the letter’s signers, Walter M. Kimbrough said, “Let’s not write any more open letters, op-ed, or tweets.” Just do “the work.” But in fact, many of the letter's signers—including people like Angela Davis, Girls for Gender Equity founder Joanne Smith and Brotherhood/Sister Sol’s Associate Executive Director Cidra M. Sebastien—have been doing the work for years. This is why my sister, Scheherazade Tillet, and I in 2003 founded A Long Walk Home, which uses art to advocate an end to violence against girls and women. We focus on supporting youth and communities of color that are disproportionately the victims of racial inequality and gender violence.
I signed the letter because I believe that girls like Maia could benefit from the attention, alliances and investment that a massive initiative like My Brother’s Keeper entails.
I signed because I do not believe our community should have to make an impossible choice—between our daughters and sons—and tell the world, ourselves and our young people that one child matters more, deserves more attention and, therefore, should be saved. I signed because I want to make it harder for Maia to remain invisible.
*Maia’s real name has been left out of the article to protect her identity.
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Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.