American Girls with American Political Dreams: Are There Any Out There Today?

Rebecca Sive

How many will give serious second thought to whether life in the public domain is worth it; to whether a life in the very bull’s-eye is worth the price Gabby Giffords is now paying and Christina Green has already paid?

“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.”

                                      – Barack Obama, Tucson, Arizona
                                         January 12, 2011

Like Christina Green I was a young girl who wanted to be class president.

So, that Saturday afternoon when I heard the story of Christina Green’s tragic death, I cried. For, I could put myself in her shoes. I could imagine how she felt as she got ready Saturday morning to meet her Congresswoman, getting dressed to meet her dream come true. I’m thinking she was thinking that Saturday morning: I’m dressing to go to meet the person I will be, one day.

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Indeed, I’ve kept remembering ever since, while watching Christina Green’s funeral service and while hearing the reports about Congresswoman Giffords’ condition, what it felt like to be that starry-eyed young girl Christina Green was that Saturday morning: The one whose loving mother said yes; yes, you can do anything; yes, you could even be President one day.

I’ve remembered loving singing the Star Spangled Banner; attending the Fourth of July parade and saluting the flag; getting to meet my parents’ friends, public officials who, my parents told me, were engaged in the noblest of callings, public service.

In these jaded days and tragic times, it’s hard to believe such a time existed, but it did.

And, as it turns out; as we’ve now all learned, in the worst possible way, that time exists now, too. That time existed in the life of Christina Green, in that life now snuffed out.

Over the New Year’s holiday, I read a book about the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, the summer when a grown-up American girl–American woman Fannie Lou Hamer–voiced the political dreams of another generation of American women, of African-American women who just wanted to be some part of this democracy—in their case, just to be able to vote and state their case.

As I was finishing the book, I remembered attending the Democratic National Convention that summer, the very convention where Hamer and her colleagues fought so hard to be a part of a democracy that would be as good as they had imagined it, a democracy as good for African-Americans as it was for whites.

I had begged my parents to take me to the convention, for I had big political dreams. Political activists that they were, they agreed. I was thrilled. To this day, over 40 years later, I can remember sitting in the balcony, leaning over to watch the proceedings and hear the speeches. I can even remember what I wore that day: A navy blue suit I thought befitted an American girl who might someday speak from such a stage.

I’ve thought, over and over these few weeks: Christina Green was my kind of American girl; she had that same American dream.

And, so, she went, one sunny Saturday morning, to meet her Congresswoman.

In fact, American girls have dreamed Christina Green’s American dream for generations.

Just think about another Arizona American girl:  Justice O’Connor.

As the Justice sat there at the memorial service last week, I wondered what was going through her mind, as she listened to the President eulogize an Arizona girl of a different generation. I bet she thought some of what I thought; I was that girl, too.

Just think about Janet Napolitano, another Arizona American girl, also sitting there, just a couple seats away from Justice O’Connor. Janet Napolitano, young enough to be Justice O’Connor’s daughter, yet old enough to remember a girlhood two generations ago, when she first dreamed of public service.

Just think about First Lady Michelle Obama, also sitting there: Michelle Obama, a daughter of Fannie Lou Hamer in her fight to be a part of this democracy.

In fact, American girls dream the very same dreams American boys do.

It’s just that, for too many generations, those dreams have been denied to all but the most brilliant among us: Say, Justice O’Connor, Secretary Napolitano and Michelle Obama.

But, we still dare to dream.

And so we come to Christina Green’s generation of American girls: What will they take away from Christina Green’s death and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords? Will there now be fewer of them who dream Christina’s American dream?

That would be tragic, too. For, due to the trailblazing of American women like Justice O’Connor, Secretary Napolitano and Michelle Obama, today’s American girls, in Arizona, or Illinois, or Mississippi, or wherever can both dream (political) big and realize those dreams.

How many young girls will be told now, as Congresswoman Giffords tries to learn how to speak and walk again—look what happened to her and to Christina Green; that life is too dangerous; best to stay behind the scenes; best not to dream their dream.

And how many American girls, in the generation coming up behind right behind Gabby Giffords, girls like the student government president, Emily Fritze, who spoke so eloquently at the memorial service, will wonder today whether to choose a life of public service?

How many will give serious second thought to whether life in the public domain is worth it; to whether a life in the very bull’s-eye is worth the price Gabby Giffords is now paying and Christina Green has already paid?

In my growing-up days, American girls’ dreams of holding public office were, if largely unachievable, innocent. In Gabby Giffords’ growing-up days, these dreams had come into the realm of reality, as something both attainable and manageable. Today, in Christina’s and Emily’s day, this dream of a life of public service seems, instead, like a nightmare of a life at war.

Memorably, at that memorial service, President Obama said:  “[he]… want(s) us to live up to her (Christina’s) expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.”

The consensus is that the President was talking about his oft-expressed dream for an American democracy that is more civil, one in which, (as he put it last night):  “We are talking to each other in ways that heal, not that wound.”

But, this American girl takes another meaning from the President’s words:  That we all pledge to make our democracy good enough so that millions of American girls will choose it for themselves and for their life’s work—choose to wrest the good of it from the evil they saw in Tucson that Saturday.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

‘I’m Not Slow’: Black Girls Tell Their Experiences of School ‘Pushout’ in New Book

Cynthia Greenlee

If Dr. Monique W. Morris makes anything plain in this book, it's this: Black girls shouldn’t have to rely on their own resilience to stay in school.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

For Black girls, the very schools charged with educating them reinforce and reproduce a dangerous, though often invisible, form of racial and gendered inequality, explains Dr. Monique W. Morris in her new book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.

Among the young girls the reader meets in Pushout, there’s “Mia” (not her real name, as Morris used pseudonyms for all girls interviewed). Mia talked about how a “juvie” teacher assumed that when she asked for other tasks in class, that the girl didn’t complete her work. But Mia told Morris that she had raced through the assignment. Said Mia: “Then I’m like, ‘Can I write or draw?’ Something? I mean, it’s a whole hour to go.’ She was like, ‘No, you can’t do anything. You’re always getting done before the whole class. You know what, get out.’ …. I’m like, ‘Because I do my work, I’m actually trying to do my work now, and now you want me to get out? Hella shit.’”

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What Mia wanted was positive recognition. Instead, she got written up.

Though Morris did not coin the term, the word “pushout” is an intentional reframing of the word “dropout.” It acknowledges that young people leaving school do so for a variety of reasons, many not of their own making. Poverty demands they work. Predatory “boyfriends” induct underage girls into selling sex with promises of love, clothes, and cash. Chaotic schools can make a motivated student dread going to class. LGBTQ teens who don’t conform to gender norms get bullied by peers and labeled “distracting” by adults.

The reasons abound, but each year, millions of U.S. students face expulsion or suspension. According to research from the Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, seven million of the almost 50 million U.S. students faced in-school or out-of-school suspension in 2011-2012, the most recent year for which data is available. About 130,000 were expelled.

An education scholar and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, Morris focuses on implicit bias—a term from experimental psychology for the unconscious ideas that influence how we think and interact. Implicit bias can affect when police officers shoot, how managers making hiring decisions, and as Morris demonstrates with devastating clarity, when educators suspend students.

Teachers and administrators often bring racialized and gendered assumptions about what it means to be a “good” girl to the classroom, Morris explains in her book. Notions of appropriate girlhood—nonsexualized though heterosexual, compliant, and quiet—are often the opposite of historical stereotypes that have cast Black girls as sexually precocious, uncooperative, and disrespectful. If a person believes the idea that every Black girl is a Jezebel-in-training or hates school, it’s hard for them to see beyond that.

And, in many cases, affected girls understand this.

Largely absent throughout much of Pushout are Black girls’ parents or guardians. Morris departs from the long tradition of punditry and social science that churns out study after study about what’s “wrong” with this mythical, monolithic, and immutable Black family. It’s a refreshing absence that will make some readers ask about parental involvement. That’s a fair question—but an easy and familiar default that inevitably veers into talk about personal responsibility without taking structural inequality into account.

Interviewing almost 40 pushed-out girls in urban areas, including Mia, Morris uses their own words to assert that Black girls are worth study, attention, and equity in education.

“Shai” from Chicago noted different responses to her and white peers that she calls “little Suzie”: “When little Suzie gets the question wrong, it’s like, ‘Aww, you got the question wrong.’ It’s funny.” In contrast, when Shai made an error, “it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s slow.’ … I get so angry, number one, because I already told them I’m bad at math. Number two, because I’m not slow.”

Girls can be tossed from schools for fighting or so-called “status offenses”—actions such as skipping school that are punishable only for a certain class (in this case, minors).

But pushout occurs all too often when Black girls are labeled unruly. They talk too loud and too often, according to a teacher. Maybe a girl is wearing the “wrong” clothes to school (which might have to do as much with fashion, size, gender identity, or access to the right clothes as a desire to thumb a nose at authority). An authority figure says they have an “attitude.”

On any given day, girls of all races push boundaries on their way to adulthood. But white girls’ behaviors, interviewees said, are seen as temporary actions, not inevitable or part of their identities.

In high school, I too was guilty of these bogus offenses: cursing, wearing my older sisters’ too-grown-for-me clothes, occasionally sassing teachers. On the first day of my senior year of high school, my history teacher stopped me at the door and said, “I know you’re used to getting A’s. But that won’t happen in my class.” In the subsequent yearlong tug of war, I blatantly ignored his lectures—uninspired regurgitations of the textbook—by reading dusty classroom encyclopedias. He’d ask, “Why don’t you listen?” My response: “Why don’t you make it interesting?”

I was a “good kid”: straight A’s and well-rounded, with professional parents and from a neighborhood where more kids were college-bound than not. If I failed, my parents and other teachers at my 99 percent Black high school would cry foul. They expected me to succeed, just as my teacher—who sometimes mused aloud about his dreams to work at a high-performing school—expected me to struggle under his sad, uncreative teaching.

As Morris points out through this book, talking back, simply asking genuine questions, or expecting a teacher to teach can set a girl on a short path to school separation. She could face suspension, expulsion, being moved to an alternative school for troubled youth, house arrest, and even detention or incarceration in juvenile hall (and sometimes adult corrections facilities).

Department of Education statistics from 2011 show that Black girls are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended, even higher than the disparity between Black boys and their white counterparts.

Pushout can have long-term consequences. As Morris points out, many girls struggle to return to school, and others land in the juvenile justice system due to an incident that began in a place of learning. Today, Black girls make up the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.

Concerns about Black girls and school discipline have not risen as quickly as the statistics, though groups such as the African American Policy Forum and many Black women scholar-activists are persistently sounding the alarm. Otherwise, it’s a quiet crisis silenced by Akeelah and the Bee logic that Black families don’t value education and are continually falling down on their most important job: raising well-adjusted, healthy children. Or it’s muffled by a comfortable patriarchy that, whenever attention focuses on Black children in education, centers on Black boys like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

While Morris sounds the alarm that Black girls experience different racial and gender biases, she writes compellingly about the persistence of segregation after legal segregation supposedly ended. There are many segregations described in Pushout: the segregation of higher-performing students from those considered at risk in almost every school in the nation; the separation of “troubled” girls in juvenile facilities; and the concentration of Black and brown children in schools with few whites and few resources. Morris’ account raises the question of whether school demographics make a difference in this era of school resegregation. If teachers, administrators, and the broader society is disinterested in schools where students of color predominate, the picture doesn’t look much better for Black girls in majority-white schools.

I should note that Pushout largely focuses on urban girls in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco. What happens to girls in the rural South? Where there may be one high school in a county, alternative schools are rarely an option; if they are options, they may be in an adjacent county or farther, separating detained youth from their family and support network.

Despite this omission, Pushout pushes us to think about different kinds of personal, professional, and social responsibility. “Implicit bias” may sound like a more benign cousin to racism or “racism light” (and to be clear, implicit bias is not merely about race or gender, and it’s not confined to any one race or ethnicity).

If we accept that implicit bias lies at the root of pushout, how do we root out the bias at the levels of the self, the individual teacher, the school, and the educational and criminal justice systems? In a final addendum to the book, Morris points to two models: positive behavioral intervention systems (an approach that many educational institutions use to modify behavior and increase positive feedback) and restorative justice, which stresses communication and healing between the person who committed an offense and those affected. In the right circumstances, each approach can lead to change.

If Morris makes anything plain, it’s this: Black girls shouldn’t have to rely on their own resilience to stay in school. We need a sophisticated toolbox with multiple programs that doesn’t blame low-performing schools for their problems, that invests in Black girls specifically, and that takes aim at implicit bias.

But that’s easier said than done. We can spot the people wearing Klan hoods at Trump rallies, but implicit bias is a sneakier opponent that looks like and dresses like us.

Analysis Human Rights

‘Coming Out of the Shadows’ Can Make Undocumented Immigrants Feel Safer

Tina Vasquez

The month-long Coming Out of the Shadows effort in March seeks to make the presence of undocumented people felt wherever they live.

Like many asylum seekers who find themselves with no protections from exploitation, detainment, or deportation, Rebeca Alfaro, a 28-year-old mother of two young girls, felt instinctively she couldn’t discuss her undocumented status with anyone when she arrived in the United States. It was unsafe, she thought, and would likely put her in danger of being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“When I first got here, I was very frightened and I didn’t want to tell anyone about [my citizenship status],” Alfaro said. “I was frightened for myself, but I knew I had to earn a living to take care of my children who were still living in El Salvador. Now that my children are here, I’m frightened for them. I have decided to speak out because I want to find a solution that allows us to stay here together.”

Rather than silencing her, being “out” about her undocumented status has emboldened her to speak up and connect with other undocumented people where she lives in Boston.

Many migrants currently in the United States believe it’s best to keep their status as undocumented hidden—and for good reason. Fears around detainment and deportation are not unfounded: Every day there are stories about ICE showing up without warrants at immigrants’ homes, while they are on their way to school, or in their place of worship. But being “out” about your undocumented status and connecting with a larger community of undocumented people can actually make you feel safer, said Yessica Gonzalez, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC), an organization run by immigrant youth that fights for the rights of undocumented immigrants.

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“I think it’s also really instrumental to ‘come out of the shadows’ because for a really long time, there was a lot of people speaking on behalf of undocumented people. It’s really important to say, ‘Hey, I’m undocumented and I have my own agency to speak up,'” Gonzalez told Rewire.

Gonzalez’s organization is one of the many groups behind March’s Coming Out of the Shadows (COOTS) effort, which is designed to encourage undocumented immigrants who, like Alfaro, were afraid to make their status known. As IYC’s site says, it’s an effort to make the presence of undocumented people felt wherever they live.

Alfaro’s reasons for leaving El Salvador are the same as those of the many women and children fleeing what’s referred to as the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—a region experiencing extreme poverty and dramatic increases in gang-related violence.

El Salvador recently saw a 70 percent spike in violent deaths, and matters weren’t any better before Alfaro fled in 2009. It was actually the murder of her husband and her mother that led her to make the difficult decision to leave her daughters behind in order to build a life in the United States and send for them when she’d found some stability.

“There is generalized violence and gang violence everywhere in El Salvador, but my husband knew these [gangs] were bad people. He spoke out against them because he knew they were killing people in the neighborhood and he wanted to speak out because he wanted the killings to end,” Alfaro said. “He was targeted [by gangs] because he spoke up against them. The reason why I became targeted is because I spoke out against those who killed my husband and had them put in jail.”

Alfaro had heard all of the horror stories about what happens to women as they make the journey to the United States from Northern Triangle countries. After interviewing directors of migrant shelters, Fusion reported that 80 percent of Central American girls and women crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped along the way. Women like Alfaro anticipate rape, so they seek out contraceptives before making the journey.

“I knew what was facing me. I heard many stories. I heard stories about women being raped, stories about if you fell asleep [other migrants] would rape you, stories about women who became pregnant as a result of rape,” she told Rewire.

Alfaro was able to obtain a birth control injection before leaving, something she later learned was a very common practice.

“In clinics, they’re helping women get birth control and everybody knows that’s what they’re doing. You go and you say, ‘I’m going to be traveling,’ and they give you the injection,” Alfaro said. There have been reports of women getting Depo-Provera shots before migrating: A 2013 study from the Organization of American States reported that among migrants, Depo-Provera “is known as the ‘anti-Mexico’ shot.”

It is details such as these that Alfaro would have never dreamed of sharing seven years ago, but when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began prioritizing Central American asylum seekers for deportation in a series of ongoing raids criticized by advocates as unconstitutional, Alfaro feared that her daughters would be deported back to El Salvador where they faced probable death.

Alfaro now sees herself as an unlikely activist, publicly petitioning President Obama to provide temporary protected status (TPS) to those fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. According to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS), DHS “may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely” and “USCIS may grant TPS to eligible nationals of certain countries (or parts of countries) who are already in the United States.”

“I didn’t think about U.S. immigration policies [before coming]; I was only thinking about how I was going to save my life getting out of El Salvador,” Alfaro told Rewire.

The mother of two is now a member of Centro Presente, which Alfaro described as an immigrant rights organization created by migrants for migrants. Being open about her status, sharing the details of her story, and connecting to an undocumented organization has made Alfaro feel the safest she’s ever felt in the United States, despite still having no institutional protections. While she continues to fear being separated from her daughters, Alfaro told Rewire that she feels safer because of the support of Centro Presente and the other undocumented people with whom she has connected.

Organizer Tania Unzueta co-created COOTS in 2010. Initially a day-long event in Chicago, COOTS expanded into a month-long, nationwide campaign with “coming out” events in cities all over the country.

Jonathan Perez, also an organizer with IYC, asserted that coming out does make you safer.

“The fear is understandable because there are consequences, but it can be powerful,” he said. “Whether you say it or not, if you are undocumented, you’re going to get treated like an undocumented person anyway. ICE can come for you or your family whenever they want, but we can’t live in constant fear of those things. If you’re undocumented and you don’t tell anyone and something happens to you, you don’t have a support network. If you’re undocumented and you’ve come out and connected to a support network, there are people who can mobilize around you if something happens.”

Despite the obvious benefits of having a support system in place that could help halt your deportation by bringing attention to your case or creating a petition on your behalf, for example, Perez takes issue with the framing of COOTS as merely a matter of stopping deportations. For him, it’s about more than that.

“It’s just liberating to not have to hide this big part of yourself—and it extends beyond being undocumented. I think a lot of people have all of these other identities, that are parallel to the closet. I always knew I was undocumented and coming out of the shadows really took the edge off coming out publicly as queer. It felt similar and really it’s about not being ashamed of your identities,” he told Rewire.

Gonzalez also spoke about the mental health component associated with coming out.

“When you’re in the shadows and you’re afraid, it’s paralyzing. It stops you from doing many things, even from seeking support,” Gonzalez said. “There is an impact on your mental health. There are very specific things we [undocumented people] go through, like family separation, fear of law enforcement, societal pressures to be model minority, et cetera. Coming out doesn’t fix all of that, but it takes away some of the secrecy and fear around those things.”

The support COOTS participants have received has been surprising, even to those undocumented folks receiving the support. From full ride scholarships for college to job offers, Perez said that there can be consequences of unexpected kindness and encouragement to coming out.

“One of the biggest benefits is that people are willing to help by providing jobs,” Perez said. “Even in the nonprofit world, if we didn’t come out of the shadows, we would never be able to find steady employment. If we didn’t apply for these jobs and push for organizations to hire qualified undocumented people who have something to contribute, we would be in a very different place.”

For those afraid or unwilling to come out, there is no judgment, Perez said, only support. The organizer told Rewire that many become involved in COOTS events because they never imagined that they could wear an “undocumented and unafraid” t-shirt publicly, while others “have spent years nonchalantly saying ‘I ain’t got papers’ and are just grateful to finally have a community to connect with.”

“Being loud isn’t for everyone,” Perez said. “In their own ways, our parents come out every day based on what kind of jobs they have to work. If they’re day laborers, standing on the corner waiting for work, that’s coming out of the shadows. These kind of campaigns just get more attention, and Coming Out of the Shadows month really just draws on a long-standing tradition in many of our cultures, which is sharing stories. At the end of the day we do this because it’s fun and can be a powerful experience for a lot of people.”