The ARD spoke with Brianna Lawrence (she/her) on the importance of continually centering the perspectives, power, and thriving of urban girls of color. Growing up in the disinvested Roseland and West Pullman neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side, Lawrence says she didn’t expect to make it to 16 until she was mentored and supported by one of the organizations in the Coalition on Urban Girls (CUG). After getting a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, she now serves as the President of CUG, advocating for urban girls in Chicago and beyond.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
• Support the Coalition on Urban Girls.
• When discussing any political, economic, or social issue, ask: are the perspectives, interests, leadership, and inclusion of urban girls being centered?
Why do you work to support urban girls?
When I was younger, I thought my life didn’t matter. One day, I’d be talking to my friends on the phone, and the next day they were dead. On the other hand, while growing up in Roseland and West Pullman, we did not have access to essential resources. The air was so thick from the toxic waste dump; we literally couldn’t breathe. Our grass was brown, the community was saturated with abandoned buildings, and I’ve even witnessed young people traveling to school without coats during the winter months. Ultimately, the divestment in our community is not only cyclical, but it perpetuates racism, poverty, and the disease of hopelessness.
As a product of Demoiselle 2 Femme (French for Young Ladies to Women), the founding organization of the Coalition, I’m excited to lead CUG. If I were not exposed to D2F and women who invested in me, mentored me, and helped me write my college applications, I would not be doing the work I’m doing currently, and I likely wouldn’t be here today.
Could many other people from your neighborhood also have been successful at the University of Chicago if they had received similar support?
Absolutely. Absolutely. If they had even one person to stick with them. If Black and Brown people had more resources, exposure, and access to human capital and financial investments, our communities could thrive. But it’s like we’re X’ed out of the plan: a people that are to become extinct and not be included in what we call the “American Dream.”
Why is focusing on urban girls important?
We exist on a margin of a margin. Girl-serving organizations only receive 1.6% of charitable giving. Much less goes towards girls of color. And 90% of that focuses on reproductive health; organizations that aren’t reducing teen pregnancy likely won’t receive funding. Additionally, we often lump women and girls together. However, when combined, the women’s issues always trump those of girls.
Chicago has double the national average of female-led households. As proven by research, when we educate a girl, we educate her entire family and community. If we know this is true, then why aren’t we investing in the legacy of girls? That is precisely why my advocacy centers around bringing awareness to the issues impacting our girls.
Girls from Chicago have so much to offer to the world. For those of us who have come from spaces that are/were desolate, we’ve learned to be creative. The way in which we tell our story and the way in which we navigate and see the world differs in ways that benefit everyone. That is why my mission is to ensure that girls like me have the resources they need to thrive.
Why is getting support for urban girls so hard?
I’m in development. It’s predominantly white women asking white men for money. White men trust white women with their dollars. That same line of trust just does not ripple into Black women-led organizations. They don’t have access to those same resources, capital, or connections.
Adultification keeps everyone looking at and perceiving Black girls as women. (NBC News, Defender Network). And people in positions of leadership continue to silence their experiences, and they don’t offer them a seat at the table. A few years ago, I attended an all-male panel on violence in Chicago. Girls of color weren’t mentioned or considered at all.
Wherever there’s a space and people are talking about all the issues and all the -isms, we have to make certain that we’re always bringing girls into the conversation. Don’t be a bystander because our girls need you. They need their voices represented at tables they aren’t invited to.
Why is it important to include girls in conversations about violence and policing?
When we ignore the root causes of violence, we perpetuate violence in our communities. Girls are adultified, jailed, killed, sexually assaulted, [and] reported missing at alarming rates. And quite honestly, some of them are caught up in the life of doing “whatever” must be done to provide for themselves and their families.
People don’t trust or respect Black girls. When those Black girls become Black women, people still don’t trust or respect them (BuzzFeed News).
What would have to change for urban girls to thrive?
We’d need an equitable system for resources to be passed from one community to the next. Nothing is equitable here — health care (EFA), education (The Cut), employment (AAUW), incarceration (CNN), and more. Resources would have to be shared among everyone equally. There needs to be training for people to understand how harm is perpetuated in and between different communities through racism and sexism. We’d need to help people unpack their privilege and unlearn behavior and mindset that perpetuate racism, oppression, and exclusion. We need responsible and competent leadership with representation, and when those leaders aren’t living up to what they said they were going to do, they’ve got to get out: an overthrow of leaders not living up to the truths they promised the community.
My challenge and call to action for everyone is to invest in girls and those who are serving our girls. I promise your investment will be worthwhile.
• With urban communities decimated by disinvestment, many conversations ignore urban girls entirely.
• Girl-serving organizations, particularly those focusing on girls of color and issues beyond reproductive health, are severely under-resourced.
• Transformative change towards racial, gender, and economic justice is necessary for urban girls to flourish.