By Dr. Stephanie Y. Akoumany

These are excerpts from my 2018 dissertation "Reimagining Resilience: Exploring Black Early Adolescent Girls' Experiences, Desires, and Needs While Growing Up In Baltimore City" which highlights how black early adolescent girls utilize resilience strategies, particularly, self-assertion, storytelling, creativity, play, and community building to cope with daily stressors.

My doctoral work aimed to use research and mentoring to inform social change and cultivate a more comprehensive understanding of girls of color’s complex identities.

I served as the lead researcher and facilitator of a three year longitudinal ethnographic and participant action research study, conducted from 2010-2013, at a Baltimore City public school. Eighty-five, hour-long, weekly and biweekly workshops were conducted with 55 black middle school girls between the ages of 11-14 years old, who were in three different grade-based cohorts, until their respective eighth grade graduations. Dr. Sheri Parks directed my dissertation at the University of Maryland College Park.


How To Be An Ally For Black Girls

Scholars, teachers, and practitioners can help black girls thrive if they take time to learn about the resilience strategies that the girls are already using and new ones that they can use to combat daily stressors. When black girls use their agency and power in ways that are seen as too adult-like, they are especially marked as defiant and unruly and they are often policed. Black girls have to constantly make decisions about when and in what social contexts to use the aforementioned models of strength to avoid punishment, express themselves, and manage stress. These intense decision making processes require them to use a great amount of “emotional, spiritual, and intellectual energy” (Parks, 2013).

Making time for self-care and harnessing personal and academic resilience can be extremely difficult, especially while balancing challenging domestic responsibilities, stereotypical expectations, social and environmental stressors (Cahill et al., 2004; Guthrie et al., 2002). Nonetheless, poor and working class black girls’ early exposure to adult responsibilities, sexism, and racism does not signify a complete departure from fun “childhood” experiences. They still find time to play games, use their imaginations, and accomplish their dreams even if authority figures aim to police these modes of expression (Ladner, 1971; Brown, 2009; Chin, 2001; Sears, 2010). Focusing only on the challenges that black girls may face, dismisses the complexity of black girlhood and strips girls of their agency.

Black Girls' Resilience Strategies

Resilience is a dynamic process where individuals assess their risks, strengths, and resources, shift their mindsets, and take actions that help them thrive throughout their lifetimes (American Psychological Association, 2008). Resilience can be understood as the use of critical mindedness (harnessing self-awareness and courage to protect oneself from discrimination), active engagement (using agentive decision-making that supports one’s beliefs, desires, and goals), flexibility (the ability to adapt to cognitive, emotional, social, and physical situational demands), and communalism (the desire for independence while creating caring bonds with peers (Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003).

Contemporary research in the fields of human development and positive psychology show us that resilience can be cultivated by youth and adults alike. More scholars have emphasized the need to examine individuals’ resilience strategies in addition to their feelings and perceptions of their experiences and environments (Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003; APA, 2008).

All humans are resilient but it is important to understand the specific racial, economic, and cultural experiences of black adolescent girls who grow up in poor and working class urban communities as they transition into adulthood. This dissertation highlights the subtle distinctions among the terms “poor,” “working poor,” and “low-income” to highlight the complexities of poverty in the United States and important observations that I made while growing up and conducting this ethnographic and participant action research study in an economically disadvantaged community in Baltimore City, Maryland.

Baltimore’s poverty rate was 21.6% in 2013 (U.S. Census, 2017) and the city’s 2013 child poverty rate was 33.5%, which was 12% more than the national rate (Yelp, 2015). In 2013, the federal poverty threshold (FPT) was $23,624 for a family of four with two children. Individuals who earned less than this amount were considered poor. Individuals who earned less than two times the FPT, $47,248 for a family of four with two children, were considered low-income (Jiang, Ekono, Skinner, 2015).

Nationally families are officially classified as poor when their incomes are equal to approximately two times the federal poverty threshold (FPT) (Cauthen and Fass, 2008; Jiang, Ekono, and Skinner, 2015). It is also important to note that "poor” families may be working in formal labor forces or “underground economies,” but their income still does not allow them to meet their basic needs. Underground economies are also called “informal,” “parallel,” or “shadow “economies because individuals trade goods, services, and money without being monitored or taxed by the government (Schneider and Enste, 2002).

Health Equity for Black Girls in Baltimore

My dissertation asserts that listening to black early adolescent girls’ perceptions of their own resilience strategies, life experiences, desires, needs, and the quality of their interpersonal relationships can improve the ways that schools, local governments, and community stakeholders push for health equity in Baltimore City.

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (WHO, 2017). This definition can help us to specifically rethink limited narratives created about what poor and working class, urban, black early adolescent girls’ need to achieve and maintain health and wellbeing.

My dissertation is informed by my three year longitudinal ethnographic and participant action research study, conducted from 2010-2013, at a Baltimore City public school. Eighty-five, hour-long, weekly and biweekly workshops were conducted with 55 black middle school girls between the ages of 11-14 years old, who were in three different grade-based cohorts, until their respective eighth grade graduations.

The black early adolescent girls in this study shared that their major stressors were feeling misunderstood, increased domestic and academic responsibilities as they transitioned into adolescence, conflicts with peers and adults, cyberbullying on popular social media sites, race, gender, and class stigmatization and policing at school, lack of social supports, pressure to engage in sexual activities, physical and sexual violation, navigating structurally decaying neighborhoods, and community violence.

This interdisciplinary study explores relevant literature on adolescent development, relational aggression, adverse childhood experiences, emotional intelligence, neuroplasticity, and resilience in hopes of offering evidence backed suggestions for interventions that can help black early adolescents living in poor and working class schools and communities thrive. This study highlights the importance of understanding the ways that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can affect black early adolescent girls’ cognitive, social, emotional, and sexual development, but also how understanding evidence based resilience strategies can help families begin to heal (Burke Harris, 2014; Burke Harris, 2018; Hunter, Cohen, and Guerrero, 2010).

My dissertation argues that black early adolescent girls utilize resilience strategies, particularly, self-assertion, storytelling, creativity, play, and community building to cope with the aforementioned daily stressors and other traumatic life events. It also suggests that holistic wellness approaches such as mindfulness and play based therapy, socioemotional learning opportunities, restorative justice, facilitated intergroup dialogue, story exchange, participant action research, and comprehensive and medically accurate sexual education interventions that listen to black girls’ perceptions of their own experiences and needs can help schools promote health equity among black early adolescent girls in Baltimore City, the United States, and the world.

Holistic Wellness Approaches to Combat Trauma
One’s home address should not determine their access to life-saving information and resources. In November 2016, the Baltimore City Health Department created a Youth Holistic Wellness Strategy which emphasized the importance of fostering “Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies, Healthy Communities, and Healthy Systems” for youth ages 5-19 (BCHD, 2016 b). Baltimore City Public Schools do not require schools to provide socioemotional learning courses (BCPS, 2017) and although the state of Maryland requires that all of its schools offer comprehensive and medically accurate sexual education courses, a recent report revealed that less than 50 percent of schools are actually teaching comprehensive sexual education in Baltimore (Houppert, 2016).

The Baltimore City Health Department noted that their strategy's success will be measured through “high impact” outcomes, such as reduced teen births, reduced child fatalities, and reduced missed school days (BCHD, 2016 b). This study suggests that BCHD might be able to reach its long term goals by hiring ethnographers to facilitate longitudinal participant action research focus groups that follow urban black elementary school students from the highest performing and lowest performing schools in the city until they graduate from middle school and again from high school to learn the students’ perceptions of their resilience strategies, needs, desires, and the quality of their interpersonal relationships. This would provide practitioners with deeper insights into the experiences and needs of poor and working class students in specific Baltimore communities at a very young age. It may be beneficial to observe how students’ perceptions of their needs change as they age. This qualitative data might then be used to cultivate customized yet evidence-based interventions and mentoring programs that can improve health equity and socioemotional and sexual health education in the city.

Creating more in-school spaces where early adolescent girls can freely express themselves, ask questions, and gain resources that can potentially support not only their academic success but their physical safety, socio-emotional well being, mental, and sexual health. Black youth in Baltimore are often pathologized and criminalized in the media and in public discourse. More recently city agencies such as the Baltimore City Public School System and Health Department have taken more holistic approaches to helping black youth thrive after the nationally publicized murder of Freddie Gray.

In April 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black man, was arrested and died from a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. Many in Baltimore, the nation, and the world were outraged because the case appeared to be yet another instance where police were not punished for committing acts of violence against young black men and women. Recognizing the impact of structural racism, injustice, violence, and trauma especially in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death the Baltimore City Health Department in collaboration with Baltimore City Public Schools and other local nonprofits applied for and were awarded a five-year, $5 million grant by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Center for Mental Health Services for the Resiliency in Communities After Stress and Trauma (ReCAST) program (BCHD, 2016 a).

ReCAST's mission is to provide adults in schools and community centers with a trauma informed approach that can help students navigate their feelings and resolve conflicts calmly so that they can succeed. Unfortunately Gray’s death was not the first time that Baltimore youth were exposed to the violence. A 2014 Baltimore Sun series "Collateral Damage" described the results from Promise Heights, a program run by the University of Maryland School of Social Work in the Upton-Druid Heights community (McDaniels, 2014). My research suggests that programs that address the needs of girls and boys separately are an effective way for participants to feel comfortable sharing their experiences with less posturing. McDaniels (2014) notes that “nearly a third of children exposed to violence will develop PTSD.” The report revealed that 43% of students at Booker T. Washington Middle School for the Arts in Baltimore City said they witnessed physical violence at least once a week, 39% stated that they knew someone who had been killed at a young age, 40% said they knew someone who possessed a gun, and nearly 19% said they could easily get one (BCHD, 2016 a).

As we see with ACEs, constant exposure to violence and trauma affect children's mental health, but also their physical health. McDaniels (2014) reports that“as the children age, the impact of violence can translate into serious health problems, including hypertension and diabetes. Some early research shows that stress may even alter their DNA.” Literature in the field of neuroscience shows us that ACEs such as poverty, violence, and trauma often increase youth stress levels (Wade et al., 2014; Mendelson et al., 2010). If children are not taught to regulate their stress responses, their ability to do so will be greatly impaired as they are not born with executive function skills (Mendelson et al., 2010). The brain works tirelessly to ward off stress, but as a result of constant exposure “other key areas don't develop properly” (McDaniels, 2014).

Stressed children have been found to have smaller and sometimes inactive prefrontal cortexes, “the part of the brain responsible for executive functions such as attention span, planning and organizing, goal-setting and behavior control” (McDaniels, 2014). Even more, some brain scan studies reveal “stunted growth of the hippocampus, which may inhibit a child's ability to form new memories, learn or control emotions. The symptoms were worse for kids who experienced trauma more directly” (McDaniels, 2014).

This report suggested that there is a great need to understand the impact of violence and stress on our youth. Schools can benefit from understanding how the effects of stress on a child may manifest as anger and frustration. This knowledge can help administrators and teachers to implement restorative justice approaches to handle their outbursts. Practitioners can use evidence based, scientific approaches to find real and effective solutions to students' problems. The literature suggests that further punishing youth for behaviors that at the root are beyond their control only exacerbates the problems that they and their communities face.

This dissertation suggests that youth could benefit from proper medical, psychological, and social supports to cope with trauma and violence. Two girls in the study revealed that they witnessed the murders of their brother and cousin respectively. Many others noted that they witnessed their family members being beat up and being arrested. Some of the girls were even involved in fights themselves. One eighth grade girl admitted that one altercation she was involved in resulted in her being ordered to appear in a juvenile court.

In the fall of 2016, BCPS CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises stated that the city's push for implementing in-school trauma based interventions “doesn't mean third grade teachers have to become licensed clinicians," but instead that they will “increase the number of clinicians and mental health screenings for students and launch stress-reduction and mindfulness groups” (Green, 2016). Punitive measures implemented by public schools often do not promote mindfulness, executive function, or self regulation skills. Restorative justice, mindfulness, and meditation programs have been used as peaceful alternatives, across the nation and the world, to help students gain the lifelong tools they need to thrive, build relationships, and be resilient.

Restorative justice programs in schools focus on repairing relationships once someone has been offended or harmed instead of punishing them (Hopkins, 2003; Fronius et al., 2016). Many of these programs began in and have been more popular in Canada and the United Kingdom, but many schools in the United States are beginning to realize the positive effect of these peaceful measures on their students.

In Baltimore one of ReCast’s current partners, the Holistic Life Foundation, has already started a socioemotional learning program with Baltimore City Public Schools. They worked with researchers at John Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Adolescent Health in 2010 to investigate the effects of mindfulness and meditation practices on poor and working class black urban youth at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. The study demonstrated that mindfulness and meditation practices can help children, even as young as those in the 4th and 5th grades, cope with previous experiences with trauma, regulate their emotions, decrease stress, and even teach their families how to reduce stress as well (Holistic Life Foundation, 2017; Mendelson et al., 2010).

The Holistic Life Foundation’s intervention program began in 2001 and uses “yoga-based physical activity, breathing techniques, and guided mindfulness practices” to train youth to breath, center, and calm themselves (Dariotis, Mendelson, and Blanchard, 2011). In addition to the yoga in-school and after-school programs, the foundation also offers mentoring, tutoring, homework assistance, and environmental advocacy projects (Dariotis, Mendelson, and Blanchard, 2011).

Mindfulness for Teens

Mindfulness is a state of awareness that helps individuals be intentional about embracing present moments, situations, and emotions that they are experiencing, instead of ruminating about the past through brooding thoughts, self-criticism, and negative emotions (Hooker and Fodor, 2008; Im and Follette, 2016). The earlier discussed trauma-based counseling approaches such as PACE also use mindfulness as a strategy to promote more calming environments for students to build socioemotional intelligence and executive function skills. Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist tradition, through Eastern practices of meditation, but it is important to note that it is not meditation since mindfulness is to have an “increased awareness of the present moment, not to achieve a higher state of consciousness” (Hooker and Fodor, 2008; Dariotis, Mendelson, and Blanchard, 2011). Research suggests that mindfulness practices are especially important as they help youth to regulate their responses to stress, especially when they may experience it so regularly while living in poverty (Mendelson et al., 2010).

The Holistic Life Foundation’s community mentoring and health program is a model for participant action research and youth centered public health intervention. In an interview with Wisdom 2.0 co-founders of the program, Ali and Atman Smith note that getting to know their participants on a personal level was key to the effectiveness of the intervention. They asserted that above all their students wanted to feel loved, respected, and cared for (Wisdom 2.0, 2013). Even when they had a stable guardian in their lives they yearned for more social connections. When this bond was established students were receptive to learning new skills and opening up about their stories.

Although these programs are important, there are risks in approaching youth wellness from the lens of violence and trauma. Calling something a “trauma-based approach” can cloud youth program developers, facilitators, clinicians’ assumptions about the impact that interventions can make in the lives of youth. Asking youth what issues are most important to them and which topics they feel they need help navigating is foundational to conducting participant action. Including youth in the research and programming process is a powerful tool for ensuring that they are provided the service that they need.

Moving Beyond The Label of  "At Risk"

The label of “at-risk” carries the weight of associations with dysfunction, predisposition for criminality, and victimhood. Even though many youth experience violence and trauma, these aspects of their lives do not fully portray the complexity of all youth experiences in poor and working class communities in Baltimore. The girls’ stories show that black early adolescent girls from poor and low income homes experience love, support, fun, joy, fulfillment and success.

Black youth from poor and working class communities are often “managed” in schools. Socioemotional learning tools such as restorative justice activities can help students and teachers avoid traditional disciplinary strategies and provide students and teachers with skills to resolve any conflict. These opportunities help girls to build on the resilience strategies that they already have in and out of the classroom. This dissertation also examines the ways that the girls navigate peer, romantic, and sexual relationships and their perceptions of the quality of these relationships.

Their stories suggest that there is a great need for comprehensive and medically accurate socioemotional learning opportunities and sexual health resources in Baltimore City. Due to federal and state guidelines, schools often avoid and sometimes are prohibited from teaching students age appropriate material to help them productively engage in courageous conversations around identity, values, and romantic and sexual relationships.

The participants’ stories showed that too often young girls felt unequipped to deal with sexual coercion that emerged in and outside of their official romantic and sexual relationships. Even girls who constantly emphasized that they were taught to be “strong” and assertive in many of their social and familial circles struggled with making decisions that put their feelings of safety, wellbeing, and pleasure first sexually. The middle school girls in the study described several scenarios where boys tried to forcibly pressure and coerce them into having vaginal, oral, and anal sex.

Some girls noted that they wanted to delay intimacy, romance, or sexual relations because they felt that it would interrupt their educational and future economic success. The delay in providing comprehensive and medically accurate sexuality education paired with socioemotional learning opportunities to middle school students may not be consistent with their ability to: understand how their bodies, minds, and emotions function, critically analyze their own sexual values, desires, and boundaries, and develop a sense of sexual assertiveness. Providing youth with these opportunities has the potential to inform their engagements in sexual decision making processes and reduce their risk of contracting STIs, HIV, and AIDS, becoming pregnant, being coerced into sexual activities, and remaining in emotionally abusive relationships.

Black early adolescent girls can benefit from gaining the life skills and resilience strategies to enjoy positive and healthy romantic and sexual experiences and improving the resilience strategies that they already have. Many girls in the study had a hard time making these distinctions and decisions and often felt ashamed for even being in situations that demanded they make sexual decisions of which they were unsure. These learning opportunities can provide them with tools to critically analyze the intersections between friendship, empathy, intimacy, romance, love, and sexual arousal. They can also help them cultivate sexual assertiveness and sexual self-esteem that can help them understand the differences between pleasure, consent, sexual coercion, rape, and healthy ways to engage in intimate relationships with romantic and or sexual partners.

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