Doing It for Themselves

Brooklyn group brings leadership skills to young women

BY Eleanor J. Bader

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—While the social services system routinely ignores the problems facing at-risk young women in America’s cities, a group here provides a highly effective model for training and outreach to low-income girls and women.

“I left home at 15,” says Esther Danclair, executive director of Sister Outsider, a three-year-old leadership development and advocacy program for young women of color. It is as if Danclair, now 18 and college bound, is reflecting on someone else’s life.

“Things weren’t working out for me at home,” she recalls. “I was in the street, smoking weed, when a Sister Outsider worker found me. She said they was hiring, looking for women 14 to 22 to educate each other. I told them I didn’t know nothing, so how could I educate anyone else? But it sounded so different, I filled out an application. The director called me, and it was like she valued me. I got hired to do outreach and learned to give out survival kits—condoms, bleach, pads, lotion, toothbrushes—to youth in the streets.”

Eight days after beginning the job, Danclair turned 16. For nearly a year she did outreach three times a week to young women in East Flatbush and Brownsville, low-income neighborhoods populated by West Indian immigrants, African-Americans and Latinos. Her team—all under 21—distributed 200 kits a month and developed ongoing relationships within the community.

Simultaneously, Danclair and her co-workers got intensive training: on how to approach sex workers, the homeless and the addicted; the legal rights of the undocumented; HIV, STD and AIDS prevention; CPR and first aid; and fighting classism, homophobia, racism and sexism. She also learned administrative skills—how to speak in public, write a grant, chair a meeting. Her self-esteem and confidence soared.

Since becoming executive director in March 2002, Danclair has trained new outreach workers—the group employs five and pays them $12 an hour plus benefits—and has participated in the Justice for Youth Coalition, a program that advocates alternatives to incarceration. She has done outreach for, and overseen, Brown Bush Culture, a weekly social program for lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth. She has also orchestrated staff trainings and worked to educate others about the problems facing young women of color.

But the advocacy isn’t limited to the streets. Sister Outsider has also taken on the Flatbush and Brownsville school systems. “Many students aren’t learning,” says Rachel Pfeffer. “Last year we met a 16-year-old who was reading and doing math on a second- or third-grade level. At the hearing, the Board of Education had the audacity to tell us that because she’d never been a behavior problem, they had not placed her in special ed. We won more than $10,000 to get her tutoring.”

Pfeffer founded the San Francisco-based Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), the first organization run entirely by females who have been in the juvenile justice system or on the streets, and presently sits on Sister Outsider’s board.

Sister Outsider’s victories—employing young women and training them to be outreach workers and activists, and helping to educate the forgotten—have clearly enriched the lives of those the group has worked with. But what of the women who never hear of the program, or live outside its reach?

Although Danclair would love to see the group expand, she says she understands the value of helping one woman at a time. “We’re trying to raise money to employ three to five young women when they get out of jail. If these people don’t go back into the system, we’ve done something. That’s our goal.”

In addition, Pfeffer says, groups like Sister Outsider and CYWD continually document what happens to adolescents as they come of age. She and a team of CYWD-affiliated researchers created the Young Women’s Work Project in 1998 to study female employment. “Twenty-two percent of the 865 youth we questioned were completely responsible for their own support, and two-thirds worked and went to school at the same time,” Pfeffer says. “This was new knowledge: If you want young women to go to school, you need to pay them well so that they can work less and go to school more. We also found that young women don’t know their rights, how to file sexual harassment or discrimination complaints.”

Sister Outsider works to fill these gaps, providing information and decent-paying jobs to those just starting out. Key to their efforts, Pfeffer says, is a harm-reduction approach. “People who work with us may still use drugs or do sex work. We don’t ask as long as they do their jobs. We give them a legal paycheck, and whether they change their lives is up to them.”

For Danclair and her co-workers, it is a winning strategy. In 2001, the Fund for the City of New York, a city-funded philanthropy group, gave Sister Outsider its Union Square Award, which encourages grassroots organizing. And last year, nearly $190,000 was raised by corporate and foundation donors to support the group’s efforts. “Young women of color are almost never heard,” says Danclair. “Unemployment is high and youth in the juvenile justice system are set up to fail. Education has been raped in our communities. Sister Outsider faces challenges every day, and not everything goes perfect, but it’s still an amazing model.”

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Eleanor Bader is a teacher and freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail, RHRealityCheck.org, elevateddifference.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com and Truthout.

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