Girls Inc. helps teens thrive in challenging time

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 21, 2023
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Girls Inc. of Alameda County client, high school senior, Daisha, is graduating from the program this year and going on to attend UC Riverside to study journalism. Photo: Courtesy of Girls Inc. of Alameda County
Girls Inc. of Alameda County client, high school senior, Daisha, is graduating from the program this year and going on to attend UC Riverside to study journalism. Photo: Courtesy of Girls Inc. of Alameda County

Daisha was in a dark place when she found Girls Inc. of Alameda County four years ago.

The 17-year-old Black nonbinary bisexual person seriously considered suicide in middle school, they said. They moved in with their aunt and grandmother in Oakland when they were about 12 years old. Daisha's relationship with their aunt wasn't good, they said. Daisha only wanted to use their first name used to protect their privacy.

Somehow, they found the support they needed, which eventually led them to Girls Inc. in Alameda County.

Girls Inc. is a national organization with affiliates throughout the United States. Girls Inc. of Alameda County is the largest affiliate in the nation, according to Jeri Boomgaarden, chief development officer of the organization. The organization's mission is to empower girls to be "strong, smart, and bold," by teaching them skills and supporting them as they navigate the challenges they face in life. Girls Inc. of Alameda County is an $8.4 million chapter of the national organization, according to the organization's 2021 IRS Form 990.

Many of the teens the organization works with have "a lot of adult responsibilities in their home," they live in multigenerational households and are working supporting their families, Gabriela "Gabi" Reyes-Acosta, high school programs manager for Girls Inc. of Alameda County, told the Bay Area Reporter.

"They don't have a lot of privacy sometimes," said Reyes-Acosta, a 31-year-old bisexual nonbinary professional who uses she/they pronouns.

Leaders at Girls Inc. of Alameda teach participants about relationship violence, social media, social justice, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and how LGBTQ people are portrayed in the media, among other conversations about issues that are affecting them. Staff have also discussed the recent legislative assault on LGBTQ rights.

There are currently over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills facing legislative action across the country, with many focusing on trans youth like a recent law in Montana that blocks gender-affirming care. A similar law was recently signed in Oklahoma.

Girls Inc. also helps the youth participants prepare for college or other educational or work plans after high school and takes them on trips.

Earlier this year, Reyes-Acosta hosted a conversation about reproductive rights with the teens in the program and the connection to LGBTQ rights, especially transgender rights.

"We can't have this conversation without talking about a connecting issue, which is how our country and many states are trying to legislate trans people and queer people out of existence," said Reyes-Acosta.

The youth are using maps prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union to track assaults on reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights.

One girl blurted out in the classroom, "I don't want to live here," and put her head down on her desk, Reyes-Acosta recalled.

Being real about the situation for girls and nonbinary people, Girls Inc.'s team is working to fight dire statistics about girls and LGBTQ youth. Earlier this year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that girls are experiencing greater sadness and violence than they did a decade ago.

Girls feeling a sense of hopelessness increased from 36% to 57%, according to the report. Sexual violence against girls increased by 20%. LGBTQ youth faired worse, with nearly 1 in 3 (30%) seriously considering suicide, up nearly 60% from a decade ago, the report stated. A large number of queer youth (18%) experienced sexual violence, up 20% since 2017, when CDC started monitoring this measure.

"Truthfully, the report didn't shock me. It just made me sad," Reyes-Acosta said.

The numbers "reaffirmed why I do this work and why we do the work that we're doing at Girls Inc.," she continued.

"I also see the effect of counteracting these messages that our young people are receiving and being in a space where nearly all of our staff members are also BIPOC, also from the communities that we engage with, and our youth get to see themselves reflected in us," Reyes-Acosta said, referring to Black, Indigenous, and people of color. "I think that is so important for them.

"I mean, it's hard to be a teenager in any era. I think it's really hard to be a teenager right now and in so many different ways," she added.

Shaping lives

When the B.A.R. asked Daisha what their life would be like if they hadn't found Girls Inc., they responded, "I honestly just can't really imagine that because it's just such a crucial part of my life."

"I feel like Girls Inc. has shaped a lot of who I am, and it has helped me figure out what my values are and things along those lines," they said.

They now have the support systems and have matured through the years, "which has, like, kept me from, like, reaching that point again," they added, referring back to when they were considering suicide.

Coming from a mostly white school where most of the queer kids were white, it was a big deal for Daisha that the queer Black and Brown program leaders at Girls Inc. mirrored them, unlike the white queer kids and administrators and teachers at their school.

The Girls Inc. team were "the first queer people who were sort of mentor figures for me who weren't, like, just like people on the TV," Daisha said.

Girls Inc. helped Daisha "figure out" their identity, learn about healthy relationships, set boundaries, and envision their future, they said.

Daisha trusts the staff at Girls Inc. They might talk to some of their friends about issues, but "it depends on the people," they said.

Daisha explained that they talk to some of their friends about school and applying to college, but when it comes to talking about family issues and "stuff that is causing stress and unhappiness, I tend to not talk to my peers." They turn to the team at Girls Inc., they said.

One of the reasons Daisha doesn't turn to their friends to talk about their deeper personal issues is because their friends come from so many different backgrounds, making it challenging to find someone who relates to them.

"Everyone's home situation is different," they said. "When I talk to my peers, I'm generally looking for someone to relate to what I'm going through, and no one else is going through the exact same thing as I am."

That's not the case at Girls Inc. where Daisha is able to express themselves along with other girls and nonbinary youth in the programs.

Daisha's relationship with their aunt improved when they were 15 years old, they said.

"My aunt is a really big support person for me," they said.

Hopeful future

Today, Daisha, who lives in Oakland, just graduated from high school. They want to become a journalist and write about social justice issues. In the fall, they are heading to UC Riverside.

It also means that they will graduate along with 23 of their cohorts from Girls Inc.'s College Access Now program and go out into the world. College Access Now is a two-year college prep program where 100% of the youths graduate and go on to college. Out of Daisha's class, there are about four who identify as LGBTQ, said Reyes-Acosta. Boomgaarden wrote in a text message they anticipate the 2023-2024 cohort to be more than 25 youth.

Girls Inc. works with 1,400 youth — including transgender girls and nonbinary people — a year throughout multiple programs, starting with transitional kindergarten through the 12th grade, Boomgaarden said in a phone call May 24.

The Alameda County affiliate is in 14 Oakland Unified School District schools every day that school is in session and also has a downtown center.

The Alameda County affiliate follows the national organization's pledge to LGBTQ youth rights and its policy about transgender youth.

Every Girls Inc. graduate goes on to higher education at four-year colleges, community colleges, some other post-high school education, or into the workforce.

"Everyone goes on to college or university after they graduate," Reyes-Acosta said about the College Access Now program.

This article was first published on News is Out, of which the Bay Area Reporter is a member, and made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.

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