COVID and Beyond, Girls and Gender-Expansive Young Folx are Changing the World. Let’s Amplify Their Power.

Cis and trans girls, young women, and gender-expansive youth of color are undoubtedly leading the way to a safer and more just tomorrow. From teens organizing Black Lives Matter protests in their hometowns, to Anika Chebrolu, the 14-year-old scientist who won the 2020 Young Scientist Challenge “for a discovery that could potentially lead to a COVID-19 therapy.” These stories are growing as young folks like Marley Diaz, Naomi Wadler, Emma Gonzalez, and countless others lead progress and make history, as exhibited by the Smithsonian. It’s about time cis and trans girls, young women, and gender-expansive young folx of color were recognized and celebrated for their leadership—but if we are so moved by their activism that we fail to see the grim realities and systemic issues that fuel their work, then we are not doing our part to amplify their power.

This past year surfaced the tangled roots of our many systemic failures and forced us to look at how many of the problems we face as a country are not new—they’ve just intensified. We are still realizing the impact and long-term effects of COVID-19, the economic downturn, and the ongoing systemic racism, transphobia, and misogyny that continue to plague BIPOC Black, brown, and Indigenous communities in the U.S. However, we know our history all too well; it just repeated itself at the Capitol last week. We can’t wait for the worst-case scenarios to continue manifesting. That’s why we partnered with the National Collaborative of Young Women’s Initiatives (NYWI) to launch a series of regional In Solidarity Conversations. 

These 14 conversations took place from May to November 2020 in regions across the country with more than 400 youth facilitators and participants between the ages of 16-26. The goal was to focus on the leadership, wisdom, voices, and experiences of girls, young women, and gender-expansive youth of color as an opportunity for them to share how the pandemic, economic downturn, and ongoing social unrest were impacting them.

From the onset, it was clear that these crises uniquely and disproportionately impacted communities of color, and women, girls, and gender-expansive people in particular. 

Early on in the pandemic, as the world went into lockdown, advocates expressed concern about what quarantine meant for girls, young women, and gender-expansive young people who were now isolated with their abusers. According to a UN report, the pandemic has intensified domestic violence and increased demand for emergency shelter. Even before the pandemic, 1 in 4 women experienced Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in their lifetimes, compared to 1 in 7 men— and this disparity is compounded by factors like race, sexual orientation, disability, immigration status, economic status, and gender identity. 40% of Black women will experience IPV in their lifetime, and a survey of Black trans and non-binary individuals found that 56% of respondents had experienced domestic violence. 

Trauma and mental health distress are also at an all time high as young folks deal with social isolation, ever-changing regulations, social unrest, economic instability, and the repercussions of each of those things. Each of these situations can be traumatic in and of itself, but often these 

circumstances generate further trauma as young people witness or experience family violence, death or illness of loved ones, parental neglect, and/or the exacerbation of existing trauma. Long before COVID-19, girls’ suicide risk was increasing, LGBTQ youth were more than four times as likely to report attempting suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers, and Latinx LGBTQ youth were 30% more likely to report a suicide attempt in the last year, compared to non-Latinx LGBTQ youth. For many of them, school was one of the few safe spaces available

While juggling work and parenting has proven challenging for many parents dealing with working from home and managing their children’s online learning, this balancing act is even more acute for young, single mothers, many of whom are completing their own education. Although this year has presented new challenges, young mothers were dealing with food and housing insecurity and unaffordable daycare before COVID-19 amplified these issues.

At National Crittenton, we envision and are working towards a world where a young person’s gender identity and expression, race, sexual orientation, disability, economic status, and immigration status do not determine their safety and ability to live unapologetically liberated lives. We are currently working with a group of In Solidarity Research Fellows to analyze the data gathered from the In Solidarity Conversations through a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) process. The findings will be cross-walked with earlier research from Alliance for Girls’ When Girls Thrive initiative in California and the ROX Institute in Ohio, as well as the Girls at the Margin COVID-19 brief, and other parallel policy and advocacy efforts.

A final report will be released in the coming months synthesizing our participants’ experiences of increased feelings of fear and instances of racism; economic, food, education, and housing insecurity; isolation and disconnection; heartbreak and disappointment in the systems they felt were built to protect them; lack of financial support; difficulty adjusting to remote learning; and anger about the lack of attention paid to girls, women, and gender-expansive people of color who also experience oppression and police brutality. A summary of these preliminary themes was released in December, and can be found here.

Policymakers, funders, and the world must listen to the girls, young women, and gender-expansive young people of color who are leading change instead of simply patting them on the back for their efforts. As one In Solidarity Conversation participant said, “being alive is having power, but sometimes you just don’t have that microphone to amplify that power, but those small decisions you make and the little things you do in your life make a difference.” 
The question you must answer yourself is what will you do to amplify the power of girls, young women, and gender-expansive young people of color to ensure justice?