Kristie Dotson knows what it's like to have to do her homework on the backs of cars because she doesn't have a home to go to after school's out. "I too have gone homeless," Dotson said of her youth in South Central Los Angeles. Today, she's a professor of philosophy at Michigan State University but, she said, voice shaking, "Even when you get out, there is no getting out."
On Tuesday night Dotson, who's African-American, and a dozen other girls and women of color testified about their experiences coming up in Los Angeles in poor, disenfranchised black and Latino neighborhoods. The event, organized by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and UCLA School of Law's Critical Race Studies Program, was the third of such hearings held around the country this year to lift up the experiences and struggles of girls of color. It's also a pointed response to My Brother's Keeper, President Obama's $200 million initiative to support boys of color.
"This hearing was necessitated by the silence around girls of color that we've seen in the discourse around the school-to-prison pipeline and more recently in the silence in My Brother's Keeper," said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University and UCLA and a host for the evening's proceedings. Too often, said Crenshaw, people settle for fallacies that suggest that girls and women of color suffer less than men of color do from racism. The truth, said Crenshaw, is that "girls experience some of the same things boys experience and some things boys never dream of."
Data on the experiences of youth typically acknowledge race and gender, but rarely capture where the forces overlap, said Priscilla Ocen, a professor of law at Loyola Law School, where the event was held. And yet, anecdotal evidence abounds. If the mainstream political discourse isn't interested in documenting the experiences of girls of color, these traveling hearings, which have so far been held in Atlanta and Chicago and are headed for New York City, will. Said UCLA law professor Jyoti Nanda, "We are here to document what we know to be true." The crowd of 200 stayed for more than three hours to hear the testimony.
The hearing spanned four areas: juvenile justice, foster care, commercial sexual exploitation of children and "gender-specific" experiences. Girls as young as 11 told their stories in each of these areas. Tanisha Denard, who's African-American, spoke of facing long nights while in solitary confinement when she was incarcerated in juvenile detention after getting arrested in school and picking up multiple truancy tickets. In solitary, a child could theoretically be safe from other kids, Denard said, "But you weren't safe from yourself." Without books or writing materials, "the nights were endless." Black girls made up 43 percent of all girls arrested for assault and battery by Los Angeles school police in 2013, said Ruth Cusick, an attorney at Public Counsel.
Jessica, who gave only her first name, spoke of being trafficked when she was 11. She fled abuse at home and fell into what she called "the life," with pimps who preyed on foster-care involved youth and other emotionally and financially vulnerable children for recruitment. "One of my buyers was a dean from my school," Jessica said. "He was in his 40s. I was 14 years old." She was trafficked across the nation, "from Florida to Arizona, Nevada and to K Street in Washington, D.C." Jessica was what's known as a "commercially sexually exploited child," or CSEC. California human trafficking task forces identified some 1,277 victims between 2011 and 2013, with 72 percent from the U.S. (PDF). Girls of color make up at least 80 percent of CSECs, said Allison Newcombe, a fellow at The Alliance for Children's Rights.
"We're learning that all these areas are risk areas for girls of color, and we're seeing that systems intersect," said Crenshaw. "The foster care system converges with the juvenile justice [system] which converges with student push-out which converges with trafficking."
Today, Dotson, the philosophy professor, has a solid career making "just enough so my family doesn't starve." "I put my family on my back," she told the room as she fought back tears. Dotson saves up for trips back to Los Angeles a couple times a year so she can, as she calls it, put out fires for her family. This latest trip home meant dealing with a rat infestation at her aunt's home. Her aunt refuses to move out, Dotson says, because she can't afford to give up her current rental rate. "She didn't tell me this, but she'd been living off of six-for-a-dollar Top ramen for the last month and sleeping on her laminate floor," Dotson told Colorlines later. Her aunt, who lived paycheck to paycheck her whole life, has very little for herself today. "[Black women] get to the point where they've raised all these kids on nothing, making ways out of no ways. And then when you're 60 years old you have no food. You have nothing."
What hurt Dotson, who was one of the last to speak in the evening, was hearing how little things have changed for girls growing up in her old neighborhood.
Dotson's family experience turns out to not be uncommon. Single black and Latino women have a median wealth of $100 and $102, respectively, while single black and Latino men have a median wealth of $7,900 and $9,730, respectively, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development (PDF). Dotson is confounded that My Brother's Keeper could ignore this reality.
"My Brother's Keeper doesn't want to talk about the fact that those boys of color coming off those mentor programs are going to come back to these same households supported by these women of color who are struggling," said Dotson. "Does anyone care?"