Working at the Intersections: How to be “Gender-Responsive” When Engaging Opportunity Youth

Monique W. Morris

On October 5, 2016, the OYIF Convening included a panel on Gender-Based Approaches to Working with Opportunity Youth. The panel was moderated by Allison Brown, Executive Director of the Communities for Just and Fair Schools Fund and included Micah Gilmer, Ph.D. of Frontline Solutions, Kimberlyn Leary, Ph.D. of Harvard University, Hèctor Sanchez-Flores of The National Compadres Network, and Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute.  This post reflects key insights from the panel, as well as from Dr. Morris’s broader experience working with opportunity youth.

Today’s youth identify along a spectrum of race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexuality, and ability. Under these circumstances, being “gender-responsive” requires mentors, service providers, educators, parents, community stakeholders, and others to respond to opportunity youth in ways that do not erase or undermine this rich diversity but rather engage with it in partnership with young people. This means more than simply developing approaches that are “geared toward” one form of gender expression or another. Indeed, today’s evolving concepts of identity challenge the adults who serve opportunity youth to work at the intersections of identity, particularly in our efforts to interrupt school-to-confinement pathways—the policies, practices, and prevailing consciousness that render young people vulnerable to contact with the juvenile and criminal legal systems.

For Black girls and other girls of color in this arena, gender-responsive approaches must recognize the ways in which their complex identities—whether racial, ethnic, or sexual—inform their relationships with individuals and institutions entrusted with their growth and wellbeing. Black girls who are most at risk of school pushout—the processes by which young people are turned away from school and/or actively discouraged from completing their education—are those with extensive victimization histories, those who have experienced traumas that then influence their relationships with others. Many Black girls, in particular, are also turned away from school as they experience harsher punishment than their peers or differential treatment by those supposedly tasked with supporting their healthy development. Often this happens as a result of deeply entrenched, racialized gender biases.

When educators, counselors, and other adults approach the wellbeing of young people with an intersectional mindset, a space can be opened for the youth, particularly girls, be at the center of the conversation. Perhaps most importantly, the information gathered from such an approach provides the voices of opportunity youth a meaningful seat at the table so that their experiences can guide the development of interventions, policy, and practice.

For example, the White House Council on Women and Girls partnered with a number of local and national organizations to center the voices of girls in listening sessions that addressed 1) school discipline, 2) the juvenile legal system/other public systems, 3) the expansion of opportunity in STEM fields, 4) unintentional teen pregnancy, and 5) the economy of opportunity itself.  These sessions revealed that girls across a spectrum of racial and ethnic identities feel that their experiences with multiple oppressions and systems are rendered invisible or obscured, further thwarting their access to much-needed services. EMERGE Academy, a pilot educational reentry program for girls in Alameda County who are returning to school after confinement, provides one of many roadmaps for the engagement of opportunity youth. Its work includes constructing learning spaces with the girls in the program—co-constructing as it were—such that their voices and expertise inform not only the enrichment and counseling services, but also the curriculum and program evaluation.

For opportunity youth who identify as boys, particularly boys of color, work at the intersections requires a deep interrogation of masculinity.  Frontline Solutions and The National  Compadres Network have been leading transformative discussions with young men in which they can freely examine their own understanding of what it means to be a man; how sexism and homophobia are connected in toxic expressions of masculinity; and how men can show up each day in ways that demonstrate a deep capacity for love, compassion, and healing. Like “gender-responsive” work with girls, participatory processes that respond to trauma and facilitate healing are a critical component to working with boys. Working with (male and female) adults attuned to identity and trauma, whose leadership in sports and other settings charts new models of masculinity that reject problematic depictions of violence, is also an important element of this work. This type of casual but structured engagement allows boys and girls to deeply explore and develop their own capacities as scholars and community leaders.

As all of us think and learn more about being “gender responsive,” it is essential that we do not further alienate youth who identify or express themselves along a gender continuum—those who are neither male nor female, exclusively or altogether.  For all youth, but particularly for youth who reject gender binaries or use gender pronouns different from those assigned at birth, it is important to establish environments that are as fluid and inclusive as their identities. Adults facilitating healing spaces for youth, in schools and in communities, must reject the false notion that the only legitimate “gender-responsive” approaches are those made up programs and interventions for girls and boys.  If we don’t, we risk developing policies and programs that reflect traditional norms that push our young ones further into the margins. Gender-responsive approaches that center young people, on their terms, are better equipped to dismantle all manners of oppression—individual, institutional, cultural, and internalized. The Black feminist scholar Audre Lorde challenged us to make this very shift: to reject a hierarchy of oppressions.  Let us all endeavor to structure programming that responds to young people at the intersection of their identities.

Ultimately, to be gender responsive means increasing our capacity to be literate in the multitude of cultures reflected among our youth. To be culturally competent is to be gender-responsive along a continuum; constantly fluid, open, and flexible. Our children are sacred beings, to our families and communities, who demonstrate the promise of life. Working at the intersections provides a safe space to develop systems, structures, and other interventions that actually engage—not just declare—young people as a revered and beloved element of our communities. When we demonstrate it, they believe it, because it will be true.

Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is the Co-Founder and President of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute (NBWJI) and the author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (The New Press, 2016).