As 90 teenaged girls and femmes—youth who don’t identify as girls but consider themselves feminine—played jovially and listened intently throughout Casita Maria’s Teen Leadership Summit, they were constantly reminded that they are worthy of safety, respect, and success.
The Dec. 1 summit was a project of the 84-year-old charitable organization’s after-school program for teen girls and femmes of color, SmART Leaders. The SmART Leaders cohort spent the fall semester building their self-esteem, creative capacities, and social awareness, said Shakti Castro, who heads the program. They helped the staff design a day of workshops and music to share and celebrate the kind of work they do with their peers from across the city.
In one room of Casita Maria’s bright and modern educational campus on Simpson Street, hands jabbed and feet in colorful socks flew as girls learned self-defense from the trainers of Revolutionary Fitness, an organization founded to combat health disparities.
Short-winded, Aissatou Diaollo, 15, was thrilled to feel like she could protect herself. “I’ve seen people boxing, but I didn’t know how. I learned to always protect your face!” said the Kingsbridge International High School student and member of a newly formed club for girls there. A parent shared an email about the event with Diallo’s teacher, Ramata Cisse, who attended with the club. “I used to live a block away, and I didn’t know we had this kind of summit in our community,” said Cisse, 25.
Down the hall, Ariana’s Grande’s anthem for independent women “Thank U, Next,” played while students analyzed printed-out passages detailing abusive relationship scenarios. Together, they identified instances of emotional manipulation.
“I learned that you have to be confident to leave someone,” said Jesenia Visas, a 14-year-old student at the High School for Teaching and the Professions in Kingsbridge. “You have to value yourself.”
Haydee Morales, Casita’s executive director, said she envisioned the summit, now in its second year, as disruption to negative perception many young Bronxites have of their home and their capabilities—perceptions rooted in real disparities, said Morales.
The Summit and SmART Leaders are financially supported by The NYC Fund for Girls and Young Women of Color. According to a 2015 report by the New York Women’s Foundation, the Fund’s administrator, more than 40 percent of Black and Latina girls in New York City did not graduate high school in 2007, compared to roughly 20 percent of white girls. Teenage Latinas have the highest rates of suicide amongst their peers in New York. Nearly all of the thousands of girls that enter the foster care, the city’s juvenile justice system, or commercial sex trafficking are girls of color.
“We are divine,” opening keynote speaker Naoimy Guerrero told attendees. Guerrero is now an art curator in Miami whose research on contemporary Latinx artists in the U.S. has been shared by NPR and Teen Vogue, but referenced her experience as a Bronx-bred brown girl growing up in a tough environment to teach the attendees about the opportunities that await them.
“We are larger than the limitations of our physical bodies,” said Guerrero before sending the young women and femmes off to connect, laugh, and learn.