Young women get a new start
Two women sipping iced coffees stand outside a low-rise building in the South of Market District, going over last minute details. They are the directors of the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), who are anticipating the arrival of a new cohort of interns for their new Sisters Rising program: a 9-month paid internship as community organizers.
Recently, the CYWD received a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Local Funding Partnerships. It will be used to launch an education initiative component to the Sisters Rising program, which is meant to provide the young women with support in pursuing higher education.
On the first day of their internship, 10 interns, ranging from 16-21 years of age, can be seen participating in a scavenger hunt meant to familiarize them with the vicinities of the center. Laughter echoes throughout the halls as they discover the Technology Center, a library, wellness room, a spiritual circle and altar space.
Every year, CYWD recruiters engage in non-traditional forms of outreach for the internship, interacting with nearly 3,000 young women by communicating with probation officers, visiting juvenile halls throughout San Francisco, and visiting neighborhoods with high levels of violence and high school dropout rates.
“This shows me that people go through bad things,” said Malisha Lane, 16, a junior at Hilltop High School and intern for Sisters Rising. “But you get over it. You don’t have to let your past affect your future.”
This year, 20 women will be accepted into the Sisters Rising program. The interns will work 16 hours a week for nine months, while developing practical working skills such as typing, resume building and leadership skills.
Founded in 1993, the CYWD was one of the first non-profits in the United States to be run entirely by and for women leaving the juvenile justice system.
In its 19 years of existence, CYWD has made a transformative and personal impact in the lives of many women who completed the program and have gone on to become college graduates, musicians and community leaders.
“Our program does not replicate the system that young women have been unsuccessful in; we use different learning styles,” said CYWD Program Director Ann Maria Corralis. “While young women are getting kicked out [of] school and out of other programs for behavioral problems, we understand that what appears to be acting out is how young women are dealing with repeated exposure to violence.”
In addition to their programs that work one-on-one with the interns, one of CYWD’s greatest policy successes is the Incarcerated Young Mothers Bill of Rights (YMBR) that was created by the Young Mothers Organizing Project, a CYWD program.
In 2006, the YMBR was implemented as policy into the Juvenile Justice Center in San Francisco. The bill guarantees the right to proper physical and mental health care, family contact, accurate information, personal privacy and confidentiality, and freedom from verbal and physical abuse for all pregnant women who are incarcerated.
Marlene Sanchez, executive director, entered the Sisters Rising program at 15.
“We’re raised being told we’re bad,” Sanchez said. “We’re working with young women who have been kicked out of every school, every part of the system. … We internalize things that we need to heal from.”
A Mission native, Sanchez was in and out of the prison system before committing to the CYWD, and at 25 she became the center’s executive director.
According to Sanchez, half of the women who join the program have been sexually exploited and 96 percent have been sexually assaulted. All CYWD staff members have either been incarcerated, have had a parent incarcerated, experienced sexual and/or physical abuse, or have had firsthand experience with the underground street economy, such as the selling of narcotics or sex work.
“Violence prevention programs are designed to address the needs of males. Young women are placed into these programs and they are unsuccessful because they just don’t meet their needs,” Corralis said. “It is not enough to only have a gender-specific space, they must see women that have experienced similar lives as them in leadership roles. ”
Support for the new interns comes in forms of: paid internships, political education, reintegration into the community through neighborhood-based projects, overcoming trauma and sustaining mental health through holistic forms of healing.
“Everybody has to change. Something has to change,” said Kadej’a Tidwell, 19, a new intern who was released from county jail six months prior to her entering the program. “I have to be grounded on a stable formation in order to have a good foundation.”