In this two-part series, Andrea Lynch looks at the closure of the New York City Department of Education's "P schools" – educational programs for pregnant and parenting students – the programs that have arisen in the P school's absence, and the way teen pregnancy is understood by those who make policy to prevent and address it. Last week, she reported on P school closures and the challenges now facing organizations who work with young mothers. In the piece that follows, she addresses the federal policy that has devastating impacts on adolescents who parent and the new ways that grassroots groups such as Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective and Sistas on the Rise conceive of teen parenting.
Supporting and advocating for pregnant and parenting women's right to education is a key component of the strategy employed by Sistas on the Rise, the South Bronx-based young mothers' and women of color activist group, but the organization embraces a broad vision of social justice and community-building. As Leslie Grant, a young activist, student, and mother in Sistas on the Rise's leadership circle who first connected with the group when she was a 15-year-old pregnant student at the Bronx-based Martha Nielson High School (a P school) five years ago, explains, "We would love to see societal changes, not just changes within systems, but a different perspective on how young women are viewed in society, and being honored for being mothers and taking that risk of creating life and bringing life into this world." The organization's approach to teen pregnancy and parenthood is grounded in a holistic vision of reproductive justice that challenges stereotypes about young mothers and seeks to build alliances between young women of color. In Grant's words, "Not only do we need the right to choose whether or not we decide to keep a pregnancy, we need to have a space, and society needs to acknowledge that women do choose to be parents and some pregnancies are wanted, regardless of age, race, color, or creed. So how can people take power and ownership in becoming parents?"
The Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective (BYMC) also pursues a holistic approach to supporting and advocating for adolescent parents, not only within the education system, but also within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Benita Miller founded the Collective in 2004, based on her experiences as a law guardian in family court. Miller was moved to action by her daily observations of the devastating impact of welfare reform and the raft of federal and state legislation it sparked on the young mothers she was representing.
In 1996, the Temporary Aid for Needy Families Act (TANF) transformed the U.S. welfare system, tightening time limits and work requirements for parents and families receiving public assistance. Not-so-subtly blaming poverty on single motherhood, TANF's four purposes include "preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies" and "encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families" as the quickest routes to economic advancement for women living in poverty. In policy terms, this translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for abstinence-only programs for teens (which have since proven utterly ineffective at reducing unintended pregnancies or STI rates) and so-called Healthy Marriage Initiatives for grown-ups (often channeled through religious organizations with broader social agendas), both of which fail to acknowledge or support family structures other than heterosexual two-parent families. Related legislation like the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, despite being framed as an effort to increase children's safety and well-being, makes it easier for young mothers to be stripped of their parental rights, while failing to provide the services and support that could enable them to be better parents. Both pieces of legislation had a devastating impact on adolescent mothers, who, in New York City, are primarily low-income women of color. "The burden placed on young mothers, and particularly teen mothers, was so extreme," Miller recalls. "Many people say it was a big piece of legislation designed to curb and control the reproductive health of young women, because it was almost like, okay, if you're a supervised teen, you won't have another baby, this will teach you a lesson."
In such a punitive landscape, few mechanisms exist to avert crisis, but when crisis strikes, we tend to focus on how the mother should have prevented it. "People who hurt kids are vilified," observes Miller. "I cringe every time I hear about a child fatality, because typically you'll notice that it's a young woman living with her boyfriend, and her boyfriend killed her kid. We need to be more visible so that that young woman gets to us before, or even if she already is in that situation, she figures out what is in her, what level of support she has in the community, to get out of it….poor, young mothers have to have extra-perfect judgment, they have to anticipate anything that might go wrong, otherwise they're punished."
To fill the gap left by legislation designed to shame first and ask questions later, Miller envisioned BYMC as a space that would not only help adolescent girls navigate the various systems that shape their lives, but also provide them with the skills they need to develop both as individuals and as parents, based on the belief that given the right support, teen mothers can be capable, positive, engaged actors in their lives and communities. Such spaces for teen mothers are few and far between, since most youth development programs focus on pregnancy prevention, and therefore discourage the participation of pregnant and parenting girls either by outright exclusion or by failing to provide childcare. So the Collective has created its own spaces, and within them, young mothers have thrived. Despite the Collective's success, however, Miller still has a hard time finding public champions for its work. "These are not girls that people want to organize around," she laments. "They might want to organize around their kids, but that's when the girls are so disconnected and victimized that all you can do is try and help their kids."
Parenting young may be a challenge, but with the right support, it can also be a source of tremendous growth for young women. Miller reflects, "The thing I'm most proud of with the girls that have gone through the program is that they really, really make choices for themselves now, even if it's choices that I don't always agree with: their critical intelligence has just exploded." Jelysa Roberts, an assistant teacher at BYMC, first connected with Miller while she was a P school student. Today, she balances her work at BYMC with parenting and attending college. Becoming a mother changed her life-including her relationship to her child's father, which ended shortly after she gave birth. "He's a good person, but I can't take care of him," she explains. "I can't take care of more than one person, besides my baby and myself. If he was able to sustain his lifestyle, that would be good, but he can't, and I can't help him do that right now. I can't depend on him. My life is much bigger now. I'm way ahead. I feel like we're not on the same level."
Having a child as a teenager is undeniably difficult–just ask any woman who has done it herself. And providing women with the tools to avoid or delay pregnancy until they truly feel ready is undoubtedly a worthy policy goal. But the question remains: in circumstances where adolescent pregnancy is not prevented, or when adolescents decide to become parents, how far are we willing to go to ensure that young mothers have the spaces not just to survive, but to flourish? How can we honor their right to keep learning–either in school, or through youth development programs–by removing the specific barriers they face as parents? And are we willing to accept that success might not always turn on heterosexual marriage? BYMC reaches out to partners for events like family photo day, but their main focus is creating a space where young women can build the skills and alliances they need to be able to depend on themselves. "We don't indulge in a fantasy life," stresses Miller. "We really ground ourselves in reality." If only federal policymakers would take the same approach.