Many Women, Girls Feel Impact of Justice System Via Their Network, Bronx Report Shows

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Bronx: Women in a coffee house talking

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G.I.R.L.S. N Da Hood is exploring gender and incarceration in the Bronx.  We focused on understanding women’s experiences with arrest, court, lockup, placement and beyond. We documented experiences and stories to help create change — a better, more humane approach to solving conflict that is built on accountability, healing, and strengthening relationships.

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We are Community Connections for Youth’s Participatory Action Research team, consisting of Bronx-based femmes/gender nonconforming people, carrying the legacy and struggles of those who have come before us. We see these legacies of resilience and resistance.

G.I.R.L.S. represents Grace, Inquiry, Research, Love and Seen, the leading factors in this project. We are an intergenerational, multiracial, bicoastal team, each of us system-impacted in different ways, and all of us engaged in community-based work to create alternatives to incarceration for young people.  

Our research and report, “7 Generations of Bronx Femmes,” is focused on young women of color who are 25 years old and younger who have been impacted by the juvenile justice system in the Bronx before they were 18.  We were also interested in the relationships between women and how they’ve healed or hurt one another (e.g. moms, sisters, best friends, aftercare worker, probation officer, etc.).

We conducted 91 surveys, four interviews and five focus groups. One of the seven themes we saw was about the emotional labor of women. Understanding and reflecting on this really challenged the narrative and definition of who “system-impacted girls” really are. Expanding the definition of system-impacted allows us to engage with girls who may have never been arrested but still feel the brutal effects of the carceral state.

System-impacted includes not just girls who have been arrested but also girls who are supporting someone who has been arrested. System-impacted includes going through metal detectors on visits, police contact that may not end in arrest, feeling the impact of an absent relative due to incarceration, giving financially to someone incarcerated, writing letters or taking calls. That is also providing emotional support.  

In using a more expansive definition we can be inclusive and cognizant of how the punishment system lands on femmes differently and in ways that can be invisible. Statistics from our research showed that 60 percent of our girls shared that their mothers had been arrested and 70 percent had a femme family member, blood or chosen, who had been arrested. Incarceration hurts all of us. And we all deserve opportunities of support.

Devante Lewis, theater artist, smiling young man in ball cap, Superman T-shirt. Bronx: Crystalie Romero-Smith, co-founder of Urban Girl Magic, smiling woman with curly black hair wearing blue hoodie. Bronx: Shaniqua West, works with young people, smiling woman in red T-shirt.

DeVante Lewis, Crystalie Romero-Smith (center), Shaniqua West

Our project title, “7 Generations of Bronx Femmes,” comes from the seven generations principle, which is in reference to the time it may take to see the impact of the decisions we make today. We also reach into our rich history, seeing the struggles and triumphs our ancestors faced bringing us to this current moment. We hope with intention that within seven generations from now our girls will be free.

As a team we have dedicated ourselves to the betterment of our communities. We seek to right the wrongs done by systemic oppression and create a better future for ourselves and those to come after us. Our team has chosen to use our access, as system-impacted folk working within the paradigms of incarceration and legislation, as power to facilitate change within ourselves and communities. We are both teacher and student, as young people look up to us for leadership while we glean from those who have paved the way for us in this work.

(To see the report or for more information about our PAR project, contact Shaniqua West at Shaniqua@cc-fy.org.)

Devante Lewis is he/they, theater artist, human, aspiring superhero, lover and twenny-sumn.

Crystalie Romero-Smith is a mentor, lead researcher and co-founder of Urban Girl Magic. She is a Bronx native Latina and currently a student at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.

Shaniqua West has a passion for working with young people and inspiring them to reach their full potential. She has made it her life’s work and purpose to fight for, uplift and create positive spaces for black girls everywhere.

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