We pushed aside the heavy chain lock that hung from the front doors and entered. A friendly security guard greeted us and then proceeded to herd us through a large metal frame detector; our belongings glided alongside us on a small conveyer belt. The abandoned hallways were lined with lockers, many of which hinged open, displaying an empty space inside. After several minutes traveling deep within the bowels of this concrete-and-steel-laden behemoth of a building, we reached our destination: a classroom, where we found six young girls sitting in a circle on unfolded metal chairs.
This was our first meeting with our newly founded mentorship program for young women. Our initial motives were based on the idea that urban high school girls need more positive interactions, solid role models, and consistent confidence-building. We planned on tutoring them with their homework and hoped we might be able to someday guide them through the arduous college application process. Who better to accomplish this than two young female medical students?
We were well-intentioned, but our plans were far from the reality that awaited us. These young women living on the South Side of Chicago faced completely different challenges than what we had growing up.
They were each beautiful and unique. One of the things we learned was that aside from which hairstyle to pick for prom, childcare was often on their minds. One of our girls was seven months pregnant. Several already had young infants at home, each cared for by a mother or grandmother. The goals they set for themselves for the end of high school mostly involved getting a job to support their children or families.
On another day, one of the girls privately confided to me she hoped to be a police officer someday. She explained that during her freshman year, she witnessed her boyfriend getting shot in his home, and somehow this injustice made her want to bring a little more peace to the world.
Another one of the girls told me she was excited that one day she might meet her father, who had been incarcerated her whole life. Several others admitted to joining a gang in order to safely cross territories on their morning walks to school.
What did we know about violent murders, teenage pregnancy, or gang intimidation? Not much. So, we had to improvise. Our meeting goals shifted from working through college admissions processes to filling out job applications. Mostly, we just spent a lot of time listening. Often we heard problems we didn’t understand. We struggled most with having to reconcile the extreme juxtaposition that mantled their everyday lives. They experienced profound social inequalities and yet still faced them with youthful optimism—along with some classic teenage angst. They spoke candidly to us about their problems and frequently followed up these stories with gossip about boys or Bruno Mars.
The more time we spent with them, the more we became gravely aware of this reality: Nothing we could do would totally transform their lives. These girls needed so much more than just positive role models. They needed a new school — not one that was on the brink of destruction, but a quality institution, staffed with educated and enthusiastic individuals. They needed a safe neighborhood, where they could walk to school without community escorts or fear of drive-by shootings. They needed access to safe contraception and family planning, so instead of child rearing, they might have more opportunities for advanced education.
These aren’t isolated problems, either. 42 million women plus 28 million children either live in poverty or are right on the brink of it. Even more staggering is that the average woman is paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, and that figure plummets for black and Latina women, who make 64 cents and 55 cents respectively for every dollar made by a white man.
Hundreds of thousands of young women—black, Ukrainian, white, Hispanic, Polish, Asian, and every other race—are suffering in large metropolitan cities around the country. They face abuse, crumbling schools, violence, early pregnancies, lackluster educational opportunities, and a whole host of problems that are inadequately being addressed.
However, these girls, who we grew to love and admire, deserve to be recognized and celebrated, not pitied. During this week, International Women’s Day is celebrated, a time for everyone to think about the advancements, struggles, and achievements of all women and to promote equality among genders. For us, this group of young ladies stands out. They cared for each other. They were fiercely loyal to their families and protective of their children. We were proud to get to know them, because, despite inequalities in their circumstances, they were growing into strong, brave women.
President Barack Obama once said, “A child’s course in life should be determined not by the ZIP code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.” It is our belief that in the struggle for gender parity, we must start with creating opportunity for these women in urban neighborhoods who do not always have a voice.
This article is dedicated to Deepa Bhat, who co-founded our program and always challenges those around her to be the best version of themselves.