Austin Teens Build Sisterhood of Support

A few days before their Christmas celebrations began, a group of teen girls from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood gathered around a table, sipping hot chocolate and decorating canvases.  

The “Paint & Sip” night organized by BUILD, Inc., one of Chicago’s leading gang intervention, violence prevention and youth development organizations, served as a “mixer” to introduce the middle-school girls in its Building Girls 2 Women program before they embarked on their first winter retreat.

The following week, the girls traded the city streets for a rustic, woodland resort 90 miles southwest of their bustling neighborhood. A first for many, the group of 15 girls spent two days at Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort, where they ice skated, made crafts, built new friendships and engaged in peace circles and fireside chats about identity and self-love.

“The theme for the retreat is ‘This Is Me,’” said Angella Roberts-Smith, an intervention specialist with BUILD and one of the girls’ mentors, prior to their departure. “We want to teach them to be more confident with their identity and to love themselves…and to be respectful of each other’s differences.”


Building Girls 2 Women 

Working in a neighborhood that experienced more than 50 homicides last year, Angella and her colleagues facilitate the youth agency’s Building Girls 2 Women program for local middle-school and high-school girls at the highest risk of experiencing trauma and violence.  

“When the [Chicago] mayor’s mentoring program came out a couple years ago, it was very specific to boys,” said Jessica Carrillo-Guerrero, BUILD’s director of community wellness and clinical programs and services. “But what we were finding was that more and more incidents of violence were involving girls. It just looked very different than the ways the boys were involved.”

In the first eight months of 2016, 850 girls ages 17 and under were victims of violent crimes in the city, including homicides, aggravated battery and robberies, according to data from the Chicago Police Department.

Leaders of BUILD, located in the Austin neighborhood, also found its own extensive educational and intervention programming was being accessed by many local girls. However, the focus of the programming didn’t specifically address the ways in which girls were impacted by community issues like gang affiliation; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; and financial exploitation.

“We realized that a lot of the reason the girls were acting up was because they had some underlying trauma that they were dealing with. So, we made a hybrid program – Building Girls 2 Women,” Jessica said.

Launched in 2017, the program offers a robust combination of intensive mentoring from BUILD staff and counseling from trained professional therapists, in addition to community building activities, like the retreat and paint and sip night.

Its mission aligns with that of United Way’s Austin Neighborhood Network, a coalition of community stakeholders in the neighborhood. Agencies, like BUILD, are working toward a common agenda to prepare Austin children for lifelong success through the expansion of access to early learning programs and safe community spaces for families.

“We want to create a space for women to feel safe and [be] themselves,” said Olivia Santiago, a Building Girls 2 Women mentor and BUILD community social worker. “We want to show that violence and trauma is not normal, but also teach them how to navigate this place because they can’t leave it.”

Following its first full program year, Building Girls 2 Women is showing great promise. Early results show the first cohort of high-schools girls enrolled in the program have experienced an 82 percent reduction in school suspensions and other major disciplinary actions. All girls involved in the court system have avoided recidivism, and the entire group reported making better decisions.


Creating systems of support

Taking a ‘sisters-only’ approach, Angella and her colleagues not only provide mentorship, they serve as role models who the girls can relate to.  

“I was one of them,” Angella said. “I was an outsider and raised by mostly men and hung out with only the boys. I was lost a lot and didn’t have someone to talk to.”

Now, she’s that “someone” for girls maneuvering difficult life situations and a society that often fails to recognize or mitigate the barriers women of color face to living healthy, fulfilling lives.

“On paper, I’m a mentor, but they consider me a big sister,” Angella said.

She and the other mentors also emphasize relationship building, as strong friend and familial supports can help divert girls from unhealthy relationships and behaviors. The retreat, the first of its kind for the middle-school group, was a time for the girls to kindle those bonds. 

A few days after returning from their fun-filled trip, a few of the girls reflected on the lessons they’d carry forward. 

“I really didn’t realize how important it was to not judge people on how they act because they have other things going on that you may not know about,” said Alexa Hunt, a 13-year-old program participant who lives in the Englewood community. “Also, I learned that it’s pretty cool to talk to new people.”

Her comrade, Janaia Lewis, a 13-year-old who goes to school in East Garfield Park, also learned many of her peers face similar challenges as her and pledged to be less judgmental of them and herself.

“The most important thing I learned is that every situation you through, you don’t have to go through alone,” Janaia said. “[There are] people that have been in your shoes before and it’s okay to talk to them to help you deal with different situations and emotions.” 


What’s a Neighborhood Network?

The team at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago had an idea. They already knew that the people best equipped and most dedicated to creating positive change in their communities were the members of the community themselves. They saw that in Chicago, nonprofit organizations and human service providers were already working to establish affordable and comprehensive health care, safety regulations and engaging educational programs for their residents. But these groups weren’t always working in sync, and were often severely underfunded. United Way thought that that by connecting these partners, leveraging their capabilities to help each other share knowledge and resources, and combining their voices to be heard, these communities could become louder, stronger and more impactful. The Neighborhood Network Initiative was born.

Ten communities comprise the Neighborhood Network. They each have a lead agency–a partner organization in the community that serves as the director for that Neighborhood Network. They also have their own Community Engagement Manager from United Way who connects the work in the communities to United Way. Each Neighborhood Network was chosen “based on both level of need and their capacity to improve lives for their residents with the additional investment, partners and strategies of the Neighborhood Network model.” After connecting agencies and organizations in the community and bringing them to the table, the network chooses a bold goal, a concrete objective they will work to achieve in the coming years. These goals are long term, as is all of the work being done by the Neighborhood Networks–their purpose is to create lasting change by attacking systemic issues with an integrated, focused and community level approach.The neighborhoods are divided into cohorts based on their level of progress in establishing their bold goals, finding partners and establishing organizational permanence. Cohort One, the most developed neighborhoods, is made up of West Chicago and Brighton Park. Cohort Two includes Evanston, Austin and Little Village, and Cohort 3 includes Auburn- Gresham, Bronzeville, South Chicago, Cicero and Robbins/ Blue Island.

Community organizing in the Neighborhood Networks is based on the concept of collective impact. “Collective impact is a proven, effective framework used to bring a range of actors together to solve complex social problems. Unlike partnerships or traditional collaborations, collective impact moves participants to act beyond their self-interest and to act towards a common (community) interest.” There are five basic tenets of collective impact–shared measurement, reinforcing activities that establish a coordinated plan to address an agreed upon problem, a common agenda, continuous communication and a backbone organization. For the Neighborhood Networks, United Way serves as that backbone–providing funding, connecting partners and keeping the networks on track to meet their goals. They also provide a sense of legitimacy to their member agencies, attaching a trusted name to the work they do in order to find more partners and secure additional financial backing.

The purpose of the Neighborhood Network Initiative is to organize and invest in communities that are working to help their residents all fulfill their human potential and increase their quality of life. The role of United Way is not to tell these neighborhoods how to operate or what to do. Rather, they work to keep these networks focused and financed so they can fulfill the needs of their own communities and create lasting change. Check back in with our blog or with the neighborhoods’ home pages to learn more!

Blog submitted by: Elana Ross, Intern, Public Policy and Advocacy