Of the 1.8 billion young people in the world, approximately half — some 900 million — are adolescent girls and young women. In the developing world, one in seven girls is married before the age of 15, 38 percent are married before the age of 18, and more than half never complete their primary school education. In the United States, girls and young women, especially girls and young women of color, face a different but related set of challenges. African-American girls are suspended from school, sent to foster care, and incarcerated at rates higher than other girls. Latina girls have the lowest four-year high-school graduation rates and highest pregnancy rates. And Native-American girls are two and half times more likely to experience sexual assault.
In response to these challenges, the NoVo Foundation, a private foundation created in 2006 by Jennifer and Peter Buffett that has long worked in the U.S. and Global South, last week announced a $90 million commitment to support and deepen the movement for girls and young women of color here in the U.S. The day after the announcement, PND spoke via email with Pamela Shifman, the foundation's executive director, about the investment, the structural inequities faced by girls and young women of color, and how the initiative complements NoVo's ongoing support for girls and young women in the Global South.
Philanthropy News Digest: I think a lot of people were surprised by the size of the investment NoVo has decided to make in improving the lives of girls and young women of color in the United States. In fact, it's the largest commitment ever made by a private foundation to address the structural inequities faced by girls and young women of color. In going "big," is the foundation making a statement about what it elsewhere calls the "invisibility" of girls and young women of color?
Pamela Shifman: We're making a major investment in this work because it is central to our mission. NoVo has always worked at the intersection of racial and gender justice, and we've included a focus on adolescent girls going back to our inception in 2006. We are a social justice foundation, with a deep commitment to dismantling the structural barriers that perpetuate inequality, so it's always been clear to us that we needed to focus on girls. To date, much of our work with adolescent girls has focused on the Global South. That work is essential to our foundation and will continue to be a significant focus of ours.
But the need is also great in the United States. We began working with girls and young women of color in the U.S. over four years ago and launched an initial strategy in 2014. We've been guided by the groundbreaking work of partners like Sister Sol, the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, The Beautiful Project, Young Women Empowered, and many others. Our new commitment will allow us to deepen this work.
As we've pursued grantmaking in this area, we've been struck by the pervasive and deep-seated myth that girls, including girls of color, are doing fine. By being public about our commitment, we hope to join with others in sending a clear message: girls and young women of color face specific disparities that are holding them back. Women of color activists have led a national movement to name and address these disparities, and there is a huge opportunity for philanthropy, government, and others to step up and support this work.
PND: What kinds of structural inequities faced by girls and young women of color do you hope to address through the initiative?
PS: If you look at the lived experience of girls and young women of color, you'll find structural inequities almost everywhere. Let's start with education. According to a landmark report from the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School's Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy, across the nation black girls are six times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls. Among indigenous girls, almost half, 49 percent, do not finish high school.
Safety — both inside and outside the home — is a huge issue. According to Black Women's Blueprint, 60 percent of black girls experience sexual abuse by the age of 18. Sixty-two percent of Latina girls report not feeling safe in their communities, and indigenous girls are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other girls. Twenty-two trans women and girls were murdered in the US in 2015, with women and girls of color making up a disproportionate number of the victims. The fear and threat of violence shapes every aspect of a girl's life, impacting her mobility, sense of safety, and bodily integrity.
Barriers to economic security also are very real. Thirty-five to 40 percent of Asian-American/Pacific Islander girls, for example, live in poverty, despite a widespread perception that suggests otherwise.
These disparities are deeply unacceptable in their own right, but they're even more troubling when you see how they combine into new disparities in adulthood. Today the median wealth for single black women is just $100, compared to $44,000 for single white men. Inequality starts early, and it must be addressed early if we want to create lasting change.