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5 Questions for...Pamela Shifman, Executive Director, NoVo Foundation

April 01, 2016

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?

Headshot_pamela_shifman_philantopicPamela 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.

PND: How do those challenges differ from the structural barriers to opportunity with which boys and young black men of color must contend?

PS: Girls and boys of color face many of the same injustices. Racism pervades every aspect of our culture, and girls of color live in the same homes and communities and attend the same schools as their male counterparts. Addressing racism requires addressing structural barriers that impact entire communities of color.

Yet, there remains a pervasive myth that girls and young women of color are doing just fine. The data show us that nothing could be further from the truth. As Kimberlé Crenshaw argued when coining the phrase "intersectionality" in the late 1980s, girls and women of color, because they live at the intersection of racism and sexism — and sometimes other forms of identity based oppression, too — often experience compounded discrimination.

The fact that black girls, for example, are six times more likely to be suspended in school than white girls means they face a racial disparity that is even greater than black boys, who are suspended at three times the rate of white boys. Additionally, girls who participated in that study reported that their experiences of school discipline were often directly related to their experiences of sexual harassment in school, gender-based violence in school and at home, and racialized notions about how girls are supposed to look and act — all dynamics that are specific to their experiences as black girls. So any effort to address what is commonly referred to as the "school-to-prison pipeline" must explicitly examine the interconnected ways in which both gender and race drive inequity in schools and the juvenile justice system.

Girls of color also face disproportionate rates of violence. As I mentioned — and it's worth repeating — a full 60 percent of black girls are sexually abused by the age of 18. One in four indigenous girls in the twelfth-grade reports being assaulted by a dating partner. The ever-present threat of violence in the lives of so many girls and young women of color creates a lived experience that is unique from their male counterparts, and that must be addressed.

The point here is not about competition but about inclusion. When we talk about equality and social justice, we need to ensure that the lives of girls and young women of color are fully understood, valued, and seen. Anything less will prevent us from achieving our mutually shared goal of justice.

PND: In announcing the commitment, you and your colleagues have been open about the fact that you don't have all the answers — and, indeed, are looking for help in formulating some of the questions. You've even designed a process to do that. How is that going to work?

PS: At NoVo, all of our work begins with the core belief that centering leadership on people who live with injustice is the most powerful way to create lasting change. Girls and young women of color are the best experts of their own lives. They must lead the way if we want to truly transform systems of inequity. So we think it's very important to begin by listening and learning. In order to hear directly from young women and girls of color and their advocates, we will be traveling to regions in the country that have often been left out of the philanthropic spotlight. We plan to travel to a few locations in the South, Southwest, and Midwest to meet with young women, advocates, and activists.

We're also meeting with leaders in New York, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and other cities where we have long-term, ongoing partnerships. And we will share what we learn from these meetings on our website.

The goal is to capture many different perspectives that together can inform our national funding strategy, which we plan to share in early 2017.

PND: Up to this point, NoVo's efforts in the area of women and girls has been focused on the Global South, while your own background includes a stint at the UN leading UNICEF's efforts to end gender-based violence in Darfur, Eastern Congo, Uganda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. How, if at all, does this new commitment align with the work you and the foundation have been involved in previously?

PS: I'm always struck by the fact that all this work is deeply connected and interlinked. The threats facing girls and young women, from violence, to lack of access to education, to economic insecurity, to differential chore burdens, are common throughout the world. Although these inequities express themselves differently in different contexts, the root causes are the same.

We believe there is tremendous potential to link the movement with and for girls in the Global South with the growing movement for racial and gender justice in the United States, and vice versa. The resilience and creative strategies that girls employ all over the world to free themselves and their sisters — from Freetown to Fresno to Delhi to Detroit — are so incredibly inspiring. If these struggles are linked, the result truly can be a global girls' rights movement that brings lasting and fundamental change to the lives of girls and young women everywhere. That's why we are deepening both areas of our work — in the U.S. and Global South — and are so excited about what lies ahead.

Mitch Nauffts

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