Introduction and Facilitator’s Guide from Young Women’s Lives: Building Self-Awareness for Life by Nell Myhand and Paul Kivel
YOUNG WOMEN’S LIVES: BUILDING SELF-AWARENESS FOR LIFE
is a program for young women, ages 14-19. It is designed to
celebrate and enhance their strength, experience, creativity and
intelligence. It is a group curriculum for young women working
together to curtail destructive behavior, to support each other’s
success, and to connect to the ongoing struggles of women in this
country for greater equality, opportunity and social justice. The
curriculum is also designed to assist young women in reducing the
negative impact of interpersonal and institutional violence.
Working through the curriculum will help them establish lives
based on personal strength, self-confidence, connection to others,
and involvement in community efforts to reduce violence against
The young women may come from a variety of settings: your
school, a recreation program, a treatment program, a juvenile
detention center. They may be youth leaders, “problem” youth,
athletes, mothers, survivors of incest, runaways, or part of a girls’
program. Despite the diversity of their backgrounds, and whether
they have been identified as “in trouble” or not, they all have one
thing in common—they are young women trying to build their
lives in a society that fails to provide adequately for their safety,
healing, education, growth, and personal and emotional health.
Drawing on the strength, understanding and experience of many
young women, this curriculum will help the members of your
group look at, heal from, and overcome the effects of the hurts,
limitations, and abuse most young women experience. It can help
them connect with their own best wisdom, with their sisters, with
their foremothers, and with male allies so they can join in the
struggle to dismantle the systems of power and violence that stunt
lives and devastate families, relationships, and communities.
Young Women’s Lives explores the effects of gender based,
racial/ethnic, and class based violence directed at girls and young
women and allows them to build community without violence.
The primary goal of the curriculum is to create a safe place for
young women to talk, to speak for themselves, to hear
themselves, to hear one another, to hear the voices of women in
the community and in history, and to do so in the presence of
at least one adult who is listening with respectful, caring, and
loving attention. The challenge for you is to be the listening adult
who creates that safe place.
The second goal is to help young women, both individually and
collectively, develop effective strategies to meet the difficult
challenges they face in a society which does not always take
their best interests into account. Robinson and Ward (in
Leadbeater, 1996) describe two kinds of resistance
strategies which they characterize as resistance for survival and
resistance for liberation. Young women develop different survival
strategies based on the violence they experience and on the limited
options many of them face. Coping with intense feelings of pain,
violation, fear, powerlessness, and despair—in many cases without
adequate support or even acknowledgment—some young women
turn to alcohol and other drugs, silence, food, belligerence,
perfectionism, manipulation, and other dangerous activities to
survive. This curriculum can help young women move from
resistance for survival to resistance for liberation—help them use
their experience, support, intelligence, and inner wisdom to
develop strategies which lead to their social liberation and personal
By social liberation we mean the collective freeing of young
people in general and young women in particular from economic,
racial, gender-based and other restrictions which stunt the lives of
so many. In fact, we feel strongly that personal success can be
understood only in the context of social and political struggle for a
more libratory (i.e. just and democratic) society.
To participate with young women in this libratory endeavor you
may have to disregard some of the (mis)information you have
received about them—the daily flow of traditional stereotypes,
media distortions and anti-woman bias from newspapers, books,
movies, magazines, textbooks, friends and family. In addition, you
have to be open to healing from your own experiences of violence,
mistrust, disillusionment, and despair so that these don’t get in the
way of your being fully present for the young women with whom
you are working.
What if you assume that every young woman who came to your
group was powerful whether she looked powerful to you or not?
How would your behavior be different if you were to assume that
every young woman who came to your group was brilliant whether
she appeared brilliant to you or not?
What if you assumed that every young woman who came to your
group wanted positive connection with other young women and
adults even though her demeanor was, perhaps, hostile,
competitive, or withdrawn?
Our thesis is that every young woman has incredible power,
intelligence, strength, and resiliency.
A young woman may mask these attributes to outsiders, or even to
herself, as a result of abuse she has suffered or because of the
cumulative impact of negative messages she has received about
herself. The self-destructive survival strategies she has developed
to cope with her world may shield us from her true self.
Many young women experience sexual harassment and sexual
violence, economic discrimination, lack of educational
opportunities and second-class citizenship in our society. Young
women of color face the daily mistreatment, discrimination and
abuse of racism. Young women from poor and working-class
backgrounds have to cope with an even more severe lack of
educational and job opportunities than their better off sisters, and
are vulnerable to attacks on their dignity and self-respect. Young
women from more privileged backgrounds may confront
unrealistic expectations about their bodies, about whom their
partners should be, about their economic and career possibilities
and about their ability to avoid violence.
Young women courageously resist the conditioning that prepares
them to accept this system and pass it on. They form alliances with
one another across differences of race, class and sexual identity
based on common political or economic interests, on creating the
best world they can for their children, on mutual romantic interest,
or on shared vulnerability to violence. These alliances are seldom
portrayed by the media, obscuring the potential for powerful,
effective social action across differences.
We want to be clear that although young women face serious
obstacles to participating fully in the life of our society, they are
not “victims”. They are survivors, resisters, community members
who make choices based on the information and experience they
have. They are not passive; they are quite active. But their choices
are often limited and may be based on survival strategies that are
not in their long-term best interests. With your support they can
become stronger, clearer, more effective community participants.
The Social and Political Context for Young Women’s Lives
We live in a world where women have made great contributions in
science, politics, education, and the arts; and we live in a world
where economic discrimination, gender-, race, and class- based
violence stunt the lives of many. Factors such as poverty, domestic
violence, racial discrimination, incest, lack of educational
opportunities, and premature and unwanted pregnancy can be
obstacles to healthy development and can limit many young
In our society, many women face the challenge of demanding that
their lives be valued, that their contributions be acknowledged, and
that the resources needed to support their growth and development
be available to them. Historically, women have often come
together to make such demands. They have had to for their own
survival and for the survival of their children and communities.
Throughout U.S. history, women have led and participated in
movements for social justice including workplace organizing,
disability rights, women’s liberation, and antiracism struggles.
Young Women’s Lives builds on and connects young women to the
legacy of grassroots organizing for social justice carried out by
generations of courageous women in their schools, neighborhoods,
social and religious organizations, and work places. For example,
poor black women in the south, determined to bring an end to the
reign of Jim and Jane Crow segregation, drove the Civil Rights
Movement. More recently, alliances among women enabled the
establishment of rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters.
On another level, women’s consciousness raising and support
groups have nurtured women to combat the pervasive presence of
Violence against Women
In this curriculum, we’re using the word violence to include
physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological abuse, as well as
economic, educational, and other forms of discrimination, because
they all cause hurt and pin and lead to further violence.
Young women unquestionably are vulnerable to violence. Many
homes, streets, and schools are unsafe for them. We know that the
streets can be dangerous places for young women, yet only 25% of
violent acts inflicted on women occur in the street at the hand of a
stranger. The other 75% occur in their own homes and usually are committed by someone they know.(1) Fathers, step fathers, uncles, “friends” of the family, boyfriends, cousins and older siblings sexually assault one of four girls before the girls reach the age of 18.(2) According to the Department of Justice, young people between the ages of 12 and 17 are the victims of crime five times
more often than people over age of thirty-five.(3) In another study,
40 percent of girls ages 14 to 17 said they had a friend their own
age who had been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.(4) When these
statistics are added together and coupled with other forms of
institutional violence based on race, class, ability and sexual
identity-—the broad patterns of discrimination and abuse that
young women of color, poor and working class young women,
young women with disabilities, and young lesbians and bisexuals
experience—it becomes clear that dealing with violence is a
crucial issue in young women’s lives.
Institutionalized violence has a devastating effect on many young
women. “Hostile Hallways”, the American Association of
University Women (AAUW) report on sexual harassment in
schools, documented that the level of sexual harassment
experienced by high school girls from peers and teachers to be of
such intensity and frequency that it interrupts learning for some
girls and is a problem for most.(5)
Self inflicted violence
The second aspect of violence that young women confront stems
from social pressures to be pretty, sexy—but not sexual—to be
thin, blond, happy, and carefree and to please and take care of
others. In their book Between Silence and Voice, Taylor et al.
describe the disempowerment girls experience during adolescence
when they are subject to intense pressure from family, peers and
adults to conform to rigid gender-role expectations that conflict
with how they see themselves and how they understand the world.
These expectations and the multibillion dollar industries which
promote and profit from them lead young women to commit
violence against themselves as they internalize these impossible
“standards” which they inevitably fail to live up to.
The diet industry alone currently grosses $33 billion per year. 95
percent of enrollees in weight loss programs are women. A
California study showed that, by the time girls entered fourth
grade, 80 percent of them were already dieting. 85 percent of U.S.
women diet 5 times a year; 98 percent regain the weight lost and
then some. 90-95 percent of the people who have eating disorders
such as anorexia and bulimia are girls and women. Cosmetic
surgery companies have built a $300 million a year industry in the
United States capitalizing on insecurities women and girls
experience about their bodies. One million U.S. women have had
chemical sacs planted in their breasts, and the profits in that
industry range between $168 million and $374 million.(6)
Eating disorders are just one type of self-destructive behavior that
young women may engage in as a response to acts of violence,
such as incest, or as a way to try to live up to impossible
expectations. Suicide, alcohol and other drug abuse, and high risk
sexual activity are other forms of self-directed violence covered in
Violence against others
The third form of violence addressed here is that which young
women commit against others. Violence and power are glamorized
by the media. The primary definition of power that people see
around them is power over others, the power to control and to
abuse others. It should be no surprise that young women are
increasing turning to violence to survive and meet their needs.
In contrast to the competitive, self-serving, and abusive behavior
promoted in many parts of our society and extolled in the media,
this curriculum challenges young women to identify and reconnect
with a larger community, to reject current social messages about
power and the use of violence, and to develop alternative ways to
communicate with and support one another.
Beyond the numbers
We could quote many more statistics about the difficulties facing
young women in contemporary society. But young women tend to
get lost in the statistics in two ways. First, most of the numbers
refer young people in general. The bulk of the information we have
about youth and violence, health, and other subjects is based on
research done on young men. They are more frequently studied,
interviewed, seen (even if in negative ways), and generally
attended to, either as successes or as failures, than are young
Just as important, the information we do have about young women
tends to focus on the negative facets of their lives, not on their
power, brilliance, strength, and resiliency. We pay attention to
young women if they are in trouble or, more likely, when they are
causing trouble to adults around them. At that point, we focus on
them only long enough to prevent them from doing further damage
to themselves or others. Then we move on to the next young
women in crisis. We fail to address the social structure which
places young women “at risk.” According to Taylor, et al. “A
primary danger of the ‘at risk’ label is to shift attention away from
the social conditions that place adolescents at risk and locate the
risk within the adolescents themselves.” (p.21).
The negative information can seem so overwhelming that we are
sometimes surprised that any young women make it to adulthood
at all. Focusing on information about young women “at
risk”—although it lets us identify the gaps, lacks, and problems in
how we treat them—furthers our inclination to ignore all but the
most desperate among them, those desperate enough to speak out
in righteousness, to act out in anger, or to cry out in pain.
Although this society pays cursory attention to young women in
trouble, the everyday experience of most young women—the vast
numbers who successfully negotiate the adolescent
experience—remains invisible because we are not paying attention.
Many young women lose or give up their voices because they
correctly perceive that we are not listening.
A curriculum for all young women
This curriculum is designed to help young women understand
some of the structural forces that present them with risk factors and
to increase their ability to make better choices in the face of those
risks. In other words, young women are not the problem. The
problem is a society which does not always value and nurture
them. Our challenge as adults is to help them face those risks by
drawing on their personal strengths and by providing a network of
caring and support. Therefore, the purpose of this curriculum is not
just to help young women who have been identified as having
difficulties or who are already in trouble; it is also to enhance the
lives and relationships of young women who are, so far, doing
well. Information about the issues that effect them, as well as
opportunities to talk, listen, reflect, think critically, plan and
problem-solve, should be the birthright of all young women
coming of age in this society.
One of the valuable aspects of our current culture is that there are
more resources available to adult women than ever before. Since
the advent of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early
1970s, women have formed structured and accessible support
groups to think, talk and strategize about what it means to live as
women, as women of color, as poor and working class women, as
mothers, as community activists, and as friends. The alternative
presses and electronic media make it possible to access vast
amounts of information about women’s lives and organizing
activities. As just one example, women have become writers,
editors and publishers, able to communicate directly and widely to
other women, organizing themselves along lines of mutual interest
and concern. For instance, groups such as Kitchen Table Press
gave voice to a range of experiences and issues central to the lives
of women of color. Organizations, newsletters and conferences
focused on women’s health issues enabled many more women to
have access to information about taking care of themselves.
Networks of battered women’s shelters, rape crisis centers and
child assault prevention programs have enabled many women to
escape from dangerous situations, to heal from past violence, and
to advocate for women’s safety.
What about younger women?
In general, younger women have not had the same opportunities.
Therefore culturally, we are just beginning to see what a force
young women can be when given the support and resources they
need. For example, young women are starting to take film writing,
editing and production into their own hands giving us rare
glimpses into the lives of young women dealing with relationships
among women and between women and men, and with parenting,
school, inward-directed violence and poverty.
Women musicians, rappers, singer-songwriters, and spoken word
performers also give voice to young women’s experiences,
especially about the struggles of living in urban environments. An
important part of our work with young women is to help them
connect with the cultural productions of other women—young and
old—who represent what they believe in and stand for. Videos,
movies, songs, books and magazines—especially those by young
women—are all valuable resources which can be integrated in this
Why a group?
Women have historically built alliances with other women by
telling their stories to one another. A woman seeks information by
finding someone with whom she can share her thoughts, feelings
and experiences. A group provides a structured experience so that
together young women can develop common language for
describing and thus understanding their lives. In a group setting,
we can enhance a young woman’s ability to speak for herself to her
peers. In an open forum, young women can figure out how to solve
the problems they face and to create the world in which they want
to live. Through a group process we can encourage the sharing
ideas and strategies for dealing with social pressures.
Many theories of identity development based on the male
experience (or at least on men’s interpretation of the male
experience) emphasize the importance of self-definition, autonomy
and self-reliance—of finding oneself, usually by oneself. The
separation of the adolescent from family and friends is stressed.
Recent research has demonstrated the key role of relationship to
other people in the growth and maturation of adolescent girls. (We
believe this to be true for boys as well as girls.) We know that for
young women, the development of mutually empowering and
empathic relationships is the basis for growth. Young women
mature in relationship to others. Therefore it is crucial for a young
woman to experience this curriculum in relationship to other young
women, that is, in a group environment, rather than in an
individual, one-on-one process.
Young people grow up and learn about the world by interacting
with family, peers, school, and community. Reengaging young
women in social relationships with the emphases on mutually
supportive interaction and critical reflection enables them to
establish the basis for healthy relationships and community
involvement. These sessions will help young women develop
growth strategies by encouraging them to build alliances with other
members of the group.
Your Role as Facilitator
As a group leader you have a responsibility to create a safe
environment that supports the growth of all young people without
regard to their immigration status, physical ability, sexual
orientation, skin color or religion. In fact, your role is to redefine
these often stigmatized differences as valuable assets to the
You must act from your hopes, not your fears, fully believing that
young women are powerful. Your role is to recognize their talents,
acknowledge their efforts and appreciate them for their survival.
Before facilitating this curriculum, explore your thoughts, feelings,
and assumptions about young women so that you can recognize,
confront, and help change prejudices.
Do you find yourself holding specific expectations for young
women based on their appearances, ethnic or class background?
How might stereotypes of young women as seen on TV, in the
news, or in movies come between you and the young women you
In the organization in which you work, do staff make negative
comments about young women in general or about particular
young women? If so, how might these comments and attitudes
affect your work with young women? Are you able to confront
your peers and respectfully challenge their stereotypes of young
How might your life experiences affect your work with young
If You Are a Woman
The challenge for female facilitators is to assist young women in
loving who they are. You are better able to do this if you have
healed your own wounds.
How kind and gentle are you with your self? How critical? How
comfortable are you with your appearance? How well do you take
care of yourself? How well do you stand up for yourself and for
other women in your work place? What do you do to interrupt any
tendencies to put yourself down, or to criticize other women? Do
you sometimes lack self-confidence in your work? Do you take
care of your partner, children, friends, co-workers,
parents—everyone but yourself? Are you trying to be a
In spite of our valiant and ongoing efforts to be the best we can be,
we all internalize unrealistic messages about what it means to be a
successful woman. We call this “internalized sexism.” These
messages may supplant our own ideas about who we are. All of the
questions listed above reflect ways that women are taught to adopt
external standards that can lead to harsh self-judgment and selfblame.
Dealing with your internalized sexism is important preparation for
your role as group facilitator for two reasons. First, you need to
avoid any tendency to blame young women either for who they are
or for what they do and say. It is all too easy to dislike or distance
yourself from young women who are large bodied, dark skinned,
or not dressed well, or who talk loudly, are belligerent, defiant,
uncooperative, self-destructive, or unresponsive. Any young
woman who doesn’t fit social expectations that say a girl should be
pretty, nice, responsive, respectful (and therefore potentially
successful) may trigger your internalized messages about the
importance of being a “good girl,” or how “good girls” should look
and act. If you succumb to these messages, you may judge or
comment on a young woman’s sexual behavior “for her own
good.” Your judgments might center on sexual identity, body
image, appearance, or attitude. Women have been trained to use
these judgments to hold each other accountable for being the right
kind of woman: not too sexy, not too butch, not too loud—one who
treasures motherhood, but not at too young an age. In fact, you
may have been assigned to manage a group of young women
because you represent women who fit into present structures and
expectations. If so, we’re asking you to challenge that role and
your internalized sexism.
Second, as an ally to young women you must interrupt internalized
sexism when they are practicing it on themselves or each other.
Most young women regularly hear societal messages that they are
not pretty enough, not good enough, not smart enough, not creative
enough, not strong enough. They internalize these sexist messages
and learn that women are “less than” men. Internalization in turn
leads to self-blame, despair, self-destructive behavior, and putdowns
of and separation from other young women. You can hear
these effects in young women’s silence or in the tentative way that
many of them voice opinions with statements that begin, “This
may be wrong but….” You can also hear them in the belligerence,
acting out, and challenge to authority which some young women
display. The effects are also quite noticeable in the way that young
women put down one another or join in disparaging young women
not in their group. Comments about the beauty, dress,
attractiveness, or intelligence of other young women are often
ways to compensate for internalized messages of inadequacy.
As facilitator, you must interrupt these messages and bring to
consciousness the social and political processes by which girls and
young women are fed such messages. From magazine ads to album
covers to history textbooks and the evening news—we need to help
young women understand the institutions that devalue women,
youth, people of color, and other less powerful groups in our
society. One way to do this is to focus attention on the industries
and institutions most visible to young women and help them
develop the skills to analyze the messages and policies that impact
them. The recording, diet, pornography, and cosmetics industries
all provide striking examples of institutions that produce messages
which young women can analyze and reflect on.
If You Are a Man
We feel strongly that this work is best facilitated by women,
particularly women who reflect the cultural/racial background of
the young women in the group. Adult women provide role models
that many younger women desperately need. Young women are
more likely to open up to other women. Men may also not take
seriously enough the danger young women face in their daily lives
and relationships because of the lack of experience they have with
sexism in general and male violence in particular. It is extremely
important that men don’t jeopardize a young woman’s safety
through poorly informed suggestions, advice or unconscious
Having a male facilitator (or young men in the group) may inhibit
female participants from speaking freely about highly personal or
sensitive issues. In addition, the presence of a man in the group
may produce sexual tension—no matter how innocent—at a time
when young women need to be concentrating on themselves.
Women are more likely to provide the safety that makes a group
valuable for young women.
Adult female facilitators will experience the same challenges and
issues, though in different ways, that male facilitators will. But
sexism and the intense, heterosexual emphasis in our society
increases the likelihood that a male presence will be the greatest
distraction in a young women’s group. While not all female
facilitators will handle these challenges well, they will at least have
a grounding in their own experiences as women.
If no women are available to do this work, then the male facilitator
needs to keep the following points in mind:
It is easy for a man to become the center of attention in a group of
women. It will take extra effort to insure that the center of attention
always stays on the young women.
The sexual issues that arise, may be made more difficult by the
presence of young women who are survivors of molestation and
Some young women are eager to establish a positive relationship
with men but may not know how to do that. They may have been
taught to use their sexuality, compliance, politeness, or friendliness
to gain male attention. They may have learned to defer to men or to
hide their real intelligence, their anger, or other key aspects of
themselves when adult males are around.
Your sensitivity to these patterns, and your active steps to
encourage clear and direct communication within the group, can
help young women change these patterns.
Establish and maintain clear boundaries around verbal and physical
interactions. For some young women, Male approval may be their
only source of legitimation. Encourage them to find, accept, and
trust approval from one another and other women.
You’ll bring our own male-gender training and expectations of
women into our work. You’ll need to understand this training and
set of expectations clearly so that they will not interfere in your
work with young women. For a greater understanding of the core
issues men face, we recommend Men’s Work by Paul Kivel.
Facilitating a Group with Young Women
It’s Not Therapy
A group is a gathering of people going through a process together.
The process may have therapeutic elements, but therapy is not the
You can expect that the young women who come to you or are sent
to you, particularly if they are sent unwillingly, or have previously
been identified as “problems”, will have some preconceptions
about what this group is for and will be resistant to your authority.
They will have been lectured, counseled, or advised “for their own
good” by any number of adults. Many will have seen such a
process as manipulative, and some will actually have been
manipulated. For various other reasons they may be uncomfortable
about paying attention to or expressing their feelings. Distrust of
the process will increase that discomfort. Therefore, it’s important
for you to be clear about what this group is for.
The crucial task in this group is to create a safe place where young
women can heal and grow and connect to their inner selves, to one
another, and to the larger community. The goal is not
individualized treatment or deep personal work for each member,
but rather to educate and support the young women during the
process of interacting with one another and the facilitator(s).
If the young women in your group are required to participate to
fulfill a court order or as part of a treatment program, allow time
for them to work through their feelings, including any resentment
about having to attend. From the beginning, establish that they will
be encouraged to notice and honor their own thoughts and feelings.
As they begin to express their feelings, they will connect with you
and the other participants, which will enable them to recognize
deeper layers of feelings.
Denial of impact
Some young women will deny that they have been impacted even
slightly by systematic treatment against women—sexism—in any
form including gender-based violence. Resist the temptation to try
and convince them that they have been. Remember that the
curriculum is designed to assist young women in reflecting on their
own experiences, in listening to the experiences of other young
women, and in looking at the social structure in which we live.
For some young women the feelings of powerlessness and
hopelessness that arise from acknowledging sexism can be
overwhelming. Their denial is a survival strategy (resistance for
survival)—the best they have at the time. When they begin to see
other choices (with the support of the group), they will develop
new coping and survival skills to replace unproductive ones. Other
young women may live in quite protected families or communities
or be too young to have been exposed to significant prejudice,
harassment or abuse. They also need a chance to reflect on their
own experiences in the larger context of listening to other young
women talk about theirs.
Trust will develop in the group if you are honest, consistent and
reliable. Young Women’s Lives is designed to open conversations
about subjects that are difficult to discuss. Many issues have a high
emotional charge. It is important that an atmosphere of safety be
created so that every participant can sort out and express her
thoughts, feelings and experiences.
If you are working with young women who have experienced high
levels of disappointment, you can expect trust to build slowly, or to
build quickly and then disappear at the slightest perception of
dishonesty or lack of candor. Some young women have been
abused so severely or so often that you won’t be able to build
enough trust to overcome their history. Such young women need a
level of healing, support and consistency that is beyond the scope
of this curriculum.
Listening is one of the most profound gifts we can give to one
another. As the group dynamic develops, watch for and plan to
deal with individuals who dominate time in the group. Ways of
structuring the time so that each young woman has a fair
opportunity to express herself to the group include
• using a timer
• breaking down into pairs
• asking each person in the circle to respond to the same
question. (The right to pass always applies. No one should
be pressured to respond.)
One in four gay and lesbian youths are forced to leave home
because of conflicts with their families about being gay, lesbian,
bisexual or transgender. LGBT youth constitute up to 25% of all
youths living on the streets in the U.S., and they make up
approximately one third of all teen suicides.
Homophobia is the fear and hatred of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and
people who are gender nonconforming. Homophobia exists in and
perpetuates a climate of ignorance, intolerance, and abuse that is
devastating to LGBT youth. Such a climate also affects young
women who challenge traditional ideas of what it means to be a
woman. They are sometimes accused of lesbianism and are left
feeling demeaned and abused. Young women who question their
sexuality get clear messages that loving another women is
unnatural. Homophobia can prevent young women from forming
close and supportive relationships with each other and can pressure
them into entering or staying in unwanted relationships with men
as proof of their heterosexual identity. Homophobia impacts
relationships among all women. “Women seem more able to
support one another’s painful experiences than to join one another
in pleasure: being able to support a full range of feelings, including
honesty, passion, creativity, joy, jealousy, and anger is much more
difficult” (Taylor et. al. p.96).
You can assume that of the young women you encounter, some
will be lesbian or bisexual, some will be heterosexual, and some
will be unsure about their sexual identity. As strong allies to young
women we must respect every participant’s right to safety. Young
lesbians, bisexuals, and gender nonconforming young women need
and deserve support and nurturing. Because they are challenging
stereotyped expectations for girls and women, often receiving
much abuse in the process, they are at even higher risk of suicide
and other self destructive behavior. They may also become victims
of hate crimes.
What You Can Do
As facilitator you set the tone for the group. You can negotiate
with participants about language, but basic respect is nonnegotiable.
Any labeling—including racial, sexual, and
homophobic put-downs—should be met with reminders about the
Agreements (see below). If such comments continue, it would be
advisable to spend time exploring why group members are
violating their own agreements. Use the young women’s own
experiences to explore the consequences of breaking agreements
such as “no put-downs”, “no judgment”, and “confidentiality”.
Then ask for a recommitment to the agreements, and to group
Call group members by the names they want to be called. Refer to
group members in general as young women rather than girls so that
you don’t inadvertently diminish or trivialize their experience.
Respect and Pride
To encourage group members to act with pride and self-respect,
you will need to show complete and unreserved respect for each
one of them, even if they mess up, act out or break the agreements.
Avoid the temptation to joke about or put down any group
member. It is important to separate the person from her actions and
to completely all participants.
In addition, call on and build group members’ sense of pride by
inviting them to talk about what they are proud of, and what
they’ve accomplished during the sessions. Give them verbal
appreciation for what they do and allow them to reflect on what
gets in the way of their believing in themselves. Encourage pride in
how they take care of others and in how they take care of
themselves. Remember that even small steps deserve notice and
appreciation, because each step taken makes possible the next one.
An important part of our work is creating a safe place for young
women to heal from the effects of discrimination, rejection,
exclusion, and violence. The group weaves a fabric of place, time,
and relationship that provides warmth and shelter for each young
woman. Each group member participates for herself and for the
We have found that the group agreements are an effective tool for
establishing ways that the young women in the group will
communicate with one another and with you—ways that may
differ greatly from how they have learned to be together with other
young women. Just making and keeping these agreements with one
another may be the most important purpose and work of the group.
They provide the beginning of a paradigm shift—a vision of a
different way to relate to others. They also give group members the
opportunity to practice breaking down patterns of separation,
judgment, disapproval, and attack. Notice that the agreements
prohibit physical or emotional put-downs. They call for
confidentiality and require all members to speak for themselves
using “I” statements. (This teaches participants to own their unique
experiences and value the experiences of others.) The agreements
help ensure that everyone in the group will be treated respectfully,
that everyone will be able to set her own limits, and that each will
share responsibility for respecting everyone else.
Many young women have experienced authority as abusive. Some
young women will see the agreements as just another set of adult
rules. These young women may see attending the group as
punishment for having acted badly, or may break the rules to
confirm that they are as “bad” as they think they are.
As an adult, you’ll find it easy to slip, unknowingly, into using the
agreements as rules, with penalties for breaking them that range
from reprimands and shaming to expulsion. This is most likely to
happen when things seem, to you at least, out of control. These are
the times when you’ll need to remind yourself, and everyone else
in the group, that these are agreements and that everyone in the
group has a stake in keeping them.
Be open, clear, and consistent about what is and is not okay in the
group and what will happen when someone does something that’s
not okay. Make sure the agreements and consequences for not
adhering to them are clear to group members. Explain anything
that is not clear to them. Negotiate what’s not acceptable. When
you experience confrontation, manipulation, or threats you can
always ask, “What’s up?” Be prepared to listen closely to and to
take into account their responses.
The challenge of leadership is to use your authority as facilitator to
insist that every participant be able to feel safe and welcome
without getting into power struggles and without giving up on any
members of the group. Model consistency and firmness. Don’t
express your authority arbitrarily. Instead, announce the group
limits—and your limits—and keep to them. Infraction of the limits
does not mean retribution or punishment, but it can mean that you
will have agreed-upon and understood sanctions.
Some young women have discovered that one way to receive
serious attention from adults is to rebel against authority or to rebel
against the expectations that they be nice and polite and smile a lot,
or to do both. These adult patterns of attention and discipline are
worth discussing with the group. It is also important that you
respond to all the young women in the group regardless of how
outspoken they are. They will soon learn that, at least in this group,
they don’t need to challenge your authority to get your attention.
Finally, examine your own feelings about having authority and
about previous experiences of being manipulated by authority.
Depending upon your experiences, you might find yourself
wanting to pretend you don’t have it, or making a show of giving it
away. You might use authority out of fear of the young women. Or
you might use it unintentionally to discriminate against members
of the group whom you are less comfortable with. The best you
can do is prepare yourself by looking at your own experiences and
role-playing with other staff members worst-case scenarios of
confrontation, manipulation, or threats. If you are clear, fair and
consistent, young women will usually honor your authority.
You may be facilitating this group in a highly authoritarian
institution which does not encourage young women to express
themselves. If you’re a woman, your own authority may be sharply
diminished, or challenged, within such an environment. You may
well have a lot of practice dealing with the same kind of adult male
authority that the young women in the group struggle to resist. To
encourage their voices, you may have to challenge your own lack
of authority within that institution. In one institution we worked
with, the adult women had come together to start a young women’s
program. They received so much harassment and sabotage from
men in authority that their own survival as a group had to become
the first focus of their attention.
Using your own struggles with authority will help you to
empathize with young women who are struggling with your power
and with that of the institution. Let the young women know about
any struggles you are engaged in with authorities to create time,
place, support and resources for them. Share with them what you
know about the realities of institutional power and authority, and
tell them about successful and unsuccessful strategies you and
others have used to resist and organize against such power.
Seeing Them Through
The presence of a consistent, caring adult gives young women
safety to explore complex issues and build strong positive
connections with other young women. But committing to a
group—especially when that group is meeting about problems or
topics that might involve emotional vulnerability—is difficult. As
discussed above, some young women will resist making such a
commitment by trying to undermine your efforts. Others may resist
by withdrawing emotionally from the group, by being silent or
inactive, or by coming in late, leaving early, or dropping out. You
may find it especially difficult to respond to these more indirect
patterns of resistance.
The best response you can have is to understand these actions for
what they are—survival strategies that may have worked for a
young woman in the past. Keep yourself from blaming the young
women, but be clear about holding them to the agreements. It’s
always appropriate to ask a young woman doing any of these
things, “What’s up?” Take her replies seriously (while realizing
that, for her own safety, she might not be able to tell you
everything that affects her decisions about her participation in the
A group stands or falls based on how well its members are able to
bring up how they’re feeling about the process. You may hear
reflections about what you’re doing, even if they are critical, that
will help you and the group go forward. Remember that adapting
the group process to the needs of the group members is always
more important than sticking to the curriculum. Young women will
gain more from working out for themselves what will meet their
needs than they will from plowing through the material. Honor the
agreements, trust the process, and keep breathing.
Dealing with Intense Emotion
Young women have full, deep, rich and complex emotional lives.
However, despite assumptions that they are emotionally
expressive, many young women have neither extensive
vocabularies for emotions and feelings, nor the security,
experience, or cultural sanction to express what they feel. Most
young women are also trained to maintain relationships with
others, often at the expense of their own integrity and inner
wisdom. Therefore, especially when their feelings might be
interpreted as critical of other people, young women may have
inhibitions about expressing themselves. Talking with the group
about how to express feelings respectfully, using “I feel”
statements, and keeping to the agreements will help to create an
atmosphere in which it is expected that young women can express
themselves and can take care of one another.
For some young women, expressing the anger they feel at those
who have hurt them or at those whom they are in relationships with
may be particularly difficult. In addition, many young women
don’t have any models of adult women who can express their
anger clearly and directly. The media, however, provide many
models of “safer” ways to communicate. These methods—which
may involve indirectness, manipulation, or sarcasm—leave the
communicator with unresolved issues because her feelings have
been neither expressed nor heard. Consider questions such as the
• How good are you at expressing anger in direct, responsible
• What makes you uncomfortable when hearing other
• How might you try to smooth things over, downplay the
strength of the anger, or focus on other feelings?
Young women have much to be angry about. Anger is a normal
response to injustice, pain, anguish and disrespect. Encouraging
the full expression of young women’s anger will allow them to feel
both their pain and their righteous power and lead them to
solutions to their problems individually and collectively. It makes
it less likely that they will self-destruct and more likely they will
construct answers to their problems.
The degree of safety needed for deep emotional work will be
determined to a great extent by your level of comfort. If you are
not prepared to deal with the strong feelings evoked in you by
strong feelings in someone else, young women may not express
their strong feelings or, when expressed, they will not likely be
expressed in the group or, when expressed, they will be diverted,
reinterpreted, or smoothed over.
In general, women and men are taught to value different emotions
and to express emotions differently. It is also true that people from
different ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and family groups learn
different ways of dealing with feelings. One group may value
talking a lot, while another may value silence; one may value
anger, another stoicism; members of one group may engage by
looking one another in the eyes, members of another by looking
down or away. All cultures vary in what is appropriate for one
person to disclose to another. Group norms in our society often
unconsciously reinforce the values of the mainstream, such as
making eye-to-eye contact, talking about feelings, making direct
statements, disregarding the effect of one’s statements on others.
You will have to practice making room for cultural differences.
Talk with adults from the cultural, racial and socio-economic
groups represented among your group members to learn more
about their cultural norms. Cofacilitate whenever possible with
adult women from other ethnic groups.
Remember, the purpose of this group is not to have or express
feelings. The purpose is to get young women to become aware of
their feelings, to notice how their feelings affect their actions, and
to learn new options for acting powerfully and responsibly based
on those feelings.
When young women can see themselves and one another as
sources of support, as positive reflections, as affirmations of power
and intelligence they can build close and effective alliances that
reduce the impact of violence in their lives. Young women may
choose to forego closeness. Relationships may be maintained
superficially, and safely, without one’s truer feelings being
expressed. Or, relationships may be abandoned because honesty
doesn’t feel possible. To maintain a relationship, most young
women feel compelled to compromise their own truth. When this
happens, young women aren’t able to experience deep, intimate,
complex and sustained connection with others. This may lead them
to become strong within but isolated from others or connected with
others but with less sense of self. The ability to be strong and close
is an important skill for member to develop within the group. This
ability will also serve them well as adults. Encouraging the young
women to pay attention to their relationships with other group
members and to work out conflicts will foster their maturity.
Closure provides the opportunity to celebrate young women’s
successes. For some young women, having attended most of the
sessions will mean success. Others will have participated
significantly and perhaps have made major changes in their life.
Closure needs to recognize the progress each young woman has
made in relation to where she started when the group began.
Acknowledging each group member’s success is important. Such
acknowledgment encourages each young women to build on her
newfound awareness and sills long after the lat session has ended.
The young women will react in various ways to completing the
group. Many have only experienced endings as abrupt, abusive,
unsatisfying, and often even unacknowledged.
Spend some time thinking about your closing. Begin
acknowledging the closing several sessions ahead of time. Make
time for young women to reflect on what they have done together,
what their next steps will be, and what it might be like for them
without the group. What commitments would they like to make
with other people and with one another for the near future? Try to
keep these realistic to maximize the possibility of successful
follow-through. Above all, make sure each group member is
acknowledged by everyone for whatever way she has chosen to
participate in the group. A strong clear ending emphasizes the
group members’ power to act positively outside of the group.
Think about your own need for closure with each group you
complete. How do you want to say good-bye to the young women?
Outside of the group, how will you mark the completion of the
group cycle? In what ways will you evaluate what worked and
what didn’t? Who will you talk with about the group? Decide how
you will celebrate the work, energy, time and creativity you put
into making the group happen. You enabled the young women to
come together and, at least for a time, have a vision of what a
caring, supportive and inspiring women’s circle can be like. Even
if only briefly, honor yourself for supporting young women’s
personal development and strengthening their community.
Now that you have looked at some of the general issues involved
in working with young women, let’s examine some of the special
issues. Some concerns may be based on who the young women
are, why they come to the group, and who you are. We don’t
attempt to cover all possible issues but want to remind you to adapt
the curriculum to the needs of the group. Let the young women
define how the sessions have to be modified to take into account
their specific needs.
These materials are specifically designed for young women
between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. We have found them
useful for younger girls and older youth with some modifications.
The age(s) of the youth you work with will determine some of the
mechanics of the group, such as how long the sessions can be
(shorter for younger women), how many physical activities and
breaks you might need to build into the group process, and how
long you can spend on any one topic.
Some exercises will have to be modified for younger women
because they have had fewer experiences.
Don’t underestimate the knowledge young women have, through
the media and through their actual experience, to difficult issues
that you might not have been exposed to until much later in your
own youth. And don’t overestimate their ability to handle difficult
life experiences even if they have had lots of them. The more you
work with young women of a particular age group and from a
particular community, the more you will be able to adapt the
material to them.
Race is an issue that affects almost every aspect of our lives in this
country regardless of our racial identity. This fact is transparently
obvious to all people of color and largely
invisible or “normalized” for white people. Your understanding of
racism and your ability to help young women navigate its
treacherous waters will be profoundly affected by your own
ethnic/racial identity, and by your preparedness for dealing boldly
with this issue. Your feelings and experiences of race and racism
will likely interfere with your ability to be present with the young
women unless you do some work on your own first. For those of
you who are white we recommend Paul Kivel’s Uprooting Racism:
How White People Can Work for Racial Justice; for people of
color, we recommend Gloria Anzaldua’s Making Face, Making
Look at who is in your group….
If your group is Predominantly or Exclusively White Young Women
In many communities white students are in schools with few, if
any, people of color. Those who attend schools with students of
color often have little contact with them because of tracking, social
segregation, or busing. The result is that most young white women
and men learn about other ethnic groups primarily through books,
sitcoms, movies, music, the evening news, or newspaper headlines.
Additional information comes from family and friends who may
themselves have little contact with people of color.
Part of understanding female training for white young women
invariably means coming to grips with their training as white
women. The standards by which white women prove they are
ladies have traditionally been inextricably tied to contrasts with
and separation from women of color.
In everyday conversations many white women don’t interrupt
comments they hear which scapegoat of women of color by
pointing out that substantial numbers of white women are also
poor, single heads of households, on welfare, prostitutes, or recent
immigrants. Racial issues are largely unspoken, or referred to by
using coded phrases such as “welfare mother”, “inner city”,
“children having children”, and “illegal alien”. White women have
often tried to justify equal opportunity for themselves by aligning
with white men as upholders of civilization and bearers of the race
standard. Many young white women are being conditioned to
expect access to white male privileges at the expense of their
sisters of color. As a result, women in general lose out on what
could be a powerful connection and solidarity.
One of the conditions of acceptance for many immigrant groups
when they arrive in America is that if they give up their native
languages, customs and values to assimilate, their members would
be accepted as white. This has set up the misconception that white
people don’t have culture, and that people of color should give up
their languages and traditions to become “American.”
Subsequently job, housing and educational discrimination have
been justified by saying that people of color don’t talk right, don’t
act right, aren’t qualified, or don’t fit in.
Throughout this curriculum young women are encouraged to
reflect on, and reconnect if necessary, with their cultural and racial
heritages. Young white women can take these opportunities to look
at their European American family backgrounds, enabling them to
break down their misconceptions about having a nationality but no
White women often hear messages from family, friends and the
media that men of color are dangerous to them. In fact, sometimes
the false message they hear is that the only thing that men of color
really want is access to the bodies of white women. In truth, white
women are many times more likely to be physically or sexually
assaulted by white men they know—as family members, friends,
dates, co-workers or lovers—than by men of color they don’t
If your group is all white, race may not even be mentioned, except
in an uncomfortable joke or veiled reference. Nonetheless you can
assume that the issue is always present just below the surface. The
main type of violence in an all-white community will be white on
white. Even so, don’t gloss over the “Who Am I?” session and
other cultural/racial exercises because of a lack of women of color
in your group. The success of white women at the expense of
women of color is not acceptable. Cross-racial solidarity among
young women is crucial for changing the conditions of all of their
Predominantly or Exclusively Young Women of Color
Many institutions serve almost exclusively African American,
Latino/a, Native American, or Asian American people. If your
institution is predominantly run or staffed by white people, if your
group is for young women with “problems,” and if the young
women in the group are mostly of color, you can be sure that
discrimination is happening somewhere in your institution. You
will have to deal with its effects in your group by addressing the
anger group members of color feel towards the community and
institutional practices that discriminate against them.
Any adult, regardless of ethnicity, might be reluctant to venture
into a discussion of racism with a group that is predominantly
youth of color. Some of this may be the result of racism—the
implicit belief that this group is more “dangerous” than others.
Well meaning adults may also fear that youth of color will use
acknowledgment of racism as an excuse for rage, apathy, or
hopelessness, or as a reason to strike out. Just the reverse is usually
true. It is a relief to young people of color to have racism
acknowledged. For them, a healthy response to racism includes
refusing to take full responsibility for making better choices unless
they can discuss and analyze the constraints on their lives and
communities. Young women of color have inevitably developed
strategies of survival for dealing with the violence that racism
brings into their lives. They will remain unable to transform these
strategies into strategies of resistance and liberation unless they are
able to talk about and analyze the effects of racism on them and on
the communities of which they are a part.
In these groups, set aside structured time for young women of
color to voice their concerns, anger, fears, and hopes. Invite the
white young women (if there are any in the group) to listen
carefully. Ask them to notice when they get scared, angry, or want
to deny what the young women of color are saying. Remind
everyone in the group that the young white women are not
responsible for the institutional violence young of color have been
targeted with in the past. This is an opportunity to examine racism
and its different effects on the lives of group members.
Without a good understanding of racism, young women of color
will not understand the dynamic in which the powerlessness, fear,
and anger they feel about racism are turned into violence against
their peers and themselves. They have learned the same stereotypes
about themselves that white youth have learned about them. You
may be surprised to hear how deeply these messages of
hopelessness and distrust of others have set in. For young women
of color who come from families where racial pride and the
discussion of racism have given them tools for responding to the
violence of racism, the group can provide a time to value the
teachings passed on to them by family members and community
Pay special attention to issues of race in the sections dealing with
body image and beauty. The dominant standards for women’s
appearance are Euro-centric (even the women of color portrayed in
the media usually have light skin and “European” facial features)
and emphasize the tall, blond, blue-eyed, thin Nordic look. Face
with these messages, many young women of color have difficulty
feeling self assured, beautiful and powerful in their bodies.
In addition, each group member of color will need to hear the
experiences of group members of other ethnicities. One way that
racism works is by pitting one group against another. These
exchanges are not an occasion to figure out who has it the worst;
rather they are opportunities to discover how each individual and
group can be the best possible ally for the others.
Women have always built cross-racial alliances and coalitions.
They have needed to do this for support, to build resistance, and to
create new opportunities and community projects. The young
women in your group probably do not have information about this
“herstory,” but they can begin to establish or affirm these ties
through their own relationships.
Racism is always difficult to bring up in a society that denies its
profound effect on all our lives. When we, as adult facilitators,
create some safety for young women of any race to talk about
racism we have indeed become their allies.
Economic issues are rarely talked about in relation to young
women but they are clearly at the core of their lives. Having
enough money to buy what they need; becoming financially self supporting;
financing educational, training, travel and job
opportunities; and providing for themselves and any children they
might choose to have are all central economic considerations.
Young women in the United States grow up in a society that
expects them to work and raise children, yet places serious limits
on job opportunities, pay, and their ability to achieve success.
Support, but scant resources, exists for maternity leave, parenting
skills, child care, housing and job training—all factors which could
increase their opportunities.
In addition, young women are constantly exposed to images of
lifestyles far beyond what most of them can realistically expect to
achieve. Most young people live in neighborhoods and go to
schools segregated by socioeconomic class. However, because
money makes such a difference in young people’s lives, even small
differences in economic resources and opportunity among them
can produce a variety of feelings including anger, frustration,
despair, resentment, and violence. Young women are often the
recipients of the pain, anger, frustration and violence that young
men in their communities pass on because of their own lack of
How much do you know about the economic circumstances of the
community from which the youth in your group come? Ask
yourself the following questions.
What effects do unemployment rates, the kind of jobs available,
and the standards of living in this community have on the way
violence is acted out among young men and women?
What job opportunities are there for young women in this
What adult female models of economic success do young women
see around them?
How is the economic success of young women tied to the men in
their families of origin, or to the men some of them may relate to
as future partners?
Members of wealthier communities live in private homes and have
access to lawyers, therapists and doctors—resources which allow
them to keep violence private, out of the public eye. When
working in an affluent community remember that “hidden”
violence, such as drug use, battering of partners and children, child
sexual abuse, and suicide, is no less damaging than the more public
forms of violence that young women may experience, such as
sexual harassment and rape.
In any community, whether wealthy, middle-class, working class,
or poor, the tendency is to perceive violence and lack of
opportunity as a problem of “those people,” or groups with less
power than the majority. These groups are usually poorer, darker
skinned, more recent immigrants, or less educated than the rest of
the community. Such stereotyping is itself a form of violence,
dividing people from one another, silencing victims of violence,
and giving license to the forms of violence common in the
One effect of such stereotyping may be that your group comprises
young women of lower socioeconomic. You may, for example,
have been sent the poorer or working-class young women in the
community who have been labeled the “problem.” Here again,
your work is to ignore the labels and help young people address
any class issues that divide them from one another.
Tailoring Your Group to the Community:
Some truths about young women’s lives cross all gender, race, and
class lines, but there are often helpful distinctions to be made based
on the community in which you’re working. For example, young
women in rural areas often have few age-appropriate community
services to turn to. Limited work opportunities, isolation, and
poverty may trap many young women into early childbearing or to
become trapped in abusive situations. Such hardships may make
moving to a city seem attractive and may prevent youths from
attempting to build community where they are. This can be
unfortunate because pride in the land and the history of an area can
help young people develop a strong sense of community.
Cultivating responsibility to a community is a crucial skill in
Urban environments generally offer more youth services than do
rural environments, but they also leave young people vulnerable to
street and neighborhood violence. Larger school systems, unlike
many smaller systems, tend to provide students with a greater
variety of teaching materials and subjects, better access to
information, and much diversity among peers and teachers. But
more students get lost in the larger systems than in the smaller
systems, and they are more likely to confront such dangers as drug
dealing and weapons violence than students from rural areas.
In the suburbs young women face yet another set of problems: few
places for young people to gather, economic segregation and
isolation, high rates of invisible family violence, and the
disruptions of family life caused by parents with mobile personal
and professional lives. They may have learned to deny or gloss
over the real problems they face to keep up appearances. If so, one
of your tasks will be to help them break through this denial.
All young women need to discuss the issues presented in this
curriculum, but the context for this discussion is always the
community they live in—how it fits, how it’s different, and what
must be done here.
Immigrants and Refugees
If you are working with young women who have recently
immigrated to your community from another country, you will
need to understand some of the violence they face in the form of
stereotypes and prejudices held by more established community
groups. Community services are not often set up to aid immigrant
victims of violence. Also, many recent immigrants are refugees
who have come from countries where they faced extreme
violence—war, rape, torture, forced relocation, assassination, and
extortion. Their first need may be to deal with such previous
experiences of violence, and there may be few resources available
Immigrant women who speak a limited amount of English, lack
job skills, or are without legal papers are more likely to be
exploited at work, or battered and sexually assaulted at home or in
relationships. These young women have few legal recourses and
are vulnerable to deportation if attention is brought to their affairs.
Young women who were born in the United States but are
members of immigrant communities have a different set of
constraints. They may have to act as mediators between their
families and community services, and they may face severe
dissonance between the traditional expectations of women in their
communities and the opportunities presented to them by the larger
society. Understanding how these issues are real in the lives of
your group members is essential to helping them understand and
respond to the root causes of violence in their lives.
You may also have to help group members for whom English is a
second language understand the materials and participate fully in
the discussions. Arrangements for translation of the materials or
interpreters for group members who do not speak English. Young
immigrant women may need help finding their voices within the
group. They may also have different cultural styles, different levels
of comfort with public discussion of personal issues, and fears
about public participation that are different from those of
non-immigrant youths. Co-facilitate with or at least talk with adult
community members from the cultures represented in the group
when possible. Always make time for young women to speak up
for themselves within the larger group discussion—the earlier in
the curriculum the better. Use process techniques (such as a “go-around”
in which everyone speaks in turn) to ensure that young
women from cultures where they are not encouraged to speak up
have a chance to participate fully.
If you are working with a group of teen mothers you will have to
adapt the material to meet their needs both practically and
emotionally. Bonding within the group can be facilitated by
having the young women share pictures of their children, and share
their stories, frustrations, fears, and hopes. Such sharing can set a
foundation for discussing more difficult issues.
Being a young mother is not inherently positive or negative. It
depends on the young woman, her maturity, the support, options
and resources in the community that are available to her. For some
young women, having a child brings a newfound focus, vitality,
dedication, and responsibility. For others, it brings depression,
inability to cope, and self-destructive or abusive behavior. Your
job as facilitator is to allow each young mother the opportunity to
participate fully, without judgment, in a group process which will
enhance her ability to thrive under challenging circumstances. At
the same time we must acknowledge the attacks on and
scapegoating of young mothers that continue in the media, in
public policy, and in education and economic development.
Counter to this are the efforts in many communities to address
issues of welfare, child support, affordable child care, job training,
continuing education and economic opportunity. Connecting
young mothers to resources in their community—and to the
grassroots struggles for economic and social justice related to their
situations—increases their life opportunities and strengthen the
Whether pregnancy was intentional or unintentional, becoming a
mother has many different meanings for young women. We should
make no assumptions about the meaning or impact of becoming a
mother on a young woman. We can create a safe, nonjudgmental
place where she can explore these issues with us.
Some young mothers were molested as girls. Others were
impregnated by men significantly older than them. Some young
women become pregnant as a result of sexual assault. When
motherhood results from factors related to male violence, there can
be an additional layer of anger, grief, disappointment, fear and
other feelings which young women need help sorting out. (In most
states it is a crime for adults to be involved sexually with young
women under 18. If you become aware of such an involvement,
reporting issues may be involved.)
Young mothers also need practical support such as child care, baby
supplies, and parenting information. A parenting class is a crucial
supplement to this curriculum when used with young women who
Many of the young women in your group will have had at least
some exposure to drugs but we can’t make any assumptions about
a young woman’s drug use. Drugs—including alcohol, nicotine,
caffeine, diet pills, sleeping pills, amphetamines, cocaine,
marijuana, heroin, and various designer drugs—are part of the
fabric of American life. Almost all young women are exposed to
drugs and their use and many have experimented with one or more
of them. Some young women clearly abuse drugs and some are
The topic of drug use has an obvious place in group discussions
about women’s lives. Drugs are often involved in self-destructive
violence, vulnerability to violence from men, and the numbing of
pain, despair and anger. It’s likely that most young women have
been exposed to alcohol and other drug prevention programs
through the school or community. Most young women will have
developed a wide range of personal strategies for responding to the
presence and availability of drugs.
Young women need time and a safe space to explore the topics of
drug use and abuse; the pressures of living in a society where drugs
are commonly abused; the effects of drugs on their family, friends,
and community; and to ask for and receive the information they
need to make good choices about their own lives. The curriculum
offers several places where these issues can be raised and critical
If you become aware that a young woman in your group is abusing
drugs, you will need to initiate a discussion. Her work in the group
(and perhaps that of other group members) can be undermined if
she turns to alcohol and other drugs instead of to her allies or her
inner strength. This curriculum does not address the fundamental
dynamics of drug abuse. It can work effectively as part of a
recovery program and we think the issues covered here are critical
to addiction treatment, but this curriculum alone is not sufficient to
deal with the range of issues related to substance abuse. Even if
your group is not explicitly addressing recovery issues, you will
nonetheless need to weigh the impact of drug use on your group
and be prepared to discuss it knowledgeably.
There are gangs of young women. Gangs provide protection,
safety, connection, recognition, community, and respect for their
members. When young women join gangs it can be because they
feel locked out of other places—families, schools, and
neighborhoods—that are expected to provide the support they
need. They may also join out of fear, family tradition, or a lack of
Many more young women live in neighborhoods where gangs are
prevalent, have family or friends in gangs, or are in relationship
with male friends who are gang members. These young women
face increased danger from physical and sexual assault and random
violence. They need help in sorting out their options and resources
for staying safe.
This curriculum is not anti-gang members; it is pro-community. It
is about helping young women find ways to be together based on
pride, power, and protection without relying on fear, violence,
constant competitiveness, or self-destructive behavior that gangs
Recent Self-destructive or Violent Incidents
In some institutions, this curriculum will be introduced after an
incident of violence. It may have been an event such as a teen
suicide, an interracial fight, a boyfriend beating up his girlfriend,
young women fighting with each other, gang activity, or incidents
of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Address self-destructive
behavior and recent incidents of violence directly without blaming.
Both are frightening for the young women involved and for others
in the group. The curriculum offers times for group members to
write about and discuss recent incidents of violence. Certain events
or discussions may trigger strong emotional responses such as
despair, fear, confusion, or rage. Healing from the effects of
violence is important for each individual and can be a catalyst for
young women to join together to stop violence.
Your willingness to deal with the fear and anxiety that comes up
can create a healing environment for all member of the group. We
each carry the seeds of desperation that can bloom into suicidal
thoughts, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, or striking out at
others. Continuing to include and treat with respect members who
have been involved in these activities sends a statement to others in
the group that you distinguish between people and their behavior.
You let them know you hold people in high regard even when they
are not able to do so for themselves or others. You maintain that
they are inherently worthy of love and acceptance; that you believe
in their ability to reflect the positive qualities they came into the
world with; and that you fully expect that, with support and
assistance, they will regain control over self-defeating and self-destructive
If recent violence has resulted in a group member (or more than
one) suffering from major trauma, you may need community
counseling resources to help her heal from the events. In any case,
run the group in the context of what is currently happening. Give
group members a chance to talk about what is going on, how they
feel, about how they want to support each other, and about how
they can respond to violence.
Family Violence, Sexual Assault, Child Sexual Assault:
Confidentiality and Reporting Laws
Physical and sexual abuse of young women is endemic in many of
our communities. Even if you are in a school and community
where there is little overt or public violence, be aware that some
young women have been abused or involved recently in a self-destructive
or violent episode. Be clear to group members that your
first priority is their safety. If you become aware that someone is
being abused, or if you believe that someone is planning to hurt
herself or someone else, then you are by law mandated to report it.
Tell the group members about your reporting requirements up front
so that they know what you are required to do before they disclose
any information. Young women cope with violence in many
different ways. Group members may decide to get information
from you by asking about the problems of a “friend of theirs.” Or
they may decide to use the group directly as a place to sort out the
details and discuss possible courses of action. Individuals can reap
great benefit from the combined experience of group members.
Some young women will come to you outside the group with their
stories of abuse. If you make it safe enough, young women will tell
you what is happening to them. You should be prepared to respond
and to work out an intervention where it is required. Learn the
reporting requirements and procedures in your state. Discuss with
your supervisor and other staff members how to respond to young
women who are in abusive and dangerous situations. Make sure
you have others adults you can confer with and get support from
for this eventuality. Steer young women to appropriate resources
for support and intervention, if necessary. If you work with young
people, you are probably already aware that the response of official
agencies such as child protection services is highly variable and
often arbitrary. Intervention can be in the best interest of the child
and still be terribly destructive. The foster care system, legal
system and other elements of institutional response are not to be
relied on for consistent, caring attention to the needs of young
people facing abusive situations. It may be important to help young
women in trouble think about other, non-institutional resources
such as extended family networks, friends, and community-based
organizations in addition to whatever official resources are
When a group member tells her story publicly, the rest of the group
is affected. It is difficult for anyone to expose herself as a victim of
physical or sexual abuse. When witnessing this, other group
members need a chance to talk about their own experiences of
abuse. They may also want to figure out how to offer support. This
is not a time to talk about, gossip about, or blame the person who
has disclosed, it is a time to remind everyone of the agreements of
confidentiality and of not judging others.
Other young women may deny the possibility that they could ever
be victims of abuse. They may say, “I would just leave if a guy hit
me!” Vulnerability to violence can be terrifying; denial is one way
of dealing with the fear. Denial of their own vulnerability can also
make young women critical of other young women who have been
victims of violence. They may even blame the victims. In reality,
no one is immune from sexual assault or physical attack. It is
precisely when we want to separate ourselves from the survivors of
violence that we need to see our common vulnerability and work to
make the community safer for all of us. Understanding our
common need for safety is an important component of this work.
On the other hand, breaking down young women’s survival
strategies is not useful unless they are replaced by skills in getting
help. You don’t want to make young women feel completely
vulnerable and unable to survive. It is best for group members to
listen to one another’s stories, talk about their feelings, and self-monitor
their acceptance of the vulnerability to violence that young
women must contend with. Self-defense classes are excellent ways
for women to build up self-confidence and skills while accepting
the realities of violence. We strongly recommend that self-defense
be taught to all young women for the great emotional and physical
resiliency and responsiveness that such training provides in
situations of danger. A good self-defense class is an excellent
complement to this curriculum.
If you are working with young women, individually or in a group,
who have experienced extreme violence—the murder of a close
friend or family member, rape, child sexual assault, abandonment,
long-term physical abuse, imprisonment as a refugee, or war—you
can expect serious resistance, denial, and layers of self-protection.
In most of these cases long-term individual therapy is called for to
deal with the more severe symptoms which may include
dissociation, personality splitting, hyper-arousal, and terror. The
material in these sessions can supplement, but not replace, the
slow, painful healing necessary for recovery from the trauma
caused by extreme violence.
A Final Note
You’ll need to try to understand and to plan for the possibility that
the conditions under which young women come to your group may
prohibit the group from working. And the environment or the
institution in which the group is being conducted may be so
oppressive and anti-young woman that you cannot create enough
safety for the group to work. Many schools, drug programs,
juvenile detention halls, and other institutions where young women
are congregated are more accustomed to criminalizing and
punishing them than in helping them rebuild their lives. At the
same time, some of the young women in your group may be so
damaged by the violence they have experienced and the training
they have received that they need longer term, more individualized
help than this group can provide. It’s important to expect as much
as you can, but it is always appropriate to scale your goals to what
is possible. Neither you nor the young women can be blamed for
the group not working under such conditions.
It is doable. Together you can create a safe place where women
can come together to heal from violence, to rebuild lives, to
reestablish the web of community, and to challenge the status quo.
You bring your skills, experiences, and best intentions. The young
women bring their experiences, their resiliency, their intelligence,
their survival skills, and often their subversive attitudes.
Advocates for young women
We have found that inevitably, running a program for young
women means becoming an advocate for them within the
institutions in which you work. In fact, advocating is one of the
most important ways we can work for them as allies. Simply
creating a time and a place for young women to get some attention
may put you up against entrenched practices that deny the value of
young women’s lives and that bring into question your own
position in the organization. Young women will need your help to
sort out the many issues and problems they face. Some of these
will relate to specific policies and practices which put them at risk.
Your job is to work with them to devise action plans for making
changes. In addition, you will need to advocate for them in
meetings, discussions, and planning and funding sessions to keep
their needs visible, their voices heard, their lives addressed.
To work with young women and to be an effective advocate for
them you will need adult support, both female and male, so that
you don’t become isolated within your organization or burn out
with the responsibility and demands. Investigate the following:
• Who are the advocates for young women in the
organization in which you work?
• Who among your supervisors, administrative staff, and coworkers
can you count on for backup when challenges
• Who can you turn to for support, listening, ideas, feedback
and appreciation for the work you do?
• Who are the women in your community doing similar
• How can you structure regular time with the people you
Working with young women is wonderfully exciting, immensely
satisfying, difficult, challenging, and absolutely crucial. At the
same time, it is also underpaid, under-supported, undervalued, and
underappreciated. We hope this curriculum will be a tool for
making your work more effective. The authors are available to
provide additional support, training and technical assistance for the
important work you are doing on behalf of young women.
Below are some specific activities you could do as follow-up to the
1. Keep the group going as an informal discussion group
directed by the young women.
2. Have a group reunion a month or two after the group stops.
3. Set up a community-service project that the group members
can do together.
4. Ask the young women what they might like to do to
continue the work they have started.
5. Turn the group into a violence-free relationships support
group using curricular activities from Helping Teens Stop
6. Connect the young women with adult mentors to continue
their support and growth.
7. Teach those who are ready to become peer educators or
conflict resolution managers.
8. Establish office or visiting hours when the young women
can come and talk with you on a regular basis.
9. Connect the young women to educational, job, and
10. Meet with other staff members to discuss what you’ve
learned from the group to build more awareness of and
organizational support for the needs of young women.
11. Start a new group and invite some of your graduates to
participate as assistant leaders.
12. Show the “Young Women’s Work” video to other groups
of young women and ask your graduates to help lead
Long-term work with young women is difficult for all of the
reasons we discussed in the beginning of this guide. External
pressures will continue to be at work in their lives. Approaching
adulthood increases the pressure on each of them to be a “good”
girl. Your continued presence in their lives, however, can provide a
model of strength and support that they are hungry for, even if they
can’t always acknowledge or take advantage of it. More important,
their presence in one another’s lives can, over the long haul, create
a community norm by which they can help one another and make
changes in their lives and their community. You and your
institution can foster those changes by making safe meeting or
activity space available and by providing funding, further training,
adult attention, jobs, and opportunities for continuing education.
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Gilligan, Carol, et al. Women, Girls and Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance. Edited by Annie G. Rogers. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1991.
Leadbeater, J. Ross and Niobe Way. Urban Girls: Resisting Stereotypes, Creating Identities. New York: New York University Press 1996.
Russell, Diana E. H. “The Incidence and Prevalence of Intrafamilial and Extrafamilial Sexual Abuse of Female Children.” In Handbook of Sexual Abuse of Children, edited by Lenore E. A. Walker. New York: Springer Publishing 1988.
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Copyright 1998 by Paul Kivel www.paulkivel.com
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