Black girls in Mississippi know that the world too often sees them as angry, man-hungry, uneducated baby mamas. Their perceived value can depend on how light their skin is, how thin their bodies are, and how loosely their hair curls. They sometimes withstand sexual assault and depression, and a culture of secrecy makes it difficult to talk about trauma.
Young women of color in New Mexico are often so busy taking care of family members in the context of intergenerational addiction that they lack the time or support to make their own plans or pursue their own dreams. They live in the shadow of a potential border wall and long for “a world where there is healthy masculinity.”
These are some findings from a year-long, nationwide listening tour undertaken by the New York–based NoVo Foundation, which this month announced it will invest $90 million in efforts to serve girls of color over the next seven years—the largest commitment to that demographic by a private foundation to date. Hosting listening sessions, which were attended and summarized by cultural anthropologist Aimee Cox, was a critical step in the foundation’s process of determining how and where to distribute its funds.
For Autumn Billie, a 23-year-old indigenous feminist and activist who talked with the foundation last year about her sex-education work with Native American students in rural northern New Mexico, the experience was unique. “Wow, someone is coming in and actually valuing the authentic mission and the authentic programming and organizing that we actually want to do, instead of [asking us to] fit in a kind of cookie cutter,” she said, reflecting on the conversation.
Giving girls of color and their advocates this sense of being in the driver’s seat was precisely what NoVo intended with its approach to developing its grant-making strategy. “We listen deeply because we know foundations are not the experts,” Jody Myrum, who directs the foundation’s Initiative to Advance Adolescent Girls’ Rights, told me. “Really, girls and movement leaders are the experts.” Based on feedback from those experts, NoVo is taking a three-pronged approach: