This blog is the first interview from Platform’s new series: Amplified. Through interviews and conversations Amplified centers the voices of women who are expanding the definition of advocacy and moving the world with their stories, dedication, and intellectual prowess.
My name is Evie Bellew and I started this project to learn from women who are leading today’s most critical issues and to learn how young women can be better advocates. For the first installment of Amplified, I interviewed Cherice Hopkins, a social justice leader and Staff Attorney at Rights4Girls. Rights4Girls is an organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence against young women and girls in the U.S., with particular focus on combating domestic child sex trafficking, improving system responses to survivors of violence and ending the abuse to prison pipeline. In our conversation, Cherice explained how marginalized girls are criminalized for the experiences of trauma and violence, and how we can all be a part of the solution to this problem.
In your work, what are the most pressing problems you see?
Something we have to understand is that most of the girls involved in the justice system have have experienced childhood violence and girls are actually being criminalized for their responses to trauma. Many girls who have been marginalized don’t have access to resources and supports needed to heal from experiences of violence. Left to deal with trauma on their own, they can try to cope in unhealthy ways like running away from an unsafe home
But often because of stereotypes and damaging misconceptions, these girls aren’t perceived as victims but as criminals. Girls of color are especially impacted because they are often perceived as adults and as hypersexualized beings. This is a harmful perspective in which a young woman’s full humanity is not realized. Our first reaction to seeing girls engaged in concerning behavior should always be to ask if she is okay and try to find out what is going on behind the behavior.
What are commonly held misconceptions about girls in the justice system?
It is definitely a misconception that girls in the justice system are “bad girls” and criminals. Most people don’t realize that girls are the fastest growing segment in the juvenile justice system, Black girls in particular. Most of our conversations about criminal justice have been about adult men and when we do talk about kids, the conversations focus on boys. For a long time reform efforts were focused on the needs boys. Because of this, the stories and unique needs of young women often go overlooked. We are trying to change this.
For example, our latest report, “Beyond the Walls” focused on girls in DC’s juvenile justice system and we found some startling information. In the past 10 years in DC girls arrests rates have gone up 87 percent while boys arrest rates went down. Black girls are particularly impacted—97 percent of the girls committed to DC’s juvenile justice system are Black and Black girls are arrested at a rate 30 times that of white girls and white boys. And they are coming in to the system at younger ages than boys.
This is not because of increasing violence; we know that 86 percent of arrests of girls in D.C. are for non-violent, non-weapon related offenses. This is because our policies, practices, and even advocacy don’t have a racial and gender lens. These statistics are reflective of what is happening nationally and really illustrates the importance of intersectionality.
How do you work to make change?
Our advocacy includes policy reform, providing training and technical assistance, research, coalition building, and public awareness campaigns. While changing laws and practices is important to improving how we respond to survivors of violence, we realize that changes we need will not happen without a cultural shift. For example, a boy gets into a fight and it is viewed as “boys will be boys”, but a girl gets into a fight she is deemed a “bad girl” even though she may have felt unsafe and been trying to protect herself. We need to pay attention to how speak to and about girls. It sends a harmful message when young girls who are victims are blamed for the abuse they experienced or their response to that abuse.
Uplifting and centering the voices of survivors is also a big part of our work. At Rights4Girls all of our advocacy is informed by survivors, who are the experts of their experiences. Our current campaign “there is no such thing as a child prostitute”—are the words of a child sex trafficking survivor that we worked in partnership with to launch the campaign.
What skills are important for working in advocacy spaces?
The number one thing is listening to the community that you are advocating on behalf of. As an adult who advocates on the behalf of youth, I know that their experiences are unique and not the same as those I experienced when was a kid. Even if you are a member of the community you are advocating for it is important to listen, for example, a person of color advocating on behalf of other people of color should recognize that their experiences still may be very different.
Communication is also a crucial skill. You need it to build coalition. You need it to educate people in your community. You need it for meeting with policy makers on the Hill. I also love that advocacy is great place to explore creativity. There is no one way to be an advocate. Organizations who are working on the same issue can approach solutions in very different ways. Some advocates are creative in how they incorporate art and media, some take on new and creative campaigns, and others have developed creative communication styles.
What has been the role of mentors for you?
I am so fortunate because I have a great support system. Self-care is huge. I am working on very intense issues every day. And a lot of people who work in advocacy spaces have been personally impacted by the issues they work on. So it can be very difficult and having community and support is essential.
It can also be challenging to interact with people who do not share your concerns, or who share your concerns but differ on the solutions or how to move forward. You have to constantly work to change hearts and minds and get things done despite disagreement. Having mentors is helpful to talk through those challenges. No matter what you do—mentorship is critical.
How can I learn more?
On our website (Rights4girls.org) you can find a lot of information about the abuse-to-prison pipeline and the realities of domestic child sex trafficking. Additionally, communities have rape crisis centers and other organizations that assist survivors of gender-based violence. In addition to providing services to survivors, these organizations often have great information about violence against women and girls, even explaining what different forms of violence look like. For those working or interacting with youth like educators, or even law enforcement there are trainings on how to provide trauma-informed assistance that is focused on understanding how trauma impacts people and behavior.
Last words on being an advocate?
Don’t overlook the way we interact every day in the spaces that we hold. One thing that really brought me into this work in the first place is… there was a point in my life when so many people I knew were telling me about their experiences of violence—even when we were just having coffee. Often when we think of advocacy, we think of this big picture problem and grand plan we have to execute, but we forget the power of everyday interactions. I would encourage young women to remember that you have so much power and influence in school, day jobs, with friends, at church, whether that is being a source of support to your peers or trying to change policies and practices in these spaces. Remember that there is so much opportunity for change in our day to day no matter where you are. It’s important for young women to know they are the experts of their lives, their voices are valuable, and there are so many ways to advocate.