Monday, December 7, 2009

Determined Divas try to break the cycle of inner city life

Young women sit in a circle at the Danforth Community Center on West Avenue.

In the middle of the formation, Beverly Jackson, a city youth worker, paces.

“You’re all works in progress,” Jackson tells the 25 members of the group known as the Determined Divas, an organization she formed to redirect young women who are either gang members or associates of gangs.

At Jackson’s words, the Divas nod in agreement.

At some time or another, most of them have been suspended from school for fighting or for not showing up for classes. Many have troubled home lives. Some are, or have been, homeless.

They are, for sure, a challenge, a possibly lost generation of young women doomed to bleak futures by circumstances and their own anger. Beyond that, the resources to help them are in short supply.

But a group like the Determined Divas can save these girls and also lower the violence in Rochester, says Renee Turner, the vice principal of I’m Ready, a City School District program for students on long-term suspension from district schools.

“This is the start of something that could turn things around in this city for kids who need help,” Turner says. “…Taken to another level, this could be a national program.”

If it should become that, it will be a tribute to Jackson’s ability to convince young women that many of the things they have heard about themselves are wrong. They are not doomed to fail and to fight; they can change; they do have reason to believe.

“I don’t deal with hopeless chicks,” Jackson tells the girls in the circle, using her best drill sergeant voice. “You have to empower yourselves.”

The Divas were created earlier this year, after Turner asked Jackson to help address the fact that many of the young women in the I’m Ready program got there because of acts of violence. Girl violence has been a “hidden secret” in Rochester, Turner notes, overshadowed by violence among boys in gangs. But the violence among girls is persistent and dangerous, she adds, especially because knives are the “weapon of choice.”

The Divas included young women who had fought with each other, a possible obstacle to success. But the sessions focused on nonviolent ways to resolve conflict and on other coping skills. Jackson and others were there to listen, to advise, but not to judge.

Jackie Campbell, the director of the city’s Bureau of Youth Services, says that the group offered the young women a chance “to be in an environment where the boundaries are in place.”

Inspired by the girls’ enthusiasm for the gatherings, Jackson kept the meetings going over the summer and into the fall, the sessions taking place at the Danforth center. The membership has expanded beyond the original group as the word has gotten out.

Narasonda Gibbs, 17, is an original Diva, someone who was, in Turner’s words, “determined to fight no matter what.”

Gibbs carries reminders of that person on the back of her right hand where “Nonny” is tattooed in cursive. It’s her nickname, her street name, her alter ego.

“This is the angry person,” she says, moving her hand in a video interview with the Democrat and Chronicle. “This is the person who did mistakes in the past.”

When she knows she has her life together, Gibbs plans on having her real name, “Narasonda” tattooed on her left hand.

She’ll know it’s the right time when she has graduated from high school, when she has a steady job, when things are going well between her and her parents.

By her own account, Gibbs started fighting with other girls when she was 13. Before that, she loved school, got good grades and was happy.

Then something happened; anger took over and she got in a fight with another girl over a boy.

She was suspended from school. When she came back she got in another fight and got suspended again. What she calls a “constant pattern” had begun.

Gibbs, who has a gang’s brand on one arm, was squaring off against another girl early this year.

She thought she had been punched in the face, but actually she had been cut. Her blood was everywhere, and she was taken to an emergency room.

“I was scared; I was nervous,” she says. “When I got to the hospital, everything came out. I was crying; I was in pain.”

It took 26 stitches to close the wound, and she has been left with the scar, a reminder of what can go wrong when she loses control.

Life has been better this fall, she says.

“I feel like I’m living up to my expectations for myself,” says Gibbs, who attends Dr. Freddie Thomas High School. “To be a Diva, I have to keep my reputation up. If I hadn’t met Bev (Jackson), I don’t think I would have made it.”

Reasons for anger

Lizz Jackson, 14, a Determined Diva who is not related to Bev Jackson, quickly explains why it is that girls fight. “The gossip, the boys, the jealousy,” she says, going through a mental checklist.

Then there are other reasons. “I get mad at all kinds of stuff,” she says.

For sure, all of the Divas have reasons to be mad, to believe they have been short-changed by life.

In the video, one talks of her father being killed by a gunshot when she was 4; later she sees her mother abused. Others talk of fathers in jail or on their way to jail.

None of them speaks of stable lives.

Tonesha Jackson, who is 18 and not related to Beverly or Lizz Jackson, says that when she was little she moved a lot, and then she ticks off the elementary schools she attended: Schools 9, 22, 14, 7.

Then there was Charlotte High School and some time in a Muslim school. Throughout all of this relocation, she found herself uninterested in school.

For this, she blames no one but herself.

“It was my fault,” she says. “I was just young and dumb.”

“These girls are really trying to change,” Jackson says of her works in progress, her determined and hopeful Divas.

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