New York, N.Y. — Notes from the Field includes reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015 This is our third round of bloggers: Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility serving adolescent girls in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member serving at a Cristo Rey school in Boston.
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
- Maya Angelou, "Phenomenal Woman"
As March and Women's History Month came to a close, I was meditating on what it means to be a woman in American society.
There are so many boxes you are supposed to fit into as a woman, so many unspoken and spoken rules you are expected to follow — so much pressure and so many constant in-your-face messages that you must change to be loved or valuable. Frankly, it is exhausting, and it saddens me greatly.
In the facility where I work, we spent the whole month of March focusing on women's history, learning about various inspiring women who have gone before us. The residents were moderately interested in the information, which was great, compared to how they view a lot of other topics that I personally find interesting; they even admitted to learning something. I was ecstatic.
Every month, we host a family night as an opportunity for all the residents' families to visit them at the facility, meet staff and eat delicious food together. We often incorporate themes that the girls have been learning about into the night, so naturally, the March family night was focused on women's history.
We planned to begin the evening with two of our young women co-reciting Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman." As I sat with them while they rehearsed, I watched as they pored over the words, reciting their parts, each time with greater tenacity, confidence and attitude.
I loved it. I got chills as they repeated the lines "Phenomenal Woman, that's me" over and over in unison.
Oh, how desperately I want this to be understood as truth in their lives and in their minds. This world breaks down our girls so quickly. I see how the pressure for perfection affects these young women each day and how worthless they can feel because of what seem to me like unimportant details. About half of the residents in the facility will refuse to go to school if their hair is not done the way they feel it needs to be, and the majority of their small stipends are spent on name-brand clothes and manicures. This intense pressure to look and act a certain way is further perpetuated by what they see in the media and by their peers, who are influenced by the same pressure. There is so much self-hatred and despair when you feel as if you are not valuable, and it is soul-crushing.
These girls, and all girls, have the potential for greatness. They are talented, imaginative, creative, intelligent, passionate individuals who have already overcome so much in the challenging lives they live. Yet I witness them crushed and hurt by perceived slights, subtle oversights by a boy, or a backhanded comment from an equally insecure peer. This is why I feel that it is so important to have strong female role models for young girls. They need women who have been in their shoes and understand the pressures but have overcome them with grace and courage, which was a huge focus of Women's History Month in the facility.
The youth are inspired by the powerful women we studied, and they appreciate and look up to many of them, but the real impact comes from those much less famous.
On that day in March, the youth, their families and the staff all stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a large circle in the dining room as the two residents started off the evening with the poetry reading.
After the reading of "Phenomenal Woman," we went around the circle, gave an example of an inspirational woman in our life and said how she inspires us each day. I was expecting a lot of Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou (who are all incredibly strong, brilliant, inspiring women), but many of the girls rattled off the names of staff members who work at the facility without the slightest hesitation.
My name was thrown out at one point, and I felt unworthy of being considered "inspiring" to any of these girls. But as they continued to name other female staff members around me, I was just short of giving a standing ovation for them all.
I could not agree more. The women working in this house are incredible. They are some of the strongest and most compassionate souls I have had the pleasure of meeting.
Dear reader, I wish you could know these women and experience the power they embody. They radiate a pure fearlessness and power focused on loving and supporting these girls. It brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart even thinking about it now.
I have never seen such dedication from so many employees. Not a single person watches the clock, waiting to go home, or breaks off a conversation because the shift is up. They go the extra marathon, not just the extra mile. They treat these girls as if they were their own children or younger sisters, with so much care and devotion.
I am so thankful for role models like these women, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for their dedication to all of the young women still growing up and searching for themselves.* I hope they can understand even a fraction of the impact they have on the lives of many young women, and therefore, the world.
Empowered women will never cease changing the world for the better, and the women I speak of are a huge part in that. I pray that women like them will multiply and that the culture of love, encouragement and grace will spread to women all over. We as women understand what other women are going through, and we need to support one another. We are on the same team; we need to be for each other when others are not. There is such power in women, especially in women coming together to fight for change and to radically love as one. I feel honored to know women like this and to be able to be a part of such a powerful and unique culture.
* I want to make it known that the men serving in this facility are equally as dedicated and incredible. The team would not work without them, and they bring such beautiful perspective and respect to the girls' lives. I could write an entire post about the amazing things the men do as well.
[Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility that serves adolescent girls in New York City.]
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