WASHINGTON – March 1st was the last time eight-year-old Relisha Rudd was seen, leaving a local hotel here with Kahlil Tatum, a 51-year-old custodian who had been tasked to babysit her. Exactly a month later, Tatum was found dead; Rudd remains missing and the trail has gone cold.
The same week Tatum's death was announced, the body of 30-year-old, first-year medical resident Teleka Patrick was pulled from a lake in Indiana. In the days leading up to her December disappearance, she and others expressed concern over her mental health. The circumstances of her death remain unclear.
One week after Patrick's body was found, 22-year-old Karyn Washington, founder of For Brown Girls, a well-known blog dedicated to combatting colorism and promoting self-love for Black women, was found dead in an apparent suicide.
The plight of black boys garners well-deserved attention, even from the White House—but Black girls are fighting epic wars of their own, too.
"Black girls are under the radar," says Monique Morris author and president of the National Black Women's Justice Institute. "At this point, all of the conversations are geared toward men and boys, and now at least a billion dollars annually will be invested in ensuring that men and boys of color have services that are uniquely responsive to their condition. And we don't see that similar investment in girls."
This lack of investment may be because black girls seem to be winning their wars, especially when compared to their male counterparts. On standardized math and reading tests, they outscore their male counterparts. They report lower levels of tobacco and alcohol use than their white counterparts, according to the Center for Disease Control's youth surveillance survey. And 2012 National Education Statistics reports of gains in higher education, with African-American women and girls coming from behind to outpace everyone in the rate of college enrollment.
At the same time, four in 10 black girls don't graduate from high school. Starting as early as preschool, they are more likely to be suspended than all other girls, and most other boys. In some states, such as Wisconsin, they are the group most likely to be disciplined in this way. Social justice organization Black Women's Blueprint finds that nearly 60 percent of black women have been sexually assaulted by age 18. And in 2009, University of Southern California researchers found that black girls are actually 50 percent more likely than white girls to be bulimic.
"It's important to have conversations with girls about patriarchy and about racism, so they understand the structures they're living in and can develop the language and analysis on how to navigate these systems," Morris explains "They get it. They know when they're being victimized, and they understand that there are constructs of oppression. What they might not understand is the ways they're internalizing it, and believing it, and reenacting it in ways that are destructive to their own wellbeing."
Saving Our Lives, Hearing Our Truths is one program that's trying to help foster that understanding and sense of self-examination. Based in Illinois' Champaign-Urbana metro area, SOLHOT creates safe spaces for black girls through art, storytelling, camaraderie, and the support of the eight black women (called "Homegirls") who shepherd them.
"Black girlhood is rather complex," says Claudine "Candy" Taaffe, a SOLHOT Homegirl and doctoral student in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Education. "Because it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Black girls are not asking to be saved, and I'd argue that Black boys are saying the exact same thing."
So what are black girls asking?
"A lot of it is just not being understood, not being listened to, not being expected to be as smart as other people," Taaffe says of the middle- and high-school girls she works with.
"They're trying to figure out their relationships with their mothers. And sexuality is a big thing. They're so into their intimate relationships, and not just with boys. We have queer and questioning girls in SOLHOT, just as we have heterosexual girls in our group."
Black girls may not be asking to be saved, but as SOLHOT's success suggests, the positive, judgment-free support of adults is helpful.
The National CARES Mentoring Movement brings this idea to life with a blend of education programs, community partnerships, mentor recruitment and training programs, and both one-to-one and group-mentoring programs. And although CARES Mentoring seeks to lift the boats of all black children, Founder and CEO Susan Taylor has noticed specific challenges facing girls.
"What I have found, in listening to girls, is a profound loneliness. More than anything I would say that black girls are saying that they need to speak," she said. "I see a cry for guidance, and for the wings of more mature women to cover them. And to hear them."
The National Council of Negro Women has also prioritized such work for nearly 80 years, through components such its Bethune Program Development Center. The initiative creates and supports community-based, empowerment and mentoring programs, particularly for black girls.
The NCNW Los Angeles View Park section, for example, works with the girls of South-Central L.A.'s Imperial Courts housing projects. Through the eight-week Phoenix Leadership Academy, girls ages 8 to 14 enjoy etiquette class, cultural field trips, yoga, mentorship, and other activities designed to enrich their lives.
"It's important to expose our girls to see other ways of life," says Carolynn Martin, president of the NCNW Los Angeles View Park. "Because if I [for example] live in a disadvantaged community with parents who are also not exposed, it's a very limited life. For example, some of the girls we work with have never been to the beach, even though it's less than 10 miles away. Exposure to schools, colleges, careers, to give them ideas on what they might want to try."
The importance of exposure, in tandem with providing sanctuaries where black girls can be heard and understood, was continually echoed.
When girls aren't exposed to talent and career possibilities (or are not trained for them), the result is underrepresentation across both industry, and career level. The science, technology, engineering, and math-related (STEM) fields, for example, are still facing a deep gender gap; correspondingly, these fields are nearly void of black women, particularly in managerial and executive roles.
"It's difficult, to say the least, growing up in tech as a woman of color," says Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code. "It's difficult to move through corporate settings, and it's even harder to find mentors and sponsors to relate to on a cultural level. There's simply not a lot of role models or mentors in leadership positions."
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Black Girls Code offers workshops, after-school programs, and training camps to expose middle- to high-school Black girls to the varied world of technology. The activities teach everything from web design, to app creation, to robotics. Bryant explains that part of the mission of Black Girls Code (which has installations in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Las Vegas, and more), is to make sure that today's middle school Black girls never have to get used to being the only one in the room.
On the other side of the country, Maura Hackett, teen program director at Science Club for Girls, is also trying to reach this goal. SCFG, an extracurricular STEM program aimed at K through 12 grade girls in the Greater Boston area, offers free hands-on workshops, mentorship, competitions, and field trips to foster interest in STEM fields.
"It's hard to find black women mentors for our girls, and it's something we're working toward [correcting]," she says. "The girls get really into [STEM forums] when they find and can talk to people who look like them; you see them open up a lot quicker. You can see the hesitation when we enter all-male rooms. One girl actually told me, 'I can be that because there's someone in there who looks like me.'"