When Benita Miller, the 37 year-old founder of the Brooklyn Young Mother’s Collective, was growing up in Detroit, she didn’t know anyone who’d spent time in foster care. “People just took kids in,” she says.
Kinship networks were strong and neighbors looked out for one another, helping in whatever ways they could. “I’m the daughter of teenaged parents,” she adds, “but my uncle got my dad a job at Chrysler and my mom went to school to become a nurse. I lived five minutes away from my grandparents and got a high level of support from the entire extended family.”
Miller thought her upbringing was typical. That perception changed in 1996 when, fresh out of law school, she began working at the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Division in Brooklyn. There, she routinely saw the Family Court dismantle families, placing children in congregate care facilities or foster homes.
She couldn’t help but compare what happened in Brooklyn with what was done back home. “I started to ask myself what would happen if we created a program to provide young mothers with the social supports and networking opportunities women like my mother had,” she recalls. “I wondered if that would increase the likelihood that my client’s daughters would grow up to become lawyers.”
It didn’t take long for Miller to grow dissatisfied with her job. “What we were doing at Legal Aid did not help our clients develop their leadership capacities or advocate for themselves or their children,” she says. She also became increasingly serious about creating a holistic program for teen mothers and their kids.
In 2004 Miller resigned from Legal Aid and created The Brooklyn Child Care Collective—renamed the Brooklyn Young Mother’s Collective in 2007—to assist low income girls of color from central Brooklyn, an area where the teen birthrate is 106 per 1000. For 10 months, until the New York Foundation gave her a grant, Miller funded the project herself.
What has evolved is a program that teaches teen mothers their legal rights, and provides information about pregnancy, child-rearing, sexuality, and reproduction. BYMC also offers information about college, community activism, and organizing. Miller started with once-weekly brown bag lunches at the now-defunct School for Continued Education, known as the “P-School” because the entire student body was either pregnant or parenting. Each week the group explored a different legal topic. “It always tied back to Family Court,” Miller explains, “because whatever happens in a poor person’s life ends up there. People are subject to child welfare investigations when things go wrong, for example if they lose their housing or their lives are disrupted when a household member is arrested.”
Jelysa Roberts, a 19 year-old Kingsborough Community College student and mother of a three-year-old son, met Miller as a P-School student. Now a part-time staff member at BYMC, Roberts leads a weekly parenting workshop for incarcerated teenaged girls.
“I was in Catholic school when I got pregnant and Benita told me that I had a legal right to return to that school after I had the baby, which I did.” Miller also told Roberts that the LYFE Centers, which provide childcare for children of high school students, were required to take her son even though she attended private school because they receive government funding. “They’d originally told me ‘No,’ but I knew this was wrong and called every day until my son got enrolled,” Roberts recalls.
Being an advocate comes naturally to Roberts. “It would be selfish of me to walk away with the information I’ve learned from BYMC when I can help other girls,” she says.
At the same time, Roberts is deeply bothered by the dearth of social supports for young people juggling work, school and childrearing. “You say you want us to go to school but there is so little affordable day care. You need money for a Metrocard to get your child to the babysitter and then get to school or work. Colleges expect us to be in clubs in high school but LYFE says we have to get our kids by 3:00. There are so many challenges that no one does anything about.”
Roberts is nonetheless upbeat and focuses on her ultimate goal—to become a nurse. “I have to try to see it beyond today,” she says. “I know that if I’m not straight, it will be impossible for my son to be straight as a young boy of color from New York City. People need to understand that no matter what age you are, raising a child is not easy. I do the same things a mother who is 30 does. We all have to look for childcare and make sure our children eat.”
Thanks to BYMC, Roberts has met many single teen moms and appreciates the support she gets from both the staff and her peers. She also knows that she is lucky to be able to live at home with her son; other BYMC moms are on their own or are in foster care with their kids.
These realities compound BYMC’s efforts to stay afloat and require staff to grapple with a range of emotionally charged issues. On top of this, the group continually struggles for funding—the 2008 budget is $244,000 but Miller hopes to eventually raise $400,000 from foundations and individual donors. Then there’s the work, which extends beyond training and individual counseling to issues of public policy. This means monitoring how public high schools treat pregnant and parenting teens, addressing the needs of incarcerated teen mothers, and pushing the city’s Agency for Children’s Services to provide comprehensive sex education for those in foster care.
In spite of this, BYMC remains small, working one-on-one with about 50 girls a year and educating several hundred more through workshops at schools, community centers and homeless shelters. Although the program has numerous success stories—most of the girls who’ve come into BYMC have finished high school or GED programs and have gone on to college—the work is not without its challenges. “Most of the frustration comes from external elements,” says Program Coordinator Kristy Perez. “A girl comes in and says that she wants to apply to school but her father won’t give her the information she needs to apply for financial aid. We know that the only way she can do what she wants to do is through education. So how does she proceed?”
Other barriers, from racism, to classism, to negative stereotypes about teen parents, are also evident. “We have a lot of work to do when it comes to attitudes towards young mothers, but the girls who come here are committed to themselves, their children and their communities,” Perez says. “They don’t come in as victims which makes it easier for us to guide and facilitate the changes they want to see in their lives.”
BYMC founder Benita Miller admits to feeling disheartened when a BYMC participant gets pregnant for a second time; she simultaneously beams when recounting the program’s development and successes. “We’ve moved from an exclusive focus on legal issues to looking at the well-being and potential of the young women we deal with,” she says. “We do very intense and very relational work to minimize the chances that our kids will end up in Family Court.”
Still, she knows the enormity of the personal and political challenges facing teen mothers as they fight poverty, pursue an education, and attempt to take control of their lives. “We want the system to value motherhood and young women’s participation in their communities,” she says. “We also want those involved in BYMC to have fun as they explore their girlhood and womanhood.”
ContributorEleanor J. Bader