The Resilience of Disconnected Young Mothers in San Francisco, featuring Jessica Allen, CTAB member, and Center for Young Women’s Development

Jessica Allen, Citywide Advisory Board member, says that making the choice to be a mother in her teens was radical. Being a teenage mother, “society already gives us the message that you are f’d up, and you’re going to be another statistic,” Jessica said.

While Jessica put this societal message on the backburner early on, she still fell under the radar. At school, she navigated without guidance, and even experienced homelessness. “I had to do it myself,” Jessica said, “focus on motherhood, and take lots of breaks.”

Now at 24, working while in school and raising her daughter Naveah, Jessica says you have to take your education seriously. “I had to put school down as the number one motivation,” Jessica said. “I had to go through a lot of pain, but I got to prove these people wrong.”

The challenges that young parents like Jessica face are pretty incredible when you consider that these young people are still developing themselves while also raising growing children.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, nearly 75% of young women under 25 who had a child in San Francisco were low-income, or eligible for the federal WIC program in 2010. Luckily, San Francisco is home to some good supports for these low-income or disconnected families.

Young Mothers United at Center for Young Women’s Development CYWD Logo(CYMD)

The Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD) is an incredible resource for young mothers leaving the justice system and they have become a leader in advocating for young parents and their rights.

The Center’s been around twenty years or so. Starting in 1993, named at the time the Street Survival Project, the Center came after Dr. Rachel Pfeffer and members of Coalition of San Francisco decided to focus on the growth of women incarcerated or affected by it. At the time, the project did needle exchange, handing out condoms, doing street outreach, but shifted to a 501c3 non-profit named the Center for Young Women Development, focused on young women in the criminal justice system, in 1995.

The Center now provides job readiness training, development skills—including wellness and empowerment—and parenting classes to young women who live in San Francisco, with a focus on women previously or currently incarcerated.

“The overall theme is to create community and stay out of the juvenile justice system,” said Shirlese Garrick, deputy director at the Center.

The Center’s Young Mothers United has parenting classes that teaches to young mothers parenting subjects like positive discipline methods. Young Mothers United also has a closet of free diapers, baby wipes, etc. that is open to whoever comes in, regardless if the young women are in Young Mothers United or not.

Shirlese said they do not turn away anyone 16-24 years-old, in general, but what is so unique about the Center is that they prefer previously incarcerated young women, and can work with them on those specific issues caused by involvement in the criminal justice system.

The Center serves up to 250 young women per year, and provides other support services, including check-ins that help young women deal with life issues, finding resources they need, and making sure they stay in compliance with probation officers.

Shirlese said a lot of the young women at the Center are dealing with trauma, have been sexually molested, in or out of foster care, have parents who are incarcerated, and a lot of other issues.

“Since I’ve been here,” Shirlese said, “they say the same thing, ‘I don’t like girls.’” But in the first three months, the young women are at the Center focus on getting through these issues first, and from there the young women are able to build bonds with other young women going through similar things, who can support them, from various neighborhoods.

William Siffermman, former San Francisco chief probation officer, adopted the Incarcerated Young Mother’s Bill of Rights that Young Mother United program wrote, based on meetings with staff at juvenile hall and surveys of incarcerated young mothers about their needs in 2006.

The Center’s Incarcerated Young Mother’s Bill of Rights held that incarcerated females who are pregnant must have extra snacks, a right to regular check-ups and prenatal care, right to have someone come to the hospital when in labor, right to stay in hospital after birth, right to know when court dates are coming up, etc.

Related to its advocacy, the Center integrates political education into its programming. The Center’s 12 week policy curriculum Women at the Forefront helps young women advocate for issues affecting them and other incarcerated young women, growing out a project back in 2004, when the Center noticed a lot of young mothers becoming incarcerated.

Women at the Forefront prepares young women with policy skills and knowledge about how to draft a bill, advocate and lobby in Sacramento. The Center successfully helped organized the passing of AB 568 (Skinner) “Pregnant inmates and wards: least restrictive restraints” bill, which limited the amount a young mother has to be shackled when in labor, in hospital and jail in California.

Locally, the Center holds “RAP” sessions in San Francisco Juvenile Hall, to workshop with incarcerated young women on issues as varied as self-care, political education, and cultural history. RAP sessions sometimes are able to bring hair wraps, arts and crafts, and supplies to make cards for Mother’s day—items that are not typically allowed in juvenile hall—so a young mother who is locked up can send cards.

“Young women really like it so they can come out of their juvenile hall,” Shirlese said.

The Center also convenes a Sister’s Circle re-entry group for young women coming out of juvenile and adult justice to lead peer discussion groups on issues for young women trying to stay out of the system. Sometimes Center provides small incentives for young women to come back, like a free clothing closet, where young women can get purses and shoes.

As far as workforce skills, the Center has a 9-month paid internship, Sisters Rising, and training program for young women, which has a partnership with Dress for Success that provides young women with suit jeans and scarves.

The Center also has a partnership with CAT that gives young women tickets to Giants games, Academy of Science, Exploratorium, Lion King stage show, and more different activities around the city, plus a partnership with clothing store Czar that provides the young women at the Center with professional clothes, sometimes t-shirts, slacks and things.

At its Know Justice Conference, the Center reached 200 peer educators, community organizers, and a couple students from Oakland about how to navigate the justice system.

“We noticed young women sometimes are one to two years behind in school,” said Shirlese, “so CYWD added an Education Advocate to assist young women with credit recovery.”

Now the Education Advocate not only ensures that the young women are staying in school, but also asks them what they want to do after, like connect with a trade or find finanical aid for college. The Education Advocate also provides assistance building relationships with people to help young women in career, and also organized the Center’s first tour of historically black colleges.

What the City Needs to Do for Transitional Age Youth Parents

Definitely, the City should make sure services are available to all young women, Shirlese said. Sometimes in the services that young women do have, the service or program components do not really fit the demographics. Some services or programs want the young women to be ready to work and everything to be set.

“Our young women have trauma, currently in violent relationships domestically, experiencing homelessness, etc.,” said Shirlese, “and they are not ready.”

Almost ten years ago, Shirlese came into the Center as office assistant, moved to operations director, then deputy director. Shirlese recalled how much the Center has been a welcoming community.

“No one judged me,” Shirlese said, but “they accepted me for who I was. I had an opportunity, and I want other young women to have same opportunity.”

“The young women motivate me,” Shirlese said, seeing young women come into the Center and leave a completely different person.

Jessica Charting Her Own Path, and Her Daughter’s

At ten years old, Jessica Allen and her family moved out to San Francisco Bay Area. She went to a lot of different schools, jumped around a lot, and then foster care. After her daughter Nezeah was born (now eight years old and in the 3rd grade), Jessica attended Hilltop High School for young mothers, and graduated there.

[Read our feature article on Hilltop High School here].

Being in foster care, Jessica had the feeling that those talking about her life did not look upon her as an expert, or that her voice was valuable. She had to navigate the foster care system under constraints, and not feeling that her voice was heard.

“I choose the path of motherhood,” said Jessica. “I worked with case workers who would say ‘this Is NOT OKAY!’ But there are things I can do. I know what’s best for my daughter and I.”

Jessica learned that some foster group and foster homes are corrupt places, and people are really in it for the money, and take advantage of the youth. Jessica said there is not enough effort into finding the root of these problems. “We have capacity to change and be resilient,” said Jessica, “but we are undermined a lot.”

Jessica Allen now works full-time at A Better Way’s San Francisco Mental Health Program, focusing on children, youth and families involved in the foster care system. At A Better Way, Jessica works to empower the family and youth as advocates for their own interests, and meeting transitional age youth where there at as a life skills coach.

Before her start at A Better Way five months ago, Jessica managed to accrue a lot of professional experience without a college degree, enough to land her current job. She started off as an AmeriCorps intern doing case management for teen parents, which lead her to work in the youth development field.

“With more experience under my belt, doors starting opening for me” Jessica said.

Jessica sits on TAYSF’s Citywide TAY Advisory Board (CTAB), which she says is an amazing opportunity to represent her community. The CTAB is “very much starting to inform me about the path I want to take and what my career will look like,” Jessica said, “definitely focused on social justice and community.”

Now in school at City College of San Francisco, Jessica is looking at Mills College in Oakland and San Francisco State in order to get a degree in social work or ethnic studies. Jessica was awarded a Maisin scholarship, in effect at the moment, and also provides counseling support to other students.

There’s much complexity to being a parent and being in a student, Jessica said, that the schools should really meet the needs of the parent to balance parenting and education.

“It’s been a long journey to finish school,” Jessica said, “very hard for young mother.”

Jessica Motivated to Help Other Young Mothers

“My philosophy is youth development and holistic approach to problems,” Jessica said, “and family driven and strength based.”

Jessica is also focusing on healing work and healing circles for women through spiritual component, to balance mentally the demands of motherhood. Jessica works as a “Dula,” or labor coach, providing the emotional and physical support for women in labor, during pregnancy, and postmortem.

Jessica said the priority is first basic needs of the mothers. There is a certain type of support needed for mothers, really going through life, nurturing another human being. There needs to be more set-up for a community for the mothers, like childcare centers or housing for families around CCSF or universities, even for dad’s, Jessica said.

“One of my identities is social justice, and a way I operate in world is care taking,” said Jessica. “I use that to benefit my community, navigating the journey of becoming a parent, mothering the mother.”

Jessica has been motivated to stay in social justice and youth development work since she became aware of the social injustices that operate in and around women of color and young mothers. She says these injustices are definitely something to fight for, to put her voice out there.

“I’m doing it not just for me,” Jessica said, “but for my child, family and community. I need to make those ripples, to make real change, to be aware, not be asleep in the dark going through life thinking things are going to be handed out.”

Other San Francisco Resources for Young Parents

Young Family Resource Center: A resource center free for all parents below the age of 24.

Realizing Employment and Creating Hope (REACH): A vocational case management and employment training program.

The Nurse-Family Partnership: A new program for low income, at risk, first time mothers in San Francisco that gives priority to teens. Through the partnership, a public health nurse (PHN) is paired with a pregnant woman and visits them regularly until the child’s second birthday.  The PHN visits the mother at home and has a structured agenda for each visit.